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Drinking the air before him – Nico Muhly

by James Jolly, Gramophone Magazine.

James Jolly talks to one of the US’s hottest musical properties

A Good Understanding (Decca)
I Drink the Air Before Me (Decca)

Nico Muhly, not yet 30, is one of the most talked-about musicians of his generation. His musical sympathies range from working with artists as diverse as Björk, Philip Glass, Grizzly Bear and Antony and the Johnsons, and writing music for films like The Reader or an opera for English National Opera and The Met. In town for a couple of performances at the Barbican of the dance piece “I Drink the Air Before Me” – a collaboration with Stephen Petronio and his Company – he spoke with Gramophone. And the conversation started with his two new albums for Decca, the music for “I Drink the Air…” and “A Good Understanding”, five of his choral works sung by the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

JJ Thinking of one of your new Decca albums, “A Good Understanding”, how did an American boy develop such a love for, and feeling for, the Anglican liturgy?

NM Well, it just happened accidentally. I was in a choir and obviously it was the only sort of music we were singing because one of the great things about that tradition is that it’s preserved in wax. I don’t want to say there’s very little new music – because there clearly is – but there’s very little outside influence. And there has always been very little outside influence. If you look at the dates when things were composed …

JJ … there’s a sort of continuum.

NM Exactly, and once you’ve kind of committed to it you can’t really swim out – which I like. But the fact of it happening in suburban Boston is bizarre but also true.

JJ Was it an Anglican church?

NM Yes. And in that strange tradition of Anglican churches that aren’t here [in the UK], they’d preserved a lot of old-fashioned ways of dealing with the liturgy – in ways that would be considered old-dated, even here. And the choirmaster was given free rein to do whatever he wanted which I thought was kind of great and it was very strange – contextually.

JJ So did they do the whole thing right from Byrd and Tallis to Herbert Howells?

NM …and even into Tippett. We did some contemporary things, but yes, right through everything: Finzi and so forth. Very comprehensive!

JJ And are you drawn to those early 20th-century British composers?

NM I am and I never really realised the extent – so immersed was I in this music. I never thought it wasn’t what everyone thought about and talked about. I guess I knew so much Howells and when I turned up at school people said “Who?”. You would never normally have heard a note if you hadn’t done what I’d done. By the standards of what you’ve been taught academically this music is “not good” but then it connects in such a way especially if you’ve come from the tradition of making it, singing it. Some of my earliest great musical experiences were singing Howells. It’s so good, so well put together – it still works all the time!

JJ So all the works on “A Good Understanding” were commissioned?

NM Yes. Some from the UK, some from America. This is a strange disc because none of it was written for the disc and in as much as I wrote all the music it’s really the product of the Master Chorale who wanted to do it very much. It was very happy to let this music exist in its liturgical context and it wouldn’t have occurred to me how to record it. So it’s a great sort-of gift, an unexpected thing.

JJ Some of the music here was written for all-male choirs – with boys’ voices – is that a timbre that you’re drawn to?

NM Yea, of course! That, for me, is the emotional connection to the music itself. For me that happened by singing it, but now there’s such a wide variety of good recordings with mixed choirs it’s become slightly less an issue…

JJ And the women’s voices are going for a much whiter, purer sound now so it’s sometimes not immediately obvious who’s singing.

NM Exactly, you sometimes have to listen longer to figure out which voices are being used. For me, the boys’ voices is one thing, but the countertenors is what I miss if it’s a mixed choir. That’s the sound I miss.

JJ So how did what you call your ‘First Service’ come about?

NM That was a complicated thing! There was an American woman who knew Tim Brown who was at Clare College Cambridge, so it was ‘You should write something for the choir’. So in this crazy way it just happened. It was one of these exciting and confusing academic cross-over things. So I wrote it and they’ve been doing it ever since.

JJ Here’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask a composer: what’s your relationship with your music once it has, as it were, flown the nest and gone its own way? Do you maintain a relationship or do you just move on with life?

NM It’s different for different pieces. There are certain pieces you can hold onto because you’re playing them yourself or if there’s something that you would be expected to deal with in some way. I prefer if I can – if someone has commissioned a piece in the formal way – for the piece to become theirs more than mine. And in that sense you want them to do what they want with it. But if you’ve done a really good job of notating it and making it as clear as possible in the score, it can start happening from people you haven’t met, in places you’ve never been. And it can start happening in contexts you can never imagine. So that, to me, is the goal for most of my music. But some I write specifically for me, or for me and my friends.

JJ And is that very much part of your make-up as a musician that the playing of music is as important as the writing of it?

