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Boy Wonder 

Boy Wonder 


At 27, Nico Muhly is one of classical music's brightest young talents. We catch up with the prodigy as he takes time off from writing his first opera for the Met and hits the road to perform works from his new album, Mothertongue

Nico Muhly is not your average 27-year-old. An amazingly talented and erudite young man, Muhly has a degree in English literature from Columbia University and a master's in music from Juilliard. In his young life (due mainly to very busy and artistic parents) he has seen most of the globe and immersed himself in subjects as varied as 17th-century choral music and the Arabic language. In addition to all this, he is already a widely respected and much sought-after composer, having had works commissioned and performed by the Boston Pops, the Chicago Symphony, and the Clare College Choir, and he has already produced two very distinctive CDs of his compositions (Speaks Volumes and Mothertongue), which display his diverse style and vast musical gifts. His work has been praised by many influential contemporary "classical" composers (Muhly prefers the term "notated music" to "classical"), such as John Adams. He has collaborated with musicians as far-flung as Bjork and Philip Glass, and has just had an opera commissioned by the Met.

His latest album, Mothertongue, sums up much of what Muhly is all about. The album references American folk music, 17th-century English writers (including King James I), the fantastical travelogues of Sir John Mandeville, and experimental word settings that are reminiscent of the best of Terry Riley or Steve Reich. He mixes acoustic instruments, voice, and electronic manipulation in a seamless sea of sound that is both approachable and forward-looking. But most of all, Muhly's music is achingly beautiful.

You were born in Vermont and grew up in Providence, R.I. What was your childhood like? My mother is a painter and she teaches at Wellesley College, and my father is a documentary filmmaker. It was a kind of intellectual upbringing. But it was also kind of funky in its way.

When did you start composing? Basically, I started studying piano when I was 10 or 11. Really quickly, in the course of a couple of months it occurred to me that you could make music from scratch. Part of it too was knowing that there were people in the 20th century who were composing; it was enormously liberating.... [English 20th century composer Benjamin] Britten was one of the first people, and I felt like, Oh, yeah, he's not that much older than my grandmother.

Some critics describe your music as minimalist. Would you say you have a particular style? The thing with style...the thing that I always say, which I think is a really apt analogy, is that talking about style with somebody is like talking about where you're from in your life, like I'm from Vermont and Providence to a certain extent, there's no escaping that. No matter what I end up doing, those things are true. I feel, like all composers who are being honest with their lives, there are a couple of things, stylistically, which are "home base," and I think for someone like me, minimalism is very much home, just as Vermont is home for me, and similarly, English choral music is very much home.

How do you compose? Do you just start jotting ideas down, or is it more organized? I'm a pack rat; I make these little piles of documents, a lot of documents -- very little music paper involved, it's all much later. It's images, it's drawings, it's numbers, it's schemes, it's food, it's almost never music.

How much do you think being a gay man has to do with your art? I used to have this aggressive attitude where the last thing I wanted to be known as was as a "gay composer"; you want to be a composer who's also gay. So I spent many, many years kind of resisting any gay anything. But a couple of years ago I was studying Arabic in Columbia, and I realized there was this whole brouhaha about the army not having enough Arabic translators because they fired all the gay ones -- it was so crazy that I immediately became really politicized about it. So I don't know, I live a sort of sheltered life in which most people I know are gay, although I will also say, there's a huge change now from, like, when I was in high school.

Were you out in high school? To anyone who would ask, but it was more like, at that point, I was in a very deep part of the phase where I could not be known as "that gay kid," 'cause, like, there was one other gay kid in my high school, and that's like the first thing people will talk about so, like, how are you supposed to get any music written? And now it's kind of amazing, because I went back to my high school and there were I don't know how many gay people running around, and they were all out and good-looking and proud...back then, all us gay kids were awkward and gangly like the "goonies"!

Do you think there's such a thing in art as a "gay sensibility?" I thought that was the only sensibility. I didn't realize that straight people had a sensibility! I think that there's, like, a good sensibility and a bad sensibility, and a lot of people on the side of the good sensibility just happen to be queer. I would hesitate to sexualize it, but in weaker moments, I'm just like, "Oh, God, [sigh] thank God for gay people"!

If you're a queer kid, you probably spent a lot of time in high school hold up at home studying Stravinsky scores or whatever, and I think part of it has something to do with being sort of lonesome and miserable. For me, someone who very much embodies if there is such a thing as a "gay sensibility" would be someone like Benjamin Britten, whose sense of loneliness and feeling of being out of place was so important to his art.

You've been commissioned by the Met to write an opera. From what I have read, the story is based on a true Internet romance/friendship between two teenage boys that ended in one of the two stabbing the other to death. It's like a teen gay Internet sex drama!

Is this the first overtly gay-themed work that you've done? Oh, I don't think so. Maybe overtly, but...that's an interesting way to put it, um...yeah. But it's also the first dramatic thing I've done. I got the libretto [written by Craig Lucas] a few weeks's going to be awesome.

You're going to be going on tour soon. You'll be working with some of the collaborators that you've worked with in the past. Basically it's me and Sam Amidon, who's this wonderful folk singer who sings on Mothertongue, and my friend Thomas, who's in this project called "Doveman", his claim to fame is that he just covered the entirety of the Footloose soundtrack, which you should definitely go download if you haven't already! So the three of us are going with my friend Nadia, who plays on Speaks Volumes, and we're just hitting the road and hoping for the best! For me, it's like, I do so many concerts that are planned, it's a total luxury to be able to do something like this, where you just go and play.

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