For Composer Nico Muhly ’03, 1 + 1 = Success
By By Maryam Parhizkar ’09
Being a successful composer today can be difficult. In a New Yorker article published in 2004, music critic Alex Ross observed the newest generation of composers and their admiration for their predecessors: “Sooner or later, they come up against the disappointing realization that modern American culture has no space for a composer hero,” he writes. By the end of the piece, however, he turns to the promise of Nico Muhly ’03, ’04 Juilliard, at the time a first-year graduate student at Juilliard, saying that perhaps the composers from the new generation “might be able to turn the classical critics into fools.”
Muhly’s long list of projects seems to have fulfilled Ross’ claim four years ago that the young composer was “poised for a major career.” In February, Muhly was again mentioned in The New Yorker — this time in a feature by Rebecca Mead, “Eerily Composed,” which describes him as one of today’s foremost young composers. Since graduating from the College, the 27-year-old, Rhode Island-raised composer has premiered works with the Juilliard Orchestra, American Ballet Theater, American Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops, to name a few.
At the time that Muhly was contacted for an interview, he was a few days away from a trip to Iceland; he answered the questions while in Holland, preparing to conduct a baroque orchestra. Meanwhile, he keeps his day job as an assistant feeding scores into a computer for Philip Glass.
Muhly began working for Glass as an undergraduate, arranging parts of the film score for director Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. Now, Muhly has been hired to score Daldry’s newest film, The Reader (due in December). He also is writing a ballet with Benjamin Millepied for the Paris Opera in September for two trombones, electronics and piano, and has been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center to write an opera.
Muhly has enjoyed equal success experimenting with artists from other genres, including Björk, Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons, folk singer Sam Amidon and visual artist Shoplifter. Icelandic musician Valgeir Sigurdsson signed him onto his Bedroom Community label, which includes his most recent album, Mothertongue, and a collection of chamber works, Speaks Volumes (2007).
Part of the unconventional aspect of Muhly’s music comes from his influences, which range from Renaissance composers Thomas Tallis and Thomas Weelkes to the 20th century’s Benjamin Britten, alongside the writings of Roland Barthes — and YouTube videos. “It just turns up,” he says of his influences. “It’s part of the texture of the things that I put into my body and therefore it reemerges on the other side. My music is, as a big project, about teasing emotion out of repetition and finding the patterns that govern emotion. It sounds sort of grand but in fact it’s quite simple, because anything can be narrativized for me.”
For Muhly, the idea of “narrativizing” — that is, unfolding a narrative through his music — comes from University Professor Gayatri Spivak’s “Narratives for Life” course, which he took at the College. “One of the most mind-blowing things she said was, ‘I can narrativize “1+1,” ’ which, for me, was this amazing moment. One of Philip Glass’ first ‘mature’ pieces of music is called ‘1+1’ for amplified tabletop, and it’s essentially these little patterns that build up from the simplest little cell. It’s sort of the ground zero for the kind of rhythmic development I use in my music,” Muhly says.
Muhly started playing the piano at 8 and sang in a boys’ choir in Providence, R.I. “While I wasn’t the most inspired pianist, at a certain point, doing the singing as well as the piano clicked suddenly, and I got really good, really fast.” While Muhly knew that he wanted to study composition seriously, he was “a little freaked out” by the thought of only going to conservatory, so he applied to and was accepted into the Columbia-Juilliard dual degree program, through which he studied English and composition (as a student of composers Christopher Rouse and John Corigliano ’59). The highly selective program allows exceptionally talented students to pursue a full-time education at Columbia while continuing music studies at the Juilliard School, and gives them the option of completing a B.A., and a master’s in music, in five years.
“Being able to attend both schools allowed me to directly let reading/writing influence writing music,” Muhly says. “I took a lot of history and literary criticism classes that I found to be unexpectedly influential, specifically, a history of modern India with Ritu Birla ’87, who sort of abstractly and casually introduced me to all kinds of techniques of making paths through historical narrative that I still use when thinking about how to let time unfold in music. I also was lucky enough to take a class with Professor [Edward] Said just before he died, which was a history of the novel, and a very aggressively traditional history at that; it was amazing.”
Muhly’s experience as a Columbia student also allowed him to go beyond making friendships solely with musicians, which he credits as part of his success. “For me, being surrounded by a community of composers is great, and necessary. But at the end of the day, I’m happiest when I can engage in somebody else’s genre.”
Read more at nicomuhly.com.