The Latest News
{RSS}

Thoughts on being well

from Wednesday, May27th of the year2015.

I have been, it turns out, unwell for a long time. I didn’t really start realising how unwell I’d been until I suddenly — over the course of three months, got a little bit better. The long and short of it is that I’d had an ugly mental health episode about ten years ago, and got immediate treatment, but then, as a result of my own laziness, punishing travel schedule, and being convinced that I needed to see a shrink who takes my insurance, what had been an emergency solution to clinical manic depression became a permanent cocktail of medications, taken every day, for ten chemically-unexamined years.

Recently, I thought to myself, in a moment of rare clarity about my own life, that maybe I wasn’t feeling as great as I might. From 2009-2014, I wrote two operas, several orchestra pieces, a few film scores, tons of choral music, and a pile of chamber music. I was constantly busy, and all of my projects were great ones to have and all of my collaborators were stellar and it was all, on paper, going fine. Something a friend’s mother said to me kept haunting me, though — she’d come to the Met premiere of my opera Two Boys in 2013, and the opening night crowd was enthusiastic and was, as is the custom at such events, clapping enthusiastically as I took a bow. She said to me afterwards, “Wow! You must feel ten feet tall.” I said thank you and smiled but I couldn’t shake that comment from my head. I thought about it a few months ago and realised that no, I really didn’t. It wasn’t the opposite — I didn’t feel “small,” but I felt empty, or invisible. This physical manifestation of the work wasn’t something I’d made; it was something that was happening around me to which I was a passive and silent witness.

I tried, at that moment a few months ago, to sort out the difference between ‘pride in having made something’ and ‘feelings of happiness with a project’ and the dual senses of personal satisfaction, professional satisfaction and/or ‘achievement’ and realised that I didn’t have any way of teasing them apart, because they were foreign feelings; I hadn’t had them in years. All I had was a sense of gnawing anxiety, tempered, usually, by a feeling of displaced pride in other people having done the work for me — the conductor, the orchestra, the librettist, the stagehands, the wig-maker. I thought back on less complicated projects; one of the best things I’ve written, I think, is a song Old Bones for my friend Iestyn. I felt like I’d achieved, somehow, having made good something for him, which in turn makes him happy, but I couldn’t save anything for myself in that transaction.  I’ve written for Nadia, and for Pekka, and I was ‘happy’ because I love writing for people I love, because it makes them shine, and even though I think the pieces are fine, the satisfaction, for me, is displaced.

Once I had that revelation, I didn’t panic, but I thought: have I really not been happy or satisfied during any of this work for over a decade? I thought, as an anxious extension, about my obsessive relationship to working and work and what it even means to work. It’s not that I’m “a workaholic,” it’s just that I don’t know any other way to engage with the world. My work — in which I include writing emails, cooking, thinking — is the only way I know how to engage with anybody or anything. You turn an interaction, any interaction, into a kind of project, and then do it the best you can. This is related, I think, to doing “the best you can” in general, but in a specific, focused way, in which each task is divided into a sequence of sub-tasks, each of which has its own economy of goodness.  This is inherently a dangerous way to behave, because it can sound (and feel to others) craven and plotting, as if being friends with somebody is a project to be in some way completed or a problem to be in some way solved.

I still didn’t panic. I thought back over the past ten years, and then I had a vision: this sense of work dominating everything made me highly irritable in many professional and personal interactions. In the closed systems of my own processes, I can run quality control obsessively over everything I do: I can stay up until two in the morning editing clarinet parts, and I can worry about how for that clarinettist, her first experience of my music will be this four page document, I can slice the garlic how it needs to be sliced and I can butcher the meat in the right way for the task at hand. Once I get anybody else involved on any level, though, I expect, unfairly, for them to have spent the same amount of time and energy doing their jobs as I’d done mine, which is to say: expended a violent breath of energy at the thing, continuously, all day, every day. I became angry — and directionlessly choleric, as my body got hot, I sweated, I shook — at the objects that surrounded me. The noise of traffic would send me into a tailspin of not just anger, but despair at not having my environment coöperate with me. A honking truck became not, as it should be, a part of the sonic landscape of a city, but instead it came to represent a broken contract between me and the world. A sense of magical thinking arose naturally, where the only explanation for things not going as I wanted them was that I wasn’t working hard enough, that I wasn’t devoted enough to the task, or that I wasn’t giving enough of myself to anything or anybody to warrant getting anything in return.

