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Who Is Nico Muhly And Why Should I Care?

On May 14, 2010, at the great New Music blog Sequenza 21, the question was raised: Is Nico Muhly really all that great? To be exact, “…Is Nico Overrated? ” The site Comments showed that there were 67 responses.

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Nico Muhly

First, I need to state that I am not am musician. I am not a critic. I have zero musical background, not even any appreciation courses in college. I am simply a passionate listener and a Public Radio zealot.

At the time that I saw the Sequenza 21 piece, I had only heard a bit of Nico Muhly. I mostly knew his name from his connection to the violist Nadia Sirota.

So, just a bit on Ms. Sirota. I knew of Ms Sirota from her work as a commentator first on WNYC and now as the host of “Nadia Sirota on Q2”, the 24 hour New Music stream from WQXR. I believe that Nadia was pulling the over night air shift for WNYC, and did the same at WQXR when that station became part of the Megalith New York Public Radio. Since I am not up in the middle of the night, I first became aware of Nadia when she served as a commentator on documentary projects at WNYC and then WQXR. I do believe that she did a lot of work on the WNYC John Cage Project 24’33”, a 24 hour John Cage marathon documentary and music lesson. The name is based on the John Cage piece 4’33’, a silent piece. But, I cannot point you to the programming. I just cannot find it. I also remember Nadia as being a big part of the WNYC “Remembering Lenny” project, which celebrated the legacy of Leonard Bernstein. I wish that I could give links to these various sources, but I cannot. The WNYC and WQXR web sites have become such a massive jumble and jungle that I simply cannot ferret them out. Suffice it to say that I was smitten with a great desire just to hear Nadia speak about music. She is Juilliard trained. She is bright, witty, simply brilliant. So, anyone with whom she is associated I needed to know more about. Nadia is a member of ACME, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble. She also is one of the “satellite” players who augment the work of the Bedroom Community group described below.


Nadia Sirota

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Nico Muhly with Nadia Sirota

At WQXR, I watched the video Keep In Touch, a duet with Nico on piano and Nadia on viola. That was my first experience at seeing and hearing Nico Muhly.
I purchased Nadia’s album First Things First; and Nico’s albums, Mothertongue, Speaks Volumes, and The Reader (music for the film of the same name). But, I still knew very little about him.

The next thing that happened was that I learned about The Whale Watching Tour for 2009. This takes a bit of explanation. Nico is part of a group associated with the Icelandic music production company called Bedroom Community with Valgeir Sigurðsson, Sam Amidon, and Ben Frost. I sort of got wind of this tour and watched some of their videos. The tour included the four major players just noted, plus four other musicians including Nadia Sirota. Now, I was hooked. These four guys and their associates just blew the doors off the place. I got on Bedroom Community’s mailing list. When Nico’s album I Drink The Air Before Me was available in .mp3, I bought it at the Bedroom Community web site. I normally buy music at Amazon in .mp3. But, this album I wanted to buy from the source, if I paid more for it, I did not care.

So, that was pretty much it, until yesterday. Some alert I had set on the computer, WQXR or WNYC, popped up a 2008 New Yorker piece by Rebecca Mead, Eerily Composed – Nico Muhly’s sonic magic . Eight pages of dense prose. Now a fan, I read every word. There is a huge amount of material here about Nico Muhly’s background.

[Message to Nico: I went looking for some “public domain” information about you. Naturally, I went to Wikipedia. There is an article; but it is sparce, mostly taken up with lists of your prodigious output. You should go to Wikipedia, read Ms Mead’s article, and flesh out the Wikipedia entry. Ms Mead probably knows more about you than know about yourself. You can do it. All you need do is register. I am registered and I even wrote an article, The Sourland Mountain Preserve, a place where I go hiking. So, give it a shot.]

If you are able to access the article via the internet, I recommend it. I do not know what the rules are at the New Yorker web site. I am a subscriber to the print and digital editions, so when I visit one or the other, I am automatically “logged in”. I see the whole of any article I find. Material in The New Yorker is protected by copyright, or I would reproduce the whole article here for those who are unable to see it. But, I think it is O.K. to just give a couple of snippets. I think that these comments will well answer the question raised back in May at Sequenza 21.

Philip Glass, for whom Muhly has worked since his sophomore year of college, at Columbia, says that he finds in Muhly ‘a curious ear, a restless listening, and a maker of works. He’s doing his own
thing.’ ”

“Muhly formed alliances with a number of musicians who have become regular collaborators, including Nadia Sirota, a violist. Sirota says of Muhly, ‘He is different from a lot of composers his age in that he prefers a kind of old-school way of approaching string playing, from the style of the forties and fifties, with lots of vibrato, and very romantic. ‘ ”

At Juilliard, where he was studying with the composers Christopher Rouse and John Corigliano, Muhly was unusually productive. ‘He would bring in thirty or forty pages of music a week, and if twenty-five of them didn’t work out he would have no problem with that,’ Corigliano says. ‘We worked on structure, but the skill of writing virtuosically for winds, brass, percussion, strings—he came in the door with that.’ ”

Philip Glass told me, ‘The great anxiety among young composers is, when are you going to hear your own voice? But the real problem is, how do you get rid of it, how do you develop? Nico hasn’t got to that yet. There is a lot of rapid growth in one’s twenties, but the big challenge is to keep that alive over the long stretch, for the next forty years, and not let it get stifled by the meanness of the world we live in. ‘”

John Adams, who curated the Zankel Hall series in which Muhly’s work appeared last year, says that Muhly’s music is ‘eclectic, nondenominational in the world of contemporary classical music, which tends to split off into lots of different orthodoxies. He obviously shows influences from the minimalist composers, but his music is not nearly as rigorously designed. It is very much like him: it is open, it is attractive, it is pleasing.’ Adams says that he hears his own influence on Muhly’s work—‘It’s like meeting a twenty-year-old who looks strangely familiar, only to discover he’s your long-lost son’—but adds that he finds it oddly untroubled. ‘I could use a little more edge, or a little more violence,’ Adams says. ‘At times, there is a surfeit of prettiness in Nico’s music, and I am not sure it is a good thing for someone so young to be so concerned with attractiveness.’ ”

Neal Goren, the artistic director of Gotham Chamber Opera, which plans to commission a work from Muhly, says, ‘Nico is not one of those composers who writes music to hide who he is.’ “

Now, these are just quotes. They do not begin to flesh out the story told by Ms Mead. So, I hope that anyone interested – and, you should be interested – will try to get Ms. Mead’s article.

But, look who the people are who are quoted: Philip Glass, John Corigliano, John Adams. While I am most often not brave enough for Mr. Corigliano’s music, I certainly am aware of the respect he is shown. Regarding Philip Glass and John Adams, I have large libraries of their music. Just in case I do not get enough of them on Q2.

I have been enjoying Nico Muhly’s music for some time now. Even so, the thing at Sequenza 21 nagged at me. My own comment had been: “Nico is very important. It is widely accepted that he is a gifted composer. Beyond that, what he is doing is showing that it is still possible for a young musician/composer to make a difference in all of the noise that is around the New Music world today. That is especially important for other younger talented people to see.”

At the time I wrote this, I knew really very little of Nico’s background. Now, with the benefit of Ms. Mead’s piece, I have a much better understanding of Nico as a composer. The answer is no, no and emphatically no, Nico is not overrated. I am sure that I will be acquiring a lot more of his work as it becomes available.

Thank you Nico. And, thank you Nadia for giving me Nico.

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