Q&A: Nico Muhly

Published February 24, 2010

NICO MUHLY: “What’s delicious about life is I have so many different types of projects that I just love”

“Meet the Composer” Series with Nico Muhly
7:30 p.m. Thurs., Feb. 25, The Historic Asolo Theatre, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, 360-7399 or ringling.orgnicomuhly.com, free.

The Hermitage Artist Retreat, along with The Historic Asolo Theatre and Sarasota Orchestra are bringing Nico Muhly — aka “the planet’s hottest composer,” at least according to the London Telegraph — to enlighten the crowd for their “Meet the Composer” series. Muhly’s works have been performed and commissioned by some of the most prominent orchestras and operas in the world, and he has also collaborated with a number of mainstream artists and wrote the music for the recent award-winning film The Reader. Muhly will perform selected pieces on the piano and talk about his music at The Historic Asolo Theatre this Thursday.

How many commissions had you received before graduating from The Juilliard School of Music?

There were some internal things at Juilliard that happened. Then once I graduated it was sort of a slow grind. There’s a horrible procedure you have to do. You apply for grants to get commissions or matching funds and you’re submitting your scores. It’s a humiliating litany of things. I kind of vowed to not do it for a year to see if I could survive out of that formal structure, and I did. I wrote a lot of church music and music for friends. [2006 debut Speaks Volumes] is an album primarily written for my friends and it was mainly bartered. For instance, if there is someone who would play for free in exchange for writing something for them. It was sort of nice to be out of the hamster wheel of grants. Once I established a body of work I started getting commissions. It’s how artists make a living and what they’re willing to do.

What has been your favorite commission to work on?

I always think it’s the thing that I’m doing right now. I got commissioned to write a piece for percussionists that will happen in Holland in three years. I’ve been watching videos of people of fighting. Just like YouTube videos of people fighting on the street. Just to get what a true percussion should sound like. So it may sound like people brawling in the streets, or it may end up an incredibly delicate romance piece for two glockenspiels. Well, now I’m looking at that idea more. I like glockenspiels.

What type of pieces do you enjoy composing the most?

I don’t really play favorites. Nothing’s really a chore. Writing orchestra music has a certain scale that I love. I spent so many years writing small pieces; working with an orchestra you have a much broader grocery store. It’s a powerful machine, an orchestra. What’s delicious about life is I have so many different types of projects that I just love.

Do you enjoy conducting or performing more?

I much prefer performing. Conducting is fucking terrifying. It’s like driving a scary car really fast. When you’re a conductor you have to talk the whole time. Musicians tend to want to rush in certain situations and you have to resist the energy of the room.

How did you get involved with mainstream artists like Björk, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Grizzly Bear?

Pretty effortlessly, the phone just sort of rang. If you’re 28 and you live in New York you know musicians, and I have a specific skill set with writing compositions. The singer of Grizzly Bear I’ve known for years. Bonnie “Prince” Billy was working in Iceland and the guy producing him said, “You should give Nico a call.” That’s how it works. … It’s rare to be able to force the schedules of someone in the classical world with someone in the pop world. Classical music works on the concert season model, which is basically the school year, whereas in pop music it works on press cycles and media cycles with a lot more money thrown in at the last minute. If you collaborate a lot you find yourself in complicated scheduling. … In general, I just work on stuff that I like. I don’t have any master plans. I’ll take what comes and try to make it fit.

What is the Bedroom Community?

I hate to use the word “collective,” but it’s a group of musicians that all work on each other’s music. We all work for free and support each other, and you can release things that don’t fit into a specific category. Obviously, if something comes up with money we take it, but the model is not a financial one. This is sort of an effort of love. The thing with labels is they have to make money. But for this, it makes more sense to control it ourselves rather than have these orphaned projects released to the world.

What will you be performing at the “Meet the Composer” series program?

It’s not entirely clear. I have a couple things that I can do. I think I’m going to figure it out when I get there. If everybody leaves me alone I might be able to finish this piano piece I’ve been working on. But with any luck it should be a couple new things and a couple old things.

How is your first opera, Two Boys, coming along?

The working title is Two Boys. It’s had about 55 other titles. It has a beginning, middle and end. Opera is so crazy. I think of it as a gigantic bag with lots of things in it. Right now everything is in there, we just need to shift it around a little bit. We worked on it in October and I haven’t been able to focus on it too much since then. It will be fun to get in there and finish it.

How does it feel to be called “the hottest composer on the planet”?

I ignore it. It’s fine, whatever. Press is press. The next day it will say, ‘The biggest fraud.’ I do like that people are paying attention to young composers. And I like that it’s acceptable to be a composer. Those are positive things.

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