Nico Muhly

I avoid reading accounts of other composers’ ways of working. I’ve only ever been disappointed by stories of their abusive and antagonistic relationships with the people they’re close to, or, in the case of historical figures, wild speculation about their mental states or marital problems or excessive drinking. When I talk to my colleagues, I am of course happy to hear about their sex dramas and squabbles with the landlord, but what I really want is shop talk: what kinds of pencil are you using? How are you finding this particular piece of software? Do you watch the news while you work? I find these details telling.

For me, every project has three clearly defined phases: the scheming and planning; the writing of actual notes; the editing. The planning process almost entirely excludes, by design, notes and rhythms. When I was a twenty-year-old student at Juilliard, I constantly had hundreds of tiny, brilliant ideas, each lasting about five seconds, and instead of learning to use them, I’d just throw them at the wall in some order and the result would be a sparkling and disorganised mess, a free-form string of disjointed but attractive thoughts. My teacher set out to fix this problem, and taught me a method of planning I still use to this day. With every piece, no matter its forces or length, the first thing I do is to map out its itinerary, from the simplest, bird’s-eye view to more detailed questions: what are the textures and lines that form the piece’s musical economy? Does it develop linearly, or vertically? Are there moments of dense saturation – the whole orchestra playing at once – and are those offset by moments of zoomed-in simplicity: a single flute, or a single viola pitted against the timpani, yards and yards away?

More practically, I see each commission as a challenge: write a piece of music which lasts between fifteen and twenty minutes, for an orchestra comprising the following 65 instruments, and we’d like it by this date. These are known restrictions, the sort of predetermined constraints architects and painters work with too: you know the site on which the building will be built, or the size of the wall on which the canvas will be hung. The primary task, I feel, is to create a piece of art that is better than the same amount of silence; I would prefer to sit silently thinking for ten minutes than to listen to certain pieces of music, and therefore feel that it is my duty as a composer to occupy the time of the listener and the musicians with something challenging, engaging and emotionally alluring. I don’t want to play them a movie with a clear exposition, obvious climax and poignant conclusion, nor do I want to drop them blind into a bat cave of aggressively perplexing musical jabs. I try to create an environment that suggests motion but that doesn’t insist on certain things being felt at certain times. Mapping the piece’s route helps me avoid the temptation of the romantic journey or the provocateur’s dungeon.

The best analogy for this document is one of those in-flight maps which cycle automatically between a remote overview of the whole journey (you are in London; you will be in Singapore in 13 hours) and a dermatologically accurate close-up view in which baffling, undreamed-of hamlets’ names start to appear: Niederaula, Haunetal, Burghaun. Focus on the smaller questions – what are the notes doing, what’s the percussion doing, what’s going on with the fabulous effect my friend showed me on the clarinet? – and any sense of context, any sense of what it really means to travel, will be lost. Some of us are commuting, others are on a long-awaited holiday, others going to the funeral of an aunt to whom they’d neglected to write for years. A piece of music can and should exist as a space in which all manner of emotional itineraries are possible, all within a single context; a piece of live music unfolds in real time, and is experienced by a roomful of people at precisely the same moment, but should mean different things to each of them.

A fragment of a sketch for ‘Reliable Sources’, for solo bassoon and wind ensemble, showing a list of sections and their differences
A fragment of a sketch for ‘Reliable Sources’, for solo bassoon and wind ensemble, showing a list of sections and their differences

The wonderful thing about this map is that it can be coloured in and detailed whenever you like and wherever you are, at home or abroad, and I’ve found that working on it at odd times and in unusual places can be beneficial, much as studying the menus of restaurants at which one might eat in six months’ time while standing in a torturous queue at the airport can be. The map of a piece of music can exist on a cocktail napkin, or as a text message, or on a proper piece of manuscript paper. Steve Reich once described Four Organs as ‘short chord gets long’; I yearn to be able to describe my pieces so succinctly. One of the ways I’ve tried to get better at this is by describing other composers’ music in the simplest possible terms: it’s not much cleverer than opera plots as told by emojis, but it is nice to think about, for instance, John Adams’s Harmonielehre as a long flight from a relentless rhythmic unison in E minor via a Wagnerian prism to an ecstatic combination of a grid and a wild and dangerous celebration of E flat major.

Four years ago I wrote a viola concerto – first performed in Madrid, then in Detroit – for one of my best friends, Nadia Sirota. The plan was to start and end with a familiar set of chords, a sort of musical home base, and then travel as far away from that as possible through rhythmic turbulence, and find the way back via a sense of musical panic: fast motion but no sense of which way is up. The plan for my organ concerto, which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the organ in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, was to start with violently scattered shards of music – jagged and angry – before, over the course of twenty minutes, we realise that what has been broken is an antique: a pavane by the Tudor composer Orlando Gibbons. Once I know the big plan, I can start zooming in: what sorts of notes and rhythms and colours can I use to illustrate this specific voyage?

