THE RIGHT NOTES
Nico Muhly Composed a Revolution in Classical Music. He Hopes Beyoncé Is Listening.
Nico Muhly’s opera, ‘Marnie,’ its story made famous by Hitchcock’s movie, is being performed at the Metropolitan Opera. Where will his inspirations take the young composer next?
The sweeps of pencil, the precise configuring of the notes: To look at the composer Nico Muhly’s hand-written scores is like observing crisply seductive works of art.
He writes his scores in longhand first, before inputting them into a computer. Muhly, one of the world’s hottest young composers, also plays the notes and compositions on a keyboard to further refine them, and all this in a New York office that he has shared for the last two and half years with fellow musicians and composers Sufjan Stevens and Thomas Bartlett.
It’s probably one of New York’s coolest workspaces. “It has changed my life,” Muhly said, as he is no longer working in the confined space of his Lower East Side apartment.
A onetime assistant of Philip Glass, at 37 the handsome and fast-speaking, speedy-thought-generating Muhly is one of opera’s youngest, most exciting composers. He has been creating works for 15 years. Marnie, presently showing at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, is his third opera, after Two Boys, which was based on the true story of the dark and toxic relationship of two young men online, and Dark Sisters, about women in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
His operas (including Marnie, which received its world premiere in London late last year) received mixed reviews, which Muhly tells me he doesn’t read. He has worked with Björk, Adele, Antony and the Johnsons, and indie rock band Grizzly Bear. In 2015 he premiered Sentences, a 30-minute oratorio about iconic WWII gay code-breaker Alan Turing. He also contributed to this year’s re-recording of David Bowie’s 1987 album Never Let Me Down.
In his light-filled office Muhly pointed to a nativity cantata he was working on, and then the music for Marnie, his second opera for the Met and an adaptation of Winston Graham’s 1961 novel, rather than Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 movie. The novel and opera are set in Barnet, North London, rather than Hitch’s switch to Baltimore, and are piercing because the central character is always being observed and shadowed by men.
The opera, with a libretto by Nicholas Wright, was written before #MeToo, and yet deals (alongside its familiar plot points of embezzlement, blackmail and identity changes) with marital rape, sexual assault, and an atmosphere imbued with the predatory male gaze, which Marnie (Isabel Leonard) exists under “in an abstract way,” said Muhly. “In the last year we’ve come to understand that women live in a three-dimensional environment of menace, however visible and subtle it is.”
Muhly doesn’t know yet what his fourth opera will be, saying it takes “years and years” to compose one, and that he will get on with it when he feels he has the time to do so. Still, he reveals that his next opera may focus on what happened when Agatha Christie disappeared for 11 days in 1926, later claiming to be suffering from amnesia.
To date Muhly has found that people receive operas set to real-life events “as not quite real”; in Two Boys, he recalled, some people didn’t believe a senior policewoman didn’t know how an email server worked. “But she didn’t. The good news is the things that happen in real life are much crazier than what you can make up.”
However, do not expect any operas about anything focused on the Trump era. “I have never written political music. I don’t know how, and I’m not sure what it would sound like. There would be no joy to be found in it.”
Muhly noted his musical interests were more “esoteric and weird” than the all-too-literal news on any given day and that Ben, his boyfriend of 10 years, worked for a progressive political organization. “A lot of what I do is tell young composers to go out and vote,” said Muhly.
Muhly is resistant to defining his style of music-making, which combines electronic, choral and classical styles. “If you ever have 10 minutes to think about defining your musical style, I would suggest doing something else like learning German or doing ‘a Marie Kondo’ sorting through your drawers,” Muhly said with a hearty giggle.
“I find it supremely uninteresting and not productive, because you find yourself writing the press release before the piece. If you get caught up in self-definition, you don’t do yourself any favors announcing to the world what the project is stylistically.”
He prefers to talk about influences. “Influence is considered such a bad word, as if you’re stealing a recipe from someone. I confess quite openly when I steal something from John Adams. I email and tell him, too. He’s quite gracious about it. My emotional home base of music is from the 1500s to the late 1600s. Maybe then it picks back up to the choral world with Stanford, Finzi, and Howells. Then (Steve) Reich, Glass and Adams, and Messiaen and Stravinsky: the usual suspects. I don’t worry about how to mix them together.”
Muhly is an only child, who was “precocious, awkward, and weird” when young. His mother is a painter (one of her works is on his office wall), and his father a filmmaker who did archaeological work. Their home in Providence, Rhode Island, was “full of their eclectic friends,” their son recalled. Music-wise, they played Alfred Deller and Joni Mitchell.
His mother taught at Wellesley, and Muhly would ask her to get music from the university library. He first went to Tanglewood (the famous music venue in the Berkshires) at 15. He once took the bus to Boston to buy a Stravinsky box-set. He was spoken to as an adult, he recalled. “The way I think children should always be spoken to.”
The young Muhly, while deeply attached to music, studied English and Arabic at Columbia. It was the smartest decision he ever made, he said, “not just focusing on music at conservatory.” Next, he completed a master’s degree in music at Juilliard, and then it was on to working with Glass, and beginning his own composing career in 2003. He also joined the Icelandic collective Bedroom Community.
Coming out was never an issue. “It was a non-thing. It couldn’t have been more a non-thing. My parents had lot of gay friends, there were gay people at high school. Of all the struggles in my life, homosexuality was not one of them.”
