Lotte Betts-Dean to give Nico Muhly Australian Premiere

Interview with Nico Muhly: “Write for your friends and behave well”


In a few weeks’ time, chamber music will crash against the concrete walls of the Collingwood Underground Carpark. Wedged inside a program of Schumann and Brahms, American composer Nico Muhly’s piece So Many Things will be performed by singer Lotte Betts-Dean and the Penny Quartet as part of this month’s Play On series.

Nico’s musical career has spanned continent and collaboration. The New York-based artist has received commissions from The Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall among others, and has worked on the scores for films such as The Reader and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl. He studied at the Juilliard School and has conducted and edited for Philip Glass himself. His style ranges from American minimalism to the Anglican choral tradition. And we will hear this variety of style and experience in his music this March 23 – but first, we take a few minutes to introduce you to this composer.

Hi Nico! So – Play On. Tell us everything. How do you feel about having your work presented as part of this concert series?

I’m excited! One of the most exciting things for a composer is to write a piece and then see it have ‘legs’, which is to say, have people you don’t actually know well play your music. I’ve met Lotte Betts-Dean for about two seconds a few years ago. One of the things that thrills me about her singing my music is the combination of her devotion to contemporary music, but also the context of this program, which is Brahms and Barber and Schumann. I like when my music sits alongside older music.

Talk us through your piece So Many Things that’s going to be performed at Play On. What’s it all about conceptually, and what can audiences expect musically?

So Many Things is a special project for me; it sandwiches a beautiful, narrative poem by Joyce Carol Oates between two poems by CP Cavafy, in Daniel Mendelsohn’s delicious translations. The resonance between the three poems is, to me, quite moving. It begins rather kinetically and mechanically (it was originally commissioned for American pianist Manny Ax, so I had to give him something to do…!) and then dissolves into abstraction. The Joyce Carol Oates poem, which depicts a woman walking through a plate glass window, is urgent and spikey, and that texture gives way into a drone texture, with very slow-moving harmonies, and ends with the line: ‘…and you’ve been wholly remade into feeling for me’, a glorious apostrophe.

You’ve written for a crazy range of styles, from Anglican choral to American minimalism right through to opera, film, and stage. Amazing. Why have you chosen a path filled with diversity and versatility, rather than carving your own ‘niche’ in a particular style? 

I like doing a lot of different things, but would be, I think, perfectly happy to write just choral music for a year or work on a ballet or opera for a year. If I have a niche, I think it would be to not have one; this week, I am making an arrangement of a folk song for an Icelandic string quartet, editing my most recent opera, starting sketching out a bassoon concerto, and writing a piece of electronic music over which my friend in London is going to sing.

I’ve always thought that working in a variety of ways and context is as helpful as learning how to cook anywhere. If you can make a great meal with one knife and a hot plate, you can make a great one in a huge industrial kitchen, or over a few coals. Writing chamber music teaches you a lot of the skills you need to deploy when writing a film score, which happens in a fraction of the time with an exponential amount more energy and stress. But, in turn, a film score teaches you how to collaborate with a choreographer or rock band.

What advice would you give to young composers today who are looking to start their careers in any area?

There are two:

1) Write for your friends, and

2) Behave well.

The only reason I am doing even remotely well is because I spent the entire time I was in conservatory writing for my friends; a practice that continued through grad school, in the scary few years after, and to this very day. It’s almost never going to be the case that an orchestra is going to call you up at the age of 21 and be like, ‘Write us a symphony!’. In my case, it was writing for my friends — violists, pianists — who would then program my music on their recitals. So instead of being next to other contemporary music in an unintentional competition, the music was contextualised next to Stamitz, Hindemith, Bach…

Your friends can also teach you so much about the intricacies of their instruments, which then translates, down the road, into more confident and secure instrumental writing in any context, from orchestral to an arrangement of a folk song. So, even if your friend plays some weird historical instrument, or the organ, or the bassoon, get in there, and learn everything you can.

The second thing (behave well) is equally important — you need to not sh*t-talk other composers, you need to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, you need to act right in rehearsals, you need to learn when to make a comment or let the musicians find their own way to a solution. You need to figure out how detailed you want your scores to be, knowing that most musicians’ first impression of you is going to be on the first page of the part sitting on their music stand. Let your parts reflect as much work on your part as the thousands of hours of practice that got the violinist into that rehearsal room. I cannot tell you how many younger composers I see getting this wrong — expecting musicians to be mind-readers and acting a fool when things don’t go a certain way right from the start!

See Nico’s music performed by the Penny Quartet at Play On. Also featured on the program is singer Lotte Betts-Dean, and Pjenné in a second set. Gig takes place at 8pm March 23 in the Collingwood Underground Carpark. Be sure to pick up a copy of CutCommon’s inaugural print mag while you’re there: this concert is an event featured in our national Roving Launch.


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