I found myself, particularly when tired (which was always), or after having had too much to drink (which was often), irascible and shouty, telling people they were doing their jobs badly or bungling something when it was really not my place to say anything. I cussed people out for doing what, in the economy of my work, would be unacceptable, but which, in reality, was perfectly fine.  I was unable to distinguish people deliberately doing or saying hurtful things (which, at the age of 33, still happens to me from time to time) from forgetting to dot an i or cross a t. I could feel my body pointedly roiling — the sweat, yes, but a gut-clenching sense of a drop from a high place — at the accumulating details of my life. A little cut on the hand, agitated into a wound, the noise of laughing children on the street, the edge of the dog’s toy getting caught in the wheel of my work-chair, the feeling of my stomach touching the fabric of my shirt, the acute knowledge of the various asymmetries and plumpnesses of the body. All of these things were incendiary and dangerous: the arsonist’s last glug of gasoline thrown on the carpet before lighting the match.

After these episodes — which could last days, or weeks — there could arrive a period of calm. I would try to reconcile with those I’d wronged, but found it difficult to understand what I was apologising for, precisely. They had, after all, misspelt something important, or taken too long to write back to an email, or been lazy about a complicated project, and they needed to know. Right? I found myself physically angry at people for whom work wasn’t a consuming fire but for whom was, at most, a part of their day which could be offset or justified by taking vacations, sleeping late on purpose, taking an hour for lunch and sitting in the park, or getting str8 married and taking time off to do this. I was furious with musicians who lived off of their parents’ money, I was furious with people who dared to plan their careers in units of ten years. I was furious with myself for being furious about these things. I was impossible with my boyfriend with whom I share a small apartment, because each of his movements was another shot fired in my already complicated battle with my environments both physical and emotional. He’s only known me within the space of this 10-ish years of treatment, and never really knew any other conditions aside from my slightly terrifying and almost religious relationship to my work and my community as the only worthwhile transactions in a life lived vigorously.

At the end of these daily forceful and exhausting immolations, the only thing that could bring me something resembling peace was watching somebody do something – anything – well. I live in Chinatown, and there is nothing more calm-inducing than watching an old man work a meat cleaver expertly. I am soothed by watching a woman pinch a dumpling together, and I am soothed by watching the Man Who Grills Meat fan the meat just-so with his meat-fanning fan. I could no longer read new books or the newspaper; I had to read books I already knew that I liked, because I couldn’t be let down by them or tricked into going along with somebody else’s uninteresting plan. I could only listen to music I already knew, because the shock of something new would send me into a state of heightened agitation. I developed an agoraphobic anxiety and found myself only able to explain it to virtual strangers, and fibbed my way out of going to any live music for almost two months. I found myself not craving but needing routine in an almost aspergic way, but with a life completely and necessarily noncondusive to even being able to do the same thing three days in a row.

So I sought help. I found a new doctor, who does not take my insurance and therefore costs as much as my rent, literally no joke. She looked at my medical history with what I would generously call the world’s subtlest cut-eye; I’m sure that doctors don’t like to second-guess what another doctor thought best ten years ago, but within 30 minutes of being there, she was like, “we gotta get you off of this stuff.” I went off of it, and onto something else. My body ached and I was confused all the time. I told her that I had three goals: to not be angry all the time, to be able to engage with my environment and friends and boyfriend and collaborators in a healthier way, and to start seeing if there was a way to start to feel happy about my work — or not really the work, even, but about myself as it related to the work, or about myself as it related to anything.

Medication helps with a lot of these things — within a few weeks, the constant agita let up, confirming to me that it was actually chemical and not some devil perched in the back of my skull. I’d been told that the drugs working correctly might feel like a veil lifting, but in my case it was more like a kabuki-drop: a sudden whoosh of waking up without a clamor of small pressurised objects rattling around. As a result of this clarity, I was able to think about the very rare times that I’d felt happy about my own self. I realized that the thing I’ve made of which I am the proudest — or, perhaps the only thing I’ve made about which I feel even a nominal amount of pride — is my community. It’s a large and multi-faceted creature, with ever-widening spaces between its elements as we all age, but it’s a collection of people for whom I have a near obsessive love.

