It was a long time ago. Our interview with Nico Muhly - the incredible, fearless, sleepless little wonder, more boringly known as "a very promising modern composer" - had been stuck in the pipes for half an eternity. He wrote another album since, trotted the untrotted part of the globe, and probably conquered the Icelandic grammar, too. However, our conversation was no newsy deal and still holds its truths.
Outrageous fun to be with, Nico had JM in stitches as we yanked at words like they were balloons. He's a writer of tingly, delicate, eloquent music that can be found in a NYC church, in a chamber orchestra performance, in a movie theater, on an album recorded by the Icelander Valgeir Sigurðsson, and probably in some nook of Mare Serenitatis as well.
He works with Philip Glass, Bjork (on Medulla and Volta so far), Rufus Wainwright (on Release The Stars) and a whole pleiad of other music dignitaries. "Dealing with classical musicians, I take it as far as I can, and then I bring Nico to the rescue." - how's that for a compliment from the diva of Iceland? But enough of naming names - the real thing to have your ears peeled for is Nico's own music.
We gave figuring him out a fair (if scattered and lengthy) shot.
JM: When listening to your record [Speaks Volumes], I get a strange feeling - it feels like a movie, but without moving pictures.
NM: A movie! Mm?
JM: Sort of. Like in time of silent movies - there would be a piano player who'd sit there and try to match what's going on onscreen. Well, in your case there's nothing onscreen but I can still see what's going on. I can read it.
NM: Hmmm. Interesting.
JM: Do you intend for your music to be descriptive like that?
NM: NO! I guess it's not bad that it's true for some people. Like, if you think it's true then it's true. But it's certainly not me; when I'm writing it, the last thing I think of is the visual [aspect]. It's almost always conceptual first. Or, linguistic. Usually, linguistic is the first impulse, and then yes, sometime it's visual. If it's a narrative, it's usually a kind of narrative like a sentence rather than a narrative like a story. I don't think on that album [Speaks Volumes, Nico's newest release at the time] any of the pieces have traditional story arcs... ok. If you see that, then that's great.
JM: So where do they come from? Language-wise, if you say they are linguistic? Little snippets here and there?
NM: Little snippets. Turns of phrase. Built-in expressions in English... the titles sort of give that away. Simple things that you say that have complicated connotations. Like that piece, 'It Goes Without Saying', - a really interesting phrase...
JM: ...and a very ironic title for a musical piece.
NM: Exactly! And there's also the structure of the piece - there's three chords in it and the most obvious cadence... I start with the emotional content of the piece - it's like a little box, and then what happens in there is less narrative and just kind of... grammatical, I guess. You figure out what work you're gonna do, and then find a way to express that in elegant - I *hope* elegant - manner... in things like 'Clear Music' (that harp and cello and celeste piece), there are Tavernier quotes cowering around inside it... in the very beginning, in the first phrase, and then you hear an echo that the rest of the time is just snaking around, and it's more of the experience of singing that...
JM: So then. The eternal question of relationship between language and music. Is music an extension of the language? Or is it something completely out there because you can't say with words what you can put into sounds?
NM: I don't necessarily think there's a limit to language, and I kind of don't like that spectrum. It's boring. I think they are the same in a lot of ways, but music most of the time is more efficient. Like say, you read a book and there is a complicated emotional passage - and that's the result of many many many hours of reading and working and thinking, and in music, you can get to that quicker.
JM: Like a package. Compressed.
NM: Right. But with music, it's easier to fail, easier for it to fall flat. Like in a book... I'm trying to think of a good example. Have you read the book called "Child in Time" by Ian McEwan?
JM: No, sorry, I have a weird reading background.
NM: It's ok, it's a random book... with a very complicated plot - a man's kid is abducted at a supermarket, and he never sees him again. And the rest of the book is this man losing his mind and then putting his life back together. And at a certain point... that man has a friend his age; he goes to that friend's house, and the friend has had a mental breakdown - he's behaving like a child, he's treating his own wife as a mother, he'd made a tree house and he stays up late. It's incredibly heartbreaking, and to me it's an emotional climax of that book. In reading, it takes you a couple of days to get there; compositionally, an emotion like that can be expressed much quicker - in a couple of phrases - which isn't to say it's going to be as specific or as narratively compelling. So it's not like there is a delimiter between language and music. It's more like a mutual relationship.
