James Jolly talks to one of the US's hottest musical properties
Nico Muhly, not yet 30, is one of the most talked-about musicians of his generation. His musical sympathies range from working with artists as diverse as Björk, Philip Glass, Grizzly Bear and Antony and the Johnsons, and writing music for films like The Reader or an opera for English National Opera and The Met. In town for a couple of performances at the Barbican of the dance piece "I Drink the Air Before Me" – a collaboration with Stephen Petronio and his Company – he spoke with Gramophone. And the conversation started with his two new albums for Decca, the music for "I Drink the Air…" and "A Good Understanding", five of his choral works sung by the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
JJ Thinking of one of your new Decca albums, "A Good Understanding", how did an American boy develop such a love for, and feeling for, the Anglican liturgy?
NM Well, it just happened accidentally. I was in a choir and obviously it was the only sort of music we were singing because one of the great things about that tradition is that it’s preserved in wax. I don’t want to say there’s very little new music – because there clearly is – but there’s very little outside influence. And there has always been very little outside influence. If you look at the dates when things were composed …
JJ … there’s a sort of continuum.
NM Exactly, and once you’ve kind of committed to it you can’t really swim out – which I like. But the fact of it happening in suburban Boston is bizarre but also true.
JJ Was it an Anglican church?
NM Yes. And in that strange tradition of Anglican churches that aren’t here [in the UK], they’d preserved a lot of old-fashioned ways of dealing with the liturgy – in ways that would be considered old-dated, even here. And the choirmaster was given free rein to do whatever he wanted which I thought was kind of great and it was very strange – contextually.
JJ So did they do the whole thing right from Byrd and Tallis to Herbert Howells?
NM …and even into Tippett. We did some contemporary things, but yes, right through everything: Finzi and so forth. Very comprehensive!
JJ And are you drawn to those early 20th-century British composers?
NM I am and I never really realised the extent – so immersed was I in this music. I never thought it wasn’t what everyone thought about and talked about. I guess I knew so much Howells and when I turned up at school people said “Who?”. You would never normally have heard a note if you hadn’t done what I’d done. By the standards of what you’ve been taught academically this music is “not good” but then it connects in such a way especially if you’ve come from the tradition of making it, singing it. Some of my earliest great musical experiences were singing Howells. It’s so good, so well put together – it still works all the time!