NM Yes and no. Not for everything, but the fact that there exists music that I can play in juxtaposition with music that other people can play – without me – that’s interesting. If you write a piece for, say, string quartet and you’re constantly fiddling with it and are constantly involved in it then it’s kind of annoying for everybody. And if the parts are never done, and are constantly being revised, then there comes a moment when you have to say “If I get hit by a truck, that’s it. People can still do it.” Then there are other pieces that you think “I’ll continue to do them until my fingers won’t go any more.” So it’s about having both.

JJ And do you tend to tinker around with your music?

NM No, I try not to, unless it’s a collaborative thing and I need to. But in general I think it’s best not to. It’s a bit like thinking how I’d redecorate my old apartment. Once you go there in your head, you want to do everything differently.

JJ So, turning to “I Drink the Air Before Me”, which is a dance piece, how does it work in a dance collaboration? Because composer and choreographer – here Stephen Petronio – are very much equals in the equation…

NM The way we put it together was really fun. We mapped out the whole structure on a napkin in as bird’s eye view as we could, which is basically in a straight line. From nothing to everything! We then took turns making rules for the piece. Stephen said “I definitely want it to be an unbroken hour of music”. Cool! I said “I definitely want it to be for small, amplified ensemble”. He said “Good!” I said “I definitely want to use a children’s choir at the beginning and at the end” – that’s fine. And we went back and forth, and then he had some things that he knew he wanted – like a very aggressive trio for three boys. And he wanted a very calm duet for two girls. He wanted this crazy spiral crowd-scene thing where you could never tell how many people were on stage. We mapped it out and I started writing completely out of order. I went from most intense to least intense – did the really crazy things first and then the stuff with the fewest notes last! Then we started tinkering together: he’d ring suggesting one bit become longer and one shorter. It remained an “open source” until very close to the premiere which was a year ago in New York. And at that point I just said “If you need me to make it longer, I’ll make it longer. And he’d say if you can’t play that faster then I’ll make it shorter and so on. You work it out, you pick your battles – you don’t want to force anything but then you can see it on stage especially with dance because it’s so physical. You can’t fake not knowing the timing, you can’t fake gravity! If you just up you fall down – it’s that simple! There’s no fudging!

JJ In a score like this, though you’ve got an hour’s worth of music, it’s quite episodic.

NM Yes, it is episodic. The episodic nature of it is something we built into the piece. And once you’ve fixed that then yes, it does have similarities with film music because you’re imagining scenarios with bodies, and scenarios where the attention of the audience needs to move in a non-linear way. It wants to be receiving both musical and visual information. At the same time without it being obvious which is communicating with you.

JJ And did you structure it in certain ways so that there are moments of intensity, calm…and so on

NM Yes, you do. But you also want to make it – as you would with a film – so that if there’s a big emotional thing happening you don’t want necessarily need to be doing anything. You need to be showing that not doing that. And in other places if you’re leading up to something it can be more powerful if you anticipate things. If you anticipate a gesture you can deliver it in a rather cartoonish way. Some film composers do want to do that: really nail it. Sometimes the music announces something and then goes very much to the background and sort of hovers. And there are other places where the dance is very intense and the music is almost silent. The dancers now know it so well that it feels very different from when we put it together.

JJ Does it change from performance to performance?

NM It can! The way that I wrote the piano part for this – for me to play – is weird! There are a couple of places where, depending on where I start in relation to the rest of the instruments, it can go in different ways. It’s sort of aleatoric, but very very controlled. It’s a sort of ‘if…then’ function.

JJ And is it the same dance?

NM No, they’ll react in different ways appropriately. But Stephen did it in such a way that they wait for things to happen and then react to it. You know the way people talk about chamber music: “Oh, it’s a conversation” – but I’ve always liked the idea that rather than being a conversation between the players it’s like a whole bunch of people at desks on the phone talking to other people that you can’t see.

JJ So it’s a conversation – but not between the players on stage!

NM Exactly! There are certain sections where each player is doing his or her own little thing and the piano sort of organises it all together with this gigantic ‘thump’ and everyone has to change. Which for me is a fun, physical way to treat chamber music.

JJ So was “I Drink the Air…” a kind of milestone – in scale and ambition – of what you’ve been writing?

NM Yes
and no. It was definitely the longest unbroken thing I’d done, but it was a really easy collaboration. It didn’t feel like I was doing this really enormous crazy effort: it felt very workmanlike and it felt good to produce that much music for a single thing. It’s a lot!

JJ But then you sets your sights on an opera – and that’s a huge structure.

