Nico Muhly

I saw Nico Muhly only once, in 2018. I was coming out of the subway near Lincoln Center, and as I reached the top step, I saw a tall flash of all black sweep toward my left. It was like being a witness to pure energy. At the time, the Metropolitan Opera was performing Muhly’s opera based on Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Marnie, so his presence made sense. But something wonderful happened in that moment. Catching a glimpse of the composer as he rushed down Broadway renewed a small part of my romance with New York City.

Growing up, I imagined the city as a place where you traveled amidst creativity made flesh and bone: John Zorn zipping through the Lower East Side; Phil Glass towering in mid-town; Cecil Taylor drinking at the 55 Bar; Ornette Coleman holding court on Prince Street. Since moving here in 2001, I have—in fits and starts—experienced that kind of exhilaration of proximity. But it has always been tinged with a sort of nostalgia—sighting as a re-creation of my teenage imagination.

That’s what made the glimpse of Muhly so special. He—as someone of my generation engaged in affecting a world larger than my insular musical circle—made the creative energy of New York contemporary. He was hurrying to continue a tradition and push it further, and he had no time to spare. It would be hyperbole to say that Manhattan seemed to stand still in that moment if I hadn’t felt it so vividly.

Muhly does not need me to make him known to the world; he is that rare composer of interesting music that you can bring up in small talk at a dinner party. But he still immediately agreed to talk to me and made the time to be fully present through the entire process of our discussion. I would email him questions and receive his ecstatic, rapid-fire, and hilarious answers via the memo recorder on his phone, the perfect discursive analog to that flash I experienced on 66th Street. I was most interested to find out about how he tapped into the energy necessary to negotiate his incredibly packed creative life.

NW It seems like you simultaneously work in three moments: dealing with the promotion of something just released, premiering a new piece, and preparing upcoming compositions. What are you finishing, and what’s next on the horizon?

NM I’ve just come out of a very elaborate few months of conducting and performing and travel. I had a couple of weeks in Japan and then a few things in the city. I was in Doha for a month at the same time as the World Cup doing a series of dance pieces in collaboration with Benjamin Millepied, the choreographer, who’s an old, old friend. December was relatively calm and just a lot of writing. After that I was in London for about a week just dealing with various things, and then I was in Freiburg, where an older opera of mine, Marnie, was being staged again.

Now I’m home for two weeks before I’m an artist-in-residence in Hobart, Tasmania as part of a festival called Mona Foma. And that’s all old pieces, and one little, tiny new thing for choir. All the while I am orchestrating Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo for the Santa Fe Opera, which is happening this summer. As we speak, I am in the middle of Act Four, so we’re about to get to Pluto’s big aria. I’ve just finished a set of three piano miniatures for Yuja Wang, and she will be performing those in San Francisco; I’ll go join her there in early March. This summer is a bunch of teaching: I’m composer-
in-residence at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge in the UK, and I’m teaching at Tanglewood at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute and then two weeks in Aspen. In the middle of that is L’Orfeo, and somewhere in there I need to finish this children’s ballet for the National Ballet of Hong Kong and their artistic director Septime Webre.

So, it kind of goes on and on like this. And it’s a combination of performing and writing and this and that. There’s an awful lot going on. I travel with my desktop computer and an eighty-eight-key keyboard, and I try on the road to be as diligent as possible about writing at least every day. So, for example, I fly to Singapore next Thursday. Friday is a wash, obviously, because it’s an eighteen-hour flight and that day just vanishes (although one gets it back on the return trip). I get into Singapore early in the morning on Saturday, and the first thing I will do is set up my stuff and write for at least an hour before anything else just to get myself kind of ready to go.

NW From the outsider’s perspective, you arrived on the scene with your compositional aesthetic fully formed. What was your early musical life like?

NM I would argue that my place in the scene—and I use that term warily—happened after a lot of time in conservatory and as an undergraduate. I also had a bunch of different day jobs, but most importantly, working as a kind of assistant/editor/engraver for Philip Glass. Growing up, my parents had music in the home all the time. Eclectic tastes, too; they listened to everything from Joni Mitchell to [Henry] Purcell. Neither of them is a musician, but they both had enormous exposure to classical music, and particularly contemporary music, because my mother was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome and remained very involved in that institution. So, I grew up kind of knowing what composers were. Her older brother, in fact, was a composer. That having been said, my music sounds very different from that world, which, at least when I was a kid, was more often than not linked to academia—not necessarily in a bad way, but it was just a different form of music making.

