Taxidermy was composed in 2012 by Caroline Shaw for Sō Percussion. The title, Taxidermy, was chosen by Shaw because of what she associates it with. Some of these include: awkward, silent, funny, and creepy, which are represented throughout the piece. Shaw accomplishes this by exploring different timbres with the instrumentation, implement choices, layering of voices, and the harmonies created during the piece. 

The piece begins with flower pots laid at an angle, played with yarn mallets. This creates a somber, and slightly demented, beginning to the piece as the flower pots are not perfectly in tune with each other. Not long after the beginning, other players use the wooden shaft of their mallets to provide a bright, stark contrast to the beginning material. This leads to a moment of chaos that decrescendos to almost nothing. This section repeats once again in a shorter segment. All the while this is happening, two players are providing a steady rhythmic accompaniment throughout the seemingly random interjections of bright sounds. This overall “A section” perfectly captures the essence of what Shaw previously described as “creepy and awkward”. 

Once the vibraphone and marimba enter, the piece takes on a slightly happier demeanor. The two keyboard instruments provide clear melodic and harmonic lines in contrast to the distorted sound of the flower pots heard earlier. Shaw develops this character by having the flower pots play a more intricate rhythmic pattern over the melodic patterns provided by the vibraphone. This gives the piece the “awkwardness” through a mixture of tonalities and timbral characteristics of all the instruments being performed. This entire section can be heard as a “B section” as there are new instruments introduced, new rhythmic development, and a difference in overall tonality.

The “A section” material is re-introduced again, however this time it develops with melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic material over the previously heard harmonic accompaniment from the beginning. This section can be heard as an “A’ section” due to the similar material being repeated along with the primary voices only being flower pots. In contrast to the very beginning all flower pots are only played with yarn and the rhythmic patterns develop into new material. The performers begin to say, “the detail of the pattern is movement”. This is critical as there is a final element placed on top of the texture that completely displaces the sense of meter.             

Shaw composed a piece that is unique in instrumentation, approach, and timbre characteristics. She explored different colors with several different sized flower pots, the use of implements, and the use of common percussion instruments. Along with the compositional techniques used, Shaw is able to tie this piece to the classical western tradition by using a Ternary Form. This is clearly heard throughout the work with the return of different music ideas that develop each time they are present. Overall Shaw has created a work that uses a variety of timbres, and a musical form that is common throughout western classical music.

Trice Mayhall


“Taxidermy”. YouTube Video, 10:07. Posted by “Adele Dusenbury”, February 19, 2018.

Fresh off the vine.

Caroline Shaw: ​Valencia​ for String Quartet (2012)

Jasper String Quartet; from their album ​Unbound

Caroline Shaw’s ​Valencia​ for String Quartet, written in 2012, contains a tangy vivacity suggested by the title, which refers to the Valencia orange, a type known for its bright floral sweetness and juiciness. Masterfully performed by the great Jasper String Quartet, ​Valencia​ is truly a feast for the ears. More frequently using the quartet in Americana folk-like textures rather than overt singing melodies with functional harmony and voice leading, ​Valencia ​is a piece with structural ingenuity and a convincing dramatic narrative. Permeated by repetitive musical fragments that expand and contract rhythmically and harmmonically, the piece leads the listener comfortably from section to section while always hanging on to something that has happened previously. In other words, Shaw uses the compositional device of memory to keep the listener engaged in the music through its almost 6-minute journey.

