Composer Nico Muhly: Think staccato

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Nico Muhly’s sentences splinter, his speech fast and fractured. The composer might touch on the practice of diary-keeping among people in the Mormon Church, the history of polygamy in the United States or TLC reality shows. And then – boom – it’s on to another idea, with a few short-circuited starts and maybe an out-there joke that makes one wonder how, exactly, his brain is wired.

“Anyway, what was I saying? What were you saying? What was the question?” he said following a rant about record stores, among other topics, in an interview earlier this year.

Mr. Muhly, who lives in Manhattan, has written music for organizations and artists such as the Metropolitan Opera, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, violinist Hilary Hahn, visual artist Maira Kalman and choreographer Benjamin Millepied. Having worked under Philip Glass and studied with Christopher Rouse and John Corigliano, Mr. Muhly, 32, has firmly established himself in the contemporary classical music world – or just the music world. He has arranged music for Usher and written a 4,000-word review of Beyonce’s surprise album, with track-by-track analysis.

“I like [genres] fine, just not when they’re applied to me,” he said.

His attitude reflects a versatile background. A graduate of both Columbia University, where he majored in English, and the Juilliard School, he links his literary studies with his musical efforts.

“Knowing how to read, and knowing how to interpret and knowing how to write critically are so connected to writing music – and being able to think about music effortlessly and as a language, rather than as this tortured botany,” he said. “A lot of people…think it’s like you have to go into the woods and make this kind of magical mushroom soup.”

His “fetishistic” compositional process often begins with objects, or a sentence. The aforementioned diaries, for example, were research materials for his opera “Dark Sisters,” which Pittsburgh Opera produced this past winter. The chamber opera deals with a woman in a polygamist sect who struggles with the life she has been forced into. The idea of a woman trying to escape an unappealing situation has been tackled throughout the history of opera. “We get that, as a story,” Mr. Muhly said. The orchestral music, he said, is meant to evoke the natural environment of the American southwest, where the story is based. 

A commissioned work for countertenor and orchestra, to premiere next year, is inspired by Alan Turing; other topics he is interested in exploring include the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community Brooklyn and author Susan Cooper’s young adult fantasy series “The Dark is Rising,” he said.

This multidisciplinary facility seems to translate to his ideas about the music industry. He thinks, for example, that classical music could learn from how pop uses music software and recording studios. (“I think classical electronic music always sounds like trash,” he said.)

One seemingly counterintuitive view: “I thought the closing of the record stores was the best thing that ever happened,” he said.

“A: They were organized by genre. B: The people in there were crazy. C: The classical music was in the porn room, where you had to, like, go through glass doors. D: The way those stores were organized had nothing to do with how people listened to music, I don’t think. At least for me, I always want to go horizontally through things,” from Philip Glass to Paul Simon to South African and Brazilian music. (“It’s called iTunes.”)

And he thinks music can, or should, go small.

“I’ve always found the best thing to do is to make work that doesn’t have to happen in a huge space. I think it would be fine if major orchestras closed,” he said. “In a lot of cases the halls are too big. I went to see a huge orchestra concert at Avery Fisher Hall, which is an excrescence in New York…and it’s like, let it close. That’s fine; it’ll be fine. They’ll find somewhere else.”

Still, Mr. Muhly believes that the notion that classical music is dying, or at least in trouble – often symbolized by labor strife at the Minnesota Orchestra and the shuttering of New York City Opera – are misplaced. “It would be like going to the grocery store and pointing at a rotten piece of vegetable and being like, ‘It’s [messed] up in here.’”

“There’s a resilience to making art that is going to way outlast everyone who’s freaking out about the money, I think,” he said. “I think the financial model as it exists now is probably wrong. I don’t know anything about that.”

Elizabeth Bloom: or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.

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