The music that grabbed me early was that of Steve Reich and Philip Glass and John Adams. When I was about nine—after playing the piano for a year or so—I joined an Anglican boys choir in Providence, Rhode Island, and that was the major, kind of seismic, event for me, both musically and personally. [Thomas] Tallis and [William] Byrd and [Orlando] Gibbons. I mean, that music is unbelievably great, right?

In hindsight, what I was most drawn to was that music’s lack of romanticism. If you’re a pianist around that age—or a teenage pianist—you’re playing Chopin and aspiring to Liszt and all this music with a constant sort of ocean-flow of emotions, with climaxes and this performative kind of shape. With Renaissance choral music, it’s the opposite of that. It’s, of course, meant to be beautiful, but it’s never giving too much away. I’m specifically thinking of the Tudor tradition, where these moments of emotional tumescence happen rather than one vertical climactic moment. Or, when you do get one of those moments, the force of the drama is so much more overwhelming than in Bruckner or Wagner; thinking about the ending of Byrd’s Infelix Ego or those gnarly Purcell cadences which give way to a radiant major chord. So, I think a combination of listening to a bunch of that kind of early American minimalism or post-minimalism was combined with the ethos of choral music. No one claps. No one is checking the credits to see who’s singing. It’s all part of a larger ritual, the liturgy of the day, but also of the liturgical year. So, all those things, I think, inform my practice now.

NW You talk about those early influences with such distinction and love. It makes me think of how my own early listening is still present in the way I think about music. Do you have any music that you’ve only become aware of recently that is affecting you in a similar way?

NM I had a weird thing during COVID where I could only deal with things I already knew; I couldn’t read new books, even. I just completely checked out. And in terms of music, I’m actually trying to have a pretty closed system right now, because I’m writing so many different things. But I’ve been listening a lot to [Francois] Couperin and [Jean-Philippe] Rameau, specifically Alexandre Tharaud’s recordings of the same, because I’m going to write for him. I’ve been listening to basically new recordings of old things. I wish I could say that I’ve been doing a lot more adventurous listening, but it’s mainly things from friends. So I just listened to the Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs record. There’s a new recording of Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint I’ve been getting into. I don’t know. I regret to inform you that I’m not very interesting in that way.

NW Listening to new music is one of those things that falls by the wayside when I get busy. Lots of work means time and energy has to be borrowed from somewhere else. With the demands of your schedule, do you ever feel like you’re missing something?

NM Yes, of course, but I think I’m kind of in denial about that. I mean, one of the things that I missed most during COVID were the serendipitous encounters that you have on the road. Like, I’m in Köln, but amazingly, my friend’s band is in town, and it’s great to meet up with them by accident. I can go to their sound check just to say hi, and they can come to my dress rehearsal. I hadn’t realized how meaningful those things were to me until they were gone during the early two years of COVID.

I miss what used to be, when I was traveling, the tacit assumption that you would just run into people at the bar or at dinner or at the opera or whatever. Of course, that still happens when I’m home, but there’s more of an effort, and it’s more concentrated into two weeks at a time. There are a lot of things I feel like I miss outside of the intensities of COVID restrictions, but, again, I wouldn’t trade my life for the world. I had a crazy moment just the other day when I was flying back from Germany and changing planes at Charles de Gaulle in Paris. I ran into my friend Victoria James, a brilliant sommelier from New York and sat with her and her colleagues at the bar of the Yo! Sushi in terminal 2. That’s the kind of chance encounter that became completely impossible during COVID, but which is the sort of thing that gives one a sense of interconnectivity and bliss.

NW Have you had any moments of doubt in your musical life?

NM The answer, of course, is yes. “Am I doing too much right now?” I worry about that every day. I haven’t had a day off in months—like a real day off.

NW What’s a real day off?

NM For me, it’s just being able to write without any other thing to do, and that’s so rare. I find myself almost petulantly jealous of my friends who manage, somehow, to take genuine time off, particularly my English friends who seem to be perpetually off somewhere sunny, most decidedly not working, posting pictures of their eerily prehensile toes against a backdrop of pristine Spanish beachfront, or, in the case of the gays, that of Mykonos. Oftentimes for me, a day off will be a couple of hours of writing followed by not having to write a recommendation or deal with some schedule nonsense or vaguely combative admin. Although, sometimes I actually really enjoy booking plane tickets. It’s fun because it’s like sports, particularly when you get really frothy with miles and points and vouchers.

