I’m on the train to Hamburg, listening to Nico Muhly’s opera “Two Boys” and struggling to form an opinion about it. Some of the composition sounds plain to my ears, and the lines of the detective, sung with wide vibrato, sound a little silly, but there are also gorgeous choral moments.

In interviews, Muhly frequently reaches for food analogies about his music. I find myself wondering whether they might summarize a problem: A meal is a made up of a dash of this and that, while the music I personally love so much—Scelsi, Schubert—is often more like a silver ring, polished with work and suffering until the essence of it shines.

Muhly, now 36, has been profiled in the New Yorker and commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, so it’s also safe to say my opinion about his music doesn’t matter. Either way, he is an important voice in contemporary music and an extraordinarily engaging conversationalist. At one point, a young man in an enormous fur coat walks past us as we sit in the Elbphilharmonie café. “Oh my god, I almost wore the exact same thing,” Muhly says.

Photo © Ana Cuba
Photo © Ana Cuba

VAN: What are the sonorities and chords you can’t get enough of?

Nico Muhly: At the heart of what I do is English choral music. That’s the emotional world. With chords, the two main pivotal points are these cross relationships that you find in English cadences, in Mundy and Tallis, which ignore other pre-baroque cadencing tactics. You’ll end up with an F# against an F, but in a context that shouldn’t make sense. That’s one world I’m always exploring.

I’ve also been obsessed with way stacked fifths create landscapes through pivoting. Going from, say, C, G, Ab, Eb, then respelling Eb as D# and adding E, B, F#, up, up, and up.

Are you into music like Lachenmann and Ferneyhough?

Lachenmann I would never seek out, but I’m always happy when it’s around. They did a bunch of it at the Armory in New York and I went with great, great pleasure. Ferneyhough is funny—I ran surtitles for his operas “Shadowtime” in 2001 or so, and it was so hard.

My relationship with that kind of music is: I’m so glad it exists. But it doesn’t give me the kind of erotic joy that other music does.

Older American composers, like Steve Reich or John Adams, seem quite aggressively against that kind of avant-garde music.

It’s a generational thing. The generation above me in American music, the Bang on a Can people and obviously John, Philip and Steve, they really had to fight for it, or check out completely. But now those style wars feel as abstract to me as the Vietnam War, which was so viscerally powerful to my parents’ generation. I was in Vietnam a month ago, and I called my mother and said, “I’m in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City, and there’s a Louis Vuitton store. Could you guys possibly have imagined?”

You mentioned that Lachenmann and Ferneyhough don’t give you an erotic joy.

For me, totally personally. I’m not being disparaging.

Do you try to create erotic joy in your music?

“Erotic” is probably too provocative a term. I’m trying to write those moments when you’re like, “Oh shit, that’s great!” In Boulez’s “Pli selon pli,” when it’s like he opens a box and everything flies out in this brilliant way, and the atmosphere in the room has changed—in my tiny, simple way, I try to create those moments. 

How often does it work out?

More and more. [Laughs.] I have to love it, and then I have to trust that other people will love it because I do. The way to make that be true is for the performers to love it; then it radiates out.

Sometimes I think I have The Thing, and I’m like, “OK, this is an awesome moment.” Then it just falls flat. Of course it’s the composer’s fault. 

Is it always?

Well, I would never blame a performer for something that I could have been more communicative about. I try to aim for those moments where the craft and the innovation are hand in hand. Sometimes it’s really hard; sometimes you have to write a bunch of etudes figuring out how to do the thing in the first place. Whether or not you release those out into the world… [Laughs.]

On the way here I was listening to your opera “Two Boys,” and then “Confessions,” with Teitur.

They’re very different. “Confessions” [2008, CD release 2016] actually predates “Two Boys” [2011].

Isn’t it hard to make lines about homework sound not goofy in opera?

I don’t know, did you think it was goofy?

Some similar language that in “Confessions” sounded poetic, kind of spoke-sung, was a bit over-the-top for me in “Two Boys.”

