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Friends With Dogs, The Restaurant Industry, and a Bad Review

from Wednesday, August20th of the year2008.

On this tour, we have been variously staying in hotels and with friends “” one of my favorite things about staying with people is when they have a dog. We have been very lucky on this trip: our hosts in Sebastopol, CA have a border collie / Australian cattle dog, Ace; our hosts in Portland have a frisky Weimaraner called Castle with googly eyes, and finally, our hosts Eddie & Willie (is there anything more fabulous than gay couples with matching names? I know a Nora and Laura in LA, too) have an eager pitbull, Rider. There is no better thing than being woken up by an eager dog’s snout snuffling on one’s person; I have been promised “big” dogs at our hosts’ house in D.C. tonight and am very excited to see what that means. A Newfoundland, I hope! The tour was off to an auspicious start because Thomas’s little sister came over to our rehearsals with her dog, Katrina Bartlett:

Ace (he had burrs in his tail which I removed; which reminded me very much of my childhood, where a burr on a dog was one of those trust games where you had to convince the dog that you had its best interests in mind when ripping something from its fur):



We are all six of us hurtling from LAX to Washington, DC on Virgin America; I am stuck in one of those Rules & Regulations emotional disasters where my seat won’t recline because it is directly in front of an empty exit row and the famous power outlets are on the fritz; I can’t move to the empty exit row because the Nice Lady pursed her lips in a particular way and said that she “just couldn’t let me sit there.” I need to track down the exact quote, but I remember Gayatri Spivak once speaking (or writing?) about a ticket agent saying “I can’t let you on board;” she wrote that a better way to phrase it would be “the regulations are against it, thus, we are both victims.” Actually, here is the original:

“… I was supposed to take the airplane from Heathrow on Sunday. Air Canada says to me: ‘we can’t accept you.’ I said: ‘why?’ and she said: ‘You need a visa to go to Canada.’ I said: ‘look here, I am the same person, the same passport… ‘ Indian cultural identity right? But you become different. When it is from London, Indians can very well want to jump ship to Canada; I need a visa to travel from London to Canada on the same passport, but not from the United States. To cut a long story short,[…] I had to stay another day, and telephone Canada and tell them that I could not give my seminar. I said to the woman finally before I left, in some bitterness: ‘Just let me tell you one small thing: Don’t say “we can’t accept you” that sounds very bad from one human being to another; next time you should say: “The regulations are against it”; then we are both victims.'”

Quite so: in a situation like this, I can either a) stage an Episode and make a scene or b) sit back (theoretically, rather than actually, as this seat doesn’t recline) and pretend it’s not happening or c) try to befriend the Nice Lady and hope that she will turn the other way as I claim one of the empty seats. Is there any merit to any of this circular thought? Am I going to end up poisoned by stress? Should I just order a canister of Pringles and a glass of white wine and shut my pie hole? All this has reminded me of is that I wish Gayatri would just blog; she is so wonderful when she deals with the anecdotal, the Barthesian Mythology rendered severely Marxist and Feminist. The para-psychological peripatetic shuttling of the aboriginal subcontinent is the kind of stuff that she & Terry Eagleton can fight out in the academy; I want her to blog about Heathrow and the Subway and Yoga Pants and shit. Maximum length, 450 words. 123 go.

