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On the eve of his Metropolitan Opera debut, Nico Muhly argues that his wildly eclectic career is more "institutional" than "indie." TRISTAN KRAFT sits down with the composer, whose output ranges from folk-rock collaborations and film scores to church music and mainstream ballet commissions.

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Photographed by James Salzano in Manhattan's Chinatown
Grooming by Affan Malik / shirt: Rick Owens; trousers: Ann Demeulemeester;
boots: M.A+ by Maurizio Amadei; watch: M&Co. vintage
© James Salzano 2013
"I think we make it very clear that the internet is a delivery system for the same thing that happens in Giulio Cesare or in Partenope...."
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Muhly performing in Planetarium at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, March 2013
© Ed Lefkowicz 2013
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Photographed by James Salzano in Manhattan
Coat: Julius
© James Salzano 2013

I've been fighting with the term 'indie classical' for a long time," says Nico Muhly. "I feel like it's unfair in a lot of directions, but mainly, I just don't feel very indie. I feel quite institutional at that. My favorite thing to write is church music, and I have an opera at the Met. I have albums of sacred choral music out on Decca. That's not indie. It's actually the opposite of indie."

Attempting to pigeonhole the thirty-one-year-old composer may incite that same futile feeling music appreciators get when trying to ID the Tristan chord. To survey his output is to look at genre in a funhouse mirror. His most prominent work to date is heard again this month, when Two Boys makes its North American debut at the Met on October 21. Muhly's second opera, Dark Sisters, was unveiled at New York's Gotham Chamber Opera in 2011, four months after Two Boys had its world premiere at English National Opera (where it took the stage in a co-production with the Met).

Standard fare, so far. But consider Muhly's early, non-linear foray into opera, a 2009 work titled Green Aria: A ScentOpera, presented as part of the Guggenheim Museum's Works & Process series, which funneled Christophe Laudamiel-designed perfumes to audience members as they listened to Muhly's music. Muhly's ballet commissions include From Here On Out at American Ballet Theater, Triade at the Paris Opera Ballet, One Thing Leads to Another at the Dutch National Ballet and Two Hearts at New York City Ballet — all four choreographed by Benjamin Millepied. And then there are the Decca recordings, Seeing Is Believing and A Good Understanding.

Looking further afield, we find Muhly's name on the other side of the classical fence, firmly planted in pop music. The composer has worked with transgender singer Antony Hegarty; Brooklyn-based (and self-professing "indie") rock band Grizzly Bear; singer/songwriter Bonnie "Prince" Billy; DJ/producer Diplo; and Jónsi Birgisson, frontman of the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós. Look closer, and Muhly's collaborations start to get institutional again — Muhly playing the piano for Björk's 2004 album Medúlla and conducting on 2007's Volta, arranging songs on Rufus Wainwright's 2007 Release the Stars and arranging string parts for last year's Climax by R&B/hip-hop singer (and American household name) Usher. Then there are the movie soundtracks — to name a few, The Reader (2008), Margaret (2011) and the Sundance-vetted, Daniel Radcliffe-as-Allen Ginsberg-vessel Kill Your Darlings, due in movie theaters this month. 

According to Muhly, the concept of genre may be altogether moot. "Genre doesn't matter anymore. It stopped mattering when record stores closed. Genre is just, essentially, 'What aisle of the supermarket is it in?' It's a taxonomy that's very useful for dead things. It's a taxonomy that's very useful for things that are no longer being actually made or revised." Then, as he often seems to in conversation, he qualifies his statement with a burst of summary that's as irreverent as it is funny: "It's fine to say, 'Bach is Baroque.' Do you know what I mean? That's okay. Because he dead."

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Muhly at New York's Wordless Music Festival, 2009
© Hiroyuki Ito/Getty Images 2013

Bach is playing in Muhly's apartment when we meet in late April. The apartment seems to reflect Muhly's personality: it shows off good taste (it's open and clean, and large windows look out over the treetops of the Sara D. Roosevelt Park) but also a lack of pretense (it's close to fragrant outdoor markets in Chinatown, which Muhly says he prefers to Whole Foods). Bach's music factors into a long list of the composer's influences, a list that spans about 400 years of music. "My love for Thomas Weelkes, especially, was like a childish celebrity infatuation," Muhly wrote in an article for the Guardian in 2007. John Taverner, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons also contribute to Muhly's taste, works from the latter two appearing alongside four Muhly pieces on the album Seeing Is Believing. Then there are composers from more recent decades. He talks fondly of Benjamin Britten, whose scores sit prominently on a shelf near Muhly's workstation. He even exhibits a pair of light-blue Britten–Peter Pears cufflinks (a silhouette of one artist for each cuff) that a friend brought him from Aldeburgh. The music of John Adams has exerted an undeniable influence on Muhly's compositions; the electric violin part in Seeing Is Believing harkens back to Adams's Dharma at Big Sur; Triade is redolent of Adams's Harmonielehre; even Two Boys has, at times of crisis in the story, a flush of brass and percussion similar to what we hear in Adams's Doctor Atomic.