NM Writing large things like operas does have the advantage that the libretto provides you with a structure, and it’s not joined episodes. An opera needs to feel like a single big idea! It has a lot of rooms in it, but it’s one single entity! Structure is scary if you stop and think about writing two hours of music!

JJ Presumably there are instances where you don’t have a lot of choice; people come and say “We want you to do such and such…” presumably at that point you think “I haven’t written a symphony, or a concerto and I want to do that next as a kind of rite of passage”.

NM The ideal situation is to take work that you want to do and not have to do a million of the same thing. In a lot of cases the commissions themselves bear a kind of structural requirement. But that’s good and to be celebrated.

JJ Do you warm to the idea of composer as profession. You sit down at the start of a day and think “This is what I’ve got to do today”.

NM I totally do!

JJ And does writing music come easily?

NM Thinking about it like that it does, but actually doing it, not necessarily all the time. I always think about the extraordinary amount of music that church composers had to generate.

JJ Like Bach! If he was physically to write out all his music, how would he have had the time without actually composing the stuff as well?

NM I know – even as a copy job it’s mind boggling! Maybe he had all his kids upstairs writing it all out! Or even someone like Orlando Gibbons… There’s a lot of Gibbons and it’s all complicated. Or Byrd or anyone who was really a state employee! There’s a real bullshit filter on that kind of music because you just don’t have time to go into the woods and commune with nature! It’s Thursday and the choir’s waiting for the parts! I think that model of working is really good – again I think of the church composers in that regard. You think of the amount of really emotionally compelling and emotionally involved music – Taverner or Byrd, who’s really the best example. It was all done incredibly quickly and all done over an incredibly short period of time, and it was sort of dropped into the stream of this repertoire and it’s been there ever since. There’s something really crazy and fabulous about that. That to me as a kid was completely at odds with the pedagogical thing that basically Germany was this clock-making place that turned into this big emotional place and that was the history of music! People were once craftsmen and then all of a sudden they had ideas about philosophy and the nature of humanity and then “It’s Beethoven” or “It’s Wagner!” …

JJ … for a huge length of time!

NM Yes, for many, many years!

JJ But in a way as an American composer you can draw on a much more democratic background. It’s much freer because there’s a huge ocean in the way and you could say goodbye to the German tradition.

NM Yes, in a way. But it’s like that creeping chervil – those things never go away! You can pretend like it’s not there! People seem to know more about music that isn’t their own. Just the other day I was talking to the Guildhall kids and it was all “Stockhausen this and Stockhausen that”. And I was like “Does anyone know the Britten Abraham and Isaac Canticle” and it was like “Who?” But there is something fun about being American but it’s not to say we don’t have baggage. We have a ton of baggage but it just expresses itself in a different way. And the Continental traditions when they were adopted, were adopted real hard!

JJ But presumably writing something like film music doesn’t carry the same kind of stigma that it does this side of the pond…

NM Oh it does! You just think it doesn’t because we make it seem so effortless and fun! No, of course it does – but not like you have to care! What does stigma even mean! People are still hanging on real hard to high/low, uptown/downtown, but it’s generational.

JJ …and the watershed between the generations is moving ever higher so soon the divide between people who have no problem with a composers writing film music and those who do is …

NM …if we hold our breath for ten years then it’ll be fine! They’ll all have died off! Or their students will have mellowed out. I just don’t worry about it.

JJ Do you think that writing film scores will always be part of your work?

NM I do like it! And actually it’s really funny. It’s like everything you’ve been taught to do, everything you’ve learned, everything you’ve taught yourself to do – and it all has to happen really quickly. I mean really quickly: like in about a sixth of the time! For this dance piece I had something like eight months, whereas in a film score I had six weeks! It’s really crazy! And you have to record it and you have like 16 people breathing down your neck. It’s a very stressful process. But for some films you don’t hear from anyone and for others you have people virtually living in your house and poking your cheek to wake up! It depends greatly! What doesn’t change is that you have very little time to generate a lot of music that has to be very precisely synchronised to something. It’s technically very complicated. It’s like an Olympic event because it’s over so quickly.

JJ But it must also put you in touch with your own musical voice and how finely you can tune emotional responses through music?

NM Exactly! Exactly!

JJ Take the score for The Reader. If you watched the film without the music it would be powerful but nowhere near as gut-wrenching.

NM The music for that was really interesting because you had to have your skill-set in really good shape! I always give this as an example but I learned so much from this one moment! At the end of the movie Hanna Schmitz has learned how to write and how to spell her name, and there’s been this cue that’s been in for a few minutes because we’re moving quickly through time, so there needs to be music there. And when she writes her name on a piece of paper to say she’s received a package or whatever you’ve a number of choices about what the music’s going to do. You think, “Well, we can give her something, we can give her a note there”, “We can not notice it” or we can kind of undercut it and make it sinister. It’s a question of a single pitch – it’s a G sharp or a G natural in the harp or the oboe or whatever. And the scary thing is that in the first draft I did, it had this note in it and it really made it seem like it was okay she killed all those people and that adult literacy is really good and good on her!