I did a lot of high-profile work very early in my life, which felt fun. But it’s also a little crazy. I always tell students the only way to get better is by messing up, by having your piece sound great in your computer, and then hearing it with real instruments and an audience and realizing it doesn’t work at all. It also helps you grow, I think, to get a terrible review or harsh criticism. Because I sort of bloomed early, (again, none of this made me particularly happy because I was so worried about other things, to say the least) success itself became a source of anxiety. It’s as if I skipped a couple of steps in how you’re “meant to do it,” and as a result, it’s tricky to situate where I am now at forty-one years old. I’m not worried about how things are received by anyone other than my friends and my collaborators, but it isn’t not a worry, if that makes sense.

NW Is that worry based solely on physical and mental health, or is there a musical or career component that comes up?

NM I mean the worry about doing too much is just that; you lose focus and can’t do quality control. I’ve learned that doing one thing at a time can be, for me, kind of mentally oppressive, and that it’s better to have a couple of different things on at once. I can always turn something off and then turn it back on. For example, I’m writing the ballet right now, which I took a day off from yesterday. But I’ll take half the day today to work on it. But then this afternoon will be L’Orfeo. On this upcoming trip, I want to be mainly focused on L’Orfeo for a week, and then send it off for a rough zhoosh from my publisher, during which point I’ll turn back to early mornings on the ballet and then performing, teaching, and so on. It just keeps me focused to have things bouncing off each other.

I was diagnosed as being Bipolar II a bunch of years ago, and one of the things that was tricky about that is that I had already been so “successful” by many metrics—as viewed from the outside—but, in a lot of ways, I was so out of it. I knew something was really off when a friend of my parents came to an opera I had at the Met, and she said, “You must have felt ten feet tall when you came out to take a bow.” And I thought: “Wow. No. I feel about as accomplished as if I’d done all my errands for the day and tidied up the studio.” All that imagined joy, all the adrenaline, was completely absent. That isn’t to say that you should write to get applause, or to have really high-profile work, but realizing that I had so few genuine emotions and living in a sea of grey, or occasionally the sparkler-bright, but frighteningly dangerous, beauty of a hypomanic episode.

There were a lot of pieces that I wrote during that time that I don’t remember writing, because I was in either a state of mania or a state of worrying about all that, about my mental health. And interestingly—I don’t want to say upsettingly—that work is actually really good. A lot of the pieces of mine that are played come from that period. And it was a very fecund period, both on the piece-to-piece level but also in a more macro-level of finding a harmonic language. There’s that. But I refuse to glamorize mental illness; I refuse to do it, and I can’t stress this enough.

I think part of my discipline pre-existed before my current equilibrium, which is the result of a big medication reset in 2015. But before, even when things were crazy, I had a good routine. So, getting up early, taking my meds, going to therapy, exercising often, all those things come from an awareness that this kind of routine—which you can bring with you anywhere—is really important. I’d like to think that even when I was the most checked out, or dangerously keyed-up, I held onto that core set of rituals.

NW There are a lot of misunderstandings about neurodivergent ways of being, and often they’re seen as a path to creativity.

NM I’ve had strangers say, “I read your essay about [being diagnosed Bipolar II], but part of it must be a gift to be so (now we would say) neurodivergent.” I find that offensive. I would really love to not be afflicted this way. I always jokingly say that if that’s a gift, I wish I’d kept the receipt. There was a long period of being on the wrong medication and the usual things that accompany these forms of illnesses—I don’t know if we still call them illnesses—which are tricky to navigate, particularly as an artist. There was a version of medication which definitely dampened the mania but left very little spark. I say this cautiously, because, again, I have no interest in glamorizing this or making it seem like people should not take medication if they need it; there are enough out there for BPD [Bipolar Disorders] and many other things where you should be able to find one for you that strikes a balance between overall health and your ability to create.

My state of mind caused me to have a lot of sort of difficult interpersonal relationships, particularly as it related to people in my professional life who weren’t as intense as I was, who weren’t working nineteen hours a day, and who were able to find time to take vacation. I was, of course, foully jealous and furious, and that was not a great way to be. However, I’ve been on a really stable set of medications for a long time, and I’ve yet to experience the same sense of insecurity that I had about it maybe seven years ago.

