New York City-based composer Nico Muhly spoke about his music and performed selected works at the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium as part of the museum’s Celebrity Lectures series on Wednesday. At 33 years of age, Muhly, whose mother Bunny Harvey is an art professor at Wellesley, is a fast-rising contemporary composer with a diverse background. He has worked with indie rock band Grizzly Bear and Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk, as well as classical violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Emanuel Ax. He co-founded Icelandic record label Bedroom Community and was the youngest composer ever to have an opera commissioned by New York City’s Metropolitan Opera.
Despite his impressive accomplishments, Muhly radiated humility and gratuity toward his audience on Wednesday. The composer began by saying, “It’s so surreal that you all came to hear me talk about myself,” referring to his microphone as a “Britney mic” and mentioned that he was recovering from “the world’s most boring cold.” He continued for the next hour with the same charming, edgy wit.
Muhly spoke mostly about his personal preferences, or as he put it, “things I’m obsessed with” and his composition process. In particular, he is drawn toward English choral music and church traditions because of their cyclical nature. Much liturgical music is only meant to be heard annually, and this serves as inspiration for his composition style, which involves “things that cycle within themselves.” He cited American minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich as his inspirations.
The composer went on to discuss his composition process and how he establishes rules before creating each new piece. For example, in his solo piano piece “A Hudson Cycle,” his rules included a continuous two-on-three pattern, mandatory “hiccoughs” and no bass notes until the end. He proceeded to perform the introspective piece onstage, which helped the audience understand his composition process from conception to final product.
Lastly, Muhly spoke of his love of drones, static pitches that last for long durations of time, and how every space has its own drone. A common place one might find drones, he said, are on planes; he quipped that being on a flight is “the longest piece of concept art you could ever participate in.” He was then joined by Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Assistant Concertmaster, Elita Kang, for the meditative “Drones & Violin,” which featured four movements, each with a different drone switching between the violin and piano.
Muhly’s insightful talk gave the audience a behind-the-scenes look at his philosophies and creative composition process. With a unique artistic vision, an accomplished background and the willingness to step between boundaries of music genres, Muhly is a key member of the next generation of prominent American composers.
“A Hudson Cycle” by Nico Muhly
Featured Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of Bedroom Community