BY DAVE ALLEN Nico Muhly is a thoroughly modern composer. His pieces are larded with innately contemporary textures, wherein classical elements – harpsichord, violin, celesta – bump up against vocalists rapidly-intoning lists over the sound of scraping knives and burbling synthesizers. In just a few short years, he’s earned just as much cred in the pop music world (collaborations with Antony and the Johnsons, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and Bjork) as he has in the hallowed halls of classical (commissions from the Boston Pops, Chicago Symphony, and NYC avant-garde venue The Kitchen) while maintaining an astonishing level of productivity. He’s already had a Carnegie Hall retrospective concert of his work, for goodness’ sake. His current tour with Sam Amidon and Thomas Bartlett AKA Doveman, which stops at the First Unitarian Church tonight, might seem strange, but the trio all have roots in Vermont, all now call NYC home, and all three have collaborated on performances and productions for years. They’ll be performing in a kind of round-robin, with each musician taking a turn in the spotlight with the other two playing back up. Muhly talked with us about moving his works from studio to stage and on the chemistry he’s developed with his tour-mates.
PHAWKER: With the kind of programming and sampling and microphone placement that goes into studio work, it seems that there’s not a lot left to chance in recording an album. To what extent do you have to give up control when playing your compositions live? Also, to what extent are the compositions from Speaks Volumes and Mothertongue the basis for live performances? How concerned are you with replicating everything as it appears on the recordings?
NICO: Performing this material live is just about figuring out what-all needs to be directly ripped from the album (the idea of close mic-ing, for instance) and other things that we don’t need to replicate (certain sound effects that are best heard on a speaker, or headphone). Basically, if you have good performances (Musicianship!), you don’t need to make such a big deal about replicating the little sonic minutiae of the recording live. Also: I’m very used to giving up control of my music because I normally don’t perform it at all. I just sit there and smash my hands together nervously.
PHAWKER: I know you’ve used Icelandic language in your music, and it almost seems like you turn English into a foreign language on Mothertongue. When will we see some Arabic and Chinese settings? How will you decide when you’re ready to use an element like that?
NICO: Ha! I don’t know about any of that. For a while I was thinking about using Arabic noun forms (there are ten) which are very specifically rhythmic. I don’t have any relationship with the Chinese language, though, and it kind of freaks me out. I like that you think I “foreigned” English, that was sort of my intent.
PHAWKER: On this tour, you’re playing with long-time friends and collaborators. As a composer, you often have to swoop in from somewhere for a few days of frenzied work with people you may not have met before and may never meet again. How would you describe the difference between these two working and music-making situations? And though I know it might not be a matter of preferring one over the other, what’s your ideal setting?
NICO: As you predicted, I like both. Having people who don’t know anything about me or my music playing something for the first time has a certain urgency, like, the flash of excitement of seeing something for the first time. It’s like a cold shower. Working with longtime collaborators is sort of like a hot bath – way more relaxing. Specifically, Nadia Sirota, the violist, and I have worked together for so long that I can just sit back and watch her work, rather than fret anxiously.
PHAWKER: How do the demands of playing Sam and Thomas’ music compare with the instruments and sample you have to tackle in presenting your own music? What do you feel you have musically in common with the two of them?
NICO: Thomas and I have a lot of things in common as we relate to other people’s music – the way to space a chord, the use of pulse or not, etc., and Thomas produced and arranged all of Sam’s first album, and I arranged the second, so there is a natural crossover there. Also, I am a huge fan of Sam’s music anyway, so it’s a treat to get to play it.
PHAWKER: On this tour, how have audiences reacted? Has there been the kind of deadly silence and uncertainty about when to clap that characterizes most concert-hall music, or has the audience been looser and more adaptive? As a result, how loose have you, Sam, Thomas, and the other performers felt?
NICO: No, it’s been fine! People clap whenever they like. That’s, like, the last way to judge whether or not the show was good. You can just usually “tell.”
PHAWKER: How would you describe an ideal live performance of your work? How does that differ from an ideal recording of it? Aside from trying to play all the right notes, what has to happen in each one for a satisfying result?
NICO: As long as the performers feel like they are communicating simultaneously what I wrote and also their own agenda as musicians, I’m going to be happy. I like when a piece of mine becomes a way for a performer to, you know, perform. Ideally also I am surrounded by friends and loved ones, but that’s even more ideal.
PHAWKER: In the New Yorker profile of you from February, you said, “More people have met me than have heard what I do, and I am working to change that.” Is this tour — including the types of venues that you’re playing – a part of that effort?
NICO: It’s not really an effort – I wish I could say that I were more Machiavellian about my life. This tour is really an excuse to do something that I probably won’t have time to do again for a while.
He’s not kidding about not having the time for tours. An upcoming commission from the Metropolitan Opera – Muhly has described the project as a “teen gay Internet sex drama” (seriously) – is sure to launch him to even more stratospheric heights, so catch him if you while you can.
[Photos by MICHAEL SCHMELLING]