James Jolly talks to one of the US's hottest musical properties
NM It can! The way that I wrote the piano part for this – for me to play – is weird! There are a couple of places where, depending on where I start in relation to the rest of the instruments, it can go in different ways. It’s sort of aleatoric, but very very controlled. It’s a sort of ‘if…then’ function.
JJ And is it the same dance?
NM No, they’ll react in different ways appropriately. But Stephen did it in such a way that they wait for things to happen and then react to it. You know the way people talk about chamber music: "Oh, it’s a conversation" – but I’ve always liked the idea that rather than being a conversation between the players it’s like a whole bunch of people at desks on the phone talking to other people that you can’t see.
JJ So it’s a conversation – but not between the players on stage!
NM Exactly! There are certain sections where each player is doing his or her own little thing and the piano sort of organises it all together with this gigantic ‘thump’ and everyone has to change. Which for me is a fun, physical way to treat chamber music.
JJ So was "I Drink the Air…" a kind of milestone – in scale and ambition – of what you’ve been writing?
and no. It was definitely the longest unbroken thing I’d done, but it
was a really easy collaboration. It didn’t feel like I was doing this
really enormous crazy effort: it felt very workmanlike and it felt good
to produce that much music for a single thing. It’s a lot!
JJ But then you sets your sights on an opera – and that’s a huge structure.
NM Writing large things like operas does have the advantage that the libretto provides you with a structure, and it’s not joined episodes. An opera needs to feel like a single big idea! It has a lot of rooms in it, but it’s one single entity! Structure is scary if you stop and think about writing two hours of music!
"I Drink the Air Before Me" (Footage courtesy Pat Jaffe & Gil Gilbert)
JJ Presumably there are instances where you don’t have a lot of choice; people come and say "We want you to do such and such…" presumably at that point you think "I haven’t written a symphony, or a concerto and I want to do that next as a kind of rite of passage".
NM The ideal situation is to take work that you want to do and not have to do a million of the same thing. In a lot of cases the commissions themselves bear a kind of structural requirement. But that’s good and to be celebrated.
JJ Do you warm to the idea of composer as profession. You sit down at the start of a day and think "This is what I’ve got to do today".
NM I totally do!
JJ And does writing music come easily?
NM Thinking about it like that it does, but actually doing it, not necessarily all the time. I always think about the extraordinary amount of music that church composers had to generate.
JJ Like Bach! If he was physically to write out all his music, how would he have had the time without actually composing the stuff as well?
NM I know – even as a copy job it’s mind boggling! Maybe he had all his kids upstairs writing it all out! Or even someone like Orlando Gibbons… There’s a lot of Gibbons and it’s all complicated. Or Byrd or anyone who was really a state employee! There’s a real bullshit filter on that kind of music because you just don’t have time to go into the woods and commune with nature! It’s Thursday and the choir’s waiting for the parts! I think that model of working is really good – again I think of the church composers in that regard. You think of the amount of really emotionally compelling and emotionally involved music – Taverner or Byrd, who’s really the best example. It was all done incredibly quickly and all done over an incredibly short period of time, and it was sort of dropped into the stream of this repertoire and it’s been there ever since. There’s something really crazy and fabulous about that. That to me as a kid was completely at odds with the pedagogical thing that basically Germany was this clock-making place that turned into this big emotional place and that was the history of music! People were once craftsmen and then all of a sudden they had ideas about philosophy and the nature of humanity and then "It’s Beethoven" or "It’s Wagner!" …
JJ … for a huge length of time!
NM Yes, for many, many years!
JJ But in a way as an American composer you can draw on a much more democratic background. It’s much freer because there’s a huge ocean in the way and you could say goodbye to the German tradition.
NM Yes, in a way. But it’s like that creeping chervil – those things never go away! You can pretend like it’s not there! People seem to know more about music that isn't their own. Just the other day I was talking to the Guildhall kids and it was all "Stockhausen this and Stockhausen that". And I was like "Does anyone know the Britten Abraham and Isaac Canticle" and it was like "Who?" But there is something fun about being American but it’s not to say we don’t have baggage. We have a ton of baggage but it just expresses itself in a different way. And the Continental traditions when they were adopted, were adopted real hard!
JJ But presumably writing something like film music doesn’t carry the same kind of stigma that it does this side of the pond…
NM Oh it does! You just think it doesn’t because we make it seem so effortless and fun! No, of course it does – but not like you have to care! What does stigma even mean! People are still hanging on real hard to high/low, uptown/downtown, but it’s generational.
JJ …and the watershed between the generations is moving ever higher so soon the divide between people who have no problem with a composers writing film music and those who do is …
NM …if we hold our breath for ten years then it’ll be fine! They’ll all have died off! Or their students will have mellowed out. I just don’t worry about it.