I’ve never really bought the concentric-circle model of friendships. My model is much more “let’s just go for it all the way,” which I think can be off-putting for people. I am in a near constant dialogue with myself thinking about other people — oh, this funny image, I hope T— has seen it, or I really should email M— about that piece of his which I liked and which I listened to, or I feel like the world would be a better place if N— had read this book. When people text me, I text them right back. I write back to emails quickly and try to stay connected to everybody and be au courant with my friends’ lives in as generous a way as I can. I write back to professional out-of-office emails with bitter, scathing essays about why it is that they can’t manage to make their iPhones work in whatever sad holiday destination (Alicante, usually) they’ve chosen instead of performing professional immolation on the fires of productivity.  I’ve never gotten an out-of-offce reply when I haven’t been nine miles deep into a river of work, and you can imagine the resentment and fury that creates.

Once the new medication had sorted a few things out, however, I started accessing an emotional register of genuine sadness surrounding my community, something I’d not felt in years. My obsessive communications with my friends: what if this was actually a huge chore for them, and that my vigor (and rigor) in that part of my life could never be reciprocated? If a loved one doesn’t write back, does that mean that I am specifically unlovable, doomed to a life of sending unreturned emails and un-replied-to texts? The machinery of my head has been, until recently, too busy to really let that feeling in for analysis, and I managed to actually write a whole opera about it as a giant, expensive act of displacement and disengagement. “Are you there,” the opera asks; nobody answers, and the boy at the centre of it gets a knife to the heart. Letting this feeling in — to use the somewhat three-little-pigsian argot of pop psychology — has been, I think, one of the more difficult things I’ve done as an adult. Why won’t she write back? Why won’t he text back? What does that have to do with meeeeee? I found myself hoarding kind words from any of my friends or even passing acquaintances like a squirrel with his nut: a tiny compliment from a friend stored in the back of the head to be taken out and surveyed in darker moments.

After so many years of never thinking about myself — emotionally paying myself last, as it were — I feel an enormous guilt in spending the time thinking about myself at all. I am (or perhaps was?) a big proponent of the “it’s not about you” strategy of dealing with emotional conflict: always assume that the offended party is the correct one, and ignore any evidence that you, too, might have been wronged, and it’ll all be alright. I felt that self-care was a nonsense excuse to not do one’s job, and that taking time to think about these things, even in the context of the doctor’s office, was a form of extreme and dangerous narcissism born out of Tumblr and Twitter activism, or out of the thickets of trigger warnings that surround the castle of anything difficult to think about.

I haven’t yet managed to shake my molten rage at administrative things in my life going wrong.

I feel bad even retelling this story, but I think it points towards a few important things. I had a concert in a church the other day, and I had been in communication with the producer and his staff about wanting to set aside some seats for friends, and he had a very welcome ‘no problem’ kind of attitude. It was a free concert but one which needed tickets. I was very grateful for their help with all of this and tried to be as on top of the ticket situation as possible, sending names via email, confirming, double-checking that the number (12) was alright. An hour before the show I checked again with Capable Seeming Ticket Lady, and confirmed that the names would indeed be left at the door, and gave her another name I’d just gotten via SMS. Now. I then went for a little stroll and had a bracing lager, and I came back from this stroll to discoverer two strange tableaux-vivants. The first tableau was a bunch of my friends — who, in this case were all tall blond English men, don’t judge me, u don’t know my journey — clustered around the door next to a confused-looking woman with a clipboardt. She was not, however, as confused as the blind woman with her collapsible cane, wearing what looked like corrective shoes, precariously hobbling over the uneven cobbled surface of the churchyard, tripping on bollards and chain gates and heading the wrong way towards a certain spill against a leaning plane tree. So, I ran to the blind woman and took her arm and began to escort her towards the door, at which point I sort of nervously looked at the clipboardt lady and discovered that all of the name-emailing I’d done had resulted in the Seemingly Capable Ticket Lady scrawling MY last name, misspelt, with a blue pen, and then “+12” next to it. Now. How are these tall English boys going to get access to the Lord’s House when I had told them to just give their name at the door and it would all be okay? Also present in this dozen people was one of the performers’ momma. Not nann one of the names I’d emailed and confirmed had made its way to the door. This is an good example of a contract with the world being broken.

