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On ‘Luminous Body,’ the SPCO premiere and more: a Q&A with Nico Muhly

This weekend the SPCO opens its 2011-12 season with the world premiere of “Luminous Body,” written for the orchestra and the choral group Cantus.

When composer Nico Muhly was a boy growing up in Providence, R.I., during the 1980s, the first thing he aspired to be wasn’t a fireman or a baseball player — it was a copyright attorney.

“When I learned that intellectual property existed, that you could copyright an idea, I became obsessed with that,” he said in a 2008 interview.

Nico Muhly
Nico Muhly

This sort of precocious, offbeat curiosity eventually found its expression through music (although Muhly, now 30, also found time to earn a degree in comparative literature at Columbia University). The latest manifestation of Muhly’s distinctive muse will occur this Friday and Saturday night, when the SPCO opens its 2011-12 season with the world premiere of “Luminous Body,” a work specially commissioned by the SPCO for the orchestra and the choral group Cantus

Muhly worked with composer Philip Glass in New York, earned his master’s degree in music at Juilliard, and quickly immersed himself in an impressively high-profile, peripatetic career that has seen him collaborate with alternative rockers such as Bjork and Grizzy Bear and write the film score for “The Reader.” He has been to the Twin Cities on numerous occasions performing at the Southern Theater.

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This summer saw the world premiere of Muhly’s first opera, “Two Boys,” in London, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera (which will host its New York premiere during its 2013-14 season) and written in conjunction with librettist Craig Lucas, who also collaborated with Muhly on “Luminous Body.”

MinnPost caught up with Muhly last month by phone from New York, where he was busy preparing for the November premiere of another opera, “Dark Sisters,” before coming to St. Paul.

MinnPost: What type of music captured your interest when you were growing up?

Nico Muhly: My parents were hippies who had an eclectic record collection, everything from Joni Mitchell to outré performance art to the sort of music you hear on NPR. As is always the case, one resists one’s parents’ tastes and so I immersed myself in 16th century choral music.

MP: Did your singing in the church choir help stimulate that?

NM: Yes, that’s when I realized that music was unspeakably great. It wasn’t something I thought about too hard. When you’re growing up, everything seems incredibly important and irrelevant at the same time.

MP: It sounds like you were precocious. Did that make for a strange childhood?

NM: I guess I was sort of precocious, but not knowing it was strange. Middle school is not a happy time for anyone. But for me, one of the great things about growing up in Providence, where my parents were not only hippies but academics, there was enormous support for doing anything as long as you were doing it well. I sort of had two paths — English and languages and the way languages work was one, and music was the other. I went to an incredibly supportive high school where you could do your own thing. And I was also really lucky that between the ages of about 12 and 18, having announced an interest in music, I met a lot of people in Providence and also in Rome, where I spent some time, that were not just supportive but encyclopedic in the subject [of music] — not pushing, but just there to answer questions I had. It was weird and very lucky because composers are such solitary hunters and I had all this support.

MP: You probably get sick of answering this question, but how much were you influenced by the contemporary classical composer Philip Glass, whom you starting working with while you were still in college?

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NM: I actually never tire of answering this question, partly because it is different than what most people expect. He had an enormous impact on me, but mostly because he made the work be about the work. I and an entire generation of composers have a huge debt for what he did with his music in the ’60s and ’70s, his decision to go it alone and leave the structures of academia and grants as the way music was funded. He went downtown and figured out how to make it pay for itself and not go begging. Now he’s got a production company and a music company and 25 people reliant on this composer for their income and health care. That is something very beautiful and unarticulated about him but deeply correct, the composer as provider instead of entitled artist. Because that romantic model can be a little poisonous. That provider model is something Philip pioneered, as well as Steve Reich and Meredith Monk and some others, and I find that kind of social responsibility very touching.  

MP: You have had your fair share of high-profile collaborations, in the experimental rock world with Bjork and Grizzly Bear and Antony and the Johnsons, and with “The Reader” film score.

NM: I’m wired to be as collaborative as possible, not in the abstract but because of the chance to work with my friends and different people. People ask, ‘How do you find yourself working in such a wide circle?’ The answer is, don’t be an asshole. Listen to people, and have a discussion without talking about style or resorting to talking points about things you learned some time ago. My philosophy is to listen to everything; then the world is a lot larger than you think. 

MP: One of your most recent collaborators is Craig Lucas, the librettist for your first opera, “Two Boys,” and with whom you wrote “Luminous Body” for Cantus and the SPCO.

NM: The way I met Craig, the Met asked me what I wanted this opera they had commissioned to be about and I told them this plot and then they asked if I had any thought about who would write the libretto. When I mentioned Craig they said, ‘That’s funny, we love Craig and have wanted to work with him; let’s call him.’ He happened to be in town and we had lunch that day. I was aware of his work, “The Dying Gaul,” which has a theatricality of writing I liked; it was clear he put a lot of thought into it but it didn’t seem like he was showing off. [Over lunch] he was immediately interested, and it soon became an enchanted relationship where I felt like we were on the same page.

