by Clayton Webster

When I arrive to interview composer Nico Muhly, he shows me into a small room with a keyboard linked to a pair of Macs and very little else, save a bookshelf with the music of his favorite composers. On the wall is a photograph by Laurie Simmons, whose exhibition Two Boys ran concurrently with Muhly’s opera of the same name at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The combination of a photographer and a musician may seem strange, given the fixity of photography and the languid movements of music, but Muhly’s compositions enable and require conversations across disciplines. Rare is the artist who has so seamlessly moved within and among genres, but this is second nature to Muhly: “I didn’t only do a music degree. My mother is an artist, and my father is a filmmaker. The connection between making art, looking at art, cooking, reading, and existing was always really fluid. I’m interested in music, but I’m also interested in language.” Muhly shows me the cover of an antique manuscript that he has been reading, “The music is the end result of much thought about something else.”

Muhly’s own history confirms this driving desire to learn, something that has gifted his work with a unique intellectual richness. After completing a degree in English at Columbia University, Muhly went on to study at the Juilliard School. In 2013 he became the youngest composer to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera for his two-act detective story Two Boys. His list of collaborations and commissions include Philip Glass, Björk –whom he joined this spring in L.A. as part of Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Reykjavík Festival – and the scores for the critically acclaimed films The Reader (2008) and Kill Your Darlings (2013). His albums Speaks Volumes (2006) and Mothertongue (2008) garnered widespread praise — both of which, with their simultaneously lithe and jarring melodies, have become favorites among aficionados of classical music.

Reciting Muhly’s résumé belies his humility. It is a humility that comes from a place of artistry rather than the affected demureness one so often sees with artists and writers. Muhly, for instance, regularly contributes chamber music to small churches that have neither the budget nor the fame of well-known venues. His favorite music, in fact, is 16th and 17th century liturgical song, which was never performed with pomp and circumstance. He says, “I don’t worry about that moment where you switch from being apprentice to master, or that kind of Star Wars talk. You never totally escape from feeling like a student. I want to create music that erases me, that helps you look somewhere else. When I’m open about my process or my life, the point is to say, ‘Look around.’” Muhly enjoys contexts where his music is entirely appreciated for its utilitarian value, as in a church service, where no one would be expected to clap. He says, “If people can participate in the environment and feel like the music belongs in the space, it works. That’s my bag, making music in that context. So when you do something where everyone claps, it comes from a more honest space.”

It is this giving spirit that has made Muhly a favorite among aspiring musicians. Generosity with his knowledge is a part of his DNA. “I feel openness about process is essential,” Muhly says, “It’s important to use your skill as a musician to interpret the world. Master your craft, read a book, and figure out for whom you are writing. There’s no simple timeline; as with someone like Diane Arbus, the iconic things come at weird moments.” Muhly’s career is a testament to this fact; the range and depth of his contributions to music and film have branched out in endlessly varied directions, and those who have experienced his work certainly benefit from its expansive qualities.

We discuss Lars von Trier and melodrama and Muhly has one more bit of advice. In a characteristic use of metaphor, Muhly describes his process, especially when working on commission, thusly: “It’s like you have two vegans, two people who used to date and now hate each other, and someone with a nut allergy coming over for dinner. What do you do?” I reply, “What do you do?” And Muhly dryly responds with a grin, “Lentils.”

Written by William J. Simmons  
Photographed by ioulex