I think what I was trying to do there—and obviously, it’s a matter of taste—was to say that for the people involved, for teenage kids, the most important thing in your life is literally the thing that’s right in front of you. I was trying to elevate the things that happen in a compressed bedroom. I was also 26 or something. [Laughs.] And I mean, if you listen to Italian opera libretti, they’re mortifyingly stupid. They read like an episode of “Jersey Shore.” You’re like, Shut up. Either fuck or leave. It’s not that complicated.

I feel like that’s why so many 20th-century composers wrote abstract operas, so they wouldn’t have to deal with that problem.

Right. But here’s another thing that I always wanted to say about opera. Just because I did something doesn’t mean it’s a manifesto about how it should be done. That’s something I find really tricky in the way that music is written about. It’s as if, because a composer makes an opera that takes place partially online, critics think he’s saying, “All art should take place online.” That’s not what I’m saying. I’m literally telling this little story that involved four human beings.

How do you get rhythmic momentum in your music?

Recently I’ve been getting out of an ostinato-based language and into less gridded cities. I’ll think about is Renaissance English music: counterpoint is structured in a way that things eventually meet, but they’re constantly crisscrossing. In the Byrd Mass for five voices, for instance, there’s so much going on rhythmically—but not in the sense of the loaf of the bar being cut up in different ways.

I’m still into knowing where the pulse is, if not necessarily walking on the ground to it. In recent orchestra stuff, it’s been almost like weather systems working at different speeds, or like ships [he gestures to the harbor], where the perception of speed has everything to do with how fast the thing next to it is moving.

Do you want to scare the shit out of the audience sometimes in your operas?

I don’t think about that too much. The story’s the story, I’m not going to impose something on top of it.

Some composers use surprise as a main structural element of their music.

I do try to avoid traditional climactic points in the same way that Renaissance music doesn’t have them. Unlike in Wagner, where it’s like, “That’s where you nut!” Whereas in Tallis’s “Spem in alium,” the big verticality happens about four minutes in, then again a bit later, then once again towards the end, rather than having a big one at the golden section or whatever. For me that’s much more interesting: pleasure not at the expected place. Though shock and awe as a composition technique would be a good topic for somebody’s dissertation.

Do you think there’s a disadvantage to having mastered an instrument at a young age, for composers?

I would not know what to tell you about that. I will say I envied the composers who were really good at an instrument that wasn’t piano.

Why?

That’s the thing that’s so hard when you’re a student, to understand how to exist inside and stretch the idiom of a woodwind instrument, say…but everybody has disadvantages. There are lots of people writing European concert music now where it’s a source of pride not to have gone through conservatory. But it’s never wrong to attempt to learn something. I firmly disagree when people say things like, “Conservatory really tried to oppress my vision.” It’s why you’re there—literally to have your whole shit challenged. You’re paying $26,000 a year. What do you want them to do, say you’re a genius?

Aren’t people mad at conservatories because they don’t necessarily help them achieve professional success, even though they’re so expensive?

I think it’s amazing—and in a weird way I would have been happy to have been told this myself—for someone to say, “Look. Clearly the facility for you to be a conductor or a composer is there, but it’s probably not going to happen. And it’s great that our conservatory also has a degree in arts programming or how to manage an orchestra.”

The people who make the biggest difference are classical music programmers; they’re really in charge of what music is heard. It goes back to the discussion we’re having now about structural sexism—these are the gatekeepers. The more people [of these] people who are genuinely musical, who’ve played the flute for six years, [the better].

How do you think you would have reacted if someone had told you it probably wasn’t going to happen, when you were 22?

I don’t know. But everyone assumed I was going to go on and do a DMA. I’m glad I didn’t, even though it’s really important that people are doing it. I learned how to be a composer between the ages of 20 and 26, I’d say. I feel like a doctoral program wouldn’t have worked for me: just in terms of hours in the day, when are you going to write?

