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Chamber Music

from Thursday, January27th of the year2011.

Last week, I was the happy composer-in-residence at the Storioni festival in Eindhoven; the festival is named after the piano trio who act as artists-in-residence and programmers. I contributed two new works to the festival: a triple concerto for the trio and the string section of the wonderful Britten Sinfonia, and a new piece for the impish Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, which we played together. I also had the pleasure of playing an older work, Clear Music, and the trio played a relatively recent piece, Common Ground. Chamber music! So much fun. I miss the strange birdsong of walking down a long corridor lined with practice rooms cacophonously shimmering with fragments of Dvo?ák, Bartók, Brahms, and of course, hearing a cellist shed one’s own passagework is uniquely satisfying.

Last week, I played at a rather different kind of chamber music festival: the Ecstatic Music Festival in New York City. Organized by my friend Judd, this festival is a sort of Polaroid wall of what’s going on in various communities of relatively young people involved in making music in and near New York. I got roped, loosely, into doing a predictably awkward question-and-answer session at the Apple Store that occupies the space formerly inhabited by the Victoria’s Secret on the Upper West Side. May I take this opportunity to say that single ladies should report to the events managers of Apple Stores; having dealt with a few now in the last year, they are uniformly handsome str8 dudes with a good attitude and access to the internet. Get on it. In any event, I think I had done that day wrong; I either got up too early or too late, ate at an inopportune digestive moment, or something, but near the end, a slightly crazy-looking (but not full-tang chamber music tunafish sandwich crazy) man stood up (warning bells went off) and asked the assembled company, “do you make a distinction between a proper composer who went to conservatory and some kid who can just get an iPod and…” I sort of lost my mind at that moment; he may have finished his sentence but I was already on him. This was, I think, one of the most horrifying things I have heard uttered in public in a very long time. Let’s get into it.

For starters, it was a wedgey question to begin with. Of the six of us on the stage, most came from a place in between what this question was outlining. I think I was the only one who went to conservatory, but there were people from Columbia, Yale, Princeton. Then there was my friend Valgeir Sigurðsson, who did not go to, I don’t think, college in the traditional sense of the word. Dan Deacon went to school but resisted it or whatever; nobody really fit either side of the sentence. So, problem (and answer?) right there. But also, what an ugly question to ask. The loaded term “proper” starts it off nastily; what I tried to do in my angry reply was to refocus this man on what his experience as a listener could be, with a slight attitude adjustment. It’s really the same thing as food, I tried to argue; going to cooking school does not mean you can cook. It’s a slightly false analogy, but Anthony Bourdain has been a fierce witness to the fact that most “proper” cooking in America is done by Salvadorian illegal immigrants who certainly did not go to the Culinary Institute of America. Sometimes, having a country grandma is the first step; I’m not making a folksy wisdom versus the academy point here, but the question I wanted to make this man answer is: is anybody, as a listener, concerned with that kind of pedigree?

I think about this a lot, because when one navigates the waters of, say, indie rock, you can run across the particular boulders of specific anti-intellectualism: “I don’t want to know how to read music; it stifles creativity,” or, “going to school just boxes you in.” I’ve always felt that a bit of school helps with, say, arranging music, because voice-leading, like sauce-making, is a subtle and easy-to-fuck-up art. School helps you with that; even two weeks of second species counterpoint can grease the wheels of some problematic fifths and octaves. I also have long advocated for singers/songwriters to get more involved in the notation of arrangements, particularly if they intend on having complicated instrumental elements either recorded or live. Because the manuscript and the parts are the first way players will experience the music, it can be useful to know your way around an oboe part, even just as an observer. Having the vocabulary — however simple — of basic instrumental functions is a time/lifesaver in the studio and on the stage. Similarly and conversely, as many of my conservatory-trained friends could tell you, a knowledge of basic song form is not something that comes up all that often in school; surely verse/chorus/bridge functions should, among musicians who are going to end up in Broadway pits and in the studio, be as understood as Sonata Allegro form?

(Another sub-narrative that I wish we could all abandon is the whole “the music I wrote in school was too real for school; the teachers O. Pressed Me, etc. That is, fortunately, a fight that our elders have fought for us, and we can all relax about it. Besides, Light Oppression of one’s Teenage Style Goals is a really useful thing to be encouraged; you have to slice that shit against the grain to see what it’s made of).

An aside: I’ve heard, in the obviously insane and not-a-great-example world of New York, a growing use of culinary terms among children recently. A few months ago, I was at Il Buco in the East Village and a 10 year-old boy behind me commented to his mother that his octopus was over-braised. The other day, uptown, I heard a precocious little girl ask, while multi-tasking on her iPad, if her mother’s duck had been “sous-vided!”

