Nico Muhly is a living, breathing library of classical music and TV shows. From writing operas, scoring films and TV shows to producing his own music and co-founding Bedroom Community, a record label/music collective, he has amassed a large and vast portfolio to his name. But Juilliard-educated composer’ range doesn’t end at the classical sphere. He’s also a much-celebrated collaborator with influences ranging from American minimalism, pop music to the Anglican choral tradition.
Muhly will make his concert debut in Singapore with a repertoire named after his first solo album, Speaks Volumes with his closest American collaborators as well as Singaporean musicians for Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) at SOTA Drama Theatre on May 12. In anticipation of his forthcoming show, we spoke to him about his craft, working while traveling, his upcoming album with Thomas Bartlett as well as his love for roti prata.
Hi Nico, how’s it going?
I’m very well, thank you. I’m just at the studio right now at New York.
As a New York-based classical music composer, do you think New York is really the inspiring city it’s cut out to be in popular culture?
Good question. I travel a lot and I feel like because I travel so much, whenever I come back to New York, I find it completely fabulous. It’s inspiring and just being here for a couple of hours makes me very happy and I think a part of that is because I’m gone so often. So, it’s like absence makes it fonder.
Has your workflow changed over the years?
Yes. It relates to travel as well. How I use my time at home has changed and so what I try to do at home is plan and figure out what I’m going to do for the next year and get the big shapes of all the pieces done. The meta-kind-of-zoomed-out Google map of it. So, that way, I am doing all the little nitty gritty work like editing on a plane or a hotel somewhere easily. So, the flow has been more divided and I find it to be fun and useful as well. I found that my music, technically and nerd-ily has gotten a lot more harmonically complicated in the last three to four years. I used to have simple harmonic lines but now it has gotten more complicated, I find that everything takes longer because I’m working on different issues now.
You’ve got a lot on your plate. How do you develop your musicality?
Well, it’s interesting you should ask. The heart and soul of my music is English sacred choral music. It’s what I think about specifically, from the 16th Century because that’s the root of what I do and I find myself free to move around these different things. It all feels like a luxury. Of course, my album doesn’t sound like English choral music but I’m just so amazed that I’m allowed to do all these crazy things. For instance, I’m writing an opera and the minute I’m done with it, I’ll be looking into the next thing. I did a big TV score for Howards End this year and now, I feel like it I need at least a year off from that. Again, that’s the luxury of not having to pigeon-hole too early to do just one thing.
“I found that my music, technically and nerd-ily has gotten a lot more harmonically complicated in the last three to four years.”
Let’s talk about Singapore International Festival of Arts, which you’ll be a part of alongside various collaborations including Singapore-based musicians. How is the preparation looking like so far?
The show is interesting because it will go from small to big. We have solo piano pieces and it will get bigger and bigger and in the end, there will be a piece with two pianos, violins, viola, cello and percussions. The piano pieces are written for myself and then, the piece I wrote for violinist, Lisa Liu, who will be coming. I wrote the piece for Lisa when we were in grad school and we have the collaborators I met later in life and new Singaporean collaborators, which showcases the journey from writing music for myself, then my friends, then a larger group of people and finally people you get to meet for the first time, which is such a fun process. In terms of the process, with the American crew, we’re going to put different things together and figure things out. We’ll head to Singapore and have a couple of days to rehearse and then, we’ll do it.
Besides performing, are you looking forward to do anything else in Singapore?
The only thing I ever do in Singapore is eat. I just want to get roti prata. One of the reasons why I fell in love with Singapore is for that reason. I had a couple of days lay over before heading to Cambodia like a million years ago and I was in Singapore. I was just amazed by how food is the engine that runs the place. The idea that it’s a big gigantic modern city that feels kind of 21st Century or even, 22nd century but then the minute you go into these places like Chinatown or Little India, there is this sense of completely food-based hawker centres and that’s incredibly moving as a musician. And that’s because of the specialty of making one thing like you just focus on making chicken rice or whatever. Just making one thing reminds me of being a oboe player, where you’re just learning the intricacies of this object that is the size of a ruler. So, yes, eating is my plan in Singapore.
Of course. Roti prata is amazing.
Yes, completely. It makes me so happy. (Laughs) It’s the combination of textures and how it’s made at that time. There’s something magical about it.
Let’s talk about the upcoming album, Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music with Thomas Bartlett. How did the collaboration come about?
This album is almost 10 years-old. Thomas and I met at Columbia when we were both students and we immediately found that we had this sort of similar mind and we shared the music that we like. We played in each other’s albums and we also performed with one another live. At a certain point, I happened to chance upon these recordings of Balinese music that had been transcribed by Colin McFee. He and Benjamin Britten made a recording of this music in New York in the 1940’s when they were living in this house at Brooklyn.
What’s fascinating about them was this emotional disconnect from having made this recording in Bali in the ’20s and McFee falling in love with them for the complicated reasons and at a certain point, it became more emotional than just the science of the musicology. And then, the fact that it gets transmitted into Britten and his music later in life. Thomas and I got obsessed with this and sort of, started writing songs that were in a some way based on that material.
We recorded it with a group of friends and then, we kind of forgot about it. We did it a couple of times live and then, Thomas and I had like eight billion other things to do. So two years ago, we found that it was actually really good.
Speaking of albums, how does streaming impact classical music?
Because I travel so much, I only listen to music digitally. It’s easier to listen to everything but of course, there are the financial worries. But I sort of like that record stores closed. (Laughs) I know that sounds sacrilegious but I’ll tell you specifically why. When you walk into a record store, there is pop, rock and every other genre and then, you have to go into a special room for classical music and then when you go into the special classical music room and there’s another special room inside that room with opera inside it but you think to yourself, there are so many things that wouldn’t fit into that physical sense of where music goes. So, for instance, where do you put Laurie Anderson? Or, where do you put the album Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar made together?
So, what’s great about something like iTunes or even, Amazon.com before digital music is, a lot of people come to know my music through something else and it’s not through the composer next to me in the classical music section. It’s much more organic now and it feels like a more honest way to organise music, which isn’t like all these physical walls in between the genres. People tell me all the time that they know this other thing I worked on through these platforms. So, that to me is very touching.
Well, we can’t wait for the album and have you perform here in Singapore for SIFA.
I can’t wait to perform in Singapore!
Check out the latest music video of Thomas Bartlett & Nico Muhly’s “Festina,” from the album Peter Pears: Balinese Ceremonial Music below:
Tickets to Nico Muhly Speaks Volumes are priced at $40 and can be purchased here.