JJ And who was making the decision about what would go in?

NM It was me and the director and the producer and the editor. There were five or six of us in the room. And we were watching just mortified because it just could not have been more wrong! Stephen Daldry, who’s a wonderful film director but also a wonderful stage director, has a great way of talking about music. It’s incredibly refreshing. He’s “This does work”, “This doesn’t work.” Two options!

JJ On, off!

NM Yes, no! “Keep it in the movie!”, “Get it out of the movie!” I came back the next afternoon with music that ignored it and he’s like “If we’re ignoring it why are we making a movie about it? If it doesn’t matter why are we sitting here in a darkened theatre thinking about it?” So you have to compromise and find some way of loading the material with saying “While it’s good that you’ve learned to write your name, it’s still not okay that you killed all those people that time, however…” All at the same time!

JJ But that’s surely the great power of music because it can be incredibly complex because it’s purely abstract. So you can be ironic, or duplicitous, or multi-layered…

NM But what happened for me was to realise that that can happen in a vertical moment rather than horizontally. If you’re trying to write a complicated thing, it doesn’t have to sound complicated. It just has to work in a complicated way. It’s like a flavour that hits your tongue: a “nutmeg moment” in the bottom of a beef stew! Something unexpected and you’re like “What was that?” and it’s over! And it has to work that way to have a real direct effect! Doing films has a lot to teach me!

JJ And before you write a film score do you come up with a sort of musical palette? To take an analogy with painting “I’m going to operate with these sorts of colours and this is what I’m going to draw on”?

NM You do! That has to be the first thing you come up with – the sound-world of the piece. One of the things about film that’s unfortunate is that the budgets sometimes dictate things in the wrong direction. Like how much you can have! The Reader was good in that way because I knew I couldn’t have an Inuit children’s choir or a percussion section the size of whatever. I could have a Mozart-sized orchestra and that was what the budget allowed. And you figure out how many minutes of music there are and there are many, many logistical factors that you have to work in. And you let them all marinate together and then you don’t wind up trying to record something much bigger than you have the money for. There’s a lot of that kind of stuff. When choosing a sound-world for a piece I tend to think of the biggest moment, the moment where I know the music would have to be the loudest and sort of back-fill it from there. If you look at these enormous, enormous movies where you’re just swimming through money…take Avatar! You’ve no way of telling how large that orchestra is – it think it kind of gets to where there’s too much stuff. And it’s all coming from 19th century European models of like what ‘other’ music sounded like.

JJ …as if Mahler went on to compose film scores…

NM Yes, or if he went to Bali for two weeks! And then at the end there’s always the Inuit choir! All that stuff sounds great!

JJ But it gets a little bit of a cliché in its extravagance.

NM … in its extravagance exactly! But then the urge for extravagance comes and it goes. I always have fantasies that if someone asks you to score some gigantic epic set in some far-off land you should just build your own instruments! But then it’s like what a pain in the ass! Can you imagine proposing that to the director!

JJ But then think back to some of Takemitsu’s film scores and how he would score them for amazing things like a dripping tap, a tin can and so forth.

NM Those Takemitsu scores are so crazily good! But I don’t think you’d get away with that any more! The appetite for that has rather changed! Again, I think it’ll go back and forth. Actually one thing I’m noticing is that as more and more people get home-recording set-ups, younger people are grabbing stuff from round their houses and making funny sounds and samples. It’s raised the expectation for electronic music and its context in classical music to be really organically made. So you can blow across an empty jug and make the bass sound and combine it with the sound of a tuba. It’s exciting.

JJ So, apart from the opera for ENO (and then the Met), what’s coming up for you?

NM Well, on Thursday I go to Amsterdam for a big orchestral piece I’ve done for Dutch National Ballet with the choreographer Benjamin Millepied. I have a ton of stuff, it’s crazy. There’s a quintupal piano concerto – which is insane!

JJ And can presumably only be done within easy distance of a Steinway warehouse!

NM Exactly! There a choral piece for male voices for Minneapolis. This whole is basically pointing towards the opera next year – gravity has really taken over that thing! It’s scary. Oh, then there’s a string quartet in the spring.

JJ Are you very disciplined? Do you get up, have a cup of coffee and just sit down and write?

NM Yes, that’s what I did today! You just do it!

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