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Organised Sound

Björk’s pianist Nico Muhly having written the spare score for Stephen Daldry’s The Reader explores the boundaries of classical music

Nico Muhly has been frequenting the headlines of classical sections of dailies, not only because he is a Philip Glass’s protégé, Björk’s pianist and has written the spare score for Stephen Daldry’s Oscar-winning drama The Reader, but also because, as a young composer, his body of work extends across multifarious genres, blending classical with electronica. His exploration into fascinating musical possibilities meets beauty, passion and surprising oddity. Nico’s candor transpires through in this interview for Dazed Digital.

Dazed Digital: How would you define ‘music’ in your own words?
Nico Muhly: Organised Sound and Managed Time.

Dazed Digital: What inspires you? (People, nature, landscapes, animals, conversations, sounds…)
Nico Muhly: This is a silly question! Everything inspires everything. There is nothing that isn't inspirational, in the sense you mean it. This bag of pasta is inspirational. This horrible apartment is inspirational. This USB key is inspirational.

Dazed Digital: Your compositions are intricate, snappy, explosive – do you see the overall picture to start with and then de-construct or do you work step by step/instrument by instrument, i.e one bit at a time, first?
Nico Muhly: I used to do it the second way - I used to start with, basically, sixteen thousand smart little ideas, and then I'd arrange them on a frame and call it a day. The problem with working that way is that it starts to feel very hollow.  John Corigliano, my teacher at Juilliard, taught me this very simple trick to visualize the entire emotional diagram of a piece of music, which essentially involves mapping it out visually on a piece of paper, with the x-axis representing time and the y-axis representing activity. Maybe I got the names of the axes wrong but you get the idea. Then, once you've seen the big map, you can start filling it in in any order. Sometimes, with a piece like Mothertongue, I knew what I wanted certain things to sound like before I had the big structure, but I tried to sort of hide those from myself until I had a really good flightplan.

Dazed Digital: What would you say is the ultimate challenge as a composer and musician?
Nico Muhly: Literally, scheduling. The biggest source of stress in my life is scheduling.  It's time management, too: both of your own life and also of the thing that you're writing. It's "why should I spend five months writing five minutes of music when I could just sit silently and meditate for five minutes?" But then also it's scheduling your life: should I take a run and not be such a fat-ass? Should I write that piano piece? Should I write back to this interviewer? 

Dazed Digital: Do you ever feel like you’d like to change or amend your early recorded works?
Nico Muhly: Constantly but I sort of learned to let go of the earlier stuff. You have to disconnect, in a sense, once you release it. The things I'd change might be something that somebody, somewhere, really loves!

Dazed Digital: When you watch a conductor directing your piece, do you become very critical of their performance or do you let go and enjoy?
Nico Muhly: No, I completely enjoy it. I really prefer it, actually. I can kind of lose myself in the music.  

Dazed Digital: And when you watch them perform, do you ever get self-doubt or analyse your work critically, and if so, to what degree?
Nico Muhly: Constantly. In fact, this is something I'm really bad about. When I hear my things being done in concert sometimes I just start thinking awful things about the piece. It's kind of a bad compulsion. The time to fix problems with a piece is obviously months before, at my desk. So if I'm sitting in a concert hall thinking, "this is horrible" then I just think about Brahms. But usually listening to my own work is like looking at a picture of myself from a few months ago.  You look at it and you think, "hey, that sweater looks pretty good!" or "did I miss a spot shaving?"

Dazed Digital: Recently you mentioned you want to make NY more aware of the classical, opera genres of music. How do you plan to achieve that and what have you organised so far?
Nico Muhly: Ha! I haven't done shit. I think I'm just going to try to do this through example and try to be the best ambassador I can possibly be to my friends, their friends...

Dazed Digital: If you were given a choice of objects to use for a piece (instead of instruments, and no computers allowed), what would they be? And what would you write (in terms of style/form/movement)?
Nico Muhly: Ha! Little did you know I've already done this! I collaborated with the illustrator Maira Kalman and we wrote this insane thing based on a grammar manual and we had egg beaters, slinkeys, shoe stays, anything you can imagine.

Dazed Digital: If a deaf person wanted to ‘see’ your music, what would they see?
Nico Muhly: Puppies! I don't know. I'd hope they'd see something that looks like the sky in a renaissance painting with big gold stars, and somewhere in the background, a boy with his face illuminated by a computer screen.

Dazed Digital: Who are your music idols?
Nico Muhly: William Byrd, Igor Stravinsky.

Dazed Digital: If you could ask one only question to a late idol, what would it be?
Nico Muhly: I would love to ask Byrd about if he thought of anything in his music as "melodies" or if it was all just "lines." A technical question!  

Nico Muhly is currently touring Europe and will be performing in the UK in February and April.