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from Monday, February21st of the year2011.

So! I’ve done a ton of things in the last few months – some writing, some playing. All of this is loosely the result of 2010 being an insanely prolific year; I’m not sure what I think about this. After many years of obeying the academic/concert calendar (which loosely starts in September and ends after Pentecost), I’m finally really strictly aware of the big gestures of the calendar year. By the end of January 2010 I had written an enormous amount of music, some of which will see the light in 2011, and some in 2012. I think that in retrospect, it was a little bit too much; I found myself being stressed out by little things that cling to projects rather than by the projects themselves. Projects are stressful! I understand that maybe younger composers might read this blog; in that hope, let me tell you something about projects.

Projects that bear your name are inevitably complicated, multi-faceted things of which you are perceived to be the sole author. Small issues of sound balance, graphic design, binding preference, and schedule will be presumed to be Of Your Making, despite your actual involvement in such a making. What I have learned rather the hard way is to figure out a way to get involved with all of the above. If somebody wants a spiral-bound part, figure out a way to have it made. If somebody wants a Trapper Keeper with a three-hole punch, make it happen. I am enormously lucky to have a very tall assistant called Fritz who can be impressed upon to make these things; before the Era of Fritz, I was still up at god-knows-what time in the morning binding things at the Kinko’s on Spring Street. In high school, I spent so many early morning hours at the Kinko’s near Thayer Street in Providence, I cannot even begin to describe this to you. Ask players how they’d like to see their music! Sometimes binding is the answer but sometimes it’s the problem. Ask conductors if they want a C-score or a transposed score! Hire a producer to take some of the nitty-gritty away from you, but don’t expect total radio silence from the smaller issues.

Sometimes, in the middle of this thoughtful process, people will stress you out, and you will stress your own self out. I have a copyist who is, arguably, one of the best in the world, and he hates C-scores.

Note for non-musicians: this is an insane relic of printed music. Some instruments, such as clarinets and horns see one note and play another. Some people like to see a score as the musicians see it, with this weird slight-of-hand required of you while you read it. Others prefer to see a score loosely as the instruments will sound. If you think too hard about this, your head will explode).

He says conductors who like them are basically stupid. A conductor emails, saying that only C-scores make sense and that people who don’t like them are stupid. The ensemble will disagree with the math behind the number of rehearsal hours versus performance hours. It turns out that Thai nipple gongs cost a shit-ton of money to rent, and you’ve only written one e-flat, which in point of fact adds two hundred dollars to the rental fees. Is it worth it for that one note? Emails about these will appear in your inbox. Somebody’s name will be misspelled in the program; this will be the same person who turns out, despite all efforts, to be woefully underpaid. Another group of people will be omitted from the program despite my — and four others — having checked it thrice. A co-writer on a song will not be invited to the curtain call because of an oversight but might take it rather seriously indeed! The computer will fart mercilessly. There will be unexpected feedback on the stage, or near the stage, or off the stage. A vocal mic will mysteriously favor a plosive. A friend will have her email hacked by somebody “in London” asking immediately for five thousand pounds, please! A long-lost friend will email, announcing an imminent arrival in Brooklyn and restaurant recommendations, please! An estranged friend will become pregnant, another will lose the baby. A review of Project will come out that does not acknowledge the sixty teenagers who have memorized an hour of contemporary music. An email will arrive mysteriously bearing “Priority Stamping” with Three Exclamation Points. !!! You will compose an email to the sender, explaining that !!! !!! !!! is a surefire way to get that email read last, but you don’t send this mail. These things will drive you mad. The trick is to somehow keep it together.

I have a piece of advice though, that’s nerdspeak. If you’re working with MIDI, make good, but not great, demos. You want it to sound actively fake; for a film or an opera, it’s slightly different; in my experience, film directors/producers will cling onto MIDI sounds and then become sad when real instruments turn up. In opera, I’m coming up against people hearing the strange Nintendo emotionally-dead pacing of MIDI and calling or asking, “is that how you want it to go!?” I was like AHHHH. Also: AHHH. AHHHH. But for real. Don’t let the demo have anything in it they’d want later, and make sure everybody knows it’s so wrong. MIDI is to real nature like that green sushi grass is to the lawn.

