High Scorer

Composer Nico Muhly wowed them at Carnegie Hall and the New York Public Library

Nico Muhly finds inspiration for his classical compositions in everything from Renaissance to electronic sources. “The idea that you have to take sides…just never occurred to me,” he says. Samantha West
Samantha West
Samantha West

Oh, to be Nico Muhly—26 years old, exuberantly talented, a friend and colleague of musicians ranging from Björk to Philip Glass and still basking in the afterglow of the first-ever, full-evening concert of his music, presented by no less august an institution than Carnegie Hall.

Life is sweet for the friendly, boyish-looking composer, who talks a mile a minute and would seem to think a good deal faster. Everything reminds him of everything else: his conversation ranges widely over many different fields—movies, television, books, and music from Viennese late-Romanticism to East Village post-punk—and it is difficult not to be caught up in his eagerness and enthusiasm.   

"I'm sometimes nervous that people like my music because they like me," he says over a brisk lunch near Pennsylvania Station in New York City. "And of course I'm happy that I have friends and that they want to be around me, but my work must stand on its own or it won't last."  

Not to worry. By 2004, Alex Ross, the music critic of the New Yorker, had pegged Muhly as "poised for a major career....If Muhly simply dumped his diverse musical loves into a score, he would have an eclectic mess," Ross continued. "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....The music spins away into a kind of gritty ecstasy...a cool balance between ancient and modern modes, between the life of the mind and the noise of the street."

Since then, Muhly orchestrated parts of Rachel Portman's score for the film The Manchurian Candidate; created a cycle of nine songs based on Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (which, appropriately, received its première at the New York Public Library); and released a CD of compositions for chamber ensemble, titled Speaks Volumes. He is currently at work on a large piece for the American Ballet Theatre.   

The music Muhly takes inspiration from ranges from the great English Renaissance composers William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons through rockers such as Prince and the experimental band Antony and the Johnsons. It is a long time since young composers were expected to be interested exclusively in either classical music or pop, something that still comes as a shock to an older generation: when I was attending conservatory in the late 1970s, admiration for even Brian Wilson or Bob Dylan was considered more than a little dubious by the more conservative members of the faculty.  

"That mode of thinking is not only no longer relevant, but it never even was relevant for composers of my generation," Muhly says, more sweetly than it reads. "The idea that you have to take sides—that you can't respond to the music of, say, both John Corigliano and Philip Glass at the same time—just never occurred to me."   

Born in Vermont and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Muhly began composing in his mid-teens. He moved to New York City to study under Corigliano and Christopher Rouse at Juilliard, all the while studying literature at Columbia. In addition to learning as much as he could about the music of the past, and forming suitably vivid opinions—Anton Webern, he says, is like "somebody who makes perfect tiny dioramas for a weird museum in Vermont"—Muhly threw himself into the study of electronics, a skill that has served him well.  His "day job" is creating MIDI demos (digital versions) of Glass' film scores—Notes on a Scandal, The Illusionist and Roving Mars—providing an aural representation of the music long before it is played by costly studio orchestras.

Muhly says that the Carnegie Hall concert was a "summary of my last five years of composition." In what was a generally favorable review in the New York Times, critic Bernard Holland still seemed puzzled by the "pick-and-choose" manner in which Muhly has assembled his own aesthetic from the historical continuum. "His musical fathers and grandfathers might have engaged in revolution, but what I heard on Friday wasn't in revolt against anything. Brahms? Twelve-tone music? It's as if they never existed."  

But Muhly is more interested in affirmation than revolt.

"I was happy with that review," he says. "I felt good that this was somebody who was not really naturally responsive to what I was doing—and that he still seemed to have a pretty good time."

Tim Page won a 1997 Pulitzer Prize for his music criticism in the Washington Post. He lives in Baltimore.

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