I’ve been very happy with the reception of Mothertongue in general, it’s been really positive and kind and indicative of good listening and productive curiosity. It’s a weird album, a difficult album, and I am really interested to see what people get out of it. I did an interview with a guy in Seattle ““ totally random, I had never met him before ““ who had such a smart, interesting read on the piece, I wanted to gay marry him right there on the phone. On the other side of things, I got a very mean review on Pitchfork by Jayson Greene (whom I think had interviewed me before), which is too bad, because it would have been nice to have a good one from them. Every time I get a bad review, I always take it to heart, because what they’re saying is usually stuff I tell myself in the middle of the night or in Glummer Mómentz. What’s particularly unfortunate about that review, though, is that it obsesses over other press coverage that I’ve gotten, of which, of course, I am neither author nor source. I’m happy to be evaluated by the notes, the rhythms, the sounds, and the textures but not by something that’s been done to me, like my height or the way I spell my name (for instance, it would be a similarly low blow for me to discount anything Jayson says because he spells his name in that silly fashion, in the same fashion that disgraced New York Times reporter did! OMG! j/k, j/k). Here, I am being called to task for the way the music relates to the press materials, which I suppose is “fair” but not necessarily in what we call good faith (or, for that matter, is going to make me want to gay marry you on the phone). Anyway, read it for yourselves and see what you think. In retrospect, I should have taken a more aggressive stance about how to write the press release for this album, because I can see how it can be reinterpreted as Pretentious and Overambitious Faggot Makes Indefensible Artistic Statement rather than OCD Church Musician Gets Archive Fever (which is the spirit in which the album was meant), but when the release was getting written, I was feeling really overwhelmed with the whole thing. This is not to say, however, that there is nothing to be gained by a bad review. In fact, if Pitchfork had loved on it, it would have seemed too easy, too much of a sweep of enthused press. Jayson makes a lot of good points about the chaotic nature of the album as a whole, and essentially tells me not to quit my day job, which is good advice, because I really like making arrangements for people. Read it and tell me what you think. Check out his use of the word “apparently” in case there’s any doubt of the attitude behind the review; it is viciously barbed and occupies a proud grammatical ledge in the sentence. Oh grammar: hoisted by my own pétard!

I had a funny encounter last night in the men’s room of the gig “” sometimes, venues have different areas for performers and audiences and other times, not so much. One of the totally fascinating things about touring like this is to see the kinds of people who turn up for these shows. I had been doing an interview just before the show and was looking around at the people who were streaming in, buying beers, leaning against the side wall. I decided to find out as best I could who these people even were; I talked to a few people who had read about it in the paper. One woman, a fashion designer wearing a really good Rick Owens cropped leather jacket, seemed to have heard about it through friends. Anyway, in the bathroom, a tall, handsome younger guy with decidedly LA hair (floppy, blond, fully over the left eye) emerged from the stall and was like, “Nice Show” and I sort of half-aggressively said, “okthanks how come you came here?” Evidently he had seen a piece of mine at the Los Angeles Ballet and liked it and bought tickets to the show; this, to me, is amazing and really, really heartening not just personally but for the way that music is disseminated.

One of the advantages of getting all of this press has more to do with the idea that a young composer can make people pay attention to the fact that we exist; ideally, everybody should know a composer, just as everybody should know a butcher and a place to get your shoes re-soled. The fact that I’ve gotten a lot of press is, obviously, useful for me personally, but I hope that the net result is a wider interest in people in their 20’s who are thinking seriously about classical music, thinking about notation, thinking about being responsible citizens of not only the musical community but the world. If part of this includes a backlash against me, that’s fine; I’m a big girl and I know how these things go. Anyway, I like the crotch on the idea that people I don’t know are behaving in a non-cynical, almost linear way with music (“I saw this thing that I liked, I want to go see more of that thing that I liked, even though I don’t know much about what-all is going to happen”) rather than in a jaded, non-exploratory way (“new music is bullshit, whatever”). If you like something, find a path through it and then follow the path outwards, to other pieces, other composers, other musics. If you don’t like it, close your eyes and think about Brahms; it soothes the mind and calms the bowels.

Speaking of the Bowels & Pétards, this has not been the most adventurous culinary tour. Thomas and I are both huge enthusiasts of Taco Bell, despite their insane advertisements. We have discussed how their meat is the Ultimate Braise: slow cooked over, presumably, days in its own oily juices. I’ve had a Cambodian ground beef with a similar texture that had been on my friend’s mom’s stove for a long weekend; you won’t hear me complaining about eating a Crunchwrap Supreme. That said, yesterday, we wandered around Hollywood and found the most delicious bouge-gasm taquería called La Loteria, where we had The Margarita of Necessity and the Tacos of Gluttony, which set the tone for a really good show (click through for a review with good pictures) last night. One of the tacos consisted of pork rinds in a poisonously green puréed tomatillo sauce. It was really, really good ““ so good that Thomas and I called Nadia and Dan from their coffee & internet stop to come and partake.

