Nico Muhly Smashes Language Barriers
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Nico Muhly may not get the kind of attention that is lavished upon some of his collaborators, such as Björk or Rufus Wainwright, but the New York-based composer may be the most buzzed-about musician in the city right now.
The prolific Mr. Muhly, who turns 27 on Tuesday, has had his pieces performed uptown (at Carnegie Hall) and downtown (at the Kitchen), created music that was adapted from sources as unlikely as “The Elements of Style,” and worked closely for a spell with the almost painfully ethereal vocalist Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. As obsessed with choral music a millennium gone as he is with next-generation electronics — he pays the rent working as a keyboardist and conductor for Philip Glass — Mr. Muhly has no problem constructing pieces through instant messaging while digging back into the primal sources that make music at once visceral, ecstatic, and cerebral.
“He is not afraid,” Mr. Hegarty said of his colleague. “He hears things vividly.”
Mr. Muhly also speaks vividly. Grabbing a happy-hour cocktail at Good World, an Orchard Street bar not far from his Chinatown loft, the composer, who is nearly always described as boyish, was indeed … boyish. But if he looks a good bit younger than his years, the Vermont native displays a thriving intellect that connects seemingly random topics as swiftly as a Google search — whether he’s talking about Thomas Tallis or “Top Chef.”
“There’s something so manic about the chefs,” Mr. Muhly, who graduated from Columbia and Juilliard with dual degrees in English and music composition, said. “The knives and the heat. And Padma. She’s so out of control. Have you read her cookbook? It’s ridiculous. Like this fake Nigella Lawson supermodel vibe.” He mimed Padma Lakshmi, host of the hit Bravo reality series “Top Chef”: “‘I love to go and pamper myself silly and eat so much Korean barbecue. Because I’m wild!'”
Mr. Muhly laughed so hard he was about to fall off his chair.
Maybe one day Mr. Muhly will write an opera based on “Top Chef.” If you spend a little time with him, the idea begins to seem awfully normal. Or, spend some time listening to his new album “Mothertongue” (Bedroom Community/Brassland). His fusion of folk music and electronics provides a backdrop for Saturday’s performance at (Le) Poissin Rouge in Greenwich Village. The show, which Mr. Muhly described as a “bistro version” of the recording, also features his key collaborators Sam Amidon, Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman), and the violist Nadia Sirota.
Though he cheerfully concedes the pervasive influence of new-music kingpins such as Mr. Glass and John Adams on his own writing, Mr. Muhly took on “Mothertongue” as an occasion to reimagine much earlier incursions into his aesthetic consciousness. His original influences were his parents, whom he described as being “older than hippies” yet devoted enthusiasts of the folk-music revival of the early 1960s, as symbolized by such singers as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.
Check out Mr. Muhly’s seemingly radical adaptation of a lyric called “The Two Sisters.” Titled “The Only Tune,” it features Mr. Amidon’s singing and string-plucking, a lot of electronic manipulation, and three separate variations on the song that veer from sonic chaos to a transcendently soulful viola solo by Ms. Sirota that ties everything — the lyric’s tragic theme and Mr. Muhly’s extremely creative interpretations of it — together, juxtaposing the analytical and the passionate. The composer’s reaction against one tradition is actually a re-embrace of an older one.
“I hate seeing people singing folk songs and smiling,” he said. “When you listen to the Child Ballads, it’s some crazy old man in Scotland and you know he’s not smiling. Because the songs are all so horrible. They’re so vicious and pagan. Even the ones that aren’t pagan. I’m way more interested in these heavily stylized things. Like [English countertenor] Alfred Deller singing Elizabethan minstrel songs. It’s like Butoh, but way more text-appropriate.”
As a child, Mr. Muhly remembered, his parents sang him the song about the two sisters. The older one pushes the younger one into a stream. Later, the body is fished out of a mill pond and gets refashioned into a violin, an instrument whose only sound is of cold wind and rain.
“I’m like, ‘I can’t believe you’re singing this like it’s nothing. This is infanticide.’ There’s this texture of chilled-out-ness in folk music. So I was trying to do a piece to insist on how nasty it is. I want to own the murder. Jerry Garcia made a recording of it. It’s so dopey. It plods along. I mean, they push her in and make a fiddle.”
Mr. Muhly, whose speech can carom a bit like a pinball going “ding-ding-ding-ding,” has a way of making a strongly felt point through a tone of sheer dumbstruck wonder rather than, say, assuming the role of a didactic snoot.
“Someone took a girl’s body and made a violin. Like, that’s amazing. It requires some focus. We’re going to have bone. We’re going to have flesh. We’re going to have hair. Making that cut was the most fun thing ever. It was crazy to do and it felt so delicious.”
Recorded in Iceland at the studio run by the producer and Bedroom Community founder Valgeir Sigurðsson, “Mothertongue” is the product of a highly inclusive process.
“When you think about classical composers, you think about the composer being isolated,” Mr. Amidon said in a separate interview. “But with Nico, there’s a social element that’s really important.” The guitarist also noted Mr. Muhly’s reluctance to prefabricate anything. “We started with drawings on a piece of paper,” he said. “There was no score until the piece was done. And it’s very harmonically complex. I would mess something up, and he clearly was so open to the moment that he would keep my accident-laden version.”
Cracks in the veneer are valuable to Mr. Muhly, who actively resists the incessant pigeonholing that American popular culture imposes on its artists. It’s one reason he enjoys working in Iceland, where, he said, someone is either “indie” or is not.
“You can get away with a breadth of influence there,” he said.
As a cozily somnambulant ballad by Cat Power drifted into the early-evening bustle of the street corner outside, Mr. Muhly mimicked those who don’t quite get that there’s nothing to get. It’s all there. Always. All the time.
“People here, there is no end to asking, ‘How do you reconcile this plus this?’ It’s really boring. People asking, ‘How do you bridge the two different worlds?’ What worlds are you talking about?”
The composer mentioned a well-known music critic whose approach drives him crazy. “It’s unbearable. It’s always in the first person, and it’s always, ‘It sounds like this plus this.’ It does not. This is your dumb hermeneutical exercise. What is that narrative? If people ask me what my music sounds like and I’m feeling charitable, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, well, it’s like John Adams plus 16th-century choral music.’ And then I feel stupid for six weeks after. Dirty. I have to loofah.”