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Customer Facing

from Friday, February5th of the year2010.

A few days ago, I posted about how difficult it was for me to get a phone up and running in England. I got some sympathetic comments and then one sort of mean thing about being middle-class. That sort of angered me, because I realized: what do you do if you’re a non-English-speaking, non-Middle Class immigrant to London? If I can’t, with my fancy Ivy League education (and whatever Juilliard is “” Shochu League?) get a pay-as-u-go phone working, what is it like if you’re Chinese? The end result of the phone saga is pretty great, though. The basic outline is this: I bought, legitimately and from the Apple Store Online, an iPhone linked to an Orange Pay-As-You-Go SIM. It worked. I gave everybody the number. And then suddenly, it no longer worked. There was no message or warning; it simply ceased working. I called them from my American phone. I argued with them. I faxed them my financial details. The Fraud Team had taken over my case. The Fraud Team is not “Customer-Facing.” The Fraud Team leaves work at 4:30 and doesn’t work weekends. I spent a weekend “” and $425.44, I later found out “” using my American phone to conduct my affairs. I went into an Orange Store. They were embarrassed and horrified and polite and apologetic and all, themselves, immigrants who had gone through similar hoops upon arrival from Pakistan and Bulgaria. An hour later, they made contact with the Fraud Team. The Fraud Team was not helpful; the Fraud Team communicates with the store employees using a little text-only computer terminal very similar to a Minitel. The Fraud Team took off at 4:30, presumably to light kittens aflame or worship Baphomet. The next day I went to another Orange store, and an Australian man told me: your best bet is either to only top up using cash or to have an English person pay for your phone bills; that way the credit card is linked to a UK address. You know how he knew this? Because that’s how he pays his own bill. Motherfuckers. The only way to make my legitimate phone work is to commit fraud? So now I have exactly the worst, most bizarre and illegal kind of phone, whose bill is paid by my friend J””. Doesn’t that sound like some Al-Qaeda pre-paid terror organization shit to you? I’m trying to figure out a way to make Orange, be they Customer-Facing or Not, to realize the error of their ways. If you make the bureaucratic process so opaque that Middle-Class people can’t even navigate it, chances are, your system is certainly not going to work for, let’s say, a Nigerian student who turns up and has his phone cut off and has no recourse to his other phone to call your customer servants.

All of this is not to say that I’m having a bad time! On my walk back from the first of two Orange Stores, I had to pass through the small network of streets in the City, near where the Fire of London started. This area is amazing because every streetcorner offers a quick glimpse of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which looks like a giant meringue on a plinth. When the light hits just right, which, in winter is several crepuscular hours, a walk through that area is unrelentingly beautiful. With a cup of coffee & with the promise of dinner with friends, I felt like the luckiest man alive. Every time I eat at St John “” a pie with Alex, an ox tongue with Sigga Sunna, a snail with Jamie “” I am filled with an overpowering life-umami.

The new piece I wrote for Mark Padmore and Pekka Kuusisto and the Britten Sinfonia has been happening on tour; I went to two of the first leg of performances (in Eindhoven and Amsterdam) and am heading to Cambridge tonight to hear another. It’s a complete decadence to hear a work so many times in one’s life, to say nothing of in a single month. I’m also excited because the performance in Amsterdam contained one of the most professional trainwrecks I’ve ever witnessed. Something happened “” somebody came in early, somebody mis-cued, somebody wasn’t paying attention in the back “” and it came dangerously close to falling apart. I like it though: the adrenaline focuses everything that happens immediately afterwards and you end up with a shimmering, taut remainder of the piece. The same thing happened when I went to see Signal play Steve Reich’s Double Seggistett at LPR a few months ago: for one split second “” maybe half a bar? “” there was a brief clenching of the ostinato, and the whole thing almost broke. Brad Lubman pinched something and relaxed something else, and then everybody was right there for the rest of the piece.

I’m interested in that tautness. In chamber music, you get this almost all the time. Watch a string quartet and you see every player constantly focused, negotiating, bartering, manic. In larger ensembles, this is not always the case. In the better ones, though, you start to see it creeping in on stage: I saw James Levine conduct the BSO in a Midsummer Overture at a tempo of quarter note equals, like, seventeen thousand, and there was a lot of focus on that stage. Last night, I went to see the New York Philharmonic on their tour in London, and their first encore, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, was like that: completely focused from the first stands of the violins to the back of the horns.

Sadly, I cannot say the same for some of the other pieces and players. That’s always what I do when I see big orchestras: I look at the back of the second violins, at the back of the violas, to see how engaged people are. It’s fascinating. Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra is a giant cauldron of textures, a sort of Szechuan hot-pot affair with little bits of things bubbling to the top covered in other things slicked with a third thing. The performance was great “” don’t get me wrong “” but Kind and Venerable Sir in the back of the violas: I’m watching u. And y’all phoned it in. That tremolo may not be the most important thing in the texture at that time, but you have to play it like it is “” otherwise, what are we all doing with our lives?