Memory plays an intrinsic role in the success of this music. Each new section contains something that harkens back to the previous section, while presenting something as fresh and new as a Valencia orange ripe off the vine. In other words, when at one moment, two textures are layered together, one of these textures will hold through to the next section while the second texture will drop out, only to be replaced by a texture that defines the character of the next section, almost like stitching two pieces of fabric together like a chain link fence. The texture presented is always layered with contrasting material, for example if the violins both have pulsating harmonics that remain stationary on a certain pitch, the viola and cello present short, jabbing material that moves vertically in pitch and in syncopated rhythm; if the cello and viola share a long, creeping crescendo, the violins will contrast this with a stationary vamp on a harmony, which relies heavily on the use of fifths (thus giving it its folk like quality). Upon the piece’s conclusion, one might be able to generalize and say that the piece is in ternary form — we are gifted with a return to a memory of the original pulsating violin harmonics from the opening of the piece in its finale. The textures, overall, while reminiscent of Americana or Nordic folk traditions of string music, are also heavily influenced, it seems, by Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor.

The piece does not sound similar to music written 200 years ago, but it does, however, sound very similar to music that was written 100 years ago, most notably the music of Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and Kodaly. Caroline Shaw does not stray too far from the centuries old Western classical tradition that came before her, which has always existed tangentially and parallel to folk traditions of the many European countries where it originated (such as in the Hungarian folk influence in the music of Bartok and Kodaly). She pays great tribute to her influences in her music while presenting a fresh, youthful, playful, light-hearted and folk-influenced sound that has taken the contemporary classical music scene by storm. Upon listening to ​Valencia​ and her other string quartet music, it is immediately apparent to me that, above all else, Caroline Shaw values the careful passage of time in her music; she treats each transition with utmost care to ensure that each new idea enters the fabric of her work in the most organic way possible, unraveling in a similar fashion to a stream of consciousness novel like William Faulkner’s ​The Sound and The Fury.

Chris Beroes-Haigis

Nico Muhly’s Compositional Style in Relation to his Connection to an Audience: Modern Methods of Self-Promotion

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.

Chris Beroes-Haigis


Muhly, Nico. “Nico Muhly’s ‘Mathematical, Organic And Achingly Beautiful’ Phillip Glass”, NPR Music, January 24th, 2017. ( ip-glass)

Muhly, Nico. “If You See Something, Say Something”, Nico Muhly, October 25th, 2016. (

Muhly, Nico. “Cello Concerto (2012)”, Music Sales Classical, Chester Music. (

Kings Place. “Nico Muhly Discusses Minimalism — Part One”, YouTube, January 19th, 2015. (

Muhly, Nico. “Nico Muhly on Why Choral Music Is Slow Food For The Soul”, The New York Times, April 1st, 2017. (

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.


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.

Magnússon, Haukur S. “Nico And Jónsi GO ALL IN!” Nico Muhly RSS. Accessed April 16, 2019.

Dombal, Ryan, and Ryan Dombal. “Jónsi: Go.” Pitchfork. April 05, 2010. Accessed April 16, 2019. “Nico And Jónsi GO ALL IN!” The Reykjavik Grapevine. December 15, 2015. Accessed April 16, 2019.

The Revival of Classical Music

Nico Muhly is one of the most prominent composers of the 21st century. This graduate of Juilliard boasts an incredible list of accomplishments, ranging from composing music for Oscar-winning movies such as “The Reader”, to becoming the “youngest composer”[1] to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. Muhly’s success, however, extends beyond the recognition and respect he has earned in the classical music industry. Whether through the very current and trending topics he uses in his operas, the refusal to label his music and his openness to experimentation, or the relaxed and approachable image he presents of himself, Muhly is redefining the classical music scene. Essentially, Muhly is encouraging the revival of classical music by making it more approachable and relatable to the expectations and the norm of today’s society.

One of Muhly’s talents is his ability to compose operas with a “socio-political timeliness”[2] that prove their relevance to the important topics of today. His debut opera, Two Boys, explores the dangers created by modern technology on relationships and social interaction, and serves as a warning of the dark side of the Internet. This complex work holds its storyline on the frontier of technology and presents an allegory of “sexual yearning”[3], awakening and mysterious corners of the web. With such an intriguing and significant topic, Muhly attracts today’s generation, providing them with a narrative that is all too real and grim to be ignored. The best way to grab someone’s attention is to elicit strong emotions in them, and shock seems to be the most reliable way to achieve that. Using this tactic, Muhly incorporates yet another shocking and provocative theme in his opera, Dark Sisters. The opera features a discussion of polygamy in the “Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”[4], a much ignored, yet enthralling topic. By disclosing such gripping stories, Muhly is well underway to gaining a larger audience while at the same time expanding interest in classical music.