Muhly's mentor is minimalism's other great opera-composer, Philip Glass. "I started working for Philip a million years ago, when I was eighteen," says Muhly, "sort of editing manuscripts and whatever. I did that and just kind of never left." As an eighteen-year-old, Muhly also enrolled in the prestigious Barnard–Columbia–Juilliard Exchange, earning degrees from Columbia and Juilliard in five years. At Juilliard, Muhly studied composition with Christopher Rouse and John Corigliano, and at Columbia, he earned a degree in English literature. Don't ask which English novel Muhly plans to convert to opera. "As of yet, I'm not 155% convinced that a great book is going to be a great opera. Mainly, that's because my relationship with books is language-based and not plot-based."

Language served as the catalyst for Two Boys. "I was first interested in [the story] on a linguistic level — how it is, at the age of thirteen or whatever, that you can command different language spaces." The teenager he refers to comes from a news story in Manchester, England, from the early 2000s. Two boys, who were never identified due to their ages, fourteen and sixteen, were embroiled in what a British court later dubbed an "extraordinary suicide attempt" — the younger manipulating the older with false internet-chatroom personalities. "It just felt like the most modern version of a very old tragedy, which is why I felt that it was severely operatic — aside from the fact that what this little kid did was essentially write an opera. He has the teen girl, he has the kind of bass-baritone-y scary gardener dude, he has the sexy policewoman — there's all these different kind of stock characters that could be out of Puccini."

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Bartlett Sher's Two Boys production at English National Opera in 2011, with Nicky Spence (Brian) and Susan Bickley (D.I. Strawson) foreground, the chorus of internet users behind
© Richard Hubert Smith 2013

At the outset of the opera, Jake, the younger boy, has been stabbed in the heart. Detective Investigator Anne Strawson (in the style of Prime Suspect's Jane Tennison) has detained Brian, the older boy, as a suspect. Brian recalls how he became enmeshed in Jake's life via the internet — first meeting his teen sister, Rebecca; then his spymaster aunt, Fiona; then his rapist gardener, Peter. There's a subplot involving D.I. Strawson and her child; Jake and Brian eventually meet; D.I. Strawson finds the proof she needs on one of the boys' computers. To realize the opera, which calls for instantaneous scene changes as Brian travels back and forth between interrogation and flashback, the production relies heavily on the lighting designs of Donald Holder, who joins his frequent colleagues Michael Yeargan (sets) and Catherine Zuber (costumes). For continuity between scene changes, director Bartlett Sher uses D.I. Strawson as a constant presence — much the same way as the muse is used in Les Contes d'Hoffmann — and as a reminder of Brian's interrogation. To animate the chatroom scenes, which Brian mostly recalls while seated behind a laptop, projections were designed by Fifty Nine Productions, the same studio credited in Muhly's Dark Sisters, Satyagraha at ENO and the Met, War Horse at the National Theatre and Lincoln Center Theater, and the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London. "The Fifty Nine boys are sort of the mind bank of the show. They had slightly different anxieties about how to design it so it doesn't look so contemporary, and so it looks a little clunky in the way of the early internet. The thing is, it doesn't really bother me that much, because they also wouldn't have been singing."

If you think suspending disbelief about internet chatrooms sounds dubious, Muhly will argue that you're wrong. "One of the things that is specific about Two Boys is that I think we make it very clear that the internet is a delivery system for the same thing that happens in Giulio Cesare or in Partenope or in any of these operas where people pretend to be somewhere else.We suspend disbelief in opera about costume, not just on a theatrical level but on a plot level, all the time. Like the point of Così — and those people were in real life! Right? And we're meant to believe those women are like, 'Oh these handsome Albanians!' It's actually not that big of a leap. All of opera is riddled with people misbehaving towards usually a sexual or political goal." 

Like the internet, Two Boys is loaded with sex. Implied sex acts have plenty of precedence on the opera stage (e.g. Don Giovanni, Semele), but Met audiences will get a little more description than usual when Craig Lucas's libretto flashes across the Met Titles. "How's my favorite young stud doing?" sings the character American Congressman during an Act I choral number, as the accompanying bass section sings "Do it face down kneeling, kneeling completely naked." In Act II, Brian sings, "He sort of blew me," under interrogation. A scene in which Brian and Rebecca flirt with each other results in one of the rare instances of masturbation in opera; as reviewer Anna Picard wrote in 2011 in the Independent, "[Brian] frets and sweats and wanks heroically to a video cam." 

The premiere of Two Boys received a mixed response from the British press. Met audiences, however, won't necessarily see what occurred at English National Opera. "The process of this piece has been that we did two workshop things before the ENO and another afterwards. There are a couple of different timing and pacing things that you really don't learn until you get on the stage. Even in rehearsal there was stuff. We had a luxurious amount of time at ENO in a rehearsal room with our set — it was great. But, as it turns out, when you get onstage and you run it for the first time, you're like, 'Oh, okay, now I see all the things that have to happen.' We were like, 'Okay, what we need to do is flip two things — basically put the beginning of Act II in the beginning of Act I — and then see where things settle as a result of that information shift.' To me, it was more editorial, and less deeply compositional.