All that said, it was great to see the Philharmonic outside of Fisher Hall, where I never go. The playing was great. The programming for the tour was, let’s say, a solid B. First night: That new Lindberg thing, followed by Prokofiev 2nd Piano Concerto which was fucking awesome. Bronfman ate that thing for dinner. Then Sibelius 2, which is always a plecz. Second night: A Haydn Symphony (bad idea), Adams’s The Wound-Dresser (more on this in a sec), Schubert Unfinished (fabulous) and Berg Three Pieces (fabulous). Then Egmont as an encore, then a Bernstein nibblet with the funniest English horn queef I have ever heard in my life. Now you look at these two days of tour programming and you think: okay, fine. It’s all fine. But in the back of my head something is screaming: more new music, more American music, more music by New Yorkers. Get that Haydn off of the stage and do a new American piece for chamber orchestra (Note: nothing’s wrong with Haydn. It’s just dopey to play on a tour and, like, yes, the trio from the minuet is hot shit and shows off the horns’ high notes, but it’s still just dopey). Do the Reich Duet for Two Violins! Commission something! Don’t do Egmont; do Short Ride in a Fast Machine. You already have one of the synthesizers for the Wound-Dresser! And all the percussion from the Berg! I know that I’m always going to back-seat program for the Phil, but I’ve said it before and I will continue saying it until I die: I want my hometown orchestra to be my home team. I want to see the season and scream, “I love my life and I love living in New York.” I don’t want to open up the LA season brochure and start looking into rental properties in Rancho Cucamonga just so I can hear Tehillim.

Anyway, whatever. They sounded great. I’m just saying. And they’re doing something of mine in a few months (for chamber-orchestra, off-venue, watch this space for more information) and I thought Alan Gilbert did a gorgeous job. There was one sort of sad moment in the Adams where Thomas Hampson (who sort of looks like Mitt Romný, has anybody else noticed this?) sings: “Poor boy, I never knew u, yet I þink I could not refuse this moment to d-i-i-ie 4 u” at which point the strings do this unspeakably gorgeous long, descending, Elgar melody, which burrows into the ground into the horns, and then gets picked up by a trumpet solo, Glory-style. It’s a beautiful, heart-breaking moment and Gilbert was doing full 360° DaWinci arcs with his arms and the violins were playing it sort of like, Mezzo-Forte Poco Espressivo Ma Non Troppo. Of course I was looking at the back of the firsts and screaming with my eyes: bitches! It’s about War! It’s about the SIDA! it’s pertinent, it’s gorgeous, it’s a huge American melody. Make me some fucking gravy out of this line, like how you’re gonna out of the Schubert in twenty minutes’ time!


(As I write this, I am now on my way back from Cambridge, on a train that smells like tuna in the worst possible way).


  • Wait what’s wrong with Haydn!

  • So glad your making it down to Devon & Dartington after all tomorrow. Hope you enjoy the venue… Will be different from the city venues so far. Now, while your blog doesn’t paint a picture of a snoozer (too energetic), keep eyes open on the train down after Exeter, ’tis the best part of the journey.

  • Totally feel you on the cell phone front. I am presently in Deutschland and have similar problems with both cell phone and internet set-up. Let’s just say that reading bureaucratic legalese is bummer in English to begin with, and it’s a whole new level of “Verdammt mal!’ auf Deutsch.

    Also: Yes, orchestras should totally represent. It’s root, root, root for the home team, no?

  • Haha brilliant Nico. Your references to Reich never fail to make me smile. Duet, by Reich, is probably his most romantic piece, sort of, a tiny bit, even though he says romantic music is repulsive, right? I always wondered. What does Nico Muhly think of romantic music? I woke up to Pillaging Music this morning, which was interesting. And what’s this tomfoolery about the tuna train? Surely you’re a guy who travels first class, naturally? Tuna is typically nowhere to be found on a first class carriage. Made my day, Nico 😀

  • Well, you’re gonna be quoted at my site (the viola matters thing, not the EH although I did wonder what happened) … good reminder about how everyone matters and should act and play like it. Thanks!

    Which Haydn? Was it that wacky one where the 1st is as high as can be and the second as low? Do tell! 🙂

    LOVE the Adams. Wish our little orchestra would do that some year while I’m still alive.

