At 26-years-old, Nico Muhly has an impressive resume; on top of studying at Julliard and being the subject of an extensive New Yorker piece, the musician/composer/wunderkind has worked with Philip Glass, Rufus Wainwright, Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons), Björk and even Brooklyn boys The National. If you're not impressed yet, just take a listen to his latest album, Mothertongue, or his 2006 debut Speaks Volumes--and you'll understand that he doesn't need the big names to make a name for himself. This Saturday he'll be performing at (Le) Poisson Rouge with Doveman and Sam Amidon, who he is currently on tour with.
How has the tour been going? The tour has been great! We played a super first show in Seattle, which I think set the energy for the rest of it. We are all driving in a six-seat minivan (and there are six of us), so it's a little tight, but we're all good friends and nobody has set anybody else on fire yet.
How did you get into classical music, and how did you end up getting into the indie side of things? Girl, this is a long story! I can do it in list form. Classical: Had a piano in our basement > took piano lessons > sang in a boy's choir > started writing music > went to Juilliard. Not Classical: Wrote music with repeating patterns > met Valgeir Sigurðsson through Björk > recorded music with repeating patterns.
I was recently walking around listening to Mothertongue and thought of how it seemed to perfectly fit every scene I was passing by on the sidewalks, and I wondered if musicians like yourself go out and don't listen to their iPods, but try to fill the voids or spaces or create a score as they walk around. That's a long way of asking how you go about writing music. No, I listen to my iPod almost constantly just to handle the insane volume of music that I get sent and also so that I don't have to think about stressful shit while I'm walking around town. I make a lot of lists when I'm writing; in a sense, it's like planning a kitchen renovation or something – you take months and months and plan it out and then you just sort of muscle it together at the end. I tend to be more into linguistic clues rather than visual; I'm more likely to be "inspired" (such as it is) by, like, a chart of grammatical rules than, you know, sunset over the Brooklyn Bridge or something.
Depending on whose opinion one reads, you are allegedly either the saving grace of classical music, or the genre's "most hyped talent"--do you feel any pressure labeled as either? Whose opinions are those, press people? Or hater bloggers? Classical music people love to eat their own babies; it's just their way of saying they care. I'll take what I can get.
You are working on a Christmas carol for the Guggenheim, can you tell me about that? Well, it's kind of the simplest thing in the world, a Christmas Carol. It's a gorgeous space so I'll probably take advantage of that and write something circular, like a canon or a round, but really at the end of the day a Christmas Carol is a really simple construction that needs to bank on, like, Holiday Cheer rather than anything too clever.
When I interviewed the New Yorker's classical music critic, Alex Ross, I asked him if there will ever be another great music revolution (classical, jazz, etc). Do you think anything truly new and original can be created with such a sonically cluttered subconscious? Yikes. I don't even know how to begin to unpack that. Seeing as how I'm in the business of writing original music, I feel like I shouldn't even answer this!
Speaking of the New Yorker, what do you really think of Sasha Frere Jones? Well, have you read my blog posts about his writing? I'm sure he is perfectly pleasant, it's less him and more his writing that I object to (check here for details). I don't like music writing that makes you feel like somebody has just cattily pointed out the references behind something; that isn't what I would call "listening;" it's more like those people who can't hear a story without being like, "my mom went there!" or "I climbed that mountain too!"
What would you recommend a novice classical music listener listen to? In matched sets:
The Bach Motets & the Bruckner Motets.
The Goldberg Variations & Steve Reich "Variations for Winds, Strings, & Keyboards"
William Byrd Motets & Stravinsky The Firebird
Music for 18 Musicians & Music in 12 Parts.
I read that you're a bit of a gourmand, do you have a favorite recipe fit for a small NYC kitchen you could share? Yes! Boil some water and put salt up in it. Into that, dump a trimmed bunch of Broccoli Rabe. Take it out and put it in ice water. Heat up some olive oil with garlic and hot pepper flakes. Put the broccoli rabe in the pan, and at the same time, boil some pasta. Add a tiny bit of chicken stock to the broccoli rabe, along with a can of chick peas. When the pasta is just underdone, transfer it to the rabe pot and mix it around. It takes about .25 seconds and is delicious.
Do you have a favorite place to grocery shop in the city? The supermarket just underneath the Manhattan Bridge. It's amazing.
Please share your strangest "only in New York" story. I was leaving my psychiatrist's office on the upper west side and decided to get a delicious something or other from Bouchon Bakery in the Time Warner Center. I got this giant focaccia slice, and was so ravenous that I shoved the whole thing in my mouth. As I was slithering along the wall trying to hide the fact that I had just eaten this huge thing, Thomas Keller, who runs the place, was similarly slithering along the wall holding some paperwork. I sort of made eye contact and attempted to say, "This is good focaccia" and ended up dropping an entire slow roasted tomato slice out of my mouth onto the floor. He was horrified and briskly hurried along.
Which New Yorker do you most admire? Maira Kalman. She navigates the city in the best way ever.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York? I would pedestrianize Chinatown and the Meatpacking District, for starters. Also, I would fix that bullshit thing on 34th street where the express and the local stop on weird platforms so you can't transfer elegantly. And: train to the airport. That's really the biggest thing; every other city worth living in has a direct train that's not stressful or insane. The other day, I took the A train to JFK and not only did that shit take an hour and a half, but the interface between it and the AirTrain was clogged with a giant family and I ended up missing my flight even though I was two hours early.
Under what circumstance have you thought about leaving New York? Ugh, I can't imagine ever wanting to leave. I would die. That said, I could happily live in Rome if I just had a little apartment; likewise, London. I just wouldn't want to pay for it, so I'd have to get some kind of grant or something.
What bands are you currently listening to? Somebody said the words, "Beach House" yesterday and now I've been listening to that. I'm also listening to all these re-issued King's College Choir, Cambridge recordings from the 60's, although I don't think that counts as a "band."
Best cheap eat in the city. Prosperity Dumpling on Eldridge, or, weirdly, Yogee Noodle on Chrystie St. — the beef stew noodle is the best best best.
Best venue to play/hear music. Carnegie Hall!