JM: Sometimes it works like a shortcut.
NM: Or longcut.
JM: Do you speak any other languages?
NM: I grew up with French. My mother's family is French. And I went to Italy, spent a while, so I speak Italian. And, in college I studied Arabic. Now it's Icelandic. I'm almost always involved in another language.
JM: So, when you hear a language spoken and you don't know what it means...
NM: It's my entire life! ...I feel like we have to alert those people to the fact that we'd like to eat something.
* JM and Muhly enthusiastically engage in a session of silent transmission addressed to the group of self-absorbed waiters in the distance. Eventually, it works. Breakfast ordered, coffee poured, we go on. *
JM: ...so what does it feel like?
NM: To me, it's a kind of familiar feeling now - I've been in a lot of situations of immersion.
JM: Does the sound of it alone communicate anything?
NM: Totally. And I like being lost in it, too. And I like feeling my brain hurt when I piece together a new language. It's exhausting. In the best possible way.
JM: I have an American friend whose boyfriend is Russian. She avoided learning any Russian for years so that she could be immersed in the pure sound of language when she'd finally get to visit.
NM: It's a beautiful feeling, and it's also very frustrating. My first serious experience of it was when I was 13 and I was just deposited in Italy, only knowing a couple of words in Italian. It was crazy. I wanted to scream, it was so frustrating - but you learn so much about how your brain works in an [emergency] like this. And, one thing I've learned from being in such situation is that I'm a total grammar obsessive. I'm so much happier knowing the grammar than not. Knowing all of the parts of language. It's interesting with Icelandic - its grammar is so complicated that I find myself much more shy to speak. Unless I know exactly what the grammar is... say, their declensions are so complicated - 28 different forms! and I'm scared of making an utterance unless I know exactly what I'm doing. And even if I know how it should sound but don't know what form it is in, exactly, I feel a hesitation.
* We enthuse about declensions for a while. JM considers learning Icelandic. *
JM: Back to music! I figure, your two biggest influences - an unlikely pair - are minimalism and church music.
NM: Totally true.
JM: That's curious because as different as they are, they have one thing in common - they both shun emotion. In very different ways, but they both do. Minimalist say it's a process, it's math, an artificial construct, and if a meaning is to be formed it's on the receiving side. Do you think they're lying?
NM: I don't think they're lying. They just needed to say that in the 60s because it was such a bad bad time, and it was really necessary for people to be combative about meaning. For me, all that stuff is a result of having a really lousy attitude. For the first minimalists - Reich and Glass... not so much Terry Riley - he was so awesome and so checked out of it, he didn't fit and that's why he didn't need to fight this whole thing. Whereas Reich and Glass, they were living in the cities and they had to do, say something to define their work, to be combative, and in a lot of cases the process itself - whether it was 12 tones or not - was a demonstration for the purpose of avoiding to show the heart. Turning into a Wagner... and then you have a war! That's the slippery slope that everyone saw in the 30s and 40s - if you emote, if you gush, it's manipulative.
JM: But the heart is still there. Latent. And the defining words are just words, an armour.
NM: Yes. And as soon as one calms down about it, you can find an emotional heart of minimalism, but those people are so hard to listen to talk about their music - because they had to make a new mythology for how to talk about their music. People would get all North Korean about their musical ideology.
JM: And the church music? Isn't it the other end of the spectrum? Where's the author in there? Where's the heart?
NM: In a lot of these... take Byrd who was writing music for the church, and also secret music for catholic home worship. So much heart there. Some of these anthems that he writes - they are so ravishingly beautiful, and yet there is a distance, you can't really get personal with it. With church music, you can't concentrate on yourself, you have to point up.