What I should have done is taken a deep breath and moved on with my life, chalking this particular incident up to the fact that arts administrators and their underlings are, I’m sure, hideously overworked people — although, me too: I am chained alway by devils to my desk writing music for their employers, gnashing my teeth and suffering the self-induced psycho-electrical shocks of self-discipline and profound fear), but, at that particular time in front of the church in London, the combination of my friends being inconvenienced, the appalling bootleg fuckery of my scrawled name, and the idea that the door staff were letting this blind woman trip all over the cobblestones sent me into a 2011-style ragefest galore. I was not asking for an extinct animal to be brought before me, I was not asking for some kind of exotic honey to applied to my body for reasons of allergies.  I just wanted my friends to be able to arrive at a door, give their name, and be granted access to the space behind the same door, at that time.

So, furiously, I marched back to the vestry, found Seemingly Competent Ticket Lady, and I am sorry to say that, beloveds, I read her for filth. I told her what time it was in every timezone.  I let it all in, and then I let it all out, in her face, at that time. But something curious happened: I found that my rage had three dimensions and an origin story: I could see the whole thing, I could understand its weight, and I understood, at that time, that the whole thing was springing from this inner vacancy and sadness, with the idea of my writing a piece of choral music (for which I am now able to feel a tiny shimmer of pride!) that asks “are you there” being answered, in an acute sense, by this organisational incompetence. I heard myself saying all these terrible things, and once it started, it all spilled out like change from a torn pocket. During this diatribe, I left myself momentarily, and had a conflicting group of emotions, which were: first I have to stop yelling, but also: I know both why I am yelling on a small level (she did totally fuck up and should have been pilloried before the village) but also on a large level (I am a person slowly getting better who is not yet better) and also: I finally know how this relates to larger problems about whose nature I am finally learning.

I am sorry, truly and deeply and honestly (despite my flippant attitude in the previous paragraph), to have lost it at this woman who I’m sure forgot to do her job for perfectly good reasons. The details are lost to history. It is never appropriate to turn into a volcano of rage no matter what has happened to you, and I speak as a volcano who has erupted a number of inappropriate times, despite my goal of dormancy and peace.

I’m telling this story to say that the nature of getting better, of becoming well, is not that you will automatically stop doing bad things, or that you will stop letting bad things happen to you. Getting well is going to involve sometimes doing these awful things and experiencing these terrible things and having those bad things done to you, but having, at the same time, a growing understanding of their beginnings and middles, and an awareness of the effort it is going to take to herd them towards their ends.

At the end of that concert where I lost my mind, the choir sang Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, which is one of my favourite pieces of art ever in the world, and which is one of the reasons I am a composer now. Its text is by Christopher Smart, who spent a good deal of his life in an insane asylum. The text — of which Britten sets only a part — is an ecstatic journey of religious devotion through mania and altered states: Smart offers us the wordplay of the schizophrenic and the self-annihilating coldness of the depressed at the same time. At the end of one of the particularly excited sections describing a heavenly orchestra of instruments, Smart describes the hand of God cutting through the joyfully chaotic cacophony to play the harp. Britten treats the ensuing text with an almost maternal delicacy, relishing, in a lambent and suspended F-major chord, the symmetries of the music the text suggests, and tells us, with gentle hopefulness:

For at that time malignity ceases
And the devils themselves are at peace.
For this time is perceptible to man
By a remarkable stillness and serenity of soul.

I don’t think I am yet at, or even near, that time, and my flightpath might be asymptotic to that time, but I like seeing, through the flashes of fire and reminders of difficulty, a path towards stillness and serenity.

[Two notes: this post uses English spelling because for a variety of indescribable reasons my computer has to be set that way, as I’m in London right now, and two, the Britten link is to the UNT choir, which is the school at which my uncle Martin “Mickey” Mailman taught composition for many years, so I’m trying to keep it, as it were, in the family].

Nico Muhly Talks Madonna’s Rebel Heart

from Tuesday, March10th of the year2015.

A lifelong Madonna fan contemplates her new album, the role she had in his life and the role she’s had in everything. Read the full article at the talkhouse.