"When I was writing Two Boys, I was obsessed with Death in Venice and how [Britten] incorporates these gamelan scales into it. For me, the last eight bars of Death in Venice are this magical — he was very sick when he wrote it — otherworldly thing. So I actually stole a lot of that. There's a part at the end of the opera when you see that the younger boy is finally asking — he's asking to be killed. It's a quote of the last eight bars of Death in Venice, but it's also got this wild, de-tuned gamelan effect. It's gongs, it's celeste, it's harp, it's de-tuned horn, it's natural harmonics and strings that are a little bit flat."

In a certain sense, Two Boys is a bit of a musical departure for Muhly. The soundscapes of his operas seem to have left behind the over-caffeinated quality that colors much of his work. Skip Town, for instance, which Muhly still performs often in concert, consists of a frenetic piano part played alongside a frenetic piano recording. "Part III (The 8th Tone)," on Muhly's newest recording, Drones, practically trips over itself with enthusiasm, the way an excited dog might run. Muhly's 2005 "A Hudson Cycle" for solo piano has this quality too; it's a melancholy piece, and when the twitch appears, it's more subdued, internal rather than external, like a heart fibrillation. Rather than jerks — to use the physics term — Muhly operas accelerate more evenly. We hear driving, tuneful minimalism from the orchestra and the chorus, which builds into a froth of anxiety and then releases, changing the tonal landscape almost instantly into something that can be at times disquieting and at other times quite peaceful.

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Jennifer Zetlan, Margaret Lattimore, Caitlin Lynch, Jennifer Check and Eve Gigliotti, sister wives in Muhly's Dark Sisters at Gotham Chamber Opera, 2011
© Richard Termine 2013

Musically speaking, much of the drama in Muhly operas comes from the orchestra, while the vocal lines deliver the story in a way that's more often plainspoken than tuneful. "He always says, 'Don't count, just say the words on those notes,'" recalls Jennifer Zetlan, who sings Rebecca in the Met's Two Boys, and who created both the role of the Mormon girl Zina in Dark Sisters and Muhly's Far Away Songs at Alice Tully Hall last year. "When it all comes together, orchestra or piano and voice, it's like there are no bar lines. If I heard it without ever seeing the music, I definitely wouldn't know what the page looked like. I love that — it sounds like speech to music rather than syllables. I think it's the best way to tell a compelling story or recite a poem with music."

Iestyn Davies has a similar level of expertise on Muhly vocal writing. The countertenor has performed Muhly's Brittenesque folk-song arrangements in 2011 and "Old Bones," written for Davies and lutenist Thomas Dunford, which had its premiere this past June. "It was a fascinating project to work through with Nico," says Davies. "We chose the texts together, and at no point did I have to keep quiet — Nico was open to suggestions on awkward bits of vocal writing. There was only really one moment when I asked if he could change something, and it was purely a personal thing to do with how I sing, and I explained I thought it would be a shame if he left it like that, because I know that nine times out of ten I would have made a hash of it. So for me that showed that Nico isn't necessarily evangelical about the composer-as-the-center-of-the-musical-universe, but rather that he envisages the performance and the sound of the performance almost before he puts pen to paper — or mouse to screen?"

Muhly seems to be hardwired with a willingness to collaborate. One can't see more than a few Muhly concerts in a row without witnessing violist Nadia Sirota, his friend and muse, onstage. Also integral is Muhly's friendship with Valgeir Sigurðsson, the Icelandic musician with whom Muhly and guitarist Ben Frost founded the record label Bedroom Community (on which most of Muhly's recordings are released). Davies has been friends with Muhly since 2009 (at his apartment, Muhly shows a picture of his dog, Oskar, bonding with Davies). "What strikes me most about Nico," says Davies, "is that he has friends and familiar faces every corner he turns. Standing outside English National Opera chatting to Nico one day a couple of years back, I swear about four different people either cycled or drove past in the course of our brief conversation, and he had some greeting or gesture to offer them. It's a sign of his generosity with people that he has accrued such a healthy circle of friends, not just where he lives, but across the world."

Collaboration on a large scale also shows up in Muhly's work. At the core of Dark Sisters, which tells the story of a small Mormon community implicated in a widespread polygamy scandal, is the concept of The Nation. "I use that with scare quotes," says Muhly. "The way in which those women are known to us is through TV. The intimacy of that story in the first act is shattered by the fact that it's being observed in a really public way on literal Good Morning America." In Two Boys, we see it again: what in some other time would have been an intimate story between Brian and Jake is, in our time, a story that includes a chorus representing all internet users. 

In a way, it might be easy to dub Muhly "postmodernist," at least in the sense that this global entity, the internet, has both granted Muhly access to 400 years' worth of music and become a topic of his work. But even that feels reductive, ignoring the point that Muhly seems to be making — which is not to distill the world around us into something smaller but to look closely and see that it's much bigger than we realize. spacer

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10