JM: And that was your experience writing this kind of music too?
NM: To me, the emotion of that music is in the magic of performance, too - the music itself is a means to offer the experience... The experience of being 11 and singing in a choir with a group of boys, being in that space, the whole 'art direction' and ambience of it had an enormous influence on me, and I think for many composers it's like that - getting back to that moment. Take Britten - you always sense that he wants to. For him, there's an emotional core there. That's a big thing with me - I'm obsessed with how to self-represent honestly, but not gush. Is there a way of incorporating (the emotion) without making a big deal out of it?
JM: What I think is happening with your music is this: music can be directly emotional, literally mimicking the emotion and evoking it in the listener that way, but music can also be emotional by being descriptive - by placing a person...
NM: ...into a situation.
JM: We don't start crying at the movies simply when shown a crying person onscreen. There's a story to follow.
NM: Exactly. Also, situational emotion stuff resists formal structure sometimes, and that's something I have a big problem with. Not in a way of struggling, but I think about it a lot. I love things that feel formal and then take you by surprise... being asked 'what's the structure of this piece', I'll say - I don't know! It's a box! Get in!
JM: You are good at it. That's one of the sources for little splashes of joy when listening to you stuff. It's structured structured structured and suddenly it's not.
NM: I'm trying to get better at that. I'm trying to make it more clean - what I'm up to. 'Clear music' feels a little... not disorganised, but it's like a house with additions - there's an initial structure and you keep building around it, first it's a standard house and you keep adding rooms... and when you used all the material... sometimes it's difficult to sort of fit a new thing into the house. But I think I'm getting better at that. There's this new thing, a folk song piece that is in three really discrete sections with three almost Wagnerian transitions between them, and each one is almost like a room in which all these things happen.
JM: Now to questions about how the music is presented after it's written. How solid is what you write? It goes out there - how much leeway do the musicians have?
NM: It's certainly fully notated; there's no improvisation.
JM: Does it change at any point? If yes, where?
NM: It depends on the piece, and whether I'm working with the musicians directly... 'Keep in Touch', that viola piece, we did change that a bit to make it more practical for the player. Generally, very little note changing. I usually write what I meant. But, there's an enormous amount of performance flexibility. I don't over-articulate, I write with a few key articulations, but there's stuff that is really specific and I insist on it. But to write the stuff that requires my constant presence is not what I'm interested in.
JM: So the idea is the opposite of being in a band - working closely with a few people you can control.
NM: When I play my own music, I see more of its inner workings, so I'm trying to be pretty specific. When I'm playing my own piano stuff and read the markings that I did, I'm always like "wtf" and then I hear it and it's aaaaaaaaah that's what it meant, ok!
JM: You record is recorded in a weird - for a classical universe - way. I've been in that place. During a performance, if a sound happens - pedal click-clacking, breathing, etc - everyone would just pretend it never happened and exclude it as extraneous matter. The recordings, too, tend to be surgically clean. Yours is turning that notion inside out. How did that happen?
NM: Valgeir Sigurðsson who recorded/engineered it is very attentive. It's recorded very... close. As in, if a sound happens as a result of music-making, he records it. And that's one of the reasons why I got along so well with him. I think we both have an ear for that stuff, for the tiny details, for that hi-fi feel when you can hear every crackle in the room - 'cause that is what you hear when you play it. Say, celeste is a noisy-ass instrument - and I wanted all that to be heard. Pedals and everything. Like you are so close, you are inside. Of course, there is decorous limit to it. I recorded another piece from the album, 'Honest Music', in a friend's kitchen. So lo-fi, it's crazy. When I sent it to Valgeir, he was very much into the idea of it. He said, you HAVE to come to the studio and record it with an actual microphone that actually hears everything. Eventually, we planned an album which would be a very very close investigation of this music. And I wrote a couple of pieces for it already knowing that was what we would do, knowing that we would get inside. And that's interesting, too, because if you're writing music knowing this is how it would get treated, you write differently. And I think I do. But it can get a little precious... with the next album that we're doing this summer [due out on May 6 2008 and christened Mothertongue], I'm backing off a bit. It's close, but it's also far.
