Classical music in a new light

Amy Miller

Nico Muhly, born in 1981 in Vermont, is one of the most sought after composers of the 21st century.  A resident of New York, Muhly has written works for over 15 years and produced over a hundred works, ranging from opera to film, solo and orchestral ensemble arrangements and orchestrations.  Muhly’s music is similar that of most 21st century composers as he acknowledges pop culture influences over his music styles and pushes back at the question of having to “self-define” as a composer.  Muhly emphasizes the notion that “If you ever have ten minutes to think about defining your musical style, I would suggest doing something else like learning German or doing ‘a Marie Kondo’ sorting through your drawers.” The need to “self-define” your musical genre has lost its appeal in the 21st century.  The way that Muhly counters this self-definition as a composer is by making classical music relatable to a wider audience by incorporating themes and setting his music to a traditional space to redefine the classical music atmospheric space.  

Muhly considers himself to be a post-minimalist composer whose works show a clear combination of pop and classical music cultures.  An example of this combination is found in his latest opera, Two Boys, which was written on commission for the Metropolitan Opera. The pop aspect of the opera, Two Boys, lies in its storyline which is based off a “toxic relationship between two men who met online.” The classical aspect is found in the music itself, which sounds as though it is from the Romantic era with its mixture between homophonic and polyphonic harmonies.

Another work that shows Muhly’s influence and collaboration with the pop culture is, “Confessions” written with Teitur, who is a singer-songwriter. Confessions, displays an “optimistic observation of human behavior disguised as a musing on the life of a sushi roll.” As odd as that sounds, this is the type of music and collaboration that draw new audiences in as they are just as intrigued and interested to hear what the music might hold. Unsurprisingly, there are uses of Baroque sounds in the form of a “lacy backdrop” of Baroque chamber ensemble.

Muhly is a great representation of a composer who is trying to change society’s viewpoint of classical music and how it is presented to today’s generation. Through his music he presents and image to his audience that he can relate to them and is not afraid of talking about the deep secrets and emotions we all have. Muhly has proved that the connection to your audience is so important for the success of your career in music and how we can keep classical music relevant and relatable.


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