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The Composer Never at Rest

A Nico Muhly sampler of erudition, opinion, and just a dash of swish

Nico Muhly is gifted, prolific, and much in demand.
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East Village-based classical composer Nico Muhly thinks fast, talks fast, and, more than anything else, works fast — and he is almost always working. He may not always have a keyboard with him, but he goes nowhere without his iMac, upon which he can compose and notate, and be in almost simultaneous contact with his many collaborators around the globe.

Known for composition of opera (“Two Boys” and “Marni,” both at the Met), dramatic scores (“Joshua” and the Academy Award-winning “The Reader”), and the score for the Starz Channel reboot of “Howards End”), he’s also made nifty forays into queer pop — for example, his collaborations with fellow queer music world darlings like Brooklyn’s Sufjan Stevens, the trans chamber pop vocalist and artist Anohni, and British transplant to Manhattan composer Thomas Bartlett.

Muhly, at 37, is indisputably one of the most in-demand composers of classical music around, so much so that London’s Daily Telegraph famously called him “the hottest composer on the planet.”

I met Muhly near Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia on a recent Saturday afternoon. That evening, the Philly Orchestra, under the direction of music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, was performing the East Coast premiere of “Register,” an 18-minute concerto for organ and symphony commissioned in partnership with the Los Angeles Orchestra. British organist James McVinnie was playing the 7,000 pipes of the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ.

Muhly and I sat in the not-yet-open dining room at his hotel and spoke — about some of his upcoming projects, whether or not he is a “gay” composer, and even about the upcoming Stonewall 50th anniversary celebrations and what they might mean to an artist who was born 54 days after The New York Times July 3, 1981 headline “Rare Cancer Seen In 41 Homosexuals” announced the beginning of the AIDS epidemic.

What’s Nico Muhly’s music like?

His work may be written for electric violin, as I heard at Carnegie Hall a few years ago, or for counter-tenor; it can be sacred music, as was his first composition at age 12 for the organ at his church, or written for Bjork or the Brooklyn-based indie rock band Grizzly Bear.

About the eclecticism of his work, he has said, “It’s essentially like being from somewhere. I feel like I’m very proudly from the classical tradition. It’s like being from Nebraska. Like you are from there if you’re from there. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a productive life somewhere else. The notion of your genre being something that you have to actively perform I think is pretty vile.”

Muhly was commissioned to write music for a new version of Thomas Mann’s homo-tragic novella “Death In Venice,” directed by Ivo van Hove in a Dutch-language co-production by the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. The piece is being performed at venues in Europe through July 4.

A huge fan of the Benjamin Britten opera version from 1973, Muhly commented on the use of the phrase “musical theatre piece” in the new production’s press materials.

“Honestly, I’m not sure those terms translate so well from the Dutch,” he said. “People hear ‘musical theatre’ and think of something that has a can-can line. There’s music by Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg, and Richard Strauss, and my music is part of this wider eco-system.”

How does he feel about “Death In Venice” as a gay text?

“It’s one of those things where it registers with me as both ‘yes, it is’ and ‘no, it’s not,’” Muhly responded. “There’s so many of these age-inappropriate love stories in heterosexual literature. I don’t necessarily need to identify it as explicitly homosexual to distinguish it from other things that address that specific kind of — this is exactly the wrong kind of word, but — yearning.”

Does he consider himself a gay artist?

“I have so many bad ways to answer this,” he said. “It doesn’t weigh on me, but I think that’s generational. A lot of those battles got fought and a lot of my generation was born into the clear.”

“But,” Muhly insisted, “don’t print that without adding” that his experience of freedom to roam beyond the fences of a particular identification is “only because of the situational specificity of being a white, middle-class guy.”

To wit, privileged.

“To what extent should identity be reflected in art?” Muhly continued rhetorically. “Well, the world is not waiting for the opinion of white, middle-class men about such things. I don’t need to plant that flag.”

So, what does the big Stonewall 50 anniversary mean to him?

“Well, there’s the way that you learn about it that’s like ‘Whoo, Pride!,’ and there’s the way that you learn about it that’s hyper-political.”

He noted that he had been asked to work on a project related to the Stonewall anniversary, but declined, feeling that “it wasn’t my project to tell.”

Still, a year from now, during Pride Month 2020, Muhly’s “Concerto for Two Pianos” will be performed at the New York Philharmonic alongside iconic gay composer Aaron Copland’s “Third Symphony” (with its famous finale, “Fanfare for the Common Man”) and conducted by music director Jaap van Zweden.

As a gay man who grew up in a world where HIV was always a reality, I asked what the impact of the epidemic had been on his life and upbringing. He responded in terms of the gay works of art that defined both the AIDS era and, concurrently, his own adolescence.

“It changed so quickly in the last couple years in terms of how people speak about HIV,” he said. “For me, in terms of sex ed in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, it felt a lot like, ‘If you are gay and have sex, you will get AIDS and die.’ I’m not saying anyone actually said those words, but…”

That was the context in which his gay psyche was formed, he was saying.

“Things like ‘Angels in America,’ the movie ‘Philadelph­ia,’ John Paul Corigliano’s ‘First Symphony’” [which was inspired by the AIDS epidemic and written to honor the composer’s friends who had died] — “all these things arrived in my field of vision in my early teen-aged years,” Muhly said. “But now, with things like PrEP, the conversation has really, truly changed.”

I said it sounded as if Muhly didn’t want to overplay the “being a gay composer or a gay artist or even a gay person” thing because he didn’t want to disrespect the people who are fighting their battles for social justice right now.

“That is literally what I’m saying. That’s pretty explicit. I don’t want to be like—” and then he shifted into his Missy Thing lisping voice, “‘I too have suffered!’ The universe I inhabit is incredibly comfortable in terms of being gay.”

To that point, later that night, I watched as Muhly sat eight rows in front of me in the orchestra next to his partner, the political consultant Ben Wyskida, and listened to his concerto “Register.” When it finished, he bounded to the stage to grasp hands and take bows with, on his left, the organist McVinnie, and on his right, conductor Nézet-Séguin, both good gay pals of his.

Updated 2:20 pm, May 23, 2019
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