The universe is making music all the time

Chosen One: Nico Muhly

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Interview with Nico Muhly.

The gifted composer, arranger and conductor, Nico Muhly discusses the new album ‘Drones’, the Bedroom Community family, his arrangement work for Grizzly Bear and the effect the Juilliard School for Composition had on his own compositions.

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


Earlier in November saw the release of Nico Muhly’s three-part ‘Drones’ album, in collaboration with pianist Bruce Brubaker, violinist Pekka Kuusisto, and violist Nadia Sirota. As ever, some of the most compelling sounds of cinematic wonder are unleashed by the awe-inspiring Bedroom Community label. ‘Drones’ consists of the Nico Muhly three E.P’s ‘Drones & Piano’, ‘Drones & Viola’ and ‘Drones & Violin’. Drones was recorded and produced by Valgeir Sigurðsson in the Greenhouse Studios in Iceland. The artist-run label headed by Icelandic musician Sigurðsson was inaugurated in 2007 with the release of Muhly’s first album ‘Speaks In Volumes’. Since then, Muhly has been highly prolific in his vast amount of works encompassing his peerless roles as arranger, composer, performer and conductor. My favourite Muhly album must be ‘I Drink The Air Before Me’, a score for Stephen Petronio’s dance piece of the same name. It is simply modern classical music at its beautiful best. Muhly is central to many songs of one of my favourite bands, that is Brooklyn’s Grizzly Bear. His string arrangements for their modern indie gems is a pure joy to savor. Other artists Muhly has collaborated with are Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Jónsi of Sigur Rós and Antony and the Johnsons amongst many others.

It is a real pleasure to ask you some questions about your music. I am a huge fan of your solo work and the multitude of collaborations you have done up to now; from Grizzly Bear to Philip Glass, and ‘I Drink The Air Before Me’ to ‘Drones’. Congratulations on your hugely compelling and innovative works to date. 

Tell me please about ‘Drones’. You have said how “we surround ourselves with constant noise, and the Drones pieces are an attempt to honour these drones and stylize them.” Explain please how you honoured and stylized these drones through the varied compositions.

Ha, you have a funny way of wording things! There is a built-in vagueness to the words “honor” and “stylize” (in addition to an aggressive American spelling!) which, I think, befits any writing about music.  That having been said, if you want me to get really specific, I was thinking about how every space has a built-in drone. Houses have them, in the city and the country; empty train stations have them, airports have them. For me, a vacuum cleaner is a wonderful musical prompt; it kind of says: I dare you to put something on top of this sound. Imagine sitting in an airplane at night: nobody’s making noise, but the engine is making its own song.  So these drone pieces are an attempt to take a constant noise/sound environment and make music that can only exist in opposition to it.  Sometimes it rubs quite strongly – the drones and violin piece in particular – and other times the “style” of it is relatively close to the drone, if that makes sense.


Discuss please the wonderful collaborations you do with your like-minded labelmates in the Bedroom Community collective and Greenhouse Studios, Iceland. How does this beautiful work environment affect your development as a composer?

One of the fun things about Bedroom Community is that we all make such different music.  There isn’t a kind of stylistic manifesto about the place, so the resulting collaborations are more a result of genuine friendship and curiosity.  It’s been interesting to watch – I’m much more comfortable now working in an electronic medium, and I just got an email that Valgeir signed to a very August and Respectable publisher! We’re all slowly blurring our itineraries closer to one another; Ben Frost is making musical-theater works and Sam Amidon is writing books and it’s all become quite jumbled up, in the way of a family.


You are a graduate of the Juilliard School for Composition. I would love to learn more about this and particularly, your final year thesis? (if you don’t mind!)

Anything in particular you’d like to know?  Juilliard is a great place.  There is a sort of equalizing effect it has on musicians who have all achieved a very high level of SOMETHING, but who require some molding to become great musicians, if that makes sense. We all kind of sacrificed our childhoods on the pyre of music, and the school helps make something out of the embers.  There isn’t really a thesis situation there but the expectation is, usually, that you’ll write some orchestra music, which I did: a fourteen-minute weird thing based on pulses in different tempi happening on top of each other, and then another piece all to do with Pentecost and the music of Thomas Tallis.  In a sense, those two pieces established the groundwork for everything I’ve done since then.


My favourite release of yours is ‘I Drink The Air Before Me’, a score for Stephen Petronio’s dance piece of the same name. I was interested in reading how you wanted the music to relate to the weather:-storms, anxiety and coastal living. Please give me an insight into the process involved in achieving these aims?

Thank you for your kind words!  With this piece, basically, Stephen and I wrote down all the different sections. I imagined in my head a small town preparing for a storm – people running around doing last-minute errands, taping up the windows, etc.  There is a certain anxiety about it.  Then when the actual thing happens, it’s rather ecstatic, isn’t it?  And boring.  There’s a sense that you’re indoors or outdoors but there’s this aggressive monotony.  So the whole piece builds up to this ninth section (I think it is) that is the center of the storm and it’s basically four on the floor (or actually five on the floor) for six minutes.  Everything else is anxious vignettes.


I love the arrangements you have done for Grizzly Bear. Can you talk through the songs you have worked on and if there is a particular song you’re most proud of upon the song’s completion?

Talk through all of the songs!?  There are a lot!  I am particularly happy with Cheerleader, but really, that album Veckatimest as a whole was great for me because we really made it in layers.  It wasn’t like I came in at the end and just put strings on everything; the idea was that it would sort of organically come out of the songs and then get processed again.  One of the interesting things about that band in particular is the way they saturate most of the registers with just the four of them – they have intricate, “composed” activity in the bass, the middle, the vocal, the treble, the rhythm.  So there isn’t a ton of ROOM to do intricate arrangements; it’s really more a process of finding blank space and weaving something in and around what’s already there.


‘A Scream and an Outrage-A marathon weekend of new music curated by Nico Muhly’ happens next year. What can audiences expect for the London Barbican shows planned next May?

Ha that is my all-time least favorite question.  Audiences should never expect anything more when they leave the house than to have a good time.  That’s the sort of governing philosophy of my life.  What should I say, that we’re going to have elephants and stripper-poles and a chorus of pygmies?  It will be a weekend of good music, performed well!  Everybody should come!


Can you give me a list of recommended listening please?

With pleasure.  David Lang THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL PASSION, Villagers BECOMING A JACKAL (which you probably already have b/c ur irish), Khia EAT IT, Gregory Spears REQUIEM, and Iestyn Davies’ PORPORA recording from the other month.


‘Drones’ is out now on Bedroom Community.

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December 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm

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