I think this is another thing about conservatory that’s really confusing: the model, at least when I was there, was that heaven is: you’re sitting at home, having a scrambled egg, and the New York Philharmonic calls and says, “We want a symphony.” When you’re younger it’s a concert opener, a little later it’s a concerto, and then a symphony. That’s the dream progression. The assumption that the phone will ring and on the other end of the line will be, “We’re going to make you a star!”

I always had a job and worked through summers, so I couldn’t go to Tanglewood or anywhere. And I lost every single competition. It was really discouraging because I was like, “God, am I that bad?” Then I started writing for friends—and much of my grad school output was in their recitals, not in the composer’s concert, which is a nightmare.

I agree, those are the worst.

You want to kill yourself. There are interminable percussion moves, where people still feel like they have to obey concert etiquette, so everyone’s quiet and awkward. Someone’s pushing a gong, and a thing falls off. You want to die.

Anyway, what happened when I wrote for friends is that they would program the piece on their recital. That changed everything. If you write a piece for solo viola, and the concert is like the Stamitz Concerto, your piece, and then the Chaconne down a fifth, that’s heaven. It’s contextualized in the hands of the musician and not in this weird round-robin thing with your colleagues. 

It teaches you how to collaborate and behave like a mammal. I think a lot of composers never get that class. [Laughs.] Whenever I teach high school kids, I look at the score in advance and I put it and down and say, “OK. I’m your friend from high school. I’m not a musician. Not attending Walnut Hill. [Laughs.] This is your friend from grade school, you’re hanging out on a vacation, and he’s super smart, and is probably going to be a doctor. He took two years of piano lessons and then gave it up. Tell him about your piece.” The ones who are killing it are actually the ones who can do that and behave normally.

Isn’t that actually really hard to do well? Not everybody has metaphors on hand for music.

You don’t have to use metaphors. The least you can do is describe the shape of the damn thing. Just say what happens, without saying anything that’s alienating and weird. 

Are you going to pick up the blogging again?

God, I wish I had time. I love doing that so much. But it took a lot of time, because I wanted to be careful about it. I think the best things about that blog were resisting “style.” That whole conversation about “indie classical” made me insane. That was the moment I realized I just had to check out of that conversation. I don’t think I was being particularly helpful to anybody, and I was digging myself into a weird corner where I was saying things that I didn’t 100 percent believe. I kept feeling distanced from sacred and choral music and the music I wanted to be writing in a way that wasn’t what I needed at that time or at this time. You find yourself making proclamations you don’t really mean…

To win an argument?

Yeah, or to prove that someone is as stupid as I think they are, just recreationally. [Laughs.] Actually, I don’t need to make them look stupid, I just need to hold the flashlight at the right angle.

Isn’t that the exact definition of “shade” from the film “Paris Is Burning”?

[Laughs.] Yeah, but it got too distracting, I couldn’t engage. It gets in your head in a really insidious way. I think I’ve said everything I needed to say. 

It’s like with musicology: I’m so glad it exists, I’m glad people are doing that work, but I’m not the audience for it. We also need music criticism, it’s so important—but for a review of my music, I’m the only person in the world who is not the audience for that.

Do you read reviews?

I can’t. And I know a lot of people say this, but my trick was I stopped reading all of them. Not just of mine, but of everyone’s. That made it really easy.

Once, I went to a friend’s concert, and I thought it was not this composer’s best work, to say the least. I didn’t even know what to say, it was, cringe. I found myself formulating this email, and while I was writing it the Times published a review which was like, “It’s amazing!” And then you find yourself taking perverse pleasure in the one mean line.

The thing that finally turned it off for me was actually working in London, where you realize in a lot of cases, if an arts organizations PR department does its job really well, they will hype the shit out of what you’re doing—to get people to come. Then the reviews are all about how over-hyped it was. And what’s lost in that particular flight path is the thing that I’m doing, which is the notes and rhythms. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.