I totally wrote a week-long diary for the Paris Review! Part One! Part Two! Please check it out, and comment! The comments are mailed directly to my inbox, including the haters, with their entire email addresses and everything. I think I’ve converted one particular hater, who objected to my phrase:

10:15 A.M. While I slept, iTunes seems to have downloaded the complete collected works of MNDR. I must have gone on a pre-ordering binge, because it also is trying to download the film of Never Let Me Go. I’m listening to “I go away,” from the MNDR track. I like electronic-based slowish tracks; I loved that Capslock track off the MIA album whose title I dare not reproduce here. I kind of wish there were a more poetic way to express that which is expressed by the lyric, “tick tock.” It’s also awkward, I think, for white people to render out those T’s in song (to say nothing of the [ä] sound in tock); the result is always a lot more Dominican-accented than the surrounding lyrics. I’m looking at this queue: yet more SVU and the new Top Chef are coming! I fly tonight back to New York so maybe I can sneak one of these in on the plane.

The bit in italics up there was my original, which, in the printed edition, ends just after “tick tock” and doesn’t get into the issue about white people and their T’s in performance. My interlocutor’s objection, though was to the fact that:

These recent diary entries are mere catalogs of cultural minutia, lacking in insight or nuance. I specifically dislike the ‘iTunes download spree’ motif, which carelessly points to the disposability and mechanization of art, though it seems that the author intended it as deliriously adorable.

So I wrote back:

Thanks for reading that culture diary thing. I’m sorry it disappointed. Strangely, all of your comments in my inbox; I didn’t know if that was your intention. I travel so much that the only way I can get music, save for live performances, which I try to get to as much as possible, is through downloading. I don’t think it points towards anything being disposable; surely my being able to access Malian music from a car in Iceland is nothing but a good thing for everybody. If it’s any consolation re: the mechanization of art, I still write all my scores with a pencil and paper. Perhaps I can interest you in listening to some of it? While it might be adorable, it is not disposable.

And he wrote:

No, I did not intend to write directly to you. Because your writing was posted on a public website, I intended my criticism to be public (and certainly not an ad hominem attack). As you have taken the time to reply, I will respond. Your point regarding the accessibility of music through technology is well taken and the subject itself is worthy of much study and debate. I was reacting more specifically to the phrase “iTunes seems to have downloaded” which I read as tendentiously passive, almost implying an aristocratic detachment from the technology, which strikes me as false. To judge a totality of meaning based on a single phrase can sometimes be spurious, but my reaction was honest. In any case, reading your diary has reawakened my desire to know the music of John Adams, one composer I have always been interested in but never investigated. I’ve always lumped him in with Reich and Glass. I would be highly interested to hear your compositions as well.

See, isn’t this nice? I’m learning a lot about him; and about the ways in which talking about one’s library can actually sound like an aristocratic detachment. My final response was:

Ah! This is the problem with having a multiple-user household. My boyfriend can order stuff and it will turn up on my computer; similarly, the computer will decide that we collectively want something based on each others’ histories; if you click “go,” sometimes the time difference will result in something weird turning up on the wrong computer. I kind of encourage this; I like to be surprised. Please accept this download of an album the Los Angeles Master Chorale made of my choral music; with the exception of the Whitman settings, they are all sacred and were written for a variety of churches in the US and the UK. I hope you enjoy them; they are very, very old-fashioned, and despite the digital delivery, I hope, to your liking. Link below. Best, Nico

So, let’s hope I’ve made a new friend and a convert to my detached (but engaged, once the delivery is over) way of getting music! After all, he gets a free CD for having been mean on the internet!

