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Ignore the Conductor

by Alex Ross, , The New Yorker, May 10, 2004.

…Of the composers I heard, the one who seems best poised for a major career is Nico Muhly, a twenty-two year-old, spiky-haired, healthily irreverent student of Corigliano’s at Juilliard. He has formed his own private repertory, running from the purest, hootiest English choral music to minimalism in its raw, classic phase. These tastes reflect two sharply different musical experiences””singing in a boys’ choir and working in Philip Glass’s electronic studio. He also listens to a lot of off-kilter pop, like Björk, Múm, Ladytron, and Fischerspooner. “Nothing is better than Prince,” he advised me. On a recent afternoon, he enjoyed motets by William Byrd, Khia’s salacious hip-hop track “My Neck, My Back,” John Adams’s “China Gates,” and Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung”””the last for a school paper.

If Muhly simply dumped his diverse musical loves into a score, he would have an eclectic mess. Instead, he lets himself be guided by them, sometimes almost subliminally. In “So to Speak,” a short piece that the Juilliard Symphony recently played at its annual student concert, he asks players to be “spastic,” to “smudge” certain notes, to “ignore the conductor”; he is trying for a raucous, un-“classical” sound. But the work itself is austere and solemn in intent. It is based on Thomas Tallis’s Pentecost anthem “Loquebantur Variis Linguis”; those spastic woodwinds are speaking in tongues. The music spins away into a kind of gritty ecstasy. This and other Muhly pieces achieve a cool balance between ancient and modern modes, between the life of the mind and the noise of the street.

Muhly was not the only student composer I met who had an intelligently babbling enthusiasm for every aspect of his art. The cynic in me wondered when these bright young things would undergo the inevitable plunge into disenchantment and despair. The optimist in me wondered if they might be able to turn the classical cynics into fools. Sung Joo Hong said, “If you know what you are doing, and you really want to do this crazy thing, this is the century where we could get the richest music ever made.”

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