Sentences: An Interview with Nico Muhly

Award winning composer Nico Muhly has written for ensembles such as the Tallis Scholars, venues including the Carnegie Hall, and soloists such as Anne Sofie von Otter. A few weeks before the premiere of ‘Sentences’, his new piece for voice and orchestra about Alan Turing, Leo Mercer spoke to Muhly about technology, and setting texts to music.

Much of your work sets text to music, but there’s a broad range of texts from the liturgical to newspaper cuttings and text-speak in a libretto. What makes a text settable – or invite musical settings – for you?

I find that the best text to set is the simplest.  I sort of can’t bear setting poetry — if the poetry is good, it has a music to it already.  Occasionally I cheat and break this rule, but I’ve found that interesting texts to set are not the same as interesting texts to read.  I think the entire bel canto tradition is a good example of this; nobody would ever read the libretto for a Puccini opera on purpose.  That having been said, Da Ponte, of course, wrote extraordinarily beautiful libretti, beautifully set by Mozart.  So who knows.  I think it depends on each situation and each composer’s ability (and each singer’s, surely) to be a communicative artist.

I have found, though, that setting sacred texts is very easy.  The liturgical calendar is a giant opera to which we all know the plot, so all the texts are commentary: thickenings of the knowledge we already have.  Even the tiny parallel text of the Kyrie can be, in its way, deeply emotional, as can the elaborate devotions of Byrd’s settings of the creed, for instance.

Thinking about Da Ponte libretti/Mozart operas – what do you think about the distinction between operas and musicals? Mozart operas seem on so many levels to be closer to contemporary musicals than operas.

You know, I’ve never really worried about this distinction.  I similarly don’t freak out about high/low anxiety or putting a name on anything.  I tell this story a lot, but I wrote a piece a few years ago called keep in touch and it’s basically a solo viola and electronics piece, and we’ve played it at Carnegie Hall, at the Barbican, at a sweaty club in Brussels, at a thrash metal show in Switzerland, and it works in all of those places, and doesn’t need a taxonomy to make it work.  Similarly, take Sweeney Todd.  You can basically do that thing anywhere and it’ll work, and it doesn’t matter what you call it.

Who are your favourite text-setters in music? Do you have any favourite passages of set text?

There are too many to list, and all for very different reasons.  I feel like any Bach passion has some extraordinary text setting in it — particularly those long-ass alto arias that lull you into submission with their brilliance.  All of Purcell is fabulous — that Te Deum! the Evening hymn! All of Gibbons is fabulous.  I love the ecstatic chanting in Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, although I am in no position to judge the setting’s relationship to the original Sanskrit.  Howells’s A Spotless Rose is pretty great.  I’ve also found that great singers can turn weird settings around — a great example is the Dawn Upshaw recording of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.  That Auden/Kallman text is basically insane, and one got the sense that Stravinsky 96% understood how English worked in terms of stresses and syllabic weight and counterweight.  Dawn Upshaw sells the shit out of it, though: check out her No Word from Tom.

Is there a text / book you dream about making a musical version of? 

There are approximately 45,000 books for which I have this dream.  The one I’m keenest on is this extraordinary book called Set This House in Order, which, among other things, deals with systematic child abuse, multiple personality disorder, virtual reality, and the Pacific Northwest.  It is … so great.

Do you feel your musical style affected by non-musical influences, such as any contemporary literary figures?

I do — although actually I feel like the relationship isn’t ever quite as literal as to be perceptible.  For instance, at the level of the sentence, I am obsessed with Salman Rushdie’s juicy run-ons and Alan Hollinghurst’s formal and dazzling shapes.  I think about language all the time, but in a lot of cases it’ll be a little turn of phrase deployed brilliantly or strangely in an article or a warning sign or a tube service update or something.  Going back to literature, I keep on telling everybody who will listen that a paragraph that does all the work a piece of music should do is to be found in Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star:

There was no one else in the street that led up to the church, no one in the shabby square that its tower overhung. St Vaast: an ugly old hulk, with a porch tacked on, all curlicues and dropping yellow stucco, with a nest-littered pediment above. It was locked, of course: no last light glimmering from a vestry window–no choral society meeting after work to rehearse their director’s own Te Deum or some minatory Flemish motets. I went on with a shiver.

In cases like ‘Two Boys’ and ‘Sentences‘, how do you work with your librettists? Do they initiate the concepts and the way you’ll deal with them, and do you find there are things you find yourself wanting change to make them fit your musical style?

