How many Lower East Side-inhabiting, Grizzly Bear-collaborating, brilliant young composers can you name? After an introduction to Nico Muhly, the answer’s at least one. Considered the It boy of classical music for years — earning a New Yorker profile and high praise from his elders along the way — the soon-to-be 32-year-old is everywhere, even if you don’t know it. He’s composed works for the American Ballet Theatre, illustrator Maira Kalman, choreographer Benjamin Millepied, among dozens of others. Plus, he’s a master collaborator, with Jónsi of Sigur Rós, Glen Hansard, and even Usher floating in his orbit.
To understand Muhly’s motivation is to flash back to the summer of 1993, when the Vermont-born pianist visited the Tanglewood Music Festival and realized music “was an actual thing you could do with your life and not just as a hobby,” he says. Now a New Yorker in love with the city’s creative spaces — “You can play a piece at Le Poisson Rouge or Carnegie or like the Music Hall of Williamsburg or even the Armory, and it always changes how the piece sounds…in a good way!” — Muhly saw his opera Two Boys, about an online friendship gone horribly awry, takes to the Metropolitan Opera stage this fall (seven performances from October 21st through November 14th.) And he’s taking on another challenge this fall, scoring Millipied’s newest dance premiere for the New York City Ballet’s fashion gala. The erudite musician — he earned an English-lit degree from Columbia, where he worked with Philip Glass, and a master's in music from Juilliard — says he’s “nightmarishly hard” on himself, but that does explain his dazzling array of projects. “I really value doing a million different things at once,” he says. “It’s a kind of restless and manic curiosity that isn’t always a good thing.” Get inside Muhly’s ultra-inquisitive mind below.
“I started composing when I was like 10; I had been singing in a church choir in Providence, RI, and was taking piano lessons like all good little boys. I wasn’t particularly talented at either, but then suddenly one spring, everything sort of emulsified, and I was wildly in love with all the music I was playing and singing. This immediately turned into me writing things down, little improvisations that then started having shapes.”
“I’ve found that cooking is always good, because it imposes a ministructure on the day: Rotate the meat in its marinade, skim the stock, chill the prosecco. But less glamorously, cooking is a sort of [an] easily realizable goal inasmuch as the whole thing culminates in something that makes everybody really happy. Usually.”
“For me, collaborative situations are always a welcome change from the ‘blank slate’ kind of commissions, where people say, ‘Here’s a small pile of money, and give us 18 minutes of orchestra music.’ In general, making an arrangement for Grizzly Bear or Jónsi [from Sigur Rós] is like being asked to dress somebody: One doesn’t want to call attention to oneself but rather to the artist. So, it’s a sort of erasure of the composer/arranger. An opera is slightly different, because there are so many moving parts that there is a feeling of the sorcerer’s apprentice about it.”
“Make Yourself Useful”
“The thing that [Philip Glass] taught me is to surround yourself with a community of musicians and to make yourself useful. The composer is a part of — and responsible to — a community. That’s a radical change from the idea of the composer as romantic visionary taking ayahuasca in the woods and being an impossible genius.”
“For a year, I didn’t enter any competitions for new music, any weird grants, any awards. I worked for Philip, wrote sacred music, played piano for anybody who asked, wrote anything for anybody. It was terrifying, and I was kind of riding a wave of negativity after losing a million awards and grants the year before. Then to sort of take myself out of it was a huge risk. But it ended up being great, and I started making music that I knew I could get performed, because it was for friends and for people I knew.”
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