Look Upon These

from Tuesday, March3rd of the year2015.

Videos that Sam made:



http://vimeo.com/103206110

http://vimeo.com/91523391

Think fast

from Tuesday, July1st of the year2014.

Boop!  A strange thing happened today, which is that an article for which I gave an interview in January in Pittsburgh has just now materialized, and I’ve gotten in some mild internet trouble for some of the things I said, which I just wanted to clarify, mainly because it’s interesting how these things have the ability to recycle in strange, unexpected ways, and because the things that seem to have been the most objectionable are, actually, the things I believe in the strongest, but with some caveats.  Also: it feels right to articulate, in my own, typed words, these thoughts as it seems as if my rapid-fire interview is being scrutinized in some detail!  Now, here is the article in question, by Elizabeth Bloom if you care to look at it. Please note that the reason I sat for it was that my chamber opera, Dark Sisters, was being presented by Pittsburgh Opera, and I went out there for a few days to help do press for it, sit in on some rehearsals, etc.  This was in January.  I don’t understand why it has dropped, as it were, six months later.

The first point of clarification: “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.)”  Now, that is a crazy statement!  I’m not 100% sure what I was referring to, but certainly I can use myself as an example here.  When I first wrote this piece called Keep in Touch, for Nadia and Antony and what essentially amounts to pre-recorded tape, I made the electronic elements myself using basically souped up GarageBand.  It wasn’t until Valgeir Sigurðsson started fondling it that I realized how trashy it sounded; it sounded about as trashy as when you turn on the radio and hear a great song but with MIDI strings. You’re like, “all that money and then this?” I think that the non-classical universe has citizens who simply spend more time in front of electronic instruments and computers, and it is meet and right to ring them up and ask for their counsel and assistance when dabbling in the more plugged-in corners, I think. I certainly wouldn’t dare try it totally alone. In the same way that I spent years in a darkened room basically snuggling with the score to Petrouchka, there are people who spent those same years of their lives making samples, designing synthesizers, sitting in a darkened room of their own. So, that’s what that’s all about; I can’t actually think about any “Classical electronic music” off the top of my head, with the possible exception of Jacob Cooper’s Silver Threads, which you should all buy, and also which came out three months after I said this so obvz I hadn’t heard it, and also which I think sounds great, partially, I imagine, because he rang up Damian Taylor, who, in addition to having the same birthday as I do, is one of the smartest and nicest and most sensitive programmer/engineer/computer types around.  I certainly didn’t have anything else in mind, with the possible exception of those v.v.v.v. early Babbitt pieces that just sound like straight up R2D2, but that’s more funny to me than anything else.  Bleep boop!

Then, a more delicate situation here:

“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.”

Okay, so this is an example of me saying two things at once, for which: my apologies.  Actually this is three things at once, in a jumble that, I see here, looks really inflammatory and ugly on the page.  What I was trying to say was I was SO excited when there was that three second period when the New York Philharmonic was going to play in Carnegie Hall full time. I’m told the seating capacity is more, which, might be true?  But I guess things in Carnegie always just seem more fun to me, and it sounds great in there, as if each sound was dipped in butter. I don’t like going to Fisher; I literally just don’t like being in there. I can never find the men’s room, the architecture gives me the shiverz. When I gave this interview, I had just been to something — Sibelius and Esa-Pekka and randomly the Mother Goose suite — there, and I hadn’t been in maybe five or six years, and two things happened. First, the orchestra sounded great and LOUD. The horn section was heroically, heroically great in Sibelius 5 and the Salonen concerto was tight and precise. However, I was just shocked by the strange dimensions of the stage, the slight sense that I couldn’t quite hear anything — as if there were a membrane between me and the musicians — the acoustic panels, the very depressing narrow side-areas for donors…don’t front like you haven’t seen those areas. My sense is that if they shut down Fisher for a few years, or moved the orchestra, the Phil itself would still be fine. I’ve seen that ensemble more, I realize here, looking through my calendar, at Symphony Space, in the parks — once even in Queens!  I went to Queens to see the Phil! – than in that hall. They are doing just fine when they go to other spaces and, actually, I buy all of their live recordings on iTunes anyway which sound great. So that’s what that was.  I’ve said maybe six thousand times online, offline etc. that I want the Phil to be awesome because they are my home team orchestra and I want for them to be the most kick-ass orchestra in the world with the most kick-ass hall etc. Again, I apologize for the seemingly flippant/aggressive snippet; it’s not something I would have said today, with the Phil’s neighbors at the Met involved in such a tense and acrimonious negotiation, much of which seems to be playing out in the press and on various blogs and Facebook &c. to the benefit of perhaps nobody.

