A Week in Culture: Nico Muhly, Composer


The Culture Diaries

Photograph by Samantha West.


10:45 A.M. Reykjavík, Iceland. I wake up later than I want, and desperately read, again, the last twenty pages of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Folding Star. By this point, the plot has turned into a fun cross-Benelux car chase. I myself have just come from a slightly awkward but ultimately fun week in Benelux, where I was resident at a chamber music festival, and every time I go to the Netherlands I reread this book. I make special digital note, this time, of some good descriptions: “minatory Flemish motets.”

3:30 P.M. Oh my God, there is an Ali Farka Touré album I don’t own: Red & Green. I’m buying it right now. I am going to also take this opportunity to rebuy the Toumani Diabaté album Djelika. I am, as always, fascinated by the weird intervalic overlap between Morricone scores and Malian music. I’m making a note to go know more about this. It is also noted that Mio, the brother of Valgeir, both of whom I am making a ton of records with this week in Iceland, has pants very similar in cut to those featured on the cover of Red & Green.


5:45 A.M. I wake up in a panic—an anxiety dream about an e-mail argument, which is prescient given the early-morning realities of my inbox. To calm myself, I buy music online manically. The new Iron and Wine cover is neurosis-provoking neon, but I buy it anyway. While listening on headphones, I fall back asleep and iTunes continues and mysteriously plays Paula Deen’s “Thanksgiving Special,” in which she makes oyster dressing. I actually like her accent, although the way she pronounces the word for (as in, “I’ll let this fry up here for a minute”) strikes me as uncharacteristically Vietnamese.

12:00 P.M. Car trip into downtown Reykjavík with my boyfriend! An assistant is sorting through this afternoon’s brass sheet music, so I feel at liberty to give my boyfriend free run of the iPod in the car. He deftly assembles an outgoing play list of “Canadians” (Tegan and Sara, the Arcade Fire, Katy Perry—we both assume she is Canadian but cannot verify) and an incoming play list of “Lesbians of Color” (Tracy Chapman and Toshi Reagon).

6:00 P.M. This afternoon’s work is to record brass arrangement for the upcoming album of Mia Maestro, an Argentine songstress. I’m still surprised by the magical lift the two horns and two trombones offer to the surface of a song. The trick is to delay their entrance longer than you think is right, and then, after one more bar’s worth of waiting, sneak in.

2:00 A.M. Dario Fo made a documentary about 9/11? Is Dario Fo a 9/11 Truther? This poorly edited and sensationally scored documentary seems to think so! I’m renting it from iTunes for what I am told is the sixth time; I haven’t yet managed to get all the way through. The Internet connection here is rather taxed by intercontinental transfers, so I forgo the reunion show of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew and an HD version of an episode of Law and Order, featuring Shohreh Aghdashloo, that seems, on loose inspection, to not actually contain any sex crimes.


11:00 A.M. Today is a huge, marathon recording session, so I am not going to listen to any other music besides the music I’m meant to be recording. I am ambitiously trying to record three sets of arrangements in seven hours: the first for Mia Maestro; the second for Luke Ritchie, a very earnest English singer-songwriter; and the third, a trio of abstract arrangements for a Latvian performance-art boy band, whose members, when performing live, wear giant panda heads and impossibly proportioned wigs. Their music sounds like a genius combination of Queen and Alfred Deller or … something. They’re called Instrumenti.

12:30 P.M. I’m cheating. There is a distracting kerfuffle in the other room: it seems somebody has misplaced somebody else’s camera. Keys to the car are being tossed about, couch cushions overturned, muted Latin recriminations. I’m rewarding myself for not being involved by listening to a quick set of bounces I just got of an album I’m making with a chamber orchestra in London. These are some arrangements of motets by William Byrd, my favorite favorite. Now I’ll listen, quickly, to the original choral recordings to right myself before seven hours of strings.

1:00 A.M. We listen through the day’s work with wine and whisky. Everybody is pleased. It starts snowing. I crawl into bed and attempt to “quietly” watch another ten minutes of this Dario Fo nonsense.

Nico Muhly is a composer based in New York City. Check back tomorrow for the second installment of his culture diary.