Music’s ’wunderkind’ Nico Muhly :: not ambitious, merely busy

*published on Jan 9, 2012 on EDGE

Composer Nico Muhly turned 30 at the end of August. He has been called a wunderkind, a restless listener, a composer who paints the sky and an artist whose name appears on every list of who’s hot.

Nico Muhly

I had the privilege of writing one of the first pieces about him, a profile for Gay City News in 2004 when he was performing his master’s concert in preparation for graduating from the Juilliard School. Muhly studied composition with John Rouse and John Corigliano. He undertook this degree program whilst pursuing a B.A. in English Literature at Columbia University. He says he loves to be busy.
Read the Gay City News story.

And busy he is. Muhly worked with Philip Glass for years, since he was a teenager, first as an editor, then as a keyboardist, and now as a conductor for numerous film and stage projects. He worked with Bjork, Anthony and the Johnsons and composed ballets for Benjamin Millepied. Muhly stays with Millepied and his wife Natalie Portman and their baby in L.A.; his life is like that, he becomes friends with all those around him. It is natural to be drawn to him.

’Two Boys’ a landmark

His most celebrated work to date is his opera “Two Boys,” which premiered last June at London’s English National Opera in a co-production with New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The work will receive its American premiere at the Met next year. The opera, with a libretto by Craig Lucas and direction by Bartlett Sher, is based on a real-life incident that took place in Manchester, England in 2003 that reveals the darker side of social networking. Told like a police procedural, the story concerns the attempted murder of one boy by another, who claims to have been instructed to do so by someone on the Internet. Like in most “Law and Order” episodes, there’s much more to this than meets they eye.

Nico Muhly (upper); A scene from "Two Boys" (lower) from the English National Opera production.

In reviewing the London production, New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe wrote: “Serious and radiant, ’Two Boys’ is a landmark in the career of an important artist. Confidently staking his claim to the operatic tradition, Mr. Muhly has added to it a work of dark beauty.”

He recently composed a new opera entitled “Dark Sisters,” with a libretto by playwright (“Sons of the Prophet”) Stephen Karam, which premiered in NYC with the Gotham Opera Company this past November. The work explored polygamous cults in the Western Unites States and the music was alternately dark and melodic, creepy, terrifying and spine tingling. It was riveting and off putting, just like the subject it made operatic. The audience leapt to its feet when the curtain dropped cheering, the entire ensemble.

Watch this clip about Nico Muhly’s piece “Seeing is Believing:”

Working in opera

When I interviewed Muhly he spoke about how strange opera is as a medium because it is ” not a closed system like writing a concerto or a symphony. With opera there are lots of extraneous concerns and I become attuned to nearly everyone’s needs. How are the singers feeling, the projectionist, the guys backstage? It all has to come together to make a work that takes years to come to the stage really mesh. In writing the operas, “Two Boys” with Craig and “Dark Sisters” with Stephen, I literally never had the feeling; I wish this would be over. When I work I have a sense of who would be good to work with and it is based on luck and through that process I have found awesome people to collaborate with.”

Nico Muhly is often the smartest person in the room. He is always the fastest. He speaks at a machine gun pace and moves with equal vigor leaping from subjects like culinary experiments mixing pigs’ trotters and braised short ribs, which he is currently cooking, to reading about serial killers Fred and Rosemary West, to training puppy dogs. He schooled his chocolate brown and white Boston bulldog Oskar to be incredibly obedient. As we sat stoop chatting I remarked, “Hey if this composing thing doesn’t work out, I think you have a big career as a dog indoctrinator.”

(Upper) The "Dark Sisters" production team: Nico Muhly (composer), Rebecca Taichman (stage director), Stephen Karam (librettist), and Neal Goren (conductor, co-producer); (lower) A scene from "Dark Sisters" presented by the Gotham Cham

Speaks Icelandic (not well)

Muhly joked that training a dog is the opposite of having children, “you can be much stricter with dogs”. Muhly believes that he and his partner of three years, Ben will ” leave the mishegas surrounding kids to the straight people. I can come in and be an uncle, teach French and take them for romps in Iceland.”

