by / August 20th, 2009 /

Nico Muhly interview

You may not realise it, but you’ve probably heard a lot of Nico Muhly’s music over the past few years. Even if this prodigious young American’s name isn’t immediately familiar to you, you could have stumbled across his musical input on any number of projects. Perhaps you noticed the string arrangements on Grizzly Bear’s latest album, Veckatimest; or on Antony and the Johnson’s The Crying Light or Bonnie Prince Billy’s The Letting Go; or maybe you went to see The Reader at your local cinema and were touched by the beautiful score that was penned by Nico, who will be visiting Dublin when he plays at the Absolut Fringe Festival in September.

In Nico’s world, there is no sense of -classical’ and -contemporary’ music being boxed off; there is no need for music to be imprisoned within its own genre. He is proof that an open mind can produce music that is at home within any field, and with his enthusiasm and talent he has been able to take part in numerous outstanding projects. But the 27-year old Juilliard and Columbia graduate (unsurprisingly, he studied English and Music) isn’t simply a -contributor’ to other people’s work – he is the creator of two solo albums, 2007’s Speaks Volumes and 2008’s Mothertongue, both released on the fantastic Bedroom Community label, which is based in Iceland and home to Ben Frost and Sam Amidon amongst others. His solo work is more experimental in some ways than his work with the aforementioned artists – he uses samples and -field’-type recordings of seemingly mundane things (such as a friend buttering toast, then eating it) and combines them with vocals and instrumental sounds to create multi-layered pieces of musical art. Unpeeling the layers unveils new delights on each listen.

Nico is currently holed up alone, far from his bustling apartment in New York’s Chinatown. He’s putting the finishing touches to an opera about two teenagers who meet over the internet (with, it is rumoured, murderous consequences), and with workshops pending he needs to be able to focus his mind entirely on the project. ‘I’m kind of like a black and white guy with that,’ he says brightly. ‘Either I have to be in New York with a million people coming over for dinner and cats and dogs and turtles running around the house going crazy; or I have to be here and not pick up the phone!’

But let’s rewind to the opera for a moment – an opera about the internet? You may think that this is a contradiction in terms – but if anything, the fact we would naturally assume that an opera could not have an ultra-modern subject betrays our own -traditional’ mode of thinking. The forefathers and mothers of opera, Nico assures, were more forward-thinking than we might realise. ‘To a certain extent one of the things I like so much about opera is the history of it, which I think is very modern – if you have a 19th century opera it was always very contemporary for the time in which they were written,’ he outlines. ‘The staying power is amazing but I like the idea that you keep it contemporary. Also the idea of deception on the internet, pretending to be someone else online is very…’ He pauses briefly, just long enough to conjure up a striking image: ‘It’s very much like going to a masked ball in the 18th century and wearing a big feather on your head, and no one knows if you’re the countess or the peasant wife.’

For those wondering whether Nico has consciously decided to marry two different forms of music, wonder no more. ‘I’ve never thought about what I’m doing in terms of a conscious decision to bring anything to another…there’s a very natural thing about being in my late 20s, just the way I listen to music is incredibly voracious and I think all my friends, not just musicians are the same way,’ he tells State. Nico says he would like to think that most musicians ‘try to make music from this place of curiosity’, and he himself has a naturally curious nature. With the internet, he is able – we all are able – to access any type of music by almost any musician at the stroke of a few keys, and it is something he greatly appreciates. Before the internet, he says, in order to access classical or -world’ (although he hates that phrase) music ‘you had to physically cross a border in the music store – which doesn’t sound like a big deal, you open the door and walk through; but there’s a certain awkwardness to that physical gesture of having to cross a membrane’. Now, things are easily accessible, and there are less boundaries to cross, physical or otherwise.

Vermont-born Nico has collaborated with a large number of musicians, and says that it is something he welcomes. ‘I spend a lot of time alone in my own world and making decisions that really only affect me, and it feels very self indulgent and monastic or whatever,’ he smiles. ‘Whereas a collaborative thing is a very social undertaking. So you have to listen and be communicative. And it feels really good to do. But also with collaborations you’re asked to have good responses to stimuli. Like working with Grizzly Bear, their music is incredibly interesting to me and it was a real challenge to kind of seek my way through that album and try and find places I could put something. It was a real back and forth.’

Nico describes working with an artist like Grizzly Bear as ‘sort of like lighting a room slightly better’ – an unexpected metaphor that describes how one subtle addition can change the mood or feel of a song in an instant.

Scoring for films, however, is a very different ballgame. It is, says Nico, ‘like an athletic event – where you are taking all the skills that you’ve worked [on] and all of your abilities as a performer, as a composer, as a musician and just kind of running a sprint with it.’ He likes working at this pace when he has to: ‘I think it makes me better when I have more time too, it makes me have a more healthy attitude.’

For such a young composer, Nico has been attracting a staggering amount of positive press, including a fascinating profile in The New Yorker. Surely being called a prodigy must be…an unusual feeling for him? ‘I have a sort of an abstract attitude because to a certain extent l like that people are getting excited about what I’m doing,’ he admits.’ I think a lot of the press I’ve gotten is very theoretic al – -Isn’t it great that there is someone this young doing all this stuff?’ – and that stuff to me is good on a sort of community level, drawing attention to the fact I am in a community of people who are this age doing these things. I think that is unequivocally good.’ He adds wryly: ‘I hope that also this extends to people also liking the actual work I make. I think there’s an excitement about this whole project – that it sounds really fun to write about. I don’t worry about it too much. Freaking out about press stuff in general , whether it’s good or bad it’s a waste of time as it takes up time that I need to write music.’

The feedback that Nico gets from his own fans is something that makes even more of an impact on him – particularly as his work has introduced people to music they may otherwise have never investigated. ‘Whenever I get emails from people on Myspace or Facebook saying that, that’s really the happiest,’ he smiles. ‘I like it so much if someone discovers something through [my work]. You’d be surprised how much it happens in the other direction, people from the classical side of things calling me up and being like, -Oh my god, I’d never heard of this -Coco Rosie’, what is it, it’s so fabulous’, that happens more often than [the other way around]. It’s amazing; it’s a beautiful thing I think. It’s sort of what I do too – if I like something myself I’ll investigate it as much as I can.’

And if you too want to investigate beautiful things, seek Nico’s music out. Explore, listen, and treasure.

Nico Muhly plays the Spiegeltent Sunday Sept 6 as part of Absolut Fringe (previously the Dublin Fringe Festival) which runs citywide from September 5- 20 :: Further information & bookings at or Tel: 1850 FRINGE (374 643) (tickets now on sale)

  • Really nice interview Aoife. It’s a pity his show clashes with the Picnic otherwise I’d be there.

  • I was going to say the exact same thing as Alan did: really enjoyed this piece and disappointed that I’ll miss him because EP.

    I’ve been slightly obsessed with his track ‘Skip Town’ of late.

  • Maria Broma

    I don’t want to miss it – I plan to skip the EP traffic and return to Dublin early to see Nico.