Nico Muhly was talking about how he determines if music is good. “It’s length, pacing,” he said. “Is it preferable to silence?” He laughed. “That’s the first thing I ask myself with every piece: Is it preferable to silence?”
Mr. Muhly was sitting with The Observer at L’asso, an artisanal pizza place near his apartment in Chinatown. He recently moved a few blocks, and was worried he’d missed a UPS furniture delivery. He was also worried that his music might not always meet his own criteria.
“I’d love to go for 15 minutes and sit somewhere quietly,” he said. “That would be fabulous. And sometimes you have to go for 15 minutes and listen to a viola sonata. And in some cases that viola sonata is not preferable to silence.”
Many people have decided that they’d rather hear Mr. Muhly’s music than silence. At 29, he is one of the most successful composers of his generation, busy with high-profile commissions and collaborations with artists like Björk, Grizzly Bear and Antony and the Johnsons. Born in Vermont, Mr. Muhly was raised there and in Rhode Island, and was introduced to writing music and to the 17th- and 18th-century English choral music composers–his favorites–when he joined a friend’s church choir. While in college (he graduated from the joint Columbia/Julliard program in 2003), he began working part-time for Philip Glass, whose name has opened many doors and whose influence–along with Glass contemporaries like Steve Reich and John Adams–is palpable in Mr. Muhly’s work.
Unlike Mr. Glass, Mr. Reich, and Mr. Adams, though, Mr. Muhly is part of a generation that has come of age during the decline of the recording industry. Young composers have resigned themselves to the fact that their music will probably never be recorded by major labels, so they’ve started their own companies: New Amsterdam Records in New York, Nonclassical in London, and Bedroom Community, Mr. Muhly’s frequent collaborators, are only three of many. While that independence can bring welcome flexibility–no one’s standing over your shoulder telling you what to record–it also comes with tiny budgets and distribution difficulties.
But Mr. Muhly seems to have found a way around this problem. Decca Classics, one of the few remaining major classical music labels, on Tuesday released two new albums of his music, and each one is, in its way, a quiet landmark for the composer. A Good Understanding, a collection of Mr. Muhly’s choral work, is his first album on a label other than Bedroom Community, and it’s also his first “catalog” album, in which performers–in this case the Los Angeles Master Chorale–and label came together independently of the composer to record music he wrote several years ago. At a time when composers have to struggle just to record a new piece themselves, it’s a rarity, and a throwback to an earlier era, to have a new album of music from his back catalog–an album he wasn’t even present in the studio for.
“I heard them sing those pieces in concert,” Mr. Muhly said of the L.A. choir, “and then I heard them again do some rehearsals. For the actual sessions, weirdly, I was in Iceland, but they were sending me stuff at the end of the day and I’d be like, ‘That sounds good,’ or, ‘Please do that.’ The thing is, they’re great. It’s good, right?” (It is.)
The other release, I Drink the Air Before Me, featuring Mr. Muhly’s score for a dance work by Stephen Petronio, is the result of an even less conventional arrangement. Decca approached Bedroom Community with the idea of working together on an album of Mr. Muhly’s music. Bedroom Community was fully in charge of the creative process–recording, mixing and creating the album’s artwork–and Decca then licensed the album and is managing the distribution, marketing, and PR.
The logos of both labels appear on the album cover–a first for Decca on a CD release–and, theoretically, everyone wins: Bedroom Community gets access to a larger potential audience, and Decca limits its production costs. Mr. Muhly is introduced to a more traditional classical music audience, and Decca gets access to his and Bedroom Community’s younger fan base. It may not work, but it’s necessary: The financial realities of recording contemporary music mean that these kinds of collaborations will be increasingly needed if we’re going to hear any recordings of new music at all.
For Mr. Muhly, the two albums represent the two sides of his work. “There’s always going to be a discrepancy,” he said, “between me as a composer where I write the music on paper, and it’s sent–where I’m like a dead person–versus the stuff I make with Bedroom Community, where it’s me as a kind of studio performer, with a production-based album. Yes, it’s through-composed, but the crucible of it is the studio rather than the page. And there’s always going to be that discrepancy, so I’m glad these things are coexisting.”
His work with Decca is just one of Mr. Muhly’s recent affiliations with the great institutions of classical music. The New York Philharmonic commissioned a piece from him last season for its new music series, and he is currently completing an opera that is set to premiere in London in 2011 and come to the Met in the 2013-2014 season. His work with these institutions hasn’t made him any less inclined to criticized them: Mr. Muhly has a popular blog and Twitter, and he’s not shy about using it to rib the New York Philharmonic, say, for its Web site, which, he wrote, looks like a tampon ad.
“I do it with a smile,” he said of his criticisms. “One’s relationship to institutions is complicated, especially as someone who takes their money. Anything I say to them is me wanting them to be better. I love New York. I want the New York orchestra to be the best orchestra there is. You feel like this is your hometown, it’s your home team. I’m a firm believer in saying a nasty thing with your name on it, and your picture, and your address.”
As Mr. Muhly’s working life gets busier, and his works larger, he’s trying to get the logistics of his life in order. He’s learning how to navigate the music industry’s uneven pay cycles (though he still splurges on All-Clad nesting colanders). He now avoids pulling all-nighters, and he’s taught himself to write while traveling. He is, in other words, maturing. But some listeners continue to think he’s not maturing quickly enough–his music, complex but accessible and frequently lyrical, has been criticized for being too, well, pleasing.
“I’m trying to access a darker edge in my music,” he said, “not on purpose, but I want it to have a more grotesque energy. Part of it is because, in my musical DNA, my sense of really fundamentally emotional music is choral music, where you’re not going to get a built-in meanness or a built-in aggression. It can descend into just a sparkly space. I’m trying to explore it. It’s not like I don’t have aggressive feelings.”
But he’s determined to let any changes in his music happen in their own time, and largely unconsciously.
“I don’t worry about style, I don’t worry about genre, I don’t worry about political allegiance or all that bullshit,” he said, listing the only three questions about his work that matter to him: “Is it too long? Is it preferable to silence? Is it a pain in my ass?”