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from Tuesday, December22nd of the year2009.

My wonderful guide to the temples of Angkor, “Yokohama,” a nickname whose origins he explained to me but which I can’t repeat here for fear of missing one of the many insane and Khmer Rouge-related details, was quite mistress of taking me to places at times when the giant tour buses of Koreans and Japanese would be gone.

Is it retro to say Japanese? Should I say Japanese People? When was it decided that Chinaman was no longer permitted? My grandmother, when she found out where I was staying in Paris and I asked her about food, she said: Je connais un chinois which I would have to translate as “I know a Chinaman…” and in fact, Philip Glass, who is about the most politically correct & Buddhist and Compassionate person I know, used the word “chinaman” in my presence. Can somebody fill me in on contemporary politically correct demonyms?

However, the street systems of Siem Reap almost guaranteed that most temple entrances would be working streets for commuters and schoolchildren. Yokohama would occasionally say to me, wait, wait before you take a picture until this car passes, or this bike passes, as if to preserve the 11th century nature of the place. But I always defied him: there is something so exquisite about antiquity coëxisting with modern life: for me, the cars driving around the Coliseum are as interesting as the Coliseum itself. The palimpsestic nature of ancient cities is thrilling to me; but even “palimpsestic” implies that the contemporary world is actively inscribing itself on the old; this isn’t always the case.


An example: in Rome, my walk to school took me directly along a Roman wall; sometimes, at 7:30 in the morning, there would be tourists taking pictures of it, with tour guides excitedly explaining Pope Urban VIII systems and tongue-and-groove construction (of course, in typical Italian fashion, there is no way to even find a picture of Le mura gianicolensi, whatever, someday they’ll get the google truck); my friends and I were walking by, terrified about the presentation we’d have to give in forty-five minutes about linguistic unification after Garibaldi. On the walk home, I’d skirt the other side of the Roman (ancient) wall, and stop by the Roman (modern) stationery store to buy a pad of graph paper to do my geometry homework in. I wasn’t thinking about the wall and its importance as an example of Roman design, but I wasn’t unaware of it. Similarly, in Siem Reap, it’s great to see schoolkids in their navy skirts and shorts bicycling quickly underneath the Victory Gate to Angkor Thom: one of the Angkorian marvels, boasting four of the most delicious carved faces in the Kingdom; these kids don’t give a shit about the enigmatic smile: they’ve got a quiz on French subject-verb agreement. That’s part of the picture, for me, both of the country and the picture I take with the camera.

I like to think about my relationship to early music in the same way. Byrd and Gibbons, to me, are like the walls you walk next to, that guide the journey. The music I write is quite literally framed by their emotional agenda (Bow Thine Ear (or Civitas Sancti Tui if you’re feeling Papist, the Byrd anthem, is emotional ground-zero for me) but I don’t think about it too actively. It’s a gate through which more modern musics pass, or a wall against which you lean to tie your shoes.

[audio:03 Byrd-Muhly – Bow Thine Ear.mp3]
An arrangement I made of Bow Thine Ear for the Aurora Orchestra, Nick Collon, conductor


  • nico, you are amazing. and i love the use of the word palimpsest in the figurative sense.

    i would think that referring to japanese people as “the japanese” is somewhat akin to a certain southern gentleman i knew, who would tell animated stories about “the blacks” and “the gays.”

  • This is pretty well-written.

  • Thats a great way to think about how much of comdern composition is-passing through the gates of classical and Romantic (and jazz, and various folk generes) to get to its sound, often times unaware.

  • Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, in thought, word and deed. “It’s a gate through which more modern musics pass, or a wall against which you lean to tie your shoes.” Thank you for framing a way for me to think about my artistic ancestors that seems to be more fruitful than anything I’d conjured up over the years.

  • Loving the Jónsi track. So joyful and beautiful. Can’t wait to hear the rest.