Now, some photos. This is us, in Seattle, acknowledging Dan Bora, our intrepid sound engineer:

Sam Amidon, Nadia Sirota, Oren Bloedow, Thomas Bartlett, Nico Muhly

Photo by Dean Wenick

While we were driving from Portland to San Francisco (which is a long-ass drive; don’t do it!) we pulled over in a dire little town called La Center, and had lunch in the restaurant attendant to the casino. The following interchange took place:

Nico: Hi, could I have a burger with bleu cheese, medium rare, please?
Waitress: Oh, we don’t cook to order. Yeah, um, in the restaurant industry, you can’t cook anything to order anymore. It’s not medium rare, rare; it’s just cooked.

I love this idea of an industry-wide moratorium on cooking to order. Julius, a gay bar that time forgot, on the corner of 10th street and Waverlý in New York, is one of the skuzzier places in the universe (I think the only time I have witnessed a true Crime against Nature was in the corner booth there) still cooks a burger to order, although maybe they haven’t gotten the memo from The Industry yet. The other amazing thing that happened on that leg of the drive was that we espied a boobie that exists in a sort of Zaha Hadid architectural universe. It reminds me of spilt amoxicillin, or that runaway breast in Sleeper. Maybe you had to have been there to appreciate it, but here is a picture anyway:

I have not been able to watch a single Olympic; I sort of watched a gymnastic out of the corner of my eye in some random Sheraton in Seattle, but for the most part the whole thing has been so chattery that I can’t really deal. When newscasters take the Olympic Tone it is really unspeakable; I wish more coverage was of the explicitly sexual variety:

Indeed. Don’t they have editors to deal with this kind of thing? Or maybe there was an editor, Travis or Chad or some shit, who is giggling in a hot tub right now. Or at Julius.

Sam and I are continuing our Modern Dance Extreme Poses”¦

“¦In front of a redwood tree:

On the street in Mount Shasta:

As an Estarbucks Advertisement:

Nadia learned how to Hula Hoop (note Ace in the background, as well as Mark, our host)

Thomas and I are wearing funny outfits:

And two final thoughts: An advertisement for Viagra just said, “Ask your doctor if you heart is strong enough for sex.” Can you imagine the way your doctor would say that to you? “I’m sorry, your heart is not strong enough for sex. Also your cholesterol is a little high.” That sounds like a really good goth album I could make with Ben Frost. I’ma call him the minute I land. The other thing is that in all this discussion of Estarbucks, Essheraton, Escoop, I realized that it works like that in Arabic too, where the definite article “al-” takes on certain initial consonants of the words to which it is attached. Instead of saying, for instance, al-salaam, you say as-salaam, and the s sound is doubled, with a shadda, which looks like the tiniest, most italic little w hovering over a consonant. Es-strawberry. اِسّطرابري ““ I wonder if that would be the proper way to render this out in English.


  • My only regret is not alerting you to Jack in the Box’s tacos.

  • Don’t eat the Jack in the Box taco.

  • Snout snuffling? Those were gestures of deep affection and love for you and your musical genius.

    Come back and I’ll show you snout snuffling.

  • “Can Phelps Ever Be Topped?” LOL Well I’d sure like to try!!!

    I just wrote up your San Francisco show. You know, the one with all the Swedes and folding chairs.

    Check it out.

    Come back soon. Hope you had fun and enjoyed our fog!

    All my best,

  • K, thing one: you can’t do e- prefix with an initial “sh-” sound. Only sc-, sl-, sm-, sn-, sp-, and st-.