“Muhly considers his merging of the conservatory and pop to be more generational than personal. ‘I think that whatever I’m doing is pretty firmly outside the academy, but with definite roots there’.”[5] Muhly, like most 21st century composers, is keeping up with the trends of the modern times. Even though he does not like his music to be labeled as a specific genre, as he states that “genre does not matter anymore”[6], the experimentation with, as well as the cohesion between the traditional values of Western art classical tradition and popular music, is apparent in his writing. By combining styles of music that are on the opposite side of the spectrum, Muhly is building a bridge between lovers of classical music and lovers of popular music, merging them together into one unified group. This is Muhly’s way of keeping classical music significant-by cherishing its values, while, at the same time, creating an original voice that is appealing to the minds’ of younger generations.

Nico Muhly is a perfect representation of how to survive and succeed as a contemporary composer. “Respected business authors stress that the economy going forward will be more dependent than ever on entrepreneurs,”[7]. Muhly serves as a true entrepreneur, utilizing his undeniable charm to attract the audience. The seemingly nonchalant image he presents of himself is carefully chosen. By humanizing himself and being an “ardent user of Twitter”[8], a blog writer and a passionate cook and runner, Muhly is creating personal relationships with his audience and fan base, and fostering the image of a warm, relatable “everyday guy”. Most importantly, he is promoting the engagement and connection of the audience to his music, therefore securing the future and the vitality of classical music.


Kirk, Shana. “Random Access: Working Together To Prepare Music Students For 21st-century

Careers.” American Music Teacher 63, no. 5 (2014): 43-45. (accessed April 17, 2019).

Kraft, Tristan. “Instant Message.” OPERA NEWS – Instant Message. October 2013. Accessed

April 17, 2019.

Martin, Gale. “Opera Phila’s Dark Sisters Powerfully Illuminates Female Suffering.” By

Bachtrack for Classical Music, Opera, Ballet and Dance Event Reviews, Bachtrack Ltd, 12 Feb. 2013,

Sullivan, Paul. “Cool and Calmly Composed: Nico Muhly, Changing the Face of Classical

Music.” The National. September 03, 2010. Accessed April 17, 2019.

Tommasini, Anthony. “Nico Muhly’s Ambitious ‘Two Boys’ Makes Its American Debut at the

Met.” Nico Muhly RSS, New York Times, 22 Oct. 2013,’s-ambitious-‘two-boys’-makes-its-american-debut-at-the-met/.

Whittington, Lewis. “Nico Muhly Takes Opera in New Directions with ‘Dark Sisters’.” Nico

Muhly RSS. 2012. Accessed April 17, 2019.

[1]  Anthony Tommasini, “Nico Muhly’s Ambitious ‘Two Boys’ Makes Its American Debut at the Met,” Nico Muhly RSS, New York Times, 22 Oct. 2013,’s-ambitious-‘two-boys’-makes-its-american-debut-at-the-met/.

[2] Gale Martin, “Opera Phila’s Dark Sisters Powerfully Illuminates Female Suffering,” By Bachtrack for Classical Music, Opera, Ballet and Dance Event Reviews, Bachtrack Ltd, 12 Feb. 2013,

[3] Tommassini,  “Nico Muhly’s Ambitious ‘Two Boys’ Makes Its American Debut at the Met,”,’s-ambitious-‘two-boys’-makes-its-american-debut-at-the-met/.

[4] Lewis Whittington,  “Nico Muhly Takes Opera in New Directions with ‘Dark Sisters’,” Nico Muhly RSS, 2012, Accessed April 17, 2019,

[5] Paul Sullivan,  “Cool and Calmly Composed: Nico Muhly, Changing the Face of Classical Music,” The National, September 03, 2010, Accessed April 17, 2019,

[6] Tristan Kraft, “Instant Message,” OPERA NEWS – Instant Message, October 2013, Accessed April 17, 2019,

[7] Shana Kirk,  “Random Access: Working Together To Prepare Music Students For 21st-century Careers,” American Music Teacher 63, no. 5 (2014): 45,, accessed April 17, 2019.

[8] Paul Sullivan,  “Cool and Calmly Composed: Nico Muhly, Changing the Face of Classical Music,”

By Ivana Biliskov

Reconstructing the “Canon”

Although century-old musicians and composers were previously seen on a lower social status, current artists must follow the mentally exhausting upkeep of the idealistic perception that musicians must be “obedient and flawless” for art’s sake. Within the classical music world, the stigma that musicians, conductors, and composers must hold themselves up to the highest standards and excellency in their profession is admirable but nonetheless a bit nonsensical. From performance etiquette to eloquence and musical expression, the demands of classical music require such perfectionism that it ultimately seeps into the daily life and behavior of musicians and artists. Nico Muhly, an American composer, has expressed a concern about the toxic nature of a culture that solely focuses on the classical ideals of such narcissistic behavior and brings attention to the reality that artists are imperfect humans in the global scheme of the musical world.

Prior to the nineteenth century, musicians were “servants to aristocratic circles” and composed music for entertainment to the upper social class and courts. Jason Dobney states that the access and rise of middle-class musicians lead to era of “Romanticism,” which opened up “new opportunities for earning a livelihood as a musician or composer”. Musical entertainment transitioned from small court audiences to large and extravagant events of orchestral and operatic performances that would show off virtuosic and “flawless” musicians who were viewed in a perfect light. The development of musicianship went beyond creating a nice, small atmosphere and thus musicians and composers were able to sell their music to an audience, albeit with the price of perfectionism and sanity. While we are currently in the 21st century, the traditional expectations of maintaining a marketable sound to audiences is ingrained within the rules of etiquette and social rules placed upon classical musicians in their own world.

Within the Cincinnati Metropolitan Orchestra’s rehearsal etiquette guide, a musician must balance between always being prepared at a moment’s notice and being obedient in the thousands of rules that lead to a “perfect” rehearsal. When translated to a performance, if a musician is unable to perform without a single mistake other fellow musician will have a more negative perception of that person (personal experience). Furthermore, the performer who was unable to have a “perfect” performance is left with a lowered sense of self even if they receive praise from fellow musicians or audience members. In the article, “The Role of the Composer,” Nash shows us that even composers are placed into a similar role of producing music that must appease other artists; the failure of producing art that is worthy leads the composer to having lowered self-esteem from the negative criticism and narcissism from other musicians. Additionally, composers may feel pressured to create music that appeals to their audience (other musicians) rather than create music simply because it is enjoyable to themselves.

In his “Thoughts on Being Well” blog, Muhly has expressed his concern about the toxicity that follows a musician in their pursuit to create, and ultimately expect perfection from himself and others. He states that the obsession derived from his “quality control” behaviour lead him to edit his music into the late hours beside his pervasive thoughts of the musicians who will perform his music. Even Muhly himself believed that “Once I get anybody else involved on any level, though, I expect, unfairly, for them to have spent the same amount of time and energy doing their jobs as I’d done mine”, creating an expectation that may be unachievable to some musicians who are not as developed in their skill as others in the field. Unfortunately, this type of negative practice permeates other life situations, such as when Muhly expressed annoyance at people who did not effectively or correctly do their job or task (even outside of the musical world). While Muhly’s shows that anyone, even a composer, can have toxic and narcissistic behaviours, his blog demonstrates that being aware of such actions may be corrected and changed if one is willing to address the “accepted” and “expected” behaviours of classical musicians.