Things I love:

Tall designers:

Dyed poodles at Isaac Mizrahi Sprang Summer:

The genius music-cake that somebody at the genius Brooklyn Youth Chorus made for our reception:

I live for this chorus. I cannot tell you how great they did at this show we did last week. I wrote music for them, as did Bryce, Sam, and Bishi. Major, memorized, epic effort from them and their conductor, Dianne Berkun, as well as from our whole team, and sound dudes (what’s up Dan Bora & Paul Corley) and Beth Morrison and St. Ann’s. This was the epitome of the worthwhile stressful project. Putting it together was one of these insane things that you think can never work and somehow…it happened.

An outfit one can only wear at Whole Foods:

The dog, curious as to when people were planning on walking & feeding him.

I also like that I’m up at 6 AM, still up from the night before, really, editing these string parts for Dark Sisters, (I know, I know, we are fixing the website), and the morning’s early-birdies are starting to cheep at me both digitally and actually! Good morning, Mr. New York Times Delivery Person; Bonjour, Mme. Hopping Bird on the Balcony; Ça fait longtemps, Scott Rudin’s office! I love this time of day.


  • That last line, about digital and actual birds, is EXACTLY what the end of a productive all-nighter feels like.

    Perfect bit of writing, there, Mr. Muhly.

  • The onslaught of demands and time-sucking details attending such productivity as yours are the stuff of comedy when viewed from the outside (see the plays of Kauffman and Hart) and the currency of frustration if we’re fortunate enough to get to stand inside that hurricane of success! You know you’re lucky and yet each and every day is made up of distractions and other people’s ineptitude and ignorance, goddamn them, goddamn everything! Ohmmmmmm.

  • The onslaught of demands and time-sucking details attending such productivity as yours are the stuff of comedy when viewed from the outside (see the plays of Kauffman and Hart) and the currency of frustration if we’re fortunate enough to get to stand inside that hurricane of success! You know you’re lucky and yet each and every day is made up of distractions and other people’s ineptitude and ignorance!

  • Love your sushi-grass-MIDI analogy. Cute pup!

  • I had some responses brewing for the beginning of this post, but once I saw that hilarious dog it all flew out the window !
    Thanks for sharing

  • (creaking voice): Son, you are not working on TWO operas at the same time, now do you? That can’t be good for ones health!

  • Can you write any more perfectly??? Wonderful advice about “projects,” which can be transposed to the work of choreographers, too. Bless the non-stress and the ways to get there. Conclusion: I need a tall/copyist. Good luck on the fabulous seasons ’10, ’11, ’12! Cannot wait to listen.

  • I always look forward to reading new entries to your blog. You should publish a book of your writings. Seriously!
    Recently I have been listening to your record, A Good Understanding. I hope that the Anglican choir I sing with can perform your Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for Evensong one of these days. Those two settings, together with Senex Puerum Portabat, are my favorites.

  • I’m a composer at the beginning of a ‘project’ and had one of those days yesterday where I could barely make a radio sound good – let alone musical instruments, or notes on a page.  Thankfully I didn’t have to go to Kinko’s. Or the evil post office with the long lines and sad display boxes.  Getting caught up on your posts was a good way to end the day. Funny and full of energy, just what I needed.

  • Congrats on converting the haterz.

  • I saw your show at Saint Ann’s it was great, always impressed with your work, and your guest artists also wonderful. I love Sam Amidon but was thrilled to hear new stuff with Bishi

  • Oh, Nico, you have no idea how excited I am that the Opera Company of Philadelphia commissioned a new work. I often feel like we’re a second-class city, but when I have the opportunity to see you and Sam Amidon at First Unitarian, Dudamel conducting Adams’ “City Noir” at The Kimmel Center, and now this, it almost gives me hope.

    Also, the performance on the twelfth at St. Ann’s was gorgeous. It was a privilege, really. Thank goodness I had a poetry reading in Brooklyn that weekend, or I might have missed it.

  • Question unrelated to anything you wrote above: how can I get my hands on a copy of your Confessions 2008 tour recordings with Teitur? For months I’ve been going mad upping the viewed counts on YouTube.