The other thing that drove me nuts about that guy’s question was the way he used the word “can.” I might be reading into it too much, but “can” implies that there’s some kind of scam for fame and fortune being run by people who, instead of putting in six years at Curtis, “can just” go and buy some gadget, plug it in, run their fingers over it, and scamper to the bank to cash the check. The “can” denotes a vertical structure to success that I can’t deal with at all; you see it sometimes pop up amongst composers and it is really a terrible, ugly way to think about things.

It’s in that spirit that I was reading the horror show of Tony Tommasini’s Top Ten Composers Ever From Monteverdi Onwards or whatever the requirements were. While it’s cute that it happened, and nice for the Times that they successfully drew the ordeal out over several weeks and across various media, it unearthed a whole bunch of nasty earwigs in the closet of the way people think about classical music. Did y’all read the comments section on those blogs? The thing about a list like this is that immediately two things happen. The first is that dead composers are pitted against each other: Britten is shoving aside Mahler; you can have Bartók or Stravinsky but not both. It’s maybe fine for people who are dead, but the idea of this way of thinking gets really gross if you imagine in six months’ time suddenly opening the paper to read “Top 10 Living Composers” or whatever. The second is, of course, tunafish people come out in full force, too, writing in talmbout “I made my list last Saturday and it remains unchanged by these comments.” If you’re picturing the vast expanse of a relish-stained khaki FUPA pooched over the edge of a console desk, a wheezing Dell with its proprietary power supply curled in a dark corner of the hutch, you’re probably halfway to the truth of the matter.

I think last week must have just been a weird week for bad attitudes; something perhaps to do with the new astrological signs? I was waiting for Sibelius to “optimize staff spacing” and decided to investigate a suspicion I’ve long had that there’s a continuity error in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (too complicated and sodomy-specific to go into here) and came across somebody’s blog, the first line of which was, “I decided not to read this when it came out.” What. Why would you take the time to write that you, on purpose, didn’t read something? What a strange impulse, and a strange thing to admit to; maybe it’s something in my makeup but it seems only polite to listen to every goddamn thing and read everything and don’t stop listening and reading and looking until you keel over in a pile of Belgian schmattas and headphones, and until that time, feel terribly guilty about not having read, listened, seen. I have a page on my phone that is devoted to things I need to read, things people have recommended to me. The principle is to go into everything wanting to like it. I read those Dan Brown books! The only reason I could see not to would be to make a terrible autobiographical point, and reading things with hatred in the heart is the opposite of fun, so I found a way in that felt like making the best of an airport bistro. But I wish there were a way to convince people that bragging about Not Reading Jonathan Franzen is real dumb.

Can we talk about how good Hollinghurst is at sentences? Every time I come to Benelux, I re-read The Folding Star. In this, our hero arrives in a small Belgian town:

There was no one else in the street that led up to the church, no one in the shabby square that its tower overhung. St Vaast: an ugly old hulk, with a porch tacked on, all curlicues and dropping yellow stucco, with a nest-littered pediment above. It was locked, of course: no last light glimmering from a vestry window–no choral society meeting after work to rehearse their director’s own Te Deum or some minatory Flemish motets. I went on with a shiver.

Everybody should totally read this, plus also The Line of Beauty all the time.

Language notes! I’ve written about my up and down relationship with the Dutch language before; one of the pleasures of my ongoing relationship with the Muziekgebouw in Eindhoven is watching the town slowly reshape itself; stuff that was under construction last time is finished; a formerly dangerous piazza is pedestrianized, and the good restaurant has developed a relationship with the sunchoke! One thing that I’ve looked on with a small amount of worry is the now-ubiquitous use of English in all names of stores. There’s something kind of Engrish about it. Look at this shopping center:

So somebody in some design office somewhere was like, you know what? I think we should just throw any old words in a strange order; nouns, verbs, whatever. Spent, Pump, you know, anything. Weird. Also behold:

Rambam, ahead of the jean scene. I’m not entirely sure who benefits from this. The shop? The customers? Also a curious piece of words and design:

I sort of like this one, actually.

This one…I could do without.

How about “Feel Good Stuff ‘n’ Food”

And the real coup de grâce:

What could they even mean!?


  • “LOVE

    And there you’ve got the whole Old and New Testaments glossed for all time.

  • I’m in the midst of undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University. Started out as composition, took a year off, and came back as an English/History guy. I still love writing music and do so all the time, but I do it on my computer and with programs which would terrify the Angry-Apple Man. Someone asks for some music for a short film — I work just as hard as I would if I were writing a string quartet, except I’m hacking up Kanye and Rick Astley.