– Ashley Venegas


“Rehearsal Etiquette.” Cincinnati Metropolitan Orchestra. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Brock, Kev. “How to Recognize a Narcissist Musician in 10 Steps.” K’Brocking. (accessed April 16, 2019).

Dobney, Jayson Kerr. “Nineteenth-Century Classical Music.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Muhly, Nico. “Thoughts on Being Well.” Nico Muhly. (accessed April 15, 2019).

Mulcahy, Holly. “How To Alienate Your Audience in 10 Easy Steps: Musicians.” Neo Classical. (accessed April 16, 2019).

Nash, Dennison. “The Role of the Composer (Part I).” Ethnomusicology 5, no. 2 (1961): 81-94. (accessed April 15, 2019).

The Culture Surrounding Health and Wellness in Music

Nico Muhly is a young composer who has spoken publicly about his mental health. He writes a blog where he discusses his struggles with depression. In doing so, Muhly has also been vocal about removing the stigma surrounding composers and their mental illnesses. In an interview with Noted Endeavors, Muhly discusses the perception surrounding Brahms’ and Beethoven’s music. Muhly states that the focus of these composers has not been their compositional techniques, but rather the focus is on the mental and emotional experiences that each composer has been through. By bringing the mental health of musicians to the foreground, it is important to look at the culture that has developed around professional musicians and music teachers alike. 

In a study by Deborah Pierce, she looked at the psychological tendencies of musicians along with the causes and effects of different aspects of being a musician. Researchers from several different disciplines including medicine, music education, gifted education, and more found patterns with music students and teachers. Some common findings were self-esteem issues, narcissism, and constant pressure to push themselves harder. Shedding light on the commonalities shows several characteristics many musicians develop including perfectionism, narcissism, and a primary emphasis on competition. These characteristics that are often taught throughout music programs can cause a lot of stress, affect self-esteem, and ultimately “burn a student out”. Roland S. Persson labeled this phenomenon as “maestro syndrome.” Persson says that maestro syndrome is the results of musicians being in an environment that is based primarily on “survival of the fittest”. Knowing that being a professional musician is competitive, and the field as a whole is very demanding physically and mentally, it begs the questions – what change, if any, can be done to change this culture?

To start, there are several different aspects of a music education that can be changed to allow students to work in a healthier way. The primary way to address this would be a shift away from an emphasis put on challenge and competition, and the focus be shifted to the process of being a musician. The results of focusing on the process can produce more positive results for students, rather than a focus on working for a competition. This is highlighted in Constructing Musical Healing: The Wounds That Sing by Boyce Tillman. Tillman says that having a balance between competition and creativity work together to give a well-rounded, balanced education experience. Along with mental changes, the understanding of physical health would allow musicians to be more successful. 

Music educators play a very important role in the development of healthy practicing habits in students. If a music teacher pushes their students very hard, and creates a very competitive environment, the student may practice a lot. However, that does not mean the student should practice several hours a day or has the knowledge of how to do so safely. According to Judy Palac, there are four main areas of concern for musician’s physical health. These areas are: the voice, muscle health, hearing conservation, and dealing with the stress of music. Palac says that having an understanding of the mechanics and methods of care for these four areas is critical for educators and musicians to have long, healthy career.

Trice Mayhall


Palac, Judy. “Collaborating For Musical Health And Wellness: It Takes A Village.” American Music Teacher 64, no. 6 (2015): 28-30.

Palac, Judy. “Promoting Musical Health, Enhancing, Musical Performance: Wellness for Music Students.” Music Educators Journal 94, no. 3 (2008): 18-22.

Pierce, Deborah L. “Rising to a New Paradigm: Infusing Health and Wellness into the Music Curriculum.” Philosophy of Music Education Review 20, no. 2 (2012): 154-76. doi:10.2979/philmusieducrevi.20.2.154.

“The Medical Problems of Musicians.” American Music Teacher 50, no. 6 (2001): 21-25.

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).

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