    Thing two: my friend pointed out the possibility of a gold-medal halter top, can you imagine:

    Thing three: “I am sorry sir; you cannot use Viagra; the health regulations are against it.”

    Thing four: I’m hungover; things got so tanjee last night at the Cawq.

  • who’s jayson? there are morton feldman, steve reich, & john adams. solid music makers. i’ve been listening to “mothertongue” & there’s nico muhly. bravo!

  • Yes, the L.A. show was wonderful. Through a series of mishaps I only saw the last hour, which was incredible. Thank you, and do come again soon.

  • love love love the blog (don’t get me started on the album) and am quite sad you aren’t venturing into the South for a show.

  • Looking forward to the show at the MFA in Boston. Should I bring a dog? My neighbor has a Newfie I could borrow.

    At first I thought “Mothertongue” was difficult. Then I realized I should not expect you to kiss my ass, but rather kick it. Just don’t ever start thinking twice..and for crisake stop reading reviews.

  • Es-strawberry, not sure if the Farsi spelling has an alef at the beginning, es-scoop, despite having heard these from my parents whenever at home (and poking fun at them), I can’t help feeling a little offended for their sakes when someone else does this. As for the critic or just Pitchfork in general, come now, we all know it’s vanity and shoddy attempts at wit. Hope your travels are enjoyable!

  • “…fully orchestrated take on Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love”…”

    Does a recording of this exist? Will it ever be heard again? Golly.

  • What a foul review. I think (for what the opinion of a blogging random is worth) that you’re amazingly gracious about it, and were I in your estimable shoes I’d be nipping straight to the frozen foods aisle for some serious pre-prepared Revenge for 1.

  • Hey Nico, cheer up about the bad review yeah. You can’t always satisfy everyone. Keep up the good work. I had a great time reading this post especially when you wrote about dogs and how fun it is to have your group of friends with you on this tour. Good luck!

  • Thing three: “I am sorry sir; you cannot use Viagra; the health regulations are against it.”
    thus, we are both victims. . .

    Fabulous blog–very interesting the way you absorb the negative and turn it into very pithy, remarkable observations about your place in the world—Mothertongue IS difficult. So????
    and ass-kicking AND Beautiful.

    ditto jenny re: sorrow over lack of visits points south. sigh. . . but the blog helps. . . thanks.
    ESPECIALLY you and Sam and Modern Dance.

  • Sooooo…hubby brought home his copy of the Globe today with a nice article about your upcoming concert. Phoebe and I are hoping to attend, and really looking forward to it.

    Seems like that Pitchfork fella really went out of his way to be a b*tch. Pay no attention to that little man behind the curtain. Be YOU. I for one am delighted to hear news of everything you’re doing, and I am so far behind! I must order your two CDs forthwith!

    The girls and I are still singing at Grace, though I have been playing hooky most of the summer, to bash out Shane MacGowan songs with filthy lyrics on my guitar while the rest of the family goes off to church. In my heart, I’d love to be a blues/rock musician, but I was born with a Byrd voice. C’est la vie…

    Ah, it’s so good to read about you doing so well. Can’t believe all the time that’s gone by. I remember the fifteen-year-old who taught me how to make a wicked pasta sauce one summer at Ogontz, and used to loan me his Monty Python CDs, who I was forever forgetting was NOT an adult yet, much to a certain choirmaster’s dismay. But I always enjoyed talking to you, and you never did seem like a child. Ever. Very cool.

    Well, before I get much more Old and Wistful here…hope to see you on Sunday!

  • very nice write up and photos of all three musicians on the 802 tour in today’s Boston Globe. On line version not as dramatic but worth seeing.

  • I’m Feelin’ Tipsy As Fuck Off This Damn Pinot Noir but Can MT Exist as an Ethereal, Atmospheric Thang? Is it able, more than able? Does it need to be a life-affirming, cathartic moment for everyone/Jayson? From the review it seems like he was only interested in your collabos, as he seemed to compare your record to Other People’s Pop without ceasing. N E WAYZ keep on living The Glamorest Life, sweety.