  • […] they don’t matter. They do. Always. Nico Muhly (caution, “language” at his site) reminds us: The performance was great — don’t get me wrong — but Kind and Venerable Sir in the back of […]

  • Bernstein funniest English horn queef? Hahaha, I want to hear that! And strangely enough thanks to you I can hear it in my head. Sorry about your London phone imbroglio- maybe you could incorporate it into your next work though 🙂 along with that sublime walk past St. Paul’s Cathedral in the winter light.

  • You should try tweeting a highly curtailed and slightly more abusive version of your experience with Orange. You may well find that someone their end picks up on it (this happened to a friend of mine).

    By the way, I also don’t understand the don’t play Haydn injunction. Haydn’s wonderful! It’s true that large symphony orchestras don’t play him well, but that’s because they don’t play him enough. And the discipline required to play him well can only benefit the orchestra that does so.

    [Nico Responds: I’m not saying don’t play Haydn. <3 Haydn. Just, don't be the New York Philharmonic playing Haydn on Tour. All the effort required to do Haydn right is already being taken care of in Germany, the UK, Copenhagen, Malmö. Wouldn't it be divine if the New York Philharmonic turned up with a fantastic American piece for the same forces as Haydn 40 or whatever that was? They sounded FINE and clearly they had received a talking-to about the articulation and bow-stroke, and they sort of obeyed teacher's orders, but it was nothing compared to how great Egmont was. That was a bow-stroke with thought, heart, and mind.

  • Last summer I was surprised to find that the choral singing at Westminster Cathedral is as exquisite as at St. Paul’s. If you are still in London for Ash Wednesday, Westminster is singing the Byrd Emendemus in melius.

  • To the Haydn question: What Is The Point of The Tour? You’re suggesting that it should be to bring something new to Europe, and of course I agree, but I also wonder if American orchestras, especially the older ones, are still caught in a vestigial “look-we-can-do-it-too” mindset when they go Over There. That sense-of-self and especially in-relation-to-Europe is certainly where US orchestras began, and those original self-conceptualizations tend to linger, institutionally. From that perspective, doing new American music, except for something that’s passed the Euro-standard for acceptability (which Adams has), would send precisely the wrong message. And Haydn makes too much sense. As a very different example of the same kind of thing, I remember going to Carnegie to hear the Tokyo Philharmonic, back in high school, and they played the fucking Star Spangled Banner, I think as an encore. I was like, um, thank you?

  • I think taking Haydn on tour is a brave choice for the same reason that ending — rather than beginning — a concert with Haydn is a brave choice – and a good one!

  • Nico– My group has been exploring your piece called “I Know Where Everything Is,” and I’ve gotta say, I think I love you… And I’m pretty sure audiences love you too. We had our first performance of it Friday night. Nice to read the thoughts on the explorations of life from the composer whose piece I’ve been working on.

  • You should have gone with O2. They are way better than Orange. (I’m an American and I have both a bank account and a legit iPhone, but I probably scored by getting the bank account bc of my school visa)

  • St. Bride Library
    February 8th, 2010 at 11:23 am

    Don’t miss the St. Bride Library off of Fleet Street:

  • this reminds me of last week when i spent 9 hours on the phone over 5 days trying to track down lost luggage that contained electronic components for my installation that was to open three days later… and of course these luggage handling companies (in specific, Novia) have no reputation to maintain like the airlines do so there is absolutely 0% chance of improvement. (read: they still use telex machines to communicate inter-airport.)


  • So great to hear a composer’s perspective! Would really be interested to have you elaborate on exactly what it is that makes a piece of music too short, too long or just right. One reads a lot about musical “architecture”, and I think I have some idea what’s meant by that (at least from a spectator’s perspective) in more classically organized pieces that have themes and development, but where does this come into play in a piece by, say, Kaja Saariaho that doesn’t necessarily give a listener traditional structures to hang onto? How does someone writing in a “minimalist” idiom decide when they’ve gone on too long or just long enough?

  • Nico,
    I’m with Patty. I’d already copied & pasted your quote, “That tremolo may not be the most important thing in the texture at that time, but you have to play it like it is — otherwise, what are we all doing with our lives?”, into my FB status when I read her mentioning the same. It speaks to how life really should be viewed and lived.

    Thanks yet again for sharing your inspirational writing with us through this insightful and entertaining blog.


    Pittsburgh, PA

  • why does tuna smell so very good when you’re eating it, and so incredibly horrible when you’re not? thanks, nico, for turning me onto owen pallett’s “twelve songs.” very grateful.

  • Just got back from the Norwich performance of the new work, just amazing! Are you spending much time in Norwich? It’s made me pick up my old violin I haven’t played for ages and re-write all the music for my band (cello, violin, guitar et al) before our next gig tomorow..
    Thankyou for all the inspiration!
    Thom x

  • iPhone has a new app called Line2. Skype-like calling, free wifi, good for international travel I think? Here’s the link in the Times, good luck!