At his recent New York solo recital debut at The Frick Collection, English pianist Charles Owen featured the compositions of past masters—J.S. Bach, Mendelssohn, and Debussy—as well as two brief pieces by the composer Nico Muhly, who was in attendance. Owen gave Muhly’s scores a skillful and energetic reading, and Muhly seemed genuinely pleased by the performance.
Muhly, now 33, has been in the public eye for quite some time. Music critic Alex Ross first wrote about him in the New Yorker ten years ago, when Muhly was a 22-year-old Juilliard student. Rebecca Mead profiled him in the pages of the magazine in 2008, and Ross has since covered the premieres of Muhly’s two operas, Two Boys—which received its U.S. premiere at the Metropolitan Opera a year ago—and Dark Sisters. Andrew Solomon included Muhly in Far from the Tree, inthe chapter on prodigies.
In the following interview, conducted by email, Muhly shares his thoughts on setting verse to music, among other topics.
JS: I enjoyed Charles Owen’s recent performance of your compositions—my only quibble is that he ought to have played more of your music. I wondered whether the pairing of pieces he played in the first and second halves of the recital was meant to suggest ideas about influence: Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses are clearly in dialogue with Bach, and your Short Stuff and A Hudson Cycle seem to echo Debussy’s Preludes, no?
NM: Concert programming is really the art of imagined correspondences, isn’t it? I think that you hear a lot of Debussy in A Hudson Cycle, with those tight French chords, but really, you could well have played Short Stuff next to the Bach and it would have had its own resonances with Bach’s clear economy. I’m touched that you’d think to ask for more contemporary music!
JS: Another influence I heard in A Hudson Cyclewas Philip Glass.
NM: Glass is always there for me. That piece takes a fundamental building block of his music—the two-against-three rhythm—and subjects it to hiccoughs and bumps. It’s sort of like taking the first cycle of Mad Rush, slowing it down, putting it all in the same register, and then going through and erasing beats at random. The idea is that there is an implied regularity that actually never happens.
JS: You’ve composed a lot of vocal music. What qualities in a text inspire you to set it to music?
NM: I have found that the best text to set is the King James Bible. The trick becomes about finding language that is simple and that can unfold over the length that music requires without losing its meaning. This is harder than it seems; one of the tricks of great poetry is that each line, when read silently, retains its meaning from beginning to end. Set to music, it becomes more complicated, and by the time you’ve got to the end of the line, the beginning is forgotten. So I’ve found that short, simple, declamatory statements work best.
JS: You’ve also set poetry by Walt Whitman, C.P. Cavafy, George Herbert, Christopher Smart, and Lemony Snicket(!!). What is it about these poets’ works that drew you in?
NM: I suppose it’s the simplicity of line that draws me to any text. I’ve been really, really into Daniel Mendelsohn’s Cavafy translations these days, with a mind to set more of them next year. There is such efficiency to them. For me, with poetry, you look at it and it sort of “sets itself,” in a way, or it doesn’t. I’m setting text by the illustrator and author Maira Kalman right now, and her words set beautifully to music because they mirror, in a sense, her speech.
JS: Your treatment of text in your vocal music is so varied, and it seems that the meaning or mood of the text doesn’t necessarily determine the tone and color—or the emotional thrust—of the music. Would you agree with this? Can you shed some light on how text influences or drives your decision-making when composing?
NM: That’s a complicated question and I think that perhaps looking under the hood isn’t the most useful in this instance. The music—the emotional thrust, as you say—is derived from the text, of course, but sometimes setting is literally about making the material different from the text so that the text itself shines. Word painting works for some things, but other things need to be surrounded by dark felt to make the diamonds shine, if you know what I mean. I am deeply mistrustful, actually, of vocal music where the accompaniment doesn’t work in counterpoint to the text, but rather in lockstep, because it feels redundant, or like having those ghastly museum audio-guides following you around while you shop for vegetables.
JS: Do you read contemporary poetry? Are there any other modern or contemporary poets whose writing you especially admire?
NM: I read very little contemporary poetry, which is actually a source of great shame. I have, however, an almost obsessive love for Ashbery. As I said, I’m deep into those Mendelsohn–Cavafy things, which feel blisteringly contemporary. I get really intimidated and sometimes binge-read all the poetry from the New Yorker. You should assign me some reading lists.
[Readers, what poetry would you assign Nico Muhly? Please place your recommendations in the comments section after this post.]
JS: You recently tweeted that you were reading pioneer women’s diaries while listening to “Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing” by Herbert Howells. Interesting mix! Is this research for a composition?
NM: Isn’t that Howells lovely! [Take Him, Earth, for Cherishing is also known as the Motet on the Death of President Kennedy and is a setting of lines from Helen Waddell’s translation of Prudentius’s Hymnus circa exseqieas defuncti (The Burial of the Dead), which can be found in her Mediaeval Latin Lyrics.]
JS: Can you recommend any indispensible books on music?
NM: I very rarely read books about music; I am deeply suspicious, actually, of the whole thing. With the exception of Alex Ross’s two books [Listen to This and The Rest Is Noise], I’m not sure I’ve read anything about music that hasn’t made me want to bash my head into my desk.