JM: Looking forward to that! Any frowning upon those little precious things from more traditionally minded people of the classical world?
NM: No? I mean, one can try but I can't imagine what that would sound like. What would you say?
JM: "You're killing the idea of classical music!" People do get stuck in the tradition.
NM: They do! But I tend to not know those people. At all. I hope that what I'm doing is not that. What I'm doing is inside of the classical tradition and is respectful of it. What I'm doing is pretty pure - in a sense that I mean no disrespect by it. Also, I don't think you can argue with 'this is my experience of this music', there's no real thing you could say. You can disagree with the notes, and you can disagree with a lot of things - structure, recording techniques or whatever, but classical music sounds shitty when it's recorded. Really bad, and a lot of these recordings are so cleaned up it feels like K-Mart.
JM: Music school. Squeaky clean recordings of all that endless German stuff.
NM: *laughs* Exactly! One more and you'll have to go clean yourself. It's queasy. I can't listen to that. So depressing. And in school, that's all you know. And I don't mean to be mean, but I feel like even before that, I figured out right quick that it was about *making* recordings - distinct from just recording. "I'm a photographer" - and "I took a photo". Recording is a separate art and it has its artists. In Icelandic, the word 'to record' literally translates to 'take up'. I record you - I take you up. When I just learned about it, I went - NO SHIT! That's fabulous!
JM: Process-wise, how do you work?
NM: Depends on what.
JM: What happens in the very beginning, when the ideas are just starting to form, when you pick up a little hook that gets you going?
NM: The process differs from piece to piece. Also, my life is in constant flux. I have this job that's not exactly part-time... it's full-full-full time for a couple of days and then nothing for months, so it's random and I mooooooove around a lot. My sense of process is pretty messed up. Generally, there are three parts of the process - the conceptual part, taking of all the notes...
* JM peeks into Muhly's notebook *
JM: Airport announcements!
NM: This is for one of the new pieces that is about stresses... not stresses... travel. And exhaustion. Travel exhaustion. And wonder. I'm trying to reference the time in 1500s, the first age of exploration, when Europeans turned up in Asia and more weird parts of Europe and were, like, 'I saw this crazy thing, and the world is about to end 'cause it's a wonder. A miracle. Surveys of the world, old maps of the world, with dragons, etc, they give you a feeling on being against the edge of something, and I'm writing this piece that's about learning foreign languages in the hardest possible way, with absolutely no point of reference, and it's about grammar and about nostalgia for where you came from, all this. And the sound of it includes flipping of the train board, airport announcements, and schoolchildren and old Latin... There's this other thing, a piece for a trombone, and a singer and electronics - I'm having the singer sing anything she can recite quickly from memory, like the alphabet, sequences of numbers, phone numbers, addresses, fifty states. There are also sounds that form the sound of the day - sizzling and showers and typing and little weird things... It's just an idea - no music yet. Step one, a concept. And in step two, usually, I structure them - how exactly the piece breaks down (in images and shapes) and I write down little musical ideas, little sketches. Once all that work is done, I set it all out on the table and GO FOR IT REALLYREALLYFAST! And this is step two, the actual writing, which happens in, like, a second. And the third step is editing. In terms of proportions, out of ten, it's usually like 5-2-3. Thinking-writing-editing. Thinking is collecting.
* More coffee? JM and Nico listen to coffee pouring. *
NM: ...I have this very musical espresso machine *sings an espresso machine song*
JM [LISTENS]: Those things are awesome.
NM: Also, on the conceptual level, I'm interested in using the sound of things just to see if I can do it and not have it be in bad taste. I don't feel like an electronic musician at all - it just happens to have a computer in it.
JM: 'Electronic' is mostly denominational anyway. Computer is just a vehicle.
NM: But if you make a big deal of it then it's totally over!
JM: You seem to be involved in a million projects at once. Everybody wants you! How come?