In the case of “Two Boys,” the original plot was my thing. We agreed on a two-sentence version, or paragraph version, of the plot, then the storyboard version. I found out that, like me, he works fast and has no problem sharing unfinished work, which is really useful. Like for the opening of the opera, one of the first things he wrote and I wrote was to see what happens if you write in a day and then respond in another day or two. It was artful and fast. I couldn’t be happier with the way we work together.

MP: So when did you start working on “Luminous Body”?

NM: We were in that magical eye of the storm just before production [on “Two Boys”]. He had sent off the final libretto in late February and I had finished the score in March, and then in April finished the orchestrations. We were in that endless procedure of answering questions from the proofreader and frequently in touch when I warned him that we needed to do the SPCO piece. So we spent the month of May on it. So it felt like we were in that period when you’ve made a huge mess of the house [preparing for a trip] and you were in that hour when your bags are packed before someone comes to take you to the airport. But it didn’t feel anticlimactic at all. There is an ecstatic cantata, some meditative material, some wild material.

MP: In your notes about the work you describe it as interpolating the stylized teachings of Christ, Buddha, Mohammed and Plato. It would seem that Plato is kind of an outlier among that group.

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NM: The flip way to describe it is that when I was thinking about writing for nine male voices [in Cantus], the first thing I pictured was these ancient rabbinical councils. Craig and I talked about how when you are studying anything in liberal arts it seems to be constantly drawing from a canon of thinkers who are the same succession of people. One of the things Craig and I wanted to do is create a cacophony of wisdoms. One of the favorite things I’ve noticed is that if you sing something it makes it sound so much more true, and there is something fun to be done within that — that lying in songs is one of its appeals. The notes Craig gave me looked like a series of lists, with some self-contradictory and some very resonant.

MP: What about the pure staging of it? How involved is the orchestra with the nine voices? How long is the piece?

NM: The orchestra is pretty much there the whole time. It is probably, 20, 22 minutes long, divided up into a million little movements, with the first and last related in kind of an arc. Sometimes the voices work in strict unison and sometimes with a sense of cacophony. The end of the piece is kind of a nocturne; I finished this piece in Iceland, so it ends with this totally chilled-out music. The way it is put together is like [the contemporary composer] Terry Riley, with all these repeating phrases in different rhythmic patterns, and then these trumpets come in.

MP: Have you been involved in the rehearsals and the pre-production?

NM: I’ll be in the background during the rehearsals. How it all works out is going to be fun. When you are writing a piece for people, you don’t want to micromanage them out of their comfort zone. I want my presence to be avuncular rather than paternal.

MP: You’re really in demand right now. Even before the American premiere of “Two Boys” at the Met, you’ve got another opera, “Dark Sisters” getting its world premiere in New York in November. What else is on the horizon?

NM: I have a cello concerto, and after that a piece every orchestra in the universe co-commissioned that will happen in Seattle. And there is a piece for a wonderful Irish ensemble called Crash.

MP: Is the orchestra piece a symphony?

NM: No, it is shorter than a symphony. With orchestra music, one of the things that has changed is that I used to try and write my entire life into it, and now I don’t feel the need to do that.

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MP: I’d say that probably is a welcome sign of maturity.

NM: Well, you have to let that happen naturally, don’t you? You can’t force yourself to behave like a grownup. Tomorrow is my 30th birthday, so I guess people will stop referring to me as ‘young composer Nico Muhly,’ and I’ll become ‘old person Nico.’

SPCO season highlights
This weekend’s world premiere of Nico Muhly’s “Luminous Body” kicks off another SPCO season that mixes new works by heralded young composers with ambitiously wrought classics by the most iconic names in classical music.

The Muhly/Lucas work is just one of five world premieres this season, including a brand new collaboration between vocalist and artistic partner Dawn Upshaw and Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, who teamed up for this spring’s Nonesuch label release, “That The Night Comes.” Another notable date is the premiere of “Primera Luz,” a string quartet by Russian pianist-composer Lena Auerbach (who has also written highly praised symphonies, operas and ballets), which is meant to blur the boundaries between the sacred and the profane.

As for the classics, the SPCO will tackle Bach’s unfinished cycle of fugues and canons, “The Art of the Fugue” over two separate weekends in October and November, and follow that up with five Brandenburg Concertos later in November. Most of the spring will be consumed by three straight weeks of Schubert symphonies, followed by three more of Mendelssohn symphonies.

Guest artists of note include pianist Jonathan Biss and violinist Leila Josefowicz in separate performances in October, and soprano Christine Brewer singing Beethoven and Wagner in January. Established contemporary composers are not forgotten, with works by Ned Rorem, Gyorgy Kurtag and Oliver Knussen on the docket. Best of all, the orchestra has recommitted to its affordable ticket pricing, with costs ranging from $10-$25 per concert.