A Week in Culture: Nico Muhly, Composer, Part 2


The Culture Diaries

This is the second installment of Muhly’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.

Photograph by Samantha West.


10:15 A.M. While I slept, iTunes seems to have downloaded the complete collected works of MNDR. I must have gone on a pre-ordering binge, because it also is trying to download the film of Never Let Me Go. I’m listening to “I go away,” from the MNDR track. I like electronic-based slowish tracks; I loved that Capslock track off the MIA album whose title I dare not reproduce here. I wish there were a more poetic way to describe the rhythmic passage of time than “tick tock.” I’m looking at this queue: yet more SVU and the new Top Chef are coming! I fly tonight back to New York so maybe I can sneak one of these in on the plane.

3:00 P.M. Good God! The BBC has a story about the “history” of chai in India. The segment begins with a twelve-second history of tea that elides over the idea of Empire so quickly it feels like a blow to the solar plexus. I reach a Kiplingesque encounter with a terra-cotta cup maker in Kolkata just as we reach the rental car return, so I don’t have a moment to jot down who was responsible for this. They should write opera libretti! I do wonder who is responsible for radio’s “generic ethnic background noise.” I’m convinced that if you slow down the audio and remove the host’s voice, you’ll hear the same group of five people chattering—be it a story about Inuit fishing quotas or the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

9:00 P.M. A calm post-flight evening of take-out and listening to Ella Fitzgerald. I am preparing for Saturday night, which is when I will be seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s production of John Adams’s Nixon in China with a bunch of friends. I have the score perched next to my computer. I watch the first twelve minutes of an episode of Top Chef with Isaac Mizrahi saying outrageous things to the cheftestants and pass out.


10:00 A.M. Today, I have to write, and at five, I have a rehearsal with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. I’m trying not to listen to anything so I can focus. I do manage to make an appointment to get my hair cut. The woman who did it listened almost exclusively to MC Solaar, which is welcome in the context of the rest of my week.

10:15 A.M. I’m cheating again—a huge delivery of groceries has arrived. I’m hosting opera design meetings on Sunday, and have, accordingly, ordered a perverse amount of chips, salsa, bocconcini, crackers, et cetera. Leo Warner, the designer, is arriving the night before from London, so I feel I must order a flotilla of take-out food from all the world over. Surely a big pot of coffee and some bánh xèo pancakes? Or will it be about menudo? While I put these away, I listen to Steve Reich’s Music for Large Ensemble, which is slow and fast at the same time. For me, it perfectly mirrors the pacing of a quotidian task or errand in the context of a complicated week. It is also supremely beautiful and slightly angular. Its soothing marimbas have, I think, managed to calm the dog, who, until this very moment, has been submissively whimpering at the addition to our home of a Greenlandic reindeer pelt, nicknamed “Leonard Peltier.” Now the two of them are curled up together while the mallet instruments scat their West-African lines.

2:45 P.M. I’m coming up for air and am listening to other early John Adams; here, Ralph van Raat’s recording of the epic Phrygian Gates, a twenty-three-minute virtuosic series of waves for solo piano. I’m looking through my calendar and I realize that a change in travel plans is going to make me miss the show of a young band called The Relatives. I’m listening to their CD now as a sort of penance before-the-fact. It’s mostly three voices in unison: two boys and a girl. A curious effect.

3:15 P.M. It has occurred to me that I am going to need to pay a visit to Mrs. Li, my seamstress. Her operation is so anxiety-provoking that I take great pains to avoid it, like the dentist or the psychopharmacologist. My coat has a tear in it, though, so I’m hostage to her sewing needle, and she is on the block. To ready myself, I listen to Duets by the wonderful Norwegian singer Ane Brun. I think Brun rivals Dolly Parton in her ability to write a short, perfect song.

9:30 P.M. Dinner with old friends at a new restaurant, recently reviewed and therefore full to the brim with horrific corporate thirty-somethings. Overheard: “Oh my god. I cannot believe they put Brie on your team. She is going to mess the whole thing up. My God! Brie!” The music is slightly too loud and changes after the introduction and first verse of each song. Our waitress still has cocaine lining the rims of her nostrils and briefly vanishes with a mild nosebleed midway through oysters. Imagine the first sixty seconds of every single Phoenix song and you will get the musical sense of this dinner.


8:00 P.M. Nixon in China! This is music I know incredibly well. Countless hours of my youth were passed in front of the score, with the cassette tapes of the original recording from the 80s. Peter Sellars is so amazing: everything he does is either the best thing or a really, really confusing thing, and often, both coexist on the same stage.  The gorgeous crowd staging at the forefront is suddenly overwhelmed by the house lights. What used to look like smart, stylized hand gestures suddenly seems like a 1988 PBS special on radical sex acts interpreted in sign language. The third act envisions Chairman and Madame Mao, Pat and Richard Nixon, and Zhou Enlai abed, reminiscing, while the music (which, up to this point, has been very consonant and steady) slowly melts and tilts into a dreamy, post-Wagnerian harmonic fog. It is one of the most beautiful things you can possibly imagine. A deeply pleasurable evening.


9:30 A.M. Bach Cantatas. This time, Gardiner’s recording of Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe, which has a beautiful duet for a tenor and a bass. This afternoon will be all design meetings, so the strategy is to get myself ready to think about my own music all afternoon. I still haven’t gone to Mrs. Li.

12:00 A.M. This design meeting is about to start but no one is here. I have the house to myself for, I think, an hour. I always love these liminal moments: I can do anything! In actuality, I listen to two songs by a friend’s band called Conversion Party (a vaguely questionable name, but good music nonetheless), and then I enter a controlled downloading spiral: the new season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a ton of Ravi Shankar I didn’t own, some Ligeti with really facacta cover art, and some Dar Williams, which, God help me, is strategically very useful to own.

6:15 P.M. In the course of this meeting, it was decided that we all must watch Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Violin Phase video. So beautiful! I want to steal everything about it.

6:45 P.M. The designer, the director and the librettist are locked in conversation. I take this opportunity to verify the fact that Oprah did, indeed, eat thirty pounds of macaroni and cheese the weekend Bride of Chucky premiered and surpassed Beloved at the box office.

10:00 P.M. A dinner at Peasant, in New York, where the food is always great. The music must be from a weird “Best-of Classical” CD. We discuss Pachelbel’s Canon, Carmina Burana, literal Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and Bizet. Nobody is there on account of the Superbowl, and the music reverberates around the empty room. We return home to discover that the Superbowl contained, as always, a remarkably underwhelming halftime show, and that perhaps someone forgot the lyrics to the National Anthem.

Nico Muhly is a composer based in New York City.