An unidentified approach to compositional style

Many modern composers have embraced a genre of classical music as a style that they feel comfortable writing in. Most composers can be categorized into a particular style or described in a certain way. In the case of Nico Muhly, he feels that he cannot quite name his style of composition or genre and he does not want to. According to various sources, some call Muhly “post-minimalistic.” He has also infused his music with pop influence. His style of writing has been described as simple, interesting, and “diaphanous,” or translucent. His music has been said to be the link between Philip Glass and Benjamin Britten. His music has been called “small” and “elegant” and occasionally “abrasive”. The varying descriptions continue and continue.

With so many different descriptions, is it really possible to place a label on Nico Muhly’s music? Probably not. However, in his creative world, that is just how Muhly wants it to be. In an interview with the New York Times, Muhly talked about what his “signature sound” is saying that it was not something he was ready to define. He stated, “The moment you’re like, ‘This is the grammar,’ it stops being a secret. Inasmuch as I’m in a daily process to uncover the grammar of what it is I am doing and use that, I also don’t want to know where it ends.”

Instead of associating himself with a genre or style of composition, Muhly prefers to talk about the things that inspire his music, whether that be the music of others, or the sounds around him – whatever they may be. In a discussion about his composition “Drones and Piano” he stated that he was inspired by the fact that we are always surrounded by sounds. He mentioned the idea of singing with the vacuum cleaner. We are accustomed to existing and making music with the “hum” of the world around us present in the sound. Muhly explores that in some of his compositions.

His awareness of the world around him combined with his restlessness has led to him making musical sense of what others might perceive to be nonsense sounds. He said in a blog that when on a plane – while it is idling – you can hear certain pitches. Most people probably would not care to think about what those pitches are, but Muhly’s restless nature has led him to pay attention to his surroundings and feel their presence, making him feel that these sounds should be incorporated into music.

Muhly has also been highly influenced by other composers. However, his biggest influences have been from composers that are not of the same genre, which has led Muhly to create an ambiguous genre of his own. His first influence was early on when he sang a motet by William Byrd with his school choir. Another big influence on Muhly was Philip Glass. However, it was not the stereotypical Glass that most have come to know like Einstein on the Beach. He was struck by the Part 1 of Music in 12 Parts. He stated that the sheer “familiarity” and the “organic” quality of the music connected with him on a different level.

It is safe to say that familiarity is what Muhly may be after when he composes. He is aiming to write something meaningful that will connect to any type of audience and that is easy to understand. However, despite that neither he nor his listeners can quite put a label on it.

-Michelle Shaheen

Works cited:
Anderson, Martin. “London, Coliseum: Nico Muhly’s ‘Two Boys’.” Tempo 65, no. 258 (2011): 56-57. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Barlow, Jill. “London, King’s Place: Nico Muhly and Alvin Curran.” Tempo 67, no. 266 (2013): 82-83. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Greene, Jason. “Nico Muhly: Drones.” Pitchfork. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Muhly, Nico. “Nico Muhly’s ‘Mathematical, Organic And Achingly Beautiful’ Philip Glass. ” NPR. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Steve Smith. “Young composer finds his fuel in restlessness.” New York Times, March 11, 2007. (accessed April 14, 2019).

One thought on “An unidentified approach to compositional style

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  1. Nico Muhly’s music is definitely hard categorize. He definitely seems to take inspiration from numerous influences from across the musical spectrum. I feel that these influences in his work, ranging from Steve Reich to Henri Dutilleux to the “hum” of the world around us, are often very easily discernible. For example, when Muhly is doing a Reich-inspired movement in one of his pieces, he really goes full Reich. But I also feel that every composer is certainly listened to use their influences in the forefront of their own compositional style. I agree with you completely that Muhly is simply in pursuit of making a strong connection to his audience through writing music that is most sincerely emblematic of his own musical preferences. Muhly is perfectly able to take what he fell in love with about his musical heroes and use them to create a patchwork which eventually will become known as the signature Muhly sound. One day, we will no longer have define him through the lens of other composers we are more familiar with.

    Liked by 1 person

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