    There’s something so honest about respecting how individual music can be and the almost seven billion ways it can get there.

  • TRUTH.

    Alas The Folding Star, JoJo informs me, has gone out of print and now can only be read on your Kindle App or whatever. Sadness.

  • “roped”

    Also, please tell me that Rambam Jeans is all up next to the Bal Shem Tov Bootery or Rashi Cupakes. If not we’re going to open one, you choose.

  • while eindhoven considers itself to be the dutch design capital…
    drink, pump, papa, spent.. what is that past tense doing there?
    and Nico, herring-cart-guy is asking for you up here in utrecht!

  • @ “Liner Notes Danny” – The Folding Star is available on They even have free delivery!

  • “The principle is to go into everything wanting to like it.”


  • Why on Earth would you get upset about what this guy thinks, that’s his (mental) problem. Clearly he’s frustrated and took the opportunity to feel bigger than the rest of the world. Or he was just raving mad. There must be a lot more of his kind around.
    A little trivia: I have no idea if you’re a Varèse-fan, but he composed Poème Electronique in Eindhoven. He lived there for a year.
    If you’re not a Varèse-fan it’s totally useless information. Hmm… Then again, if you are a fan its also useless information..

    Nico responds: No shit! I had no idea about the Varèse/Eindhoven connection. Love Varèse, obviously. I remember one of the first “box sets” I bought was his; not that big as he only wrote, like, 92 minutes of music. But being a percussion groupie as a teen means that one has listened to a LOT of Ionisation.

  • “…maybe it’s something in my makeup but it seems only polite to listen to every goddamn thing and read everything and don’t stop listening and reading and looking until you keel over in a pile of Belgian schmattas and headphones, and until that time, feel terribly guilty about not having read, listened, seen.” I LOVE THIS.

  • Thanks for all the inspiring and moving music! Last Sunday and Tuesday I really enjoyed. You both were so happy after ‘Drones and Violin’! The jamming after the concert was nice as well.

    Now I am listening to the other concerts. ‘Uitzending gemist’ @ Dutch Radio.

  • […] would you take the time to write that you, on purpose, didn’t read something? What a strange impulse, and a strange thing to admit to,” says Nico Muhly, among many other […]

  • The sister of the wife of the couple who own Rashi Cupcakes runs the Ralbag antique clothing shop.

  • I’m quoting you right and left (what Tyler and Ren quoted). Yes!

    You probably know that in the Winter 2010 Paris Review Jonathan Franzen says he is “more envious” of music than any of the arts:
    (saw this in an Atul Gawande tweet; he’s the doc who writes for The New Yorker)

  • Johann Sebastian Bach never studied music at a conservatory. His parents died when he was 10, and he went to live with his brother. He was almost completely self-taught.

  • I can confirm. Smeagol is most definitely “mmm…”

  • When are you going to come do some awkward Q&A sessions out Vancouver way? I’m exhausted of wishing I could be at the concerts/events/crazy-man-run-ins you write about. (PS. bring some of those Apple store guys with you when you do.)

    Seriously, your words make my stomach growl for more. Same with your notes.

  • Hey Nico: just got around to reading this. Some beautifully articulated points in your riposte to Apple Store D-bag. Curious what Dan had to say for himself, since he would, on the surface, seem to be who D-Bag was targeting – even though Dan doesn’t use a fucking computer!

    BTW, in case you didn’t see it, Dan had his first piece for orchestra performed in Canada last week. Exciting stuff:

  • In all honesty, I think you overreacted somewhat. Admittedly, the “slightly crazy-looking man’s” phrasing was maladroit, but the distinction he was drawing was not altogether off-base. Of course there are people who acquire great depth of knowledge on their own by teaching themselves. Of course there are conservatory students who have no great degree of talent. (Or as you put it: “going to cooking school does not mean you can cook.”) But those who learn entirely on their own often pick up bad habits and misunderstandings that are difficult to correct. In my Internet travels I have come across a person, for example, who thought there were three types of minor key (natural, harmonic, and melodic). Another self-styled composer who posts scores of his music incessantly on various Internet forums makes all kinds of blunders in using instruments that a good course in orchestration would easily correct. (He could not understand, for instance, why the first violin in his string quartet could not play middle C and the A below at once, he wrote a harp chord tied over four bars in andante tempo, etc.) And all efforts to try to help this person were met with self-protective hostility, as if any attempt to offer guidance was motivated by spite or envy.

    Going to cooking school does not necessarily mean you can cook, but not going is no guarantee you’ll be a great chef either.