Stravinsky Meets Scrooge McDuck

On the classical excellence, heaving cellos, and cartoonish zeal of Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly is a dervish of activity. The 26-year-old composer, Philip Glass copyist, and Björk collaborator just caught a Brooklyn Youth Chorus rehearsal of "Syllables," his second commissioned piece for the group; immediately after their Friday night performance, he's flying up to Boston to watch the Boston Pops premiere his latest work, "Wish You Were Here." (Muhly describes the latter as "a piece that contains all the energy of cartoon music . . . a Duck Tales episode in Bali.") Oh, and he recently did the soundtrack for Joshua, his resonant piano motifs emulating the psychoses of that movie's potentially murderous young protégé.

Sitting in his sixth-floor walk-up in Chinatown—while his cat lazes across both the "Wish" score and an incriminating photo of a young, mulleted Nico—he dashes and flits about: auditioning new snippets of compositions, racing to his bookshelf and then back to the speakers to turn up a particular passage, thumping on the table emphatically as he pantomimes the piano lines. He shuts his laptop for a lapse of silence, only to open it again seconds later to play something else.

Despite his striking youth, Muhly wasn't what you'd consider a prodigy. "I started so late," he says, refilling our glasses with Riesling. "I had been in this boys' choir and simultaneously taking piano lessons." Neither one resonated with him until he was 14 and attended a program at Tanglewood, the venerable classical music institution in Lenox, Massachusetts: "I realized that I didn't know shit."

Whereas many teens might dabble in guitar-strumming and four-track recordings, Muhly spent his high school days poring over scores and CDs, composing chorale music and unlocking just how classical works were put together. Studying the oeuvre of Igor Stravinsky, he had an epiphany: "I figured out how it worked, in the literal sense. It reminded me of a Rube Goldberg contraption—there was always a sense of a device. [Stravinsky] was always doing it through mechanism, which I always found to be very moving. A lot of people find it heartless—for me, the heart was in the mechanism."

Contraptions and other curious machinations figure prominently in Muhly's music. He helped Björk arrange the dueling pianos on "Oceania" (from 2004's Medúlla), and has been Philip Glass's copyist since age 18. Behind the scenes, he finally released his debut disc, Speaks Volumes, on Bedroom Community, the imprint run by another Björk collaborator, producer Valgeir Sigurðsson. "I fell in love with the emotional intensity of some of his pieces, and the playful enthusiasm of other pieces was really refreshing," Sigurðsson e-mails from his home in Iceland.

Intense and energetic, Volumes' seven pieces behave much like Muhly himself, randomly jumping from point to point until a scattered pattern manifests. The sparkling lullaby of a celesta line interacts with harp coruscations and heaving cellos on "Clear Music," piano and percussion swirl into Glass-like patterns on "Pillaging Music," and epic closer "Keep in Touch" packs a bit of everything in its 12 minutes: a sobbing viola solo, industrial percussion, processional passages, horn skronks, and the wordless warbling of Antony. "I was thinking about the issues of the viola's size and its resonating chamber being too small or too big or whatever," Muhly tells me. "I realized that a lot of the terms you use to talk about it are the same as those you'd use to talk about people in 'transitional gender situations,' if you know what I mean. So I called up Antony and was like, 'Come sing this thing.' "

Muhly moves readily between the classical avant-garde and indie-pop, interacting with the likes of Laurie Anderson and Grizzly Bear. He swoons not just to a Benjamin Britten passacaglia, but also to Final Fantasy. The distinction in his mind comes not so much from the music, but the scenes surrounding each. "In classical, there's not much performer-based, ground-up access," he says. "With the indie-rock world, it's just people your age making stuff that you love. That I can work with everyone that I like is indicative that it's more open-minded."

Such open-mindedness means his compositions can alight upon gamelan music, Scrooge McDuck, and Tintin (as "Wish You Were Here" does), or else English chorale music and Icelandic apocalyptic text (as in "Syllables"). Dizzying, scattered, mashed-up, and just getting started, Nico sums up his conceptual outlook thusly: "I'm much happier with a zillion things in a huge stack, just being thrown at your face."

 
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