  • Hey, Nico, I saw you in Philly last night at the First Unitarian Church and afterwards I just wanted to walk up and hug you, but I didn’t have the guts. Can I be nosy and ask where you ate? After reading this blog, I have the utmost respect for you in all matters concerning food and music.

    nico responds: Dear Matt, actually, we went back to New York right afterwards, so I didn’t have a chance to go to, like, Le Bec Fin or whatever. Also, my boyfriend tried to provide the touring party with cheesesteak (he used to live in Philly) but I guess the place he used to like had closed or something. It was not, let’s say, a culinary highlight of the tour. N

  • FYI, Dan said he very much loved the way Cheez Whiz and steak interacted. I think it may have been a “culinary highlight of the tour” for him.

    Great great show last night!

  • A fairly nice blog review of the San Francisco show. Really sorry I had to miss what sounds like a unique moment.

  • Circumstances were such that I took the train from DC to meet my wife for your New York show. Looking out the train window, I saw a certain graffito, a certain tag, several times: Saro! Then it was wonderful to hear that and other favorite songs performed live. So much love, inspiration, and hard work up there onstage. Bravo!

  • Philadelphia is a culinary lowpoint, as far as I’m concerned.

    That review was funny in the way it focused on your press. I did not like it, and I am a man of refinement, taste and I read a bunch, too.

    See you soon, friend.

    Haukur S M

  • Bad review? Pish, tosh, balderdash…..

    I saw you and friends at red fish. You are all daft sacred monsters.

    I am devoted.

    One thing: my friend had her 40 bones out for the cds but didn’t know where to go……

    P.S. You have really big hands!

  • Well, it’s easy to take any opinion, positive or negative rendered, especially by strangers, deeply to heart. A stranger might seem at first glance to be more truthful than one you know simply due to a personal distance. This may or may not be true. However, in time you may not view this Pitchfork review as all that negative, but perhaps hopeful of a direction to be taken. Sure, any review from a guy like that has to have a certain level of snark and snob appeal. I think that’s a job requirement, and it probably infects everything from his views on lunch to his personal life..I don’t envy him or any such person their jobs, or the warped perspectives and misplaced values it must bring.

    But that said, I read the review to mean (after the snark) that there’s a promise he wants fulfilled, the idea of a greatness he feels isn’t delivered with THIS work, but hopes will be someday. But after having been let down so many times by talents burning bright but ending in mediocrity, worries that you’ll never…actually…get…around to it.

    I’ll admit that to some extent, I’ll agree, but I’m more confidant that you’ll deliver. I honestly think you’ll be the greatest composer of works for or involving a chorus of our generation. I suppose some people want to see a resolve to buckle down and lock yourself away from distractions, exterior or interior, and create great large scale works. Works for chorus, orchestra, an opera. Don’t be afraid to be serious. They’ll love it.

  • well, I have an incredibly random question, and I am afraid that it has terribly little to do with this particular blog post– but I am a choreographer in New York and I’m trying to commission some new music for a piece that I am doing and you are obviously too busy and too expensive for my low-budget company, but it seems like you might have some under-employed composer friends that might enjoy the opportunity to work in an open, collaborative and creative environment on a new project. So totally random and I would obviously have rather sent an email, but as I am scouring my acquaintances for composers (I’ve already worked with two of my musician friends and want to work with someone new) I thought I might as well ask you.

  • This is a note to “Lucy”

    I am a composer and have experience working with choreographers… I’m always open to a new collaboration. Feel free to email me if you would like to talk more about the possibility or working together.

    info [AT] michaelvincent [DOT] ca

  • Don’t forget to tour China. We have hong shao Everything.

  • I just got Mothertounge and I have to say it’s divine. Seriously. Pitchfork is good for some things, but sometimes they get a bee in their bonnet and it’s best to just roll your eyes and move on.

    Bravo. I’m very happy to have discovered your work!