When listening to the music of Nico Muhly, a composer whose compositional voice owes an enormous amount to his musical heroes, it
became apparent that Muhly does not prescribe to the idea that for new music to be “good” it must therefore be “different”. His music is firmly rooted in the Western tradition through its strong amount of influence from his predecessors. For example, in Muhly’s Cello Concerto, a formal concerto which does not stray from the traditional western f ast-slow-fast (Part One, Two and Three) structure, the overwhelming presence of Reich in “Part Three” coupled with the direct (self-proclaimed as “stolen”) quote from Dutilleux’s M etaboles in “Part One”, the concerto is overflowing with rehashed ideas and revisited concepts. However many influences can be directly found in Muhly’s music, Muhly’s own compositional voice shines through in the way which he combines seemingly disparate influences into a convincingly cohesive texture. What some may deem as unoriginal or stale in Muhly’s music is in reality what composers, artists, writers and filmmakers have done since the beginning; to take from the old and to synthesize their past experiences, influences and inspirations into a lifelong journey of expression that becomes something uniquely their own. What does stand out to me in Muhly’s music is the constant dialogue between minimalism and romanticism. For example, while Part Three of Muhly’s Cello Concerto begins firmly rooted in an insistent Reichian pulsation, it soon becomes overlayed, via the solo cello line, with a wash of lyricism reminiscent of Hollywood film composers such as Korngold or John Williams. These two musical styles in juxtaposition of each other create a unique voice that is enticing to the ear.
It seems like Muhly has found his compositional strength not in trying to do something “different” that would set him apart, but rather by composing sincere music that is most true to his own musical preferences. In fact, today’s American contemporary classical music scene contains many concert-goers, music students and composers alike who seem to hold a common misconception: it is a living composer’s job to do what has never been done before; to imagine a new type of music that breaks down every boundary and bends every rule to create a truly unparalleled musical experience. While it takes true innovators to move the Western musical language forward into the modern day, the novelty of being different has been the root of widespread alienation among concert audiences of contemporary classical music, leaving orchestras and chamber music presenters with no option other than to feature the Greats of the past. While living composers must not all simply become poor simulacra of their musical influences, it releases an enormous amount of pressure from composers life to realize that the most important thing is to focus on writing “good” music, not “different” music.
A graduate of Columbia University and Juilliard School of Music, Muhly is certainly no stranger to the academic world. But while some composers’ scholarly backgrounds have set them apart from popular culture, for Muhly, the opposite is the case. In fact, an area where
Muhly stands out among his contemporaries is his skill for writing anecdotal and relatable prose. Many of the articles found when researching his views on music are written by the composer himself, often describing a specific experience or viewpoint related to a specific musical event. Through his colloquial language skills, blog posts on his personal website, New York Times editorials, and writings on NPR, Muhly has constructed a public image for himself of a connection to academia, but an underlying “down-to-earth” mentality. Similarly, Muhly’s intuitive music stands firmly in this camp of the accessibility of modern classical music, in opposition to the 20th century music of composers like Arnold Schoenberg or Brian Ferneyhough that may present an impenetrable wall to most listeners due to its academic or cerebral qualities. Within an art form that has historically been produced by and for the upper classes of European society, Nico Muhly’s innovation within the classical music world lies in his ability to provide a himself as a companionable millennial figurehead for the world of contemporary classical music. In addition to the accessibility of his music, he has been able to use his relatable personality to attract wider audiences and ensuring the “relevance” of the Western classical tradition in the modern day.
Muhly, Nico. “Nico Muhly’s ‘Mathematical, Organic And Achingly Beautiful’ Phillip Glass”, NPR Music, January 24th, 2017. (https://www.npr.org/sections/deceptivecadence/2017/01/24/511268723/nico-muhlys-mathematical-organic-and-achingly-beautiful-phil ip-glass)
Muhly, Nico. “If You See Something, Say Something”, Nico Muhly, October 25th, 2016. (http://nicomuhly.com)
Muhly, Nico. “Cello Concerto (2012)”, Music Sales Classical, Chester Music. (http://www.musicsalesclassical.com/composer/work/47277)
Kings Place. “Nico Muhly Discusses Minimalism — Part One”, YouTube, January 19th, 2015. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQqpWG0N_q4)
Muhly, Nico. “Nico Muhly on Why Choral Music Is Slow Food For The Soul”, The New York Times, April 1st, 2017. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/01/arts/music/nico-muhly-andrew-gant.html)