Muhly speaks Icelandic, French and fluent Italian; he lived in Rome for a time with his painter mother and filmmaker father. “I find it relaxing to learn languages. It is like a door to another land and reminds me of playing a hard video game. I don’t speak Icelandic well.” When I said, well most of us can’t even say the name of the volcano, which blanketed the skies with ash in 2010, he rattled off Eyjafallajokull, and deftly returned to talking about dog training. I also understand that in 2012 Muhly will be making a speech in Iceland; you guessed it, in Icelandic. I suppose he is very relaxed after studying so much.

Nico Muhly

I expect a star like Muhly to be uber-self-contained and uninterested in the hoi-poloi, but this young man is the polar opposite. As we sat with our coffees and Oskar enjoying an uncharacteristically warm winter day after the opening of “Dark Sisters,” Muhly’s wonderfully bouncy, oh so informed brain moved from the tedium of technical opera rehearsals and his fear that the singers will be bored and hence be less likely to give good performances, to his desire to develop a way to make tech time more productive so great swaths of time are not given over to standing in one spot as lights and sound cues are set.

Watch this video of Nico Muhly’s “It Goes Without Saying” by Una Lorenzen from the album “Speak Volumes”:

Embraces many genres

Muhly speaks with passion and wonder embracing many genres and projects, really anything where music can be either the main focus, a symphony, concerto or choral work or a more supporting role like movie scores, to major collaborative works like ballets or operas.

After meeting and speaking with Muhly I became fascinated with his blog and the bevy of interviews he gives. He seems relaxed, engaged and nearly surprised that so many people want his time and talent. One foray onto the Internet yielded an interview with John Ritter, a British composer who was working with Muhly a few years ago on a commission for the Aurora Orchestra, a new work for an electronic six-string violin. Ritter described Muhly perfectly as ” somebody from one century and another continent whose music comments on another.” You have the sense that Muhly is constantly watching intently and then translating that observance into art.

With all the commissions, the travel, the accolades, yes there are some detractors out there, but mostly the wunderkind anointers abound, how does Muhly stay so openhearted and on point? The answer is in his response to this question, Is there anything on your list that you are burning to do while still so young and so in demand? The answer: ” I am not ambitious in anyway. ”

Nico Muhly

Not ambitious

I stopped him, I couldn’t help myself saying a version of that sounds like so much malarkey. It was an excited utterance and we laughed, but he pressed on, “I really am not ambitious: I like to be busy. I don’t do five-year plans and I don’t subscribe to the notion that you are supposed to be on some trajectory. I don’t have a list to check off. I want to constantly look around and see what comes to me I want to work with people I like. My goal is to make enough money so I can live in Manhattan. I couldn’t have had a goal to do a six-way collaboration like an opera. I can set up conditions under which I want to work, I want the work to be quality oriented, not goal oriented.”

Nico Muhly

And I believe him. The freckles and the sparkling blue eyes and his almost elfish magical glint took me in. Muhly is brilliant, a genius and still takes the time to share his love of cooking, reading language, travel, animals and his endless projects.
I was inspired. If the notion of keeping busy is what can propel us to such heights – OK the talent factor is enormous- but still forward motion, keeping busy – it all seems to be a great prescription for joy and success. Well, sprinkle in a super smart partner, and big dollops of travel, Muhly is just back from a vacation in Utah and is off to Seattle, Winnipeg and Santa Fe this month. At least it is for one gracious composer living downtown whose New Year’s resolution, sent by email is this: ” I’m gonna eat healthier after I house this short rib.” Bon appétit.

For more on Nico Muhly, visit his website.

Watch this clip of Nico Muhly performing music he composed for the film “The Reader”:

One response to “Music’s ’wunderkind’ Nico Muhly :: not ambitious, merely busy

  1. “Muhly speaks with passion and wonder embracing many genres and projects+-you have this in common with your subject in the present wonderful feature.

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