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Nico Muhly is an American composer and arranger at the forefront of the newest generation in contemporary classical music. In addition to his impressive number of concert works, he is particularly known for his many collaborations with leading figures in popular music, including the Icelandic singer Björk and the indie rock band Grizzly Bear.
Nico Muhly was born in the American state of Vermont but raised in nearby Providence, Rhode Island, by parents that were both active in the arts: his mother was a painter and his father a documentary filmmaker. His childhood was unconventional and included almost a month living at an archeological site in Egypt and parents that raised and slaughtered their own sheep. At the age of eight Muhly began playing the piano but his true introduction to the love of music was from singing at the Grace Episcopal Church, an experience which was instrumental in nurturing a lasting fascination with Anglican choral music. In Muhly’s words, “I found myself immediately at home in it musically. I was really entranced by early music, and how the lines worked. It felt so much more emotional than the Romantic stuff I was playing as a pianist.”
In 1998 Muhly entered New York’s prestigious Columbia University, where he studied English. Soon, he began working as the editor and keyboardist for the hugely influential minimalist composerPhilip Glass, a position he held for more than eight years and which enabled him to work behind the scenes with one of the 20th century’s most influential composers. Glass was both a big inspiration and proponent of Muhly’s, commending him for being “a curious ear, a restless listening, and a maker of works. He’s doing his own thing.” After graduating from Columbia, Muhly went on to pursue his masters at the Julliard School, where he studied withJohn Corigliano and Christopher Rouse.
Wisely deciding to remain in New York City after graduation, Muhly soon found himself in high demand both as a composer and arranger. In 2004 he collaborated with Björk on her single “Oceania,” which major challenge which proved to be a major boost to his career. On the experience, Muhly noted that the music “was as complicated and layered as any piece of classical music I've played. I spent a few days figuring out how to make her vision of "dueling lounge-lizard pianists" physically possible.” Reflecting the broad scope of his knowledge, the final result contained “big, Brahmsy blocks - as well as the ending, for which we tried diaphanous, Debussy-like arpeggios.”
Muhly’s career received another boost in 2008 when he was asked to write choral and string quartet arrangements for the third album,Veckatimest by the indie rock band Grizzly Bear. He has performed a similar role with several other popular artists, including American folk musician Sam Amidon, Antony and the Johnsons, and the Icelandic post-rock band Sigur Rós. On his collaboration with Sigur Rós, Muhly said “this music wanted to be ecstatic; it wanted to feel like a magic thing erupting from below.”
In addition to his work arranging for popular acts, Muhly has an impressive compositional career of his own. He has released several albums of his own works, beginning withSpeaks Volumes (2007), which was released on the Reykjavik-based label Bedroom Community. Since 2006, he has been composing soundtracks for the cinema, with his film scores includingThe Reader (2008), Kill Your Darlings (2013) and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015).
Many of Muhly’s works have been immensely popular in the concert halls in addition to movie theatres. In 2006 his pieceWish You Were Here was premiered by the Boston Pops, and two years laterStep Team (2008) was debuted by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A particular specialty of Muhly’s is choral works, and some of his favorite music comes from composers such as William Byrd and John Taverner, who wrote English sacred music in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However he is equally inspired by minimalists such as Steve Reich and his mentor, Philip Glass, and much of his music seeks to reconcile these and other traditions.
Although Muhly’s concert works are undeniably classical, he unashamedly incorporates a wide variety of external influences, saying “It’s essentially like being from somewhere. I feel like I’m very proudly from the classical tradition. It’s like being from Nebraska. Like you are from there if you’re from there. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a productive life somewhere else. The notion of your genre being something that you have to actively perform, I think is pretty vile.” This attitude is largely responsible for Muhly’s uncanny ability to meld his sound as an arranger into many popular acts with completely different aesthetics, while still retaining his distinctive voice.
One of Muhly’s greatest successes to date came in 2011 with the English National Opera premier of his new workTwo Boys, which was performed two years later at the Metropolitan Opera. With a libretto by Craig Lucas, the opera tells the story of two teenage boys that meet online and their relationship which ultimately leads to one of them killing the other, and was released in 2014 on Nonesuch records.
Still only in his mid-30s, Muhly is one of the guiding lights for what he refers to as “a lost generation.” His incredible skills in multiple media and genres, including film, ballet, opera, pop arranging and classical composing, mark him out as someone to watch in the years and decades to come.
Images courtesy of The Times, The Guardian, Show Clix and The Arts Desk