NM: I don't mean to be mean, but a lot of times when people ask "how did you get that" they actually mean "WHY did you get that". The best thing to say is I DON'T KNOW. And have that be true.
JM: Let's say it falls into your lap.
NM: It falls into your lap. But I think I write music that is fun to play, and fun to work on I hope, and I'm trying to deliver stuff on time, and I'm not an asshole... If you can just be gracious...
JM: ...they come your way.
NM: I think so. I've also been lucky in terms of having all those nested connections. But, there was a time about two years ago when I was disgruntled because I never won any competitions and that would make me really sad. I'd NEVER win AAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRGH! And then I realised it totally didn't matter. That stuff is NOT what it's about. It's better to just do and go.
JM: Check out.
NM: Not check out. Check in somewhere else. I don't feel like I've checked out. My interests are checked out - like church music. It's not "new" music. I think about church music a lot. And I write it a lot. There are ways to be naturally checked out - which is not to say Terry Riley! I think a lot of new music is so interested in situating itself in the new music scene, staking a place for itself: "I'm a postmodern musician." What does THAT mean? And on the Internet now, it's crazy, people label themselves and I'm like... WHY ARE YOU SAYING THAT? I don't want to listen to your music now that you've said that. Awful. It's so depressing, to try and map it out for yourself. Constantly articulating your subject, constantly performing your 'part'. If you're checked out from that, then that's fine.
JM: It's encouraging to hear stuff like this from someone like you. Someone who does so well in the system but isn't subscribed to any of its shit.
NM: I think I find that the more people think about style in terms on nomenclature, the less successful their music is. Twenty minutes they spend thinking about how postmodern it is are the twenty minutes they could've spent writing. Or editing that clarinet part.
JM: Ok, this is a random question I ask everyone out of curiosity. Do you have any sort of synaesthesia?
NM: No no, not at all. What I definitely have... I know what E flat major is when I hear it. I know where the certain key is situated at when I hear it, but it's more like going by what is famous in that key. There is also spacing of things and what shines and what doesn't shine and what's dark. There's not much work that can be done now in E flat major...
* NM and JM engage in a rather lengthy discussion of which key is occupied forever by Wagner so you can't squeeze in. *
JM thinks NM's music is very visual. He's happy to hear that but doesn't see it like that:
NM: I'm sure bees aren't like, LET'S MAKE SOME HONEY!
JM: ...and then go hmmmmmm, it's sweet!
NM: *laughs* I'm sure the process of life of a bee isn't very interesting for most people: "I went to the flooooower, and I got out the nectaaaaaar, and I put it on the grid..." But putting honey in their tea feels mmm great.
JM: What happens if Nico can't make
honey music anymore?
NM: No idea. I don't know. *long pause* Maybe I'd make pants. Or something. I feel like pants are a big problem for men. I have this idea that I and only I know the right pants for me, and I'm yet to find that perfect pant. I'm annoyed. I'm jealous of the people who go, "Oh these pants are perfeeeect!" Where are MY perfect pants?
JM: Out of modern/pop stuff kind of stuff, what do you like?
NM: I like nothing! I don't know! There's so much, it's a crazy question.
JM: What's on top? Right now?
NM: I can tell you what I listened to today. Smog - almost like country songs. He's from Texas. Gorgeous. Very minimal. Dulcimer. CocoRosie. I listen to oooooceans of music.
JM: I know it's a dumb question, but people like to know. I like to know! So that I can say - hey! that's something that I like, too! And feel cooler.
NM: Hmmm... *stares into his iPod*... a little Paul Simon came on... I was happy about that... some Thomas Tallis - that's not modern, sorry... I listen to this French singer... more Tallis...
JM: We really like your official site. One of the reasons is I'm an antuquarian book dealer.
NM: The guy that did it is really smart and really gets that stuff too. The imagery comes from the Nuremberg Chronicle - that is one of my most favourite things. This is what that piece "Wonders" [now a part of Mothertongue - JM] is almost exclusively about. In the section about edges of the world - there is a map of all those extremes of known earth, and on them little portraits of people that are extremes too - an androgyn, a bird-man, a wolf-boy, and that is so crazy to put on the map. It's not as much describes a place as it says: the edge of the world is known.
