Nico Muhly – Interview Extras

As always, most of an interview conversation doesn’t make it into the final piece but that doesn’t mean the leftovers are not worth reading. Also, for this concert, there was a repertoire change, so lots of good bits had to be cut because they were about So To Speak (2004) rather than Wish You Were Here (2007).

I think many people are still under the impression that because many modern compositions don’t follow traditional forms the composition process must be basically throwing random notes together on a page. How does it work for you?

Thinking about it’s hard the actual writing is pretty mechanical.

It depends on what it is really. For the most part, every piece has a specific goal and usually that goal is incredibly simple. For instance in So To Speak, the goal was ecstatic speaking in tongues music. That was the destination. The secondary goal was that I wanted to treat the Tallis motet [Loquebantur Variis Linguis] that I remembered from being a kid. So basically ecstatic music that contains Tallis.

And I map out how I want it to go, what the highs and lows are in terms of activity. It’s more just a graph of content…there’s going to be a lot of stuff here, not a lot here, relaxed here, excited here….so basically the notes are the last thing that happens.

In our post-modern collage culture, do think that there is no longer a need for categories?

It’s not that there is no need for [them], it’s just that I find it really boring to think about. Either it’s so obvious that is doesn’t require comment or it’s so deliciously gray that to even pretend like it can be categorized is stupid.

Either your eating something that is so specifically Chinese that no one is going to argue with you otherwise, or you doing something that is more gray, your eating at someone’s house who is mixed race and random people are coming over and the ingredients are from 18 different stores the minute you start think about, oh, what genre is this you’re not enjoying yourself, you’re just wasting time.

The other day on your blog, you were talking about The Working Song from Disney’s Cinderella. In terms of source material or things that influence you, does that have the same value as, say, an Orlando Gibbons motet?

I think so…well it depends with how it fits with me. For instance if I’m thinking honestly about what I’m listening to and it is meaningful to me, then yes, it does all have the same value. I think.

I’m not making a point about pop art, just because it’s Disney, it’s just as good as Gibbons. It ‘s more like as a 7 year old, before I understood what was going on with Orlando Gibbons, I totally understoond what was happening in that movie. That was an important moment then and that is not to be discounted.

In the past, modern music has been presented as a sort of a spoonful of cod liver oil that must be taken before audiences can get to the good stuff. Do you feel that this is changing?

I feel like the attitude is changing about how contemporary music works but sometimes living in NY you feel like everything great is happening hear but you can go to somewhere like Detroit or LA, which we’re trained to think is a cultural wasteland, and the LA Phil has an amazing contemporary awareness and attitude. It’s almost a double standard in a sense.

It’s because the NYPhil is so stupid that we have such a wonderful alternative scene. I think you wouldn’t have had that if there was a more enlightened attitude towards contemporary music at the Philharmonic. To a certain extent you can thank them for that!

One of your biggest influences is church music, particularly material from the 16th and 17th centuries. What is it about this music that you find so engaging?

Aside from the fact that it’s just really beautiful, there are a couple of things that really appeal to me. The first thing is that emotionally, I find the Romantic tradition very alienating and very difficult to relate to whereas in that period, the late 1500s and early 1600s the structure is almost free form and you don’t have these climaxes. Instead, you have this tightening and loosening and I just found that way more appropriate to my essential makeup.

I just find it much more satisfying. When I was twelve I would have said I found it more satisfying than Beethoven which I always found to be very drunk and kind out of control, where something like Thomas Weelkes or Tallis I find to be incredibly arresting and I always hyperventilate with excitement.

On serial music:
With serial music you’re meant to say that I’ve just burrowed through forty-five minutes of this very complicated mathematics and found something very beautiful inside. That’s the desired answer. The best thing you could say to serial people is “That was really beautiful” It’s very disarming to them. Or to say that it reminds you of Debussy and then they want to kill themselves!

I think some people are still rather unsure of modern music as a whole. Can you give me a top five list of pieces they should hear before they die?

  • Pierre Boulez Sur Incises
  • Igor Stravinsky — Symphony Of Psalms
  • Steve Reich — Music For 18 Musicians
  • John Adams — Nixon in China
  • Henri Dutillieux & Métabole

That’s a pretty awkward top five but whatever. It’s what I thought of on Lafayette Street. Ask me in 20 minutes and I’ll probably give you a different list!

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