POP Op. 1

There are many arguments that persuade people to believe that pop music has no depth, and only those who are ignorant listen to and perform pop. On the other hand, people who perform and listen to classical music have been perceived as intelligent and high-class. But what if there were classical performers who composed and performed pop music? Does the stigma of pop performance and listening change? I believe that it does when you apply Western composition techniques such as Nico Muhly does in his pop music.

To clarify, by pop music I mean commercially recorded music that appeals to a mass audience. As for classical music, I refer to music composed with classical western practices. Nico Muhly is a twenty-first century, classically trained composer who is currently in a pop band called Bedroom Community. As for the composer’s classical achievements, he has written over eighty works for the concert stage, several operas, and choral works. His works have been performed by famous ensembles such as the Metropolitan Opera, the English national Opera in London and more. He is also a talented arranger. He has collaborated with artists such as Joanna Newsom and Sufija Stevens. Nico Muhly is also featured in performances with, popular Icelandic artist Thor Birgisson or Jónsi, from the ambient rock/ indie pop band Sigur Rós. Jónsi, and Nico collaborated to work on Jónsi’s album Go. Jónsi met Nico through an acquaintance that had shown him arrangements of Sam Amidon’s album All is Well by Nico. After listening to the album, Jonsi stated in an interview, “Whoa! This is perfect for my music! It was like this painting, a splash of colors that goes in and out not like a constant carpet over the music. So I was really excited about this collaboration, to get this crazy vibe, this color and texture all over the songs.” As a result of the mixture of classical composition and pop composition Nico has broadened the type of audiences he attracts. In addition, Nico’s contribution to these artists music has created depth in the texture making it unique in its sound. therefore it is no longer a simple, boring and repetitive pop song.

In response to Jónsi’s comment, Nico Muhly states, “I want to try something so outrageous for this, and I am just going to completely skeet all over its face!” Both artists worked on the album for months until they were both satisfied. In these songs, Nico Muhly combines minimalist composition techniques and pop writing. The differences between the two writing styles can be difficult to distinguish, but not impossible. It is common for pop music to contain repetitive melodies and layered sounds, but minimalist writing can also have those same traits. For example, Philip Glass, a minimalist composer and a former employer of Nico Muhly, composed continuously repeated musical phrases, or motives, that he layers on top of other motives. Nico used similar traits in the album, for example, the song Boy Lilikoi from the Go album. The song had several ostinatos layered with harmonies, and topped off with the melody sung by Jónsi. Unlike most minimal music, the song changed ostinatos as it progressed and was layered by many instruments, straying away from the idea of using the least amount of musical materials. The album was a hit. Reviews from BBC commented on Jónsi’s unique voice remaining one of modern music’s most “readily identifiable instruments.” The Pitchfork acknowledged Nico Muhly’s talent of realizing the symphonies in Jónsi’s head. As you can see, by combing minimalist techniques, Nico was successful in adding depth to pop music.

When a classical composer is integrated into the world of pop, the idea of pop music having no depth or for ignorant listeners is perceived differently. Like classical minimal music, repetition of phrases or motives are common characteristics in also found in pop music. Nico Muhly is a great example of a composer who uses minimalist traits in his classical music and incorporates these techniques in his pop collaborations. Therefore, pop music with a classical composer can change the stigma of pop when you have the talents of Nico Muhly.

Leroy Medina


Muhly, Nico. 2019. “Nico Muhly.” ART IN AMERICA 106 (11): 37. Accessed April 16. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edswah&AN=000452578900010&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Magnússon, Haukur S. “Nico And Jónsi GO ALL IN!” Nico Muhly RSS. Accessed April 16, 2019. http://nicomuhly.com/press/2010/nico-and-jonsi-go-all-in/.

Dombal, Ryan, and Ryan Dombal. “Jónsi: Go.” Pitchfork. April 05, 2010. Accessed April 16, 2019. https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/14098-go/.

Grapevine.is. “Nico And Jónsi GO ALL IN!” The Reykjavik Grapevine. December 15, 2015. Accessed April 16, 2019. https://grapevine.is/icelandic-culture/music/2010/04/09/nico-and-jonsi-go-all-in/.

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