JM: It's crazy how different the picture of the world was then. Sometimes you would be looking at illuminations in a book of hours and wonder what those people were smoking. But they'd think the same about us.
NM: What's fascinating about the Nuremberg Chronicle is the notion of what documenting is: how it's a narrative, how it's divided into sections - everything about it is fabulous to me. So I told the designer that I wanted to use those images and the idea of it aesthetically being like an old book. I love how the information is presented in old books - it's like, 'A tract concerning the nature of Witches and the burning thereof'. There is something about self-representation, it's like a failed honesty, so I wanted people to go there and get as much information from the way it looks and functions as from its content.
* Following this, there is a discussion of ancient cookbooks. Nico wants to get one with the recipe for preparing a goose, document it with pictures, and make music for it - a little goose cartoon opera, a tableau vivant. *
A digression: The Bjork/Guardian set-up
This snippet is dated but not less curious for that. The Guardian, with a little help from Bjork, published an article by Nico in 2007. The piece had an awesomely scandalous title that Muhly had nothing to do with - and a picture of King's College choir to go with it.
NM: Bjork called me and said I had to write something. Anything. So I talked to them: "She said - anything?" Them: "An essay about collaboration?" I was like, that's really boring. "When-two-peo-ple-work-to-ge-ther".
JM: Well that could be done... depends on who's writing?
NM: So I thought, what would English people like to read? And I thought - for them, that specific theme, the gentle erotic content of something they all know about, has more resonance there than it has here.
JM: You think?
NM: I definitely do. Nothing functions here like it does there. It's almost like a function of their national identity which we don't really have. If someone would write something like that about country music? No... we don't really have a similar classical tradition like that. But in those English institutions, everyone wants to hear nasty stories about it.
JM: What does the future hold?
NM: My vow for the next few years of my life is to be honest with myself about things. Being there and being square about it. Saying exactly what I mean. I want to say the thing ACTUALLY and I also want to say it in the method of saying. And I'm trying to do this in a way that's super transparent and effective.
People always point out the influences, and I used to be pretty defensive - "Oh, this is different because this and this and that!" But now I let it go. Saying there is a quote from someone else is like saying, I saw you on the street. Well, yeah. And?
So I'm aiming to be done with not admitting influences, and done with worrying about style. I still do, a little bit. Sometimes people ask so much - 'what does it sound like?'... and I ask other people about it all the time! Like, 'tell me what the next closest thing that I know it sounds like.'
JM: It's neat though when people who write music talk about it. It's never something that you can come up with, being on the other side.
NM: I get frustrated by it though. I like talking about it before it happens, but after it happens, you want to move on. And, it's so private. Then, lots of stuff in the planning stage is so private - it's for me and for me only. Like cooking. Say, you're cooking a meal for people and you remember the way your dead grandmother used to do this one thing, and you do it like she used to. It's there, for you. And maybe it reflects in the dish. It's not necessarily something you'd want to talk about. Or you could if you wanted to, but that would be tacky. The initial process can be deeply, deeply emotional. Almost more emotional that what you end up with. For me, this is the thing I'm trying to think about more. 'Cause I know for me, say, chopping onions can be very emotional. Or the way I squash the garlic.
JM: But guests don't have to know.
NM: They don't have to know. But my fear sometimes is that there is more in the process than there is visible when it's done. Sometimes I get scared if that's the case. I think really hard about it - you're trying to process a very emotional situation and you end up with a piece that doesn't feel as expressive. That's my big struggle. If it's there, I'd like to find a way to express but not be obvious.
NM: *Checks his schedule for the day* Oh my god! I have to be in Texas!
(We're in Manhattan, for the record.) With that, JM gets a hug and a quick picture, and Nico is off to further explore and describe the whole wonderful world full of sound - and, we're convinced, to make it even better.