The final thing I want to say here, which is perhaps more to the point, is that the way music gets paid for is really unknowable to me. I can’t pretend to understand it. In the time that I wrote this blogpost, in fact, a really awful cut to the ENO’s budget in London was announced; I love that company and love working there and with them — it can only be bad news, and yet, they seem to have spun it as potentially okay news?  I tried to follow the Minnesota negotiations and between the paper, Facebook, blogs, in-person conversations — at a certain point I just got so exasperated and frustrated by the idea of this semi-visible world of fighting people messing up our lives — it feels like Zeus and Hera, with their eternal squabbles and jealousies and resentments — people telling half truths, leaking information, good faith and bad faith arguments in the same sentence, with various intermediaries and intercessors throwing incense around. San Diego felt rather the same way; what’s going on at the Met seems the same way. It feels, sometimes, that the adults are fighting and that we’re the kids, cowering in our rooms pretending not to hear. I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s fantasized about just running away from home, and trying to find a more direct way to communicate between musicians and audiences, all of whom, I think, are going to figure it out in spite of these crises and inevitable transformations both real, imagined, and somewhere in between. Sometimes, I wonder if a closing doesn’t, in some way, shift energy: has anybody else noticed a wonderful explosion of chamber opera, a heightened attention to the 20-person operation compared to the slightly larger model recently in New York and elsewhere?  I feel like in London I can’t open a door without a brilliant amplified chamber opera popping out; this isn’t to say that it exists to the exclusion of Don Carlo, it’s just a different model.

It seems, though, that many places that have been In Trouble are no longer In Trouble — is that not the case?  Remember turning on the internet during the San Diego thing and it really felt like La Jolla would be a nuclear wasteland by nightfall with zombie opera singers preying on the flesh of the living and gay people sacrificing lambs to a makeshift statue of Maria Callas by that fig tree, and now it all seems to be, more or less, Fine?  Musicians are resilient as anything, and audiences are hungry for music, and I don’t think that has really changed. Audiences are even hungry for orchestral music! They go to see it in parking garages in South London, they go to Carnegie Hall, they go to the Phil. I love writing orchestral music; it is thrilling to write. It is also crazy; it’s a crazy thing that we do and it’s a crazy thing that it still exists, and I will do everything I can in my power to keep it alive, which, in my case, essentially means writing orchestra music, as is my plan — I’ve got a thing for Philly, a thing for Utah, and I’m giddy at the prospects, and from this point on I will shut up about anybody closing down.

And one final thought, more shop talk than anything else. For young composers, writing an orchestra piece can feel like the ne plus ultra of achievements, the distant summit to climb. As I said, writing for orchestra is amazing and I love it, but it doesn’t have to be for everybody. Think about Steve Reich, for whom you all know I have deep deep love. Homegirl has written, what, two pieces for orchestra (The Four Sections, and Three Movements, one movement of which is repurposed)?  I guess The Desert Music counts too but that works way better in the small, Alarm Will Sound edition.  In a long-ass career, the pieces of his that are the most defining, the closest, I would argue, to the heart of the artist, are the ones for small amplified ensemble with voices pre-recorded on a tape or live or both: Different Trains, The Cave. Then, looking back another third of a century, the early works — the ones that made him a sort of household (u know what I mean) name, are for his friends: Music for 18, Music for a Large Ensemble.  I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but his is a career — as, I would argue, is Philip Glass’s — that was built on a foundation of knowing, in some fundamental way, that orchestras weren’t going to want to commission them ever ever, as I’m sure it must have seemed in the 1960’s and 70’s. Even though that changed for Philip — and he would be the first to tell you that it was a surprise, and indeed, the result of having made his name writing music outside of that tradition —  the music of his that, for me, bears a more intimate touch is the music he wrote for his friends. Going back to what I said in Pittsburgh  (“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 the advice is solid. Knowing how to make music despite the Arts Council is practical and sensible. It doesn’t mean that in such a making, one is saying that DIY music is the only way forward; it’s just a different skill-set. Writing a chamber opera doesn’t mean you don’t believe in grand; writing a piece of electronic music doesn’t mean you’ve abandoned the viola.

The experience of writing a new piece for orchestra is very scary; I’ve had some wild rides where you find yourself quite bumped up against the wall of the way the week in which your piece is premiered is scheduled. Things they don’t teach you in school turn into the biggest logistical obstacles: unexpectedly reduced strings for the Mozart means a tech call to move the chairs for your piece which means 20 minutes less rehearsal which means… and so on.  I’ve written before about the craziness of recordings in these situations.  It is very high-stress and I still get “first day of school” jitters in front of orchestras and usually need to sit down in a dark room after the first rehearsal, with a serious glass of wine. I have fought fought fought fought fought for more rehearsal time for new music; I have embarrassed myself, I have totally nailed or messed up the Confucian rituals of obeisance and deference some groups need, I have had nightmares about it, I have, in the thirty-nine seconds a composer is given to make comments, said clever things and blunt things and stupid things and funny things and things that fell flat. All of that having been said, there is nothing like that first moment when things start to emulsify in the room with the orchestra, when the little idea you had at your tiny desk has bloomed into this pulsing, shimmering thing, beautiful and ugly and surprising. It’s the Sorcerer’s Apprentice but strangely sanctioned — you’ve been allowed to manipulate seventy plus people, with their years of training and musicianship, into this twelve-minute distillation and explosion of an idea. It’s an experience I wish everybody could have, and it’s an opportunity for composers that I will fight for, both online and off.

I am wishing you all a very happy 4th of July weekend and a joyful Canada Day if that’s ur bag.

PS I stand by the record store thing 100%. Nothing freaked me out more than having to go into the classical — or god4bid opera  — section of Tower Records by Lincoln Center. I haven’t bought music clothed in years and I love it.

Nico Muhly Talks Coldplay’s Ghost Stories

from Thursday, May22nd of the year2014.

This is a repost from The Talkhouse, originally published May 20, 2014.

I have always liked Coldplay. There is something inherently honest-seeming about their faces, and I liked how once they got paid, they could afford to steal (in the most loving way) from other bands who also got paid — there is something much less offensive, I think, about people who own homes with nice linens and stuff taking artistic cues from other people who own homes with nice linens. For that reason, when I smell a texture taken pretty explicitly from Sigur Rós or Arcade Fire, it feels like a lateral homage rather than the ugly “who did it first” business we suffer through in the discourses surrounding borrowing from people who are, perhaps, slightly less paid.

What I like about this new album, Ghost Stories, the band’s sixth, is how unchallenging it is. I don’t mean this in a snarky way; it is unchallenging in the way a conversation with an old friend always has an ease and fluency to it. The rhymes are so symmetrical, so square, that you can predict the end of the line based on the first word alone. The musical phrases are similar: listen to the hook that begins “Ink” — it’s a little curlicue of a phrase that could only do one thing, and it does it confidently. Very satisfying.

The album begins with “Always in My Head,” which features one of these Lovingly Borrowed from Sigur Rós textures, a sort of processed thing that contains voices (did they use one of them little Casio keyboards that enjoy such cachet in certain circles?), and then a looped guitar with delay over a plodding bass line. It unfolds perfectly, like a row house: there is no other place for the toilet to go, so obviously it goes there, at the top of the stairs. There is no other thing to do at the chorus than to bring back that guitar loop, so here it is! It is very satisfying. Incidentally, if you squint at the cover art, it looks like a very specific piece of Sigur Rós merch; I think I have it on a tote bag somewhere.

In “Magic,” we get a taste of electronic drums and a bass moving in 10ths, and gloriously, the voice is presented in an unaffected and straightforward way, and we can really hear the grain of Chris Martin’s voice, by which I mean all the little tics and rasps that make us human. This is a welcome moment. I sort of can’t bear anybody setting the word “you,” which is difficult in the English language, but we seem to be stuck with it. Martin tries, here, several variations, ranging from “yeh” to “yoo” to the slightly Texan possibilities of “yew.” He performs a moist sandhi on “but you,” rendering it slightly more like “butt chew,” for what it’s worth. “You” is a hard word to sing.

We have talked about “Ink” already.

I’m really unclear about the merits of calling your song “True Love.” It has processed beds of strings, and a pointedly uneven vocal performance — Martin approaches the microphone from various angles, and shows his work, and one gets a sense of the challenges of his range in the slightly liquid phrase endings. They start high, in the falsetto range, and slither down through various passages and rooms and end in a conversational baritone. It’s sort of a handbook of how to use one’s entire range. There is a string arrangement that is disappointingly on the nose: it moves at exactly the same time as the chords, so why is it there? It’s like having a giant picture of your body printed on your body instead of wearing clothes.

“Midnight” begins with a looped and rhythmic texture. The voice comes in like that Imogen Heap song we all bought the shit out of — what was that called, “Hide and Seek?” Love that song. “Midnight” is super exciting to me because it sort of doesn’t do anything — there isn’t really a structure so much as a sequence of concentric circles surrounding the same chord. At the midway point, there is a thickening, a tumescence, over wordless singing in the stratosphere, which then expertly melts back into the polyphonic (Imogen) heap of textures, and then, obviously, straight into four-on-the-floor, but so satisfying. An arpeggiated synth! We are at the kluhb! Sidechain gate on the processed hi-hat — it’s all here. A build and a breakdown: they’ve done everything right here. It’s ritualistic and understated, and banks not on raw power but on a slow accumulation of elements.

“Another’s Arms” feels like it sits in precisely the wrong range of Martin’s voice. I can’t quite ever tell what he’s saying — sitting on the couch watching TV? — and he’s affected too wide a range of what sound like American pronunciations of words to have the sentiment land correctly. “Me” comes out as “Meh,” and quite right, too; the effect is bland, anonymous, and the exact opposite of the vocal honesty we found in “Magic” and “True Love.”

They appear to have hired either real human beings to play violins near the beginning of “Oceans,” or at least a very expensive sample library of harmonics. I am going to hold my tongue about the success of that arrangement because I’m actually just bitter they didn’t call me; ooh, the thangz I would have done to that song! What I like about this song is that it’s really an acoustic guitar jam with a little sonar ping instead of a snare drum, and the guitar performance is natural and unquantized, which is to say, sometimes it doesn’t align perfectly, and it makes me like it more. Then there is a random electronic looped outro that delivers us directly into:

The festival jammer! “A Sky Full of Stars” is what we’re dealing with here. “‘Cause you’re a sky full of stars/I’m gonna give you my heart.” I mean, that is not a cute lyric. It sounds like the little hooks of inspirational jib-jab that are sung over dance music in the gay clubs: “Keep going/Keep reaching /I believe in u” and things of this nature. The song proceeds in a professionally straightforward way; he wants to die in [our] arms, the electronic beats break down into just a single acoustic guitar. There is good news, though: the vocal performance is delicious. He is absolutely in control of each element of range, technique, volume and vibrato. It’s too bad the lyrics are so gayspirational, though, or, perhaps not gayspirational enough?

The album closes with the enigmatically titled “O,” built on a lovely sequence of piano arpeggios. The piano is played (and recorded) beautifully, and while it is deeply repetitive, it is surprising in its lazy circles: it feels like an organic process slowly unfolding. The arrival of the bass is a welcome grounding effect. The lyrics are dead simple but here take on an almost Japanese obliqueness of image and intent; there are large pauses between the phrases, reminding us that actually the piano is the point of the song. Martin’s voice is actually at its most beautiful here: controlled but fragile, with a warmth and openness that sits in loose counterpoint to the loneliness of the song.

Like I said, I’ve always liked this band. I thought that song “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall” was an absolute triumph, and “Reign of Love” is a thing of exquisite beauty. This album is texturally beautiful: they steal from the best. There is a small tragedy in the emotional anonymity of the lyrics, and in the uncommitted sonic landscape as it relates to acoustic instruments: is there not an additional shade to be found from a really turn’t-out string arrangement, or a little mechanism made from pointed flutes? When Martin is singing athletically — as opposed to from the couch in the TV room — he is in top form. It’s comfortable and confident: the voice of an old friend on the phone, a neighborhood bar, a question to which you already know the answer.

Recent News