Each project is different, and actually, these two that you mention are as different as could be.  Two Boys required a huge, sprawling libretto at times and also a very specific relationship to a policier — which is not, I dare say, a genre explored in opera.  In this case, Craig Lucas and I basically sat down, ordered an omelet, and mapped out the large structure, and then he got to work on the specifics.  Once you’re in agreement about the large shapes and footprints of a piece, the rest should come naturally to both librettist and composer.  The same, actually, was true of Sentences, but in this case, there isn’t really a plot so much as a sequence of meditations on a given body of work, much of which is drily scientific.  Adam Gopnik’s task, then, was to tease out emotional content where possible, and to tamp it down when we needed to make the numbers shine.

‘Two Boys’ feels entirely contemporary in subject matter, being structured around chatrooms. Is *being contemporary* or *capturing the moment* one of your creative aims?

It is very much not.  And I would argue that a chatroom is the same as the way a masked ball functions in 17th, 18th, 19th century opera, or, even, the ridiculous notion that we are meant to believe that people can disguise themselves in a cross-gendered way and nobody would notice — you see this all through the 17th century, but of course also in Cosi fan tutte.  So for me, it’s really not that contemporary at all.  Additionally, these kinds of chatrooms — faceless affairs — are very 1990s.  The fun for me, though, was that even though that technology was dated, whist we were writing the piece, a series of online hoaxes took place: Manti Te’o, for instance.  I am an obsessive collector of online cancer hoaxes, too.

You’ve had an incredible output recently, with premieres just about everywhere. How are you finding this? How does it affect your creative processes?

The output and the creative process are one thing, but the travel is another.  I find the whole thing exhilarating about 90% of the time.  Other times, it is exhausting, alienating, and lonesome.  This week alone has been quite vigorous, with a new orchestra piece in Philadelphia, finishing the orchestration for Sentences, starting sketching for a ballet in September in Paris, continuing work on this Colorguard project with Ira Glass, continuing editing fifteen viola da gamba tracks for an installation piece at the National Gallery, and it’ll keep going through to July, at which point I think I have four consecutive days “off,” which is to say, only writing music rather than doing fifteen million other things.  Even today, for instance, I fly tonight to London from New York, having just gotten back to New York on Monday, and instead of having a lie-in I am up at sparrow’s fart answering your questions and proof-reading a percussion part.

What’s the secret to such high-productivity?

I honestly don’t know.  I fear that the minute I figure it out, I’ll forget how to do it, so I always just try to keep my eye on the task at hand.  One thing is that I am fiercely unambitious.  I have never made a plan that has anything to do with my career, or my “trajectory” or whatever euphemistic phrase I’m meant to use.  Instead, I work — not to repeat the word — vigorously on everything, so that the work itself is the ambition.  It’s never, “in ten years I wish to have accomplished these things and will tick off the boxes as I go.”  So, by not worrying about what anything means (as about [musicals versus operas], above), I find that a day can be spent just in the joy and rigour of work.  The process — the journey, as it were — is itself home!

You’re incredibly alive on Twitter, and have a very distinct tweet-voice. Do you think your music bears any influence of the way you’ve been using social media?

Ha, that’s a funny question.  I feel like the two are interrelated inasmuch as twitter is a language challenge: to squeeze an idea into a tiny format limited not by words but by characters.  There is, for me, an enormous poetry in this.  I also feel like Twitter is a great way to stay engaged with people who do different things — which relates to your next question — but my “feed,” such as it is, is filled with people who do all manner of things and do them well: scientists, cooks, writers, activists, and sometimes even twitter BOTS — for instance, Pentametron, that finds rhyming couplets from adjacent tweets in iambic pentameter, or the bot that is tweeting Allen Ginsberg’s Howl line by line, or another that just describes what is happening in the movie Koyaanisqatsi.

You did literature at university – did you ever write yourself, or was it always going to be music?

I did a really complicated dual-degree program between Columbia and Juilliard.  For me, I wanted to make sure that I studied English / Literature really thoroughly and not as some kind of “supplement” to my music, so having two distinct institutions really helped keep them distinct.  I never really write, except for the five years when I blogged quite actively, but then I lost the ability to focus on that as more and more work involving text came up.

Leo Mercer

More information about Nico Muhly can be found on his website; you can also follow him on Twitter @nicomuhly.

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