Nico Muhly: At the Intersection of the Vibrant and Sacred

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Nico Muhly has already managed to build not one, but around three or four careers for himself as a composer. With his work on movie scores and indie-rock albums, he has one toe inching towards pop-culture recognition, while keeping one foot firmly in the classical mainstream with a substantial body of pieces composed for the likes of the New York Philharmonic and the English National Opera. 

And then there are his pet projects, the pieces he and a circle of close friends—folksinger Sam Amidon, singer/keyboardist Thomas Bartlett, electronic artists Ben Frost and Valgeir Sigurðsson, and violist Nadia Sirota—create together in Valgeir's studio and on tour. But closest to Muhly's heart is the repertoire of sacred choral music he's created, drawing on his experiences as a boy chorister to write for music for performance in both churches and concert halls.

And as for the music itself, these various bodies of work naturally inform each other: hymntunes in his operas, electronica in his chamber works, and minimalism in his rock arrangements.  He makes little attempt to hide his influences—Benjamin Britten, John Adams—instead weaving their techniques seamlessly, but almost allusively into his own voice, as if excitedly sharing a sort of musical commonplace book of those effects and gestures that have especially moved and thrilled him.

Aside from the innumerable arrangements and two movie soundtracks (Joshua and The Reader), his discography consists mostly of one album of chamber music with electronics (Speaks Volumes) and one disc of vocal music with electronics (Mothertongue) for Valgeir's Bedroom Community records, one disc of choral works  (A Good Understanding) with the L.A. Master Chorale and one album of music for London's small Aurora Orchestra (Seeing Is Believing) on Decca, and a long dance piece, I Drink the Air Before Me, released jointly by both labels.

Muhly's as yet unrecorded projects include such high-concept outings as The Elements of Style, a musical setting of Strunk & White; Show the Way, an oratorio of sorts created for Amidon, Clogs/the National guitarist Bryce Dessner, sitarist Bishi, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, and the ACME ensemble; and Green Aria, a ScentOpera for fragrances and electronic accompaniment created with Valgeir and perfumer Christophe Laudamiel. His first two (narrative) operas are Two Boys, loosely based by playwright Craig Lucas on the real-life stabbing of an internet-savvy British teen, and and Dark Sisters, written with Stephen Karam and inspired by the polygamist communes of the American Southwest, both premiering in 2011, along with a new concerto for the piano-playing 5 Browns.