Magazine article The Spectator

Nico Muhly: Drugs, Cults and James MacMillan

Magazine article The Spectator

Nico Muhly: Drugs, Cults and James MacMillan

Article excerpt

Will Damian Thompson make it out of the room without asking the composer Nico Muhly the Wrong Question?

There's a scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie in which Tippi Hedren is emptying a safe while a cleaning lady silently drags her mop towards her. Can Hedren, playing the disturbed Marnie, slip down the stairs before the woman turns her head?

I felt a twinge of the same panic last week interviewing the composer Nico Muhly, whose opera Marnie -- based more closely on Winston Graham's novel than on Hitchcock's film -- was given its world première by English National Opera last Saturday. Would I make it out of the room without asking the Wrong Question?

Muhly, who made his name as the cherubic, prodigiously gifted but prickly protégé of Philip Glass, is scary to interview. This is well known in New York. Even those critics who don't like his music admire the cheeky brutality of his wit. They just don't want to be his targets.

His first opera, Two Boys, about internet predators, was written in his twenties and performed at ENO and then the Met. Envious colleagues hoped it would get bad reviews. There were a few -- mostly mocking the libretto -- but not enough to satisfy them.

He's in his mid-thirties now, though there's still a touch of boyband cuteness about him. I decided not to raise the subject of middle age. You just have to visit his website to discover how he reacts to interviewers who get up his nose.

He blogs about an unnamed music hack who couldn't get his head round Muhly's musical promiscuity -- studying with the minimalists, playing in a band with Sufjan Stevens, anthems for Anglican worship. The journo asked portentous written questions that tried to attach Muhly to a post-minimalist-cum-rock-band 'movement'.

Big mistake. 'You and this movement shit again. It's so lazy and it makes me want to throw the laptop across the room... you've created this artificial "scene" and then put me as the family crayzee cousin, always writin' wacky music for the Lord's House!'

Yikes. It's best not to throw labels around, clearly, though I'm curious to know if -- like many composers -- Muhly attracts hangers-on who fall in and out of favour.

He looks surprised. 'My writing is built into an idea of a community and not just a musical one. I write music for my friends. I'm not old, I'm 36, my quote-unquote "operation" is pretty much improvised. I'm not a personality around whom all these people fawn. Who was the last person who had that? Stravinsky?'

Britten, I suggest, who was notorious for periodically clearing out his friend cupboard. Does he ever feel that urge? 'Never, never, never! I'm the opposite. I wanteverything to get bigger, bigger, bigger -- the idea of a personality cult feels incredibly foreign.'

You can, however, hear echoes of Britten in Muhly's music. He fell in love with the Anglican choral tradition after singing in the choir at an Episcopal church in Providence, Rhode Island. 'Any time I can, I will be at evensong, which is many times a week.' This must mystify the Brooklyn hipsters who regard Nico as their in-house composer.

I ask whether his religious music -- the sensational Bright Mass with Canons, for example, in which Renaissance counterpoint is invaded by the stuttering and noodlings of the organ -- reflects any Christian convictions of his own.

But we're not going there. …

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