He said that he was always working, which he was trying “to get better about.” There have been “ill-advised periods of not allowing myself time and that’s not good.” He works in a very disciplined way every day, and doesn’t like to end any day “scrambling, it makes me crazy.”
In the last couple of years the way he composes music has become more involved, the compositions denser. “There’s more shit going on. The work has gotten deeper. It’s like when you prepare food and spend half a day chopping everything. The end result doesn’t taste any more complicated, it’s just all that work has been done by you.”
From when he worked with Glass as a first-year Masters student aged 22, “I never thought of being a composer but as someone who composed. The difference between the thing that you do and the thing that you are had yet to become obvious to me.” At Juilliard, there was an expectation to get a doctorate, and many of his peers entered “baroque” application processes to doctoral programs and such.
“The idea felt like it was to develop a body of work in an academic setting and from that enter a variety of competitions, or enter submissions to conferences, or calls for scores and from that would emerge a rational step-ladder of commissions.”
But not for Muhly. Glass advised him to forge his own way. He began to compose for friends, and cajole others to play the pieces. “Suddenly my music became contextualized in a much less sealed environment alongside others.”
Muhly worked for Glass for around eight years, helping input his film scores (including The Hours, which Muhly gives me a burst of on the keyboard), into computers. Muhly also conducted random sessions for Glass, “and basically just made myself useful, it was incredibly formative. The great thing about Philip is that he doesn’t teach. He never taught. I didn’t show him one piece of music of mine until the year before I left when I was having a concert. It was very important to me that I was someone doing a job, and not using this amazing opportunity as any kind of stepping stone.”
Glass showed him how a musician of his standing is an industry in his own right, responsible for the livelihoods of a number of employees. Glass isn’t grand, Muhly said. “He gets up and goes to work every day. He’s on the ball.” Muhly similarly tries to be as respectful and considerate towards those who rely on him day-to-day and in the theater.
Muhly stopped reading reviews after the U.K. premiere of Two Boys. The amount of “ill-will in the classical universe” meant he was seen as a “craven, publicity thirst-sucker.”
The New York Times was qualified in its praise of Marnie when it opened at the Met last week; critic Anthony Tommasini noted that “despite passages of richness, ambiguity and complexity, especially in the orchestra, the music seldom plumbs the darkest strands of this psychological drama.”
Muhly claims not to care what the naysayers opine. “The real thing,” for him, is the audience interacting with a piece of music, not a critic. He is glad arts criticism exists, performing “a mysterious sponge function, but nothing anyone ever writes about me will ever be as heartbreaking as anything I tell myself. Every time I hear anything of mine, I cringe at what I can see or hear is a missed opportunity. I always promise myself that next time I will do it better.” He laughed, recalling seeing a friend, a composer, recently walking into a theater to hear one of her pieces.
“I said to her, ‘Are you crazy?’ I watch from the side of the stage. There’s not enough Klonopin in the world that would get me to sit and listen to something I had composed.” He accepts criticism from fellow composers, he said, and when it comes to listening to music Muhly recommends Tanglewood, sitting outside, and with food of your choice.
Muhly is bipolar, and has written about his long, varied—and sometimes very frightening—experiences of living with the condition on his blog. There was “a dark decade” from around 2005 to 2015 when his manias were particularly extreme. Eventually, he found the right combinations of therapy and medication. He likens the importance of the latter to “taking the edge off the burning sensation, so you can see what is wrong with your skin.”
Mania he likens to a “dangerous brightness,” which can either be dialed self-aggrandizingly up, or make one feel too removed.
Today he feels in more of a healthy balance than he has ever felt, and has written a violin concerto and “spiral mass” inspired by his experiences. He has withdrawn three pieces of work from that time which he doesn’t remember writing at all.
He remains “hyper-vigilant,” as he put it. “The thing with mania is you can cross into the danger zone without knowing it. You have to take a very careful inventory of what is going on.”
A couple of times a month Muhly has to fill up his pill box, and as he counts the tablets out he said he mulls to himself, “I’m an insane person, and I am staying alive because of this.” Those prescription refills, he said, used to have some of the letters of the drug’s names blanked out to maintain recipients’ privacy. But recently one can opt into having the names of the drugs being written out in full. “It’s quite moving. It makes it feel so much less like a secret thing,” said Muhly.
Next, he would like to figure out a “smarter rotation” of his work. He’d like to compose a ballet for a ballet company, and have a more formal relationship with an outlet of choral music. He would also like to be more “socially useful” to younger musicians, recalling how hard, and sometimes expensive, it was to access music when he was their age.
As for other famous artists Muhly would like to collaborate with, “I would work with Beyoncé in half a second, that would be so great,” he said, smiling. “What she’s doing now, which is specifically about black female experience, is amazing, important work. All I could hope to supply would be a glazing at the very end if she would like or want that.”
Despite his achievements and creative radicalism, Muhly rejected the idea he has been that revolutionary in the classical world.
“I was doing my thing, and not self-aware enough to know it was different to what other people were doing. I always say to musicians, just do your thing. If you know someone who plays in a band, just do it. It’s like if you like cooking: go ahead and chop away.”
He smiled and laughed again. “It’s not that complicated.”
Marnie is at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, until Nov. 10.