JS: What else have you been reading lately?
NM: Right now I am reading those Knausgaard books—sort of on a dare with a friend—which feels severe and virtuous.
JS: In Far from the Tree, Andrew Solomon quotes you as saying that when you were growing up, your musical interests were “early, early, modern, modern” with not much in between. Please explain.
NM: My main resistance to Romantic music (and that’s really the hole—it’s from kind of late Beethoven through early Stravinsky) is about the forced emotional synchronicity. It’s like the composer is saying THIS is when I want you to feel this specific thing—these moments of singularity. You don’t find that in Bach, and you certainly don’t find it in Byrd and you don’t find it in Glass or Reich. For me, as a teenager, the romantic project seemed like one of forcing emotions out of structure: you build this huge mountain with these classical proportions and then the music is a kind of relentless tour guide.
JS: Have your tastes broadened in recent years?
NM: I’ve softened in my old age, of course!
JS: Can you share any early music gems that our readers might like to track down? Who are your favorite contemporary interpreters of early vocal music?
NM: For me, there is always great joy to be derived from listening to the works of William Byrd; I don’t go a day or two without at least a motet snuck in, sometimes with the score. There is enormous virtue in taking the time to track down Mundy, Tye, Sheppard… there are Tallis Scholars recordings of all of these, which are great, but then you’ll find other gems from Westminster Abbey, or New College Choir, Oxford. The English are in a near-constant state of rediscovering these works and recording them, and now you can just get them on iTunes. When I was younger, it was such an ordeal to find recordings of this stuff; I literally wrote to choir directors in England and sent cash in the mail.
JS: Would you care to comment on the Klinghoffer opera brouhaha?
NM: Ugh, I mean, I’m not sure I can say anything that hasn’t already been said, but it does distress me how angry the protestors were, all based on a fundamental reading comprehension failure—and I use reading in the more broad sense. Antisemitism is a real and tangible problem in a lot of places, but this opera is not one of them. The humanity of both Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer in the opera is so resonant and clear that it seems absurd to claim that the piece has any other agenda than to honor LK’s memory through a ritualistic series of reflections. Then when you get the likes of Richard Taruskin saying that there’s a “halo” around the music that the terrorists sing, it’s a reading comprehension failure of a much more serious nature, because it gives license to these poor people to think that they have something even resembling a legitimate argument derived from the text. The other thing that was kind of amazing, though, was the tone of the online arguments. It was always this specific facetious tone with bizarre syntax: “Oh, I guess next there will be a so-called ‘opera’ at the Metropolitan Center that ‘gives voice’ to the killers of MLK??!?!?!” and you think, you know, that’s not a bad idea!
JS: You’re involved in Black Mountain Songs, an evening-length multimedia collaboration of eight composers, a filmmaker, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, upcoming at BAM (Nov. 20–23), and you have a new piece, Our Present Charter, being premiered next month as part of the Temple Winter Festival at the Temple Church in London.
Last fall, you achieved what one Web site called a “mind-blowing quinfecta” of premieres: Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera, a score for Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie on Broadway, your collaboration with choreographer Benjamin Millepied, Neverwhere, at the New York City Ballet, a score for the feature film Kill Your Darlings [about the meeting of the Beats in and around Columbia University in 1944 and the murder investigation that embroiled Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs], and an expanded version of your Bright Music with Canons, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Westminster Symphonic Choir.
Seriously, your productivity is astonishing. What’s your work routine—can you describe a typical workday? And do you possess any Ancient Secrets of Time Management that you’d be willing to share?
NM: Ha, this is a good question because I actually feel very inefficient and frenzied. I travel a lot, too, so that hampers any dedicated and prolonged routine. However, I do have a series of rituals. My boyfriend has a nine to five, so when I’m home, I wait for him to leave the house, and then I basically sit at our table with a huge pile of manuscript and write until my hand hurts, and then move to the computer, and then back and forth until nightfall. During this time there is a lot of emailing that happens in concentrated bursts designed to shock and awe the recipients. When I travel, it’s much harder. I wish I had some brilliant secret but if you figure it out, call me on my landline.
JS: What other new works or upcoming premieres are you most excited about—and where and when will they be performed or available as recordings?
NM: There are so many things I don’t even know where to begin. There is a viola concerto in February in Madrid. There is a piece for choir and twelve (!) guitars in Texas in March. There is a big new orchestra piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra, and probably eight other things I’m forgetting about because I’m in denial. Right now I have to finish this viola concerto in the next three days or the entire structure of my life will collapse. I also have to get these boots re-soled.
JS: Are you working on any film scores?
NM: I am totally not.
For more on Muhly, see his excellent Web site. Georgia Tucker’s review of Charles Owen’s recital is here. Concerts at The Frick Collection are recorded by WQXR (105.9 FM) for future broadcast and streaming on wqxr.org.
Jim Stubenrauch is writer and editor. He teaches narrative writing to nursing students and health care professionals at the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing.