The Stravinsky Octet, James Levine, Sean Hannity

from Sunday, April11th of the year2010.

The Stravinsky Octet has put me very much in the mood to blog again. I haven’t done it in a while, because I’ve been in four thousand different places, and made the stupid mistake of starting a blog post on a plane, and then sort of forgot where I filed it, and lost it, and found it, and got very confused, and now I am finally, after a rather trying week in New York, in London, in a hotel run by (and seemingly for) Spanish people, attempting to organize my little black notebook of thoughts.

The first thing I want to talk about is Illness in Classical Music. People need to calm the fuck down about James Levine. You can’t open the paper without people freaking out about his health. Oh, his booty itch. His back broken. This dude in Boston is practically sending the hearse over the house right now. What’s confusing to me is why audiences would be upset by this. Let me explain: classical performance is built on the backs of sick singers, conductors, violinists. Probably half of the people we know know and adore at the podium or on the stage were, like, twenty years ago, called in super last minute to fill in for an ailing star. Audiences who are complaining about Jimmy’s coccyx need to realize that they have a unique opportunity to see a young star fill in! There is nothing with more cachet in classical music than “having been there” “” there are countless examples; there’s that time so-and-so got on the Concorde to fill in for whoever else, there’s that time the hitherto unknown Somebody-Pekka Somebodysdóttir jumped to the podium to replace Somebody Else “” to all of you Bostonites freaking out about Jimmy, send his ass a card, and then go to Symphony Hall with nothing but the highest expectations.

I had a wild experience last week; a boy from my high-school wrote to me on Facebook and said, quite politely, dear Nico, we met when you came to speak a few years ago, would you mind terribly looking at this choral music I’ve written, etc.; and of course I agreed, and had him PDF over a few scores. After I hit “send” on the response, I clicked through to his Facebook profile, and discovered that he is a rabid right-winger: pictures of him with his arm around Sean Hannity, quotes by Scalia and like, Dinesh D’Souza and shit and pictures of Reagan EVERYWHERE. Homegirl is probably not yet 17. I sort of didn’t know what to do. I tried, with the help of my man, to dig up as much sort of “evidence” of these Neo-Conservatives being horrible about gay people and the arts or whatever, and came up short. I think all the really violent culture war stuff (when it actually had to do with culture, rather than what it might be about now, which, I’m pretty sure, has more to do with geographically-based abstractions) was from my childhood, rather than this boy’s: mine was the 80’s of Piss Christ, and the 90’s of Giuliani v. the Virgin Mary covered in Elephant Dung. All that stuff has gone rather underground now; you can find plenty of coded discourse by Hannity about, you know, Radical Homosexuals in Th’Obama Administration, whoever they might be (call me!), but really nothing about the NEA or funding for the arts or whatever. I ended up writing this boy some 1,200 words about how good his choral music was (it was very good, although his Latin was rather problematic, and, as befits rabid right-wingers, it was done all in Finale, which is sort of the Christian Coalition of notation software: unbearable, mysteriously popular, most likely designed on a PC) and then another 200 words about my Deepe Offense at his profile, citing my own obvious homosexuality as a sort of reason why he might find somebody whom his idols would deem worthy enough to die for his country or to get married; surely, I argued, there were plenty of straight people who graduated from my high school who were equipped to analyze his harmonies, show him how slurs work, and correct his declensions who could then go on to kill people from a helicopter without the risk of being kicked out for Cocksucking “” it was a very awkward argument to make, and I wasn’t really sure how to approach it, or perhaps I should have left it alone? In any event, it was a fascinating moment.

For anybody interested in reading it, there is a very extensive interview with me and Jónsi in Reykjavík’s wonderful Grapevine magazine about Jónsi’s album Go, here; the link will give you a full PDF but it’s worth a read if you have a moment. A good excerpt:

J: Starting the album, I wanted to move away from Sigur rós, those floaty, dreamy landscapes. That made it kinda fun to work with you, because you had your midi controller and then you just played and played; “Oh, we have a flute now. What do you think about this? Eeeh, can we have a little bit more this…” [starts singing]. That’s how it worked. Super fast, super or- ganised, no bullshit and he takes it home and works on it. I didn’t think this kind of music could be that spontaneous, that’s one thing I don’t like about classical music and arrangement: it’s too thought about and too worried about.

N: This music wanted to be ecstatic; it wanted to feel like a magic thing erupting from below. So the best way to do all the arrangements was to at first shit them out and vomit them out, make it be all messy and let there be gut reactions. They’re your songs, and I kept telling you “I see brass band, a Mexican funeral,” I basically kept throwing these images out…

J: I think that’s really good, how we would visualize things. For example on Boy Lilikoi, we were talking about Saint Francis of Assisi and how he was preaching to the birds, all these images and layers and colours. I really like that, it’s a good way to describe how music should be.

N: Arranging is really about taking the other person and making them as present- able as you can. It’s as if you’re designing a dress; it’s not about making the dress look good, but the person wearing it. It’s about finding something that is fabulous, that makes you sound fabulous. It shouldn’t call attention to me ““ as an arranger, you have to erase yourself in the process. So spontaneity is the best way to accomplish this, and images are often the best way to accomplish that. Everything has to go to- gether. That was something I really liked about the Sigur rós arrangements, there was a formality to them. They also just serve to make your voice sound so fabulous. What I wanted to do was make it a little bit naked, to claw a little in your range.

30 Comments

  • just outa curiosity, what notation software do you use?

  • Funny you should mention Stravinsky; yesterday a French friend and I were talking about the Rite of Spring, and the Stravinsky Fountain in Paris!

    Loved the Grapevine interview, especially this:

    N: The biggest question for me has always been, always, whatever I’m doing: is this thing I’m working on, is it preferable to silence…you know, a lot of music is not preferable to silence.

    and this:

    N: There is no ego associated with my notes.

    and this made me laugh:

    N: I was aggressive about hiring expensive players for this project, hahaha!

    J: I KNOW THAT! [glares at Nico]

  • Best post but has nothing to do with Stravinsky’s Octet. Can someone please speak on the end of the Finale where he busts out that sexy chord groove until end? Was he dreaming of Hawaii? The Price Is Right?

  • Great point about Levine. And don’t forget Bernstein made his grand entrance onto the world stage as an assistant conductor filling in for Bruno Walter. And unless I am mistaken, he conducted completely from memory.

  • I would be interested in reading a post about your use of software instruments (hence the MIDI controller comment, no?) when working as an arranger.

    Since the whole apologizing for the GM sound set is so first year at ConservaTory.

  • The problem with Hannity is not so much his attitude towards the gay people (though gay panic stories are a regular occurrence across the network) as his attitude towards truth. He has no problem with ignoring reality when it stands in the way of a good story, which has helped him make a lot of money.

  • Printed the whole 4 pages of the interview in full colour A3 and underlined the part ‘Because it’s informed’ (about music by gay people being better). So well put :)

  • charles sullivan
    April 13th, 2010 at 11:51 am

    THAT WAS A ROLLICKINGLY FINE INTERVIEW – THE PEE BREAKS MAY BECOME IN VOGUE.

  • You hit it right on the head with Finale. What do you use?

    I can’t wait to get Go.

  • Aw. Now, when I listen to your music, I’ll be reminded that you’re occasionally oddly mean or that you can’t appreciate the many ways in which people define themselves without piping up. Only self-flattering stories, please!

    [Nico responds: hey, I’m not even sure what you mean? But as far as I know that last post was rather nice; I said that people should wish Jimmy well in recovering and not be disappointed in his replacements, then I confessed my inability to make a socio-political argument with somebody ten years younger than me who writes very good music, and then I quoted an interview I did. Running through this is a vague resistance to homophobia which can become a little Tart at times but never mean – at least not intentionally. Anyway, thanks for reading; talk soon. N]

  • I loved the interview, it’s so crazy. I was like sitting with both of you at the same table and just listening. Great!

  • I know that snarkiness is part of the tone of the site, and it is often entertaining, but I’m not sure what the purpose is of getting all Eve Harrington about James Levine.
    First of all, I’m not sure what media you’re refering to. In most of the press I’ve seen, the institutions seem more than ready to dump him at the earliest opportunity. Which seems more than a bit ungenerous given his years of service and the fact that he’s currently confined to a hospital bed. Given the choice, I’m sure he’d prefer to be conducting. I mean, jeez, at least wait until the guy is ambulatory before kicking him to the curb.
    That there are always dozens of talented young hopefuls waiting in the wings goes without saying. That’s as it should be. It may be an obvious point (though I don’t think more obvious than the one you make), but couldn’t it just be that after decades of shared performance history people may just have some affection and concern for him?
    Maybe not. Which is why, should he still be around at the time of your Met debut, you’ll have the opportunity to look him in the eye, thank him for his support of your work and then ask him to please step aside for someone younger and hotter.

    Nico responds: I think you have misread me. I love Jimmy! Jimmy is responsible for some of the best music-making I have ever heard live. And, to boot, he has been quite supportive. I think that what you’re seeing as concern in the press is actually more vulturish; check the bylines and you’ll see rather clearly what I mean. Like I said in the post, the best thing to do is give JL as much space as possible to recover, but don’t be “disappointed” if there’s a replacement for him on the podium. It’s like if you go to a restaurant, surely you don’t expect that Tom Colicchio or Thomas Keller is there turning your carrots and lightening your darknesse. That’s, I guess, more what I meant. Anyway, thanks for reading. N

  • You may well be right about this, and I should hope so:

    “…I think all the really violent culture war stuff (when it actually had to do with culture, rather than what it might be about now, which, I’m pretty sure, has more to do with geographically-based abstractions) was from my childhood, rather than this boy’s…”

    Clearly this kid isn’t so socio-politically xenophobic, if you will, that he’d adamantly avoid or renounce the advice of a brilliant- musician-of-his-awareness, simply because you’re from “the other side.” You say he’s seen you speak, so he probably picked up on your “obvious homosexuality” rather quickly, if it is indeed so self-evident. [On the other hand, maybe he’s so closeted that he’s never seen “a gay” before and, not knowing the difference, thought you just talked kinda funny n stuff. But let’s stay the course of parsimony here]. If anything, I think it’s a good thing that he did the thing you’d least expect him to do, and sent you his work in a plain gesture of respect, if not admiration.

    And this bit:

    “…and then another 200 words about my Deepe Offense at his profile, citing my own obvious homosexuality.”

    Deepe, deeping, deeper Offense? Because he’s got a few right wing flags on his facebook profile? Simply because he’s a certain way? I do indeed hope that kids (younger than myself) can get over the urge to flippity split over the fact that somebody they’ve encountered in life doesn’t think exactly the same way that they do about something, or a number of things. You might imagine his hypothetical crazy aunt (newly on facebook like crazy aunts do) friending her dear nephew, then to discover a picture of him with his arm around a buddy from school who’s, you guessed it, blaaaaaaccck! Distraught, she decides not to have that wee part of the family over for July 4 picnic this year…Is not your reaction somewhat analogous? Sure looks like it from here, mang. Why pass judgment on such appearances, when clearly he didn’t do the same to you? Why be offended simply because somebody of a certain kind exists or appears before you?

    I don’t mean to pass judgment myself here, I’m just sayin, things up there don’t seem to add up. Given the many more intelligent things you say in any given post on this fantastic blog, I can’t imagine that you meant by all that what it sounds like. I don’t know you of course, by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t imagine you to be narrow or cloistered in your outlook (i don’t wann’ assume anybody is). You don’t generally read that way anyhow.

    Bee-tee-dub: Go is fantastic. Arrangements are a tour de force, to say the least. I can always expect sheer beauty to come out of Jonsi in song, he just needs to open his mouth and start singing. But your work has made for a truly unique album, some of the most exciting textures in New Music (yes that’s what i’m gonna call it). Actually just saw Jon Thor himself last night, stunning show. Wish you were on tour with them.

  • I have to agree with Nico on the matter of the young conservative boy. For homosexuals, it would seem more like a personal offense to come across passionate conservatives. Even with friends, there will always be that understanding that they consider your lifestyle immoral and wrong. Why else isn’t gay marriage legal? If someone came up to me and said, “sir! We are friends, but I think you are living in a life of immorality! And I will work to stop the possibility of you spending a lifetime with your partner!” I would be pretty offended. It doesn’t matter where you stand on the issue, but there should be that understanding in everyone that is truly can offend someone. It’s different from health care or whether you agree with the Obama adminastration, because this is personal and it is about your lifestyle. Why should someone tamper with your personal life?

    Anyway, I’m really like your music. The piano on Jonsi’s video adds a whole new level of depth and emotion. Especially “Stars in Still Water.” I love it!

  • amusing blog you’ve got here mr muhly. good fodder to keep me off my algebra homework

  • Has anyone noticed that Ingmar (above) has claimed to find skin color and one’s political stance “analogous?” I would politely suggest that this invalidates everything else he writes.

    We make judgments. We’re allowed to. Reasonable persons agree on the topics of Sean Hannity and the hard right. Nico is perfectly justified in feeling uncomfortable about the situation described, and is more than entitled to say something about it.

  • you’re right brndn, we do make judgments, we’re allowed to, and i suppose i made my own (above). and indeed, any argument based on skin color and political stance being synonymous would be totally absurd and easily invalidated. that’s not exactly what i was getting at, but perhaps that’s how it reads (and it does now that i look at it again). when i got to the part about skin color, i was using a hypothetical character to illustrate the point, and that fictional person was meant to be absurd in the first place, certainly not among “reasonable persons.” but, in the final analysis, the argument is admittedly flawed.

    i have no affections or empathy for the hard right. reasonable persons would likely object to the extremes in either direction, without necessarily being “moderates.” i guess what i was trying to express was my insecurity with political matters getting so in the way of what could be perfectly amicable interpersonal relations. most of the time it’s unavoidable, as nick said: “Even with friends, there will always be that understanding that they consider your lifestyle immoral and wrong.” of course, that would make it a rather difficult friendship to maintain. your friend’s views are an affront to you, your identity, your way of being in the world, and meanwhile, your “friend” considers your lifestyle to be an affront to everything he/she holds dear and thinks moral. In that regard, it goes both ways, and as such the battle rages on. wars of all shapes and sizes feed off of a kind of objectification and dehumanization of those on the other side, be they commies, cong, repubs, tree-huggers, social-dems, what have you. i think that distance fuels the misconception and fear that in turn feed the fires of perpetual conflict. perhaps it’s in those rare moments when people cross through the flames and finally meet in a place with little pretense, that understandings are finally forged. it just sucks when that possibility is precluded, yet again, by more of the same.

    but maybe i’m just a naive pseudo-hippie writing a near-tearjerker final paper for his gen. ed. creative writing class, or at least that’s what it’s starting to sound like. in any case, if that’s what i was trying to say, there were a million better ways to go about it (saying nothing at all being the best of those). i don’t really know what had gotten into me when i wrote that, but it looks exactly like the sort of stuff that i’m questioning here.

    and so, i sincerely apologize to nico for smearing your blog with stuff that might have made sense had it not been so mean-spirited. also, props to brndn and nick for piping up and pointing it out.

  • I usually never go to people’s websites, but I ended up here because your wikipedia was unsatisfying. I’m so glad I did. However, the last 3 hours I spent reading your blog made the likelihood that I would appear in class tomorrow morning dwindle exponentially. And to use a french loan word I just learned (and have been dying to break out) “Jouissance.” Right?! Because I liked your blog but it also sort of fucked me? Maybe I’m not using it right.

  • Thanks a bundle!
    April 22nd, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    So, you took a young guy who asked you for help with his music, helped him–and then chewed him out for not agreeing with your politics?

    And what gives you the right to go digging into someone’s information, uninvited, then criticize him for it? It’s not as if he approached you AS a right-winger. High school children are CHILDREN, remember. Did you never even consider that?

    No doubt you gave him a few good lessons, here. One of them is on being a self-important ass.

  • Incorrect. I didn’t chew anybody out. And the only reason I even blogged about it is because it’s not something that comes up that often (right wing composers, especially young ones). Sorry if I misrepresented it, and even more sorry you are so angry! It’s all gonna be fine.

  • Dear Nico –

    It is not a new thing for me to sit at my desk, lovingly transcribing a rock record so I can play along with it.

    It is a very new thing indeed for the instrument on my lap at the time to be a piccolo.

    I have never done this before; I have never had to do this before; I have never been ABLE to do this before.

    It is GLORIOUS.

    Having read that interview, my heart needed to be poured out, just a li’l bit, knowing it was your brain that dreamed up the countermelodies I’ve been whistling. Sir, I LIKE your brain. Please keep doing delightfully, subtly, unexpectedly wacky things forever. Also (on much the same topic!) your blog is a ray of sunshine, so thank you for all of the above.

  • Aw, come on. Knee-jerk outrage is Hannity’s speciality. Not worthy of imitation. It would be a shame for you to live down to every gay stereotype that the poor Middle-American boy has been raised on. The transition from rule-breaker to role model is a tough one, eh?

  • I believe the true problem with most peoples social/political stances nowadays is that they are entirely too polarized and extremely unstable. Unstable to the point where even the slightest opposing view expressed towards ones own causes them to explode (sometimes to the point of becoming enraged) and immediately repute/condemn those views expressed by the opposing person. Such views are extremely bigoted and blame goes both ways. Also, it is only too often that those who claim to be victims of prejudice are woefully ignorant/blind of the prejudice they too possess.

    The heart of problem lies in our complete ignorance of a common ground. To quote Bart Simpson, “Why are you focusing on the tiny dumb differences when you should be focusing on the big dumb similarities!” We’ve become lazy. Instead of focusing on those traits we have in common we tend to search for stupid social/political cues so that we can quickly diagnose if a person is good, bad, smart, stupid, etc. The idea of “with me” or “against me” social/political behavior which seems to pervade everything nowadays has to go. We need to rid ourselves of snap judgments which are often based on a perceived prejudice. What is truly disturbing is that this polarization speaks volumes about how far we as a people have gotten away from what essentially makes us human: the heart of most people in this world is inherently good. Most people in the world just want happiness and want others to be happy as well. If we’d only get to know each other we’d be surprised to find that no matter our sex, race or sexual, political, religious, etc., preference we’d learn we all actually have a lot in common.

    All this being said I’m quite surprised and saddened by the sheer immaturity of you Nico in your “200 word response” to this 17-year-old kid. Ask any person their beliefs in high school, during college, after college, and you’ll get three very different answers. You taking the time to lecture this kid on his views is tantamount to you being criticized for your beliefs. Also, the thought that your ignorance blinded you to the fact that this kid looks up to you as a musician and that this never crossed your mind is amazing. It’s obvious he looks up to you as a person and as a musician otherwise he would have never sought your council in the the first place. Also “citing [your] obvious homosexuality…” as a reason for him to search for a new role model “…who graduated from [your] high school who were equipped to analyze his harmonies, show him how slurs work, and correct his declensions” is ridiculous because your merit alone is why he sought your input. It’s not hard to see why because you are an extremely talented and gifted composer Nico; I share a tremendous amount of respect for you. That being said I still believe you could have handled the situation with a little more tact. Oh and as for the snide comments such as “[killing] people from a helicopter without the risk of being kicked out for Cocksucking…” Let’s leave those lines of reasoning to the 17-year -olds.

    Nico responds: Thank you for writing. But a few pointz of order. First of all, not two-hundred words. Two THOUSAND words of really good stuff about choral music, I think, and then a little Post Script, in little font, saying that I was uneasy with his FB, because, simply put, I was? And I feel like it’s okay to be able to say that, even to a 17 year-old, because I got his message and was like, oh, cool, what is this kid about? And then to find that it’s conservative politics — what would you have me do? And I think the military example is more than fair. My understanding of citizenship is that you can vote and you can serve your country; I don’t think it’s fair for this boy to have such a delighted engagement with politics that turn me into somebody who can’t or shouldn’t serve because of a ‘choice’ I made about my ‘lifestyle.’ And the point that I was trying to make was that while being gay wasn’t a choice, the choices I did make, namely, to know about stuff, and music, and Latin, and other Things, can’t be divorced from who I am. So, that’s why I (a) wrote what I did to him and (b) blogged about it, because I was neasy with the balance of being looked up w/ being who I am. So there you go. Again, thanks for writing. This has been a very, very interesting post.

  • To heck with all the politics. It would be great to read what you wrote about composing choral music, and by the way, what software you use for composing.

  • Read the interview/article thing – quite enjoyed it… Jonsi seems quite closed minded about music, especially about classical music being boring – I wonder if he’s even listened to much of it – Right óf Spring [RóS(!)], Barber’s Piano concerto, Britten’s Phaedra. Not fucking boring.

    Also, what about all that shit with being gay making you a better classical musician? I’ll assume that was the drink/drugs talking. I get so pissed off (no, not pissed off, I’m just bored by it) when gays think that their sexuality is so important to everyone else – like my dad – his gayness seems to affect everything in his life, the art he makes, everything. WTF? No one who actually cares about art gives a shit what appendage you choose to stick in which particular crevice!* All I ask is for is the transcendental, a radiant, refulgent, ravishing experience that makes me feel ecstatic to be alive.

    Is that too much to ask?

    *Unless of course they want to bone you.

  • Read the interview/article thing – quite enjoyed it… Jonsi seems quite closed minded about music, especially about classical music being boring – I wonder if he’s even listened to much of it – Right óf Spring [RóS(!)], Barber’s Piano concerto, Britten’s Phaedra. Not fucking boring.

    Also, what about all that shit with being gay making you a better classical musician? I’ll assume that was the drink/drugs talking. I get so pissed off (no, not pissed off, I’m just bored by it) when gays think that their sexuality is so important to everyone else – like my dad – his gayness seems to affect everything in his life, the art he makes, everything. WTF? No one who actually cares about art gives a shit what appendage you choose to stick in which particular crevice!* All I ask is for is the transcendental, a radiant, refulgent, ravishing experience that makes me feel ecstatic to be alive.

    Is that too much to ask?

    *Unless of course they want to bone you.

  • Barbara T. from Wash Sq Vil, NYC
    May 10th, 2010 at 10:02 am

    If you don’t want to read about Maestro James Levine as millions of others ARE following the news hoping he is back to the Podiums, just please flip the channel or pages….in the same way you suggest to just send him a card. We do enjoy (as he does) other conductors while wishing Maestro Levine speedy recovery so we can have him back. We will remember to send you a card and show no other concern should you have a leave-of-absence. What I do agree with you about is when the authors go back from the beginning of eternity about his health or any other person’s health rather than focused on only the current health. Jimmy is not all about that – he is about his MUSIC and PASSION and in otherwise BEAUTIFUL health. People have commented on his salary – which to me $3mm- in entertainment industry for a STAR of his world-wide magnitude and shared between the BSO and MET is surprisingly *LOW* to me and he is not paid by the BSO unless conducting. I wish the MAESTRO a speedy recovery and yes, the show goes on, but he is carried within our hearts each time and always cherished and remembered throughout.

    Nico responds: you’ve misread me. I wasn’t saying send him a card like, being flip. I was just pointing out that some of the news coverage seems a little morbid, and that having daily public updates on one’s health must be rather stressful. In all other points we are in agreement. I’m into conductors being paid a lot, too.

  • Nico, I’m not sure why I’m leaving a comment. If I had to pick a reason out of my near-vacant answer hat, I would say that I feel related to you, somehow, through this fabric of gay-space-time that somehow connects all homosexuals throughout the world. That said, thank you for being—as they say—”out.” Though I have met you not, I feel a bit less lonesome whenever I find people like you (people who are willing to be who they are and make a career out of something that some may call “fiscally unsound”).

    Well, thanks for reading this high-schooler’s festering regurgitation—commonly called somewhat expressive writing in common-day language.

    -Reymon

  • Homegirl is probably not yet 17 – a possible title for a future piece. Love it!

  • Barbara T. from Wash Sq Vil, NYC
    June 2nd, 2010 at 8:45 am

    Your point to my response above is very well-taken. Yes, looking at it from that angle, I not only agree with you, but I appreciate your sentiments re the health articles written about the Maestro of whom I love. It is no one’s interest to have to see all the details of one’s health, diet, etc – of anyone’s and then to have to mention the whole history is not only ridiculous and non relevant, (I could imagine how much space they would need for every time I broke a finger, toe, wrist) people do not want to hear about all this. They want to only know that he is WELL and when we can SEE HIM AGAIN! Thank you so much, Mr. Hannity. I am sure the Maestro would appreciate your genuine concern and sentiments also. Have a great summer!