It’s hard not to be charmed by the sense of theatricality in composer Nico Muhly’s conversational style. His breathless banter is full of flippant summations (“A chamber opera is basically three bitches on stage complaining”), followed by more in-depth qualifications (“If Mozart wanted to make something sound Turkish, he’d use the triangle”).
The 26-year-old Muhly, recently named to Out magazine’s Out 100, moves comfortably between the classical and indie rock music worlds. He is currently writing two operas, one for New York’s Metropolitan Opera and one for the Gotham Chamber Opera. He’s also composing music for the Paris Opera Ballet, a movie score and a song cycle for soprano Jessica Rivera. This month he embarks on his first North American tour with indie rocker Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett and folk singer Sam Amidon to promote his just-released sophomore album, Mothertongue. The tour stops in Toronto on Wed, Aug 27 for a show with Final Fantasy, aka local wunderkind Owen Pallett, at the Danforth Music Hall.
Mothertongue was mostly recorded in Iceland with producer Valgeir Sigurdsson, who has also worked with Björk, and released by Bedroom Community, Sigurdsson’s label. It’s a tough record to sum up, but it’s essentially structured as three sound portraits of three different singers: Amidon, Icelandic singer/trombonist Helgi Hrafn Jonsson and soprano Abigail Fischer. It’s a murky mash-up of musical genres, full of ominous sampling, sunny folk melodies, numeric repetition and English lit references.
“The Only Tune,” the final song on the album, written for Amidon, was inspired by a murder ballad called “The Two Sisters” that Muhly’s folkie parents used to sing when he was growing up in Vermont and Rhode Island. Amidon sings in three, flat, typically folk styles over top of samples of whale meat in a bowl, a crushed turkey carcass, rain outside the studio and a pet brush against Muhly’s skin. Found sounds, Muhly says, keep his music “tethered to the physical world.”
“One of the things I really dislike about the folk tradition is this weird self-satisfaction attendant to the people who are participating in it,” he says. “It’s always so smiley and dippy. And I feel like there’s so much in the words, especially these murder ballads. Everything is rape, murder and butchery — it’s just awful.
“Inasmuch as all that folk stuff is just the sound of the guitar and the voice, I wanted to force the issue that this was an act of body violence,” he continues. “This is a beautiful song but it’s also a song about infanticide and I wanted to make sure that you don’t forget that.”
The music on Mothertongue was heavily influenced by the work of composer Steve Reich, who used a digital sampler to fill his minimalist composition “City Life” with urban noise. Though Muhly has recreated samples at previous live shows, he’s keeping things simple on this tour. “Sound checking the meat is a pain in the ass,” he says. “I’ve tried to avoid too much organic activity on stage. If a classical venue asked me to put on a show that’s the time to have fun with endless pre-planning or slaughtering some animal special for the occasion.”
For a hair happening at The Kitchen in New York organized by Icelandic fashion designer Shoplifter earlier this year, Muhly brushed the hair of three redheaded women to the score of his “Hair Passaacaglia” and later combed Bartlett’s coarse locks during “The Only Tune.”
“I had to turn up the mic so loud to make it work and I totally hit the mic with the back of my brush. It made the loudest sound in history,” he says. “It was insane, we were all covered in hair, we’d had our eyebrows all puttied out and there were bones everywhere.”
While some might see insanity, others in the classical world see accessibility. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, told The New Yorker in February that Muhly is the kind of composer opera yearns for: “Someone who is both original and accessible, and who has the potential to be instantly appealing.”
As much as he would like to see himself as a brooding rebel, Muhly admits Gelb’s remark is “probably true.” “In a lot of cases, composers use opera as a chance to really throw their whole artistic vision at one thing. A lot of the new operas I’ve seen have this sense of this enormous totality of kind of a messy life,” he says. “Accessibility is step one and step two is being able to sustain it. The problem with opera is that it’s so long and it represents so much of your life. When I’m done with this opera, a serious chunk of the pie chart of my creative life will have been spent on it. I’ve been thinking about it for a year and it’ll take me another year to write and a year to orchestrate — it’s a big fucking mess.”