Feature: Nico Muhly – Wish You Were Here

In The Waterloo Region Record 30/09/2008

Image Credit: Matthew Leum

Image Credit: Matthew Leum

If the press murmurings are to be believed, he is a messiah: here to give classical music new life as an accessible art form that is relevant to a 21st century audience. Of course, it’s an impossible (some would argue unnecessary) task for one person but it seems that if anyone had the talent needed to fulfill the prophecy, it would be a 27-year old American composer called Nico Muhly.

One thing is certain: Muhly doesn’t fit the composer myth. He didn’t produce symphonies at age 3, nor is he starving in a garret awaiting flashes of divine inspiration. In fact he didn’t start piano lessons until the practically geriatric age of eight and didn’t really get into music until a friend convinced him to join an Anglican church choir.

I caught up with Muhly via telephone last week and found him to be extraordinarily affable with a sharp wit, a gift for colourful metaphor and a great fondness for the puppies he meets while negotiating the streets of his New York neighbourhood.

So, how does a choirboy become a composer? “It was a very undramatic thing,” explains Muhly. “I just kept on doing school and music and the two things kept on complementing each other. It wasn’t until after I was [at Julliard] that I really thought that I could have a life entirely devoted to music.”

Now, 4 years after graduation, Muhly works as a copyist for Philip Glass, has collaborated with Björk and has received commissions from Carnegie Hall, The Metropolitan Opera, The Gotham City Opera the Paris Opéra Ballet and The American Ballet Theater. Oh, and he’s also made two albums of his own work, finishing the tour in support of the most recent one, Mothertongue, last month.

In the not-too-distant past, music by living composers was presented as a sort of spoonful of cod liver oil that had to be consumed before audiences were allowed to hear the good stuff. I asked Muhly if he has found that attitudes are changing. “In adventurous places like where you are [Kitchener-Waterloo], modern music is finding more of a legitimate home. In New York, certainly in an orchestral concert, it’s still being presented in a very 1970s, 1980s way of ‘Take this. You’ll thank me later.'”

This adventurous outlook is due largely to KWS conductor Edwin Outwater’s commitment, right out of the starting blocks, to imaginative programming. Mostly it works. Sometimes it doesn’t but that isn’t really the point. Sampling from the whole menu instead of always getting the soup and sandwich special is a far more nourishing way to explore orchestral repertoire.

This weekend, the KWS is giving Muhly’s piece Wish You Were Here its Canadian premiere at The Centre In The Square.

In a set of program notes, Muhly describes it as “a completely romantic and fanciful gamelan-influenced piece, attempting nothing but the most superficial authenticity;” a daring admission for someone from a generation steeped in post-colonial guilt.

Gamelan music, originally from Indonesia, came to the attention of Western composers at the 1889 Paris Exposition. Claude Debussy attended and was entranced by the gamelan’s alternative scales and intricate counterpoint. His most famous symphonic poem, La Mer, is also on the program this weekend.

Wish You Were Here is a joint homage to ethnomusicologist Colin McPhee and illustrators Carl Barks (Donald Duck) and Hergé (Tintin). This may seem like a strange pairing but a few weeks of following Muhly’s delightful blog reveals that this mash-up of disparate elements is not a compositional tool as much as it is part of his essential makeup. Recent topics include the “fully absurd” Sarah Palin, similarities between the NY Phil’s branding and the Always logo and “vegetarians’ inability to cook a vegetable.”

Facilitated by Youtube, Wikipedia and the iPod’s random feature, Muhly’s omnivorous approach to culture, whether it be high or low, native or foreign, is typical of his generation. Formal categories are something he finds, “boring to think about. The minute you start think about, oh, what genre is this you’re not enjoying yourself, you’re just wasting time. It’s the modern day.” he continued, “I always thought you can have it all.” At the moment, the world is Muhly’s oyster, so…why not?

Catch ‘Wish You Were Here’ in concert:
Kitchener Waterloo Symphony
3rd and 4th October @ 8pm – Centre In The Square, Kitchener

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