NW So, a little thought experiment: It’s thirty years from now, and everything has worked out just as you desired. Where do you see yourself in this best-of-all-possible-worlds? How and what are you composing? How are you living? How would you hope people see you?

NM I hope I would be doing exactly the same thing, but with one more day off every sixteen days and a slightly bigger apartment. I don’t know; I’m pretty happy with how everything’s looking structurally. I think I’m not taking too much work that I don’t want to take because of money. I’m really proud that I can live in New York and have a perfect, fabulous studio which I share with dear friends, and I pay for it by writing and playing music. And whether or not that’s film music, or ballet or whatever, I think maintaining that sense of constant work is important to me. What am I composing? I don’t know. How would I hope people see me? I can’t control that!

It’s interesting: a lot of your questions are about perception. And that’s just something I had to give up when I was in my late twenties. I push back on my friends, for example, when they describe someone’s music as underrated or overrated. First of all “overrated” is how Trump thinks and talks. Also, thinking about how something is perceived gives that perception dominance over the work itself, which I refuse to do to my own work, and the work of others. It’s a kind of unseen perception; it’s a fun house mirror. Or I’d like to say human centipede, but that’s a little bit nastier.

I always recoil slightly when I see people thanking reviewers for a good review, because you think: “What do you say if it’s bad? Or mixed?” I hate the idea that how something is “received” or perceived should have any bearing on what the actual-thing-itself is. When I have friends who have a big piece or small piece or any kind of piece, instead of reading a review and then congratulating them on a good one or ignoring it if it’s bad, I would prefer to call them up and say, “I would love to see a score, and I would love to hear a recording.” Then you can think about it in a way that has nothing to do with how it was received, which I think is much more honest.

NW Where do you think the music world would be headed if we expand that thought experiment?

NM I think things have changed so much in the last five years that it’s unimaginable to think what will happen in thirty, and I can’t begin to foresee it. I think the trajectory that we’re on now is an interesting one. I mean, there’s only good that can come out of having very difficult conversations in classical music about who has access to the spaces; and who has access to the mechanism of commissioning; and what those spaces and mechanisms are on the most basic level. I think we’re having all of those conversations as a result of years of ignoring really crucial discussions about race, about money, and about music’s value in society. And I should say that, as someone who works equally in the States and in the UK, the recent arts funding cuts in the UK have really exposed how the sausage is made in a way that is making people pay attention.

Something interesting about COVID is that it made us all look at how we’re supporting ourselves and each other—both financially and emotionally—as a community, and what the connection is between the big organizations and individuals. I think it’s necessary to be kind of uncomfortable, to make one another think about difficult topics and to sit in that discomfort for as long as it takes. I hope that in thirty years, our world will feel at least a little bit more equitable, and that what work there is to do will feel more joyful.

NW Do you see any examples of an institution really getting it right?

NM I worry about the changes that are happening now in all sorts of different ways. Are they structural or are they cosmetic? Some organizations are involved in real positive upheaval: “Let’s remake this thing; let’s reconsider this thing.” And then there are others where it’s as if nothing happened. Honestly, with these questions about equity—both race and class and all their intersections—I am very glad that it is not my job to deal with this on an institutional level. Obviously, I can do it on an interpersonal level and on the level as a friend and a colleague and on the level as someone who teaches younger people, either formally or as an informal mentor. I’m sure that there are organizations that are killing it, but I can’t single any out. One thing that often goes unspoken in these conversations is the built-in differences between how far in advance large institutions need to plan versus a small ensemble, for instance, who can pivot a lot faster than the giant cruise ships of big opera houses and orchestras. I think large and small institutions can put good pressure on one another to make different kinds of changes.

I’m not sure it will ever be resolved. Look at the criticism of the mode of protests for equality. At first, it was like, “Why can’t you just be peaceful?” But when people take a knee, it’s like, “We didn’t mean like that.” The perception of it is always wrong. And I think institutions are going to have to realize that you’re never going to nail it, right? It’s never going to be like, “Okay, cool. Done. All fixed.” It’s a continual process that has to happen every day, every year, every season. It’s sort of an asymptotic thing that we need to think about all the time to keep undoing prejudices, and to find all the individual ways in which we can all do better.