Interviews with Young People #1: NICO MUHLY
Often times, younger composers attempt to create a movement of change in classical music, a field where everything is just fine the way it is. In my inaugural installment of Interviews with Young People, I spoke with composer Nico Muhly about his debut full-length CD album Speaks Volumes which comes out this month on the Bedroom Community label. According to the press release,
Speaks Volumes doesn’t sound like most classical records. It is not an idealized version of live musical performance or a substitute for the authentic live experience. It is not intended to conform to the nineteenth-century experience of classical music. Speaks Volumes was approached from a different direction. Sigurdsson’s recording and production doesn’t sit back and let the music sweep the listener away emotionally; it leans forward in exacting scrutiny and urges the listener to pay attention.
Naturally, I was skeptical and/or dismissive of these claims, but I thought it might be a good idea to give this young composer an opportunity to appear on my blog, so that the huge demographic of certain very specific types of people who follow my Pontifications might have an opportunity to decide for itself.
Prof. Heebie McJeebie: Your new album is titled Speaks Volumes. Who is responsible for this title?
Nico Muhly: I am responsible.
Prof. McJeebie: But there are no words in any of the pieces. Why on earth would you make the title so misleading?
Nico: While there are no words, most of the pieces are about words or, at least, they take their cues from my thinking about language and the way language works. I have a love affair with the English language.
Prof. McJeebie: A love affair?! Well, don't you think it would be better for you to be in love with a musical language? [coughs]
Nico: These pieces (like Honest Music) are about ways of speaking and ways of communicating.
Prof. McJeebie: There are parts of Honest Music that sound as though the performers are stopping-and-starting and making mistakes! That doesn't seem very "honest" to me. Why did you allow the performers to get away with those mistakes?
Nico: Because I wanted to see what shame they would bring to their families with their shoddy intonation.
[The professor has a coughing fit for a few minutes before continuing.]
Prof. McJeebie: Valgeir Sigurðsson is credited as the producer, mixer, and co-programmer of (I assume) TANDY electronics, on the album. How do you pronounce his name?
Nico: His first name is pronounced like [Vahl-keer] with a rolled “R.” His last name is Sigurthson. The ð is a [th] and its name is eth. There are intricacies to the Icelandic language that elude me. I have had a two-week torrid affair with the language, but certainly not a love affair.
Prof. McJeebie: What would you need from a language in order to make a commitment?
Nico: An understanding of its subjunctive.
Prof. McJeebie: It seems to me that Valgeir, having worked with some popular music stars in the past, might want to dumb down your music so he can sell it in popular music record stores like Sam Goody. How did the two of you get along?
Nico: I'm not sure that Valgeir has any interest in whether or not my album sells in Sam Goody; they don't have that [expletive deleted] on the volcano. Certainly no project he's ever worked on before has been designed for commercial success. Did you hear Medúlla?
Prof. McJeebie: No, I’m not a big fan of Meredith Monk albums.
Nico: [brief laughter, then prolonged silence]
Prof. McJeebie: The final piece on Speaks Volumes, “Keep in Touch,” is performed by the cross-dressing singer Antony. How did you get in touch with your feminine side while working on this piece?
Nico: Actually, Antony was dressed as a man when he recorded it. I was thinking about Nadia Sirota, the violist, while I wrote "Keep in Touch."
Prof. McJeebie: I see. Which lady composers most influenced you?
Nico: To my knowledge I have never been influenced by a lady composer. I have been influenced by people having been once upon a time influenced by Hildegard, of Bingen, but that's one degree removed.
Prof. McJeebie: You know, upon listening to the first two minutes of each track on the album, it occurs to me that you are influenced by cold and empty styles like minimalism and renaissance music, but also by more emotional music like that of Pulitzer Prize-winning composers such as Paul Moravec and John Corigliano. How do you justify writing music that is both empty and emotional?
Nico: I studied with Corigliano, and he thought minimalism was cold and empty, too. I think it's generational. For me, the most emotional music I've heard written since 1950 is the first few minutes of Music in Twelve Parts, followed by Shaker Loops and then The Cave. So go know.
Prof. McJeebie: Do you enjoy being emotional?
Nico: No, it's really messy (i.e. “subjunctive”).
Read more about Speaks Volumes and listen to excerpts.
Read more about Nico Muhly.