In general, the next step – before involving notes and rhythms – is a period of improvisational research. I begin with a simple idea, such as ‘old broken Gibbons piece reveals itself’, and then start exploring. Soon I find myself engaged in research about the power of relics in Buddhism, which leads to the Lacanian notion of the objet petit a, soon displaced by my delight in Obelix’s dog Dogmatix being called Idéfix in the original French, which leads to the way a single obsessive idea can dominate every aspect of a text, which leads to Gollum, which leads to Tolkien’s use of dead languages to create a set of fictional languages, which leads to old words taking on new meaning, which leads to Wendy Carlos’s interpretation of Bach, and so on. All these articles, pictures and fragments get printed out and digitally saved and put in folders, and the result – for me – is a magical vessel full of information and possibility.

From this, the notes come quickly. Immersing oneself in these vats of information creates an environment in which chords start to present themselves, and smaller musical structures emerge. If this Gibbons fragment is like a saint’s femur, what does the music sound like that encloses it? A pillow of strings and woodwinds. What is the environment like in the chapel that contains the relic: hazy with clouds of incense, or temporarily brightly lit by a pilgrim’s coin or a votary flicking a hidden switch? Zooming out, what is the church like? Do its textures suggest the brass of Puccini’s Sant’Andrea della Valle, or is it the clean mallet-percussion of John Pawson’s Abbey of Our Lady of Nový Dvůr? There’s an organist in the loft; what is he playing? The concerto then becomes a twenty-minute exploration of this space: walking into a church, and slowly moving closer and closer, past various side chapels and distractions, towards the composer’s finger in its simple metallic theca, here constructed out of the celesta, harp, glockenspiel and vibraphone.

What is key for me about creating this sort of emotional and sonic architecture is the possibility of listeners having simultaneous but radically different experiences. Picture a relatively famous church somewhere in Northern Europe: you’ll find tourists there, ticking it off a long list of important sites, being vaguely underwhelmed by the frescoes. You’ll have a local worshipper, lighting a candle for a long deceased relative, you’ll have a verger going about his weekly maintenance, you’ll have a couple whose lifelong fantasy was to see this space in the springtime, you’ll have a Dutch art historian with a spooky and potentially kinky relationship with 16th-century depictions of the Annunciation. The building’s architecture allows each of these simultaneous experiences, and no one of them is more ‘correct’ or well informed or meaningful than the others. With music, I want each listener to feel an intensity inside the music, and I only want to provide a few suggestions about where to look for it.

The document I produce at the beginning of this process becomes a central reference point. I keep it visible at all times, but also endeavour to memorise it. Each project has its own three-flap folder of the sort French schoolchildren use, on whose top layer lives a handwritten version of the map. All other scraps go below this: pieces of text, printouts of articles, index cards with my non-musical scrawl and then, eventually, pieces of manuscript paper. I am fastidious when working on various projects at once: I am never at the same stage of planning/writing/editing on two pieces, but seek out situations that enable me to be at different stages, resulting in a sense of complementary muscle groups being simultaneously and productively active.

All of these documents have digital counterparts. The map-document is scanned and lives at the alphabetical top of a computer folder, an archival strategy achieved by giving it a • at the start of its name. All other relevant non-musical scraps go into their own folder, and then music notation software files exist below. All the main musical effort happens by hand: the major textures and gestures and shapes. I am, however, not too proud to use the compositional equivalent of a food processor for a lot of the more trivial work: just as typing is faster than writing by hand, realising musical processes is, for me, much faster on a screen. It’s important that the first pass be in my hand, however; I’ve found that actually bending my neck over a desk gets me set, physically, in a kind of output mode, just as looking at a screen or lying supine is suited for input-based passivity. As much of my music involves fast interlocking patterns, writing out three pages of such filigree causes my right hand to curl into an unattractive and painful cuttlefish shape, so I cheat and do it on the screen. My guilt is tempered by the sense of craft that comes from having piles of manuscript to be exploded rather than simply typeset.

This process is best realised in my studio in New York, since it was designed specifically for it. Here there is a large iMac connected to a full-sized MIDI keyboard, both linked up to a second large screen which can rotate quickly between portrait and landscape mode. The desk is of a dimension conducive to simultaneous work on paper and on the screen, making the disconnect less jarring. The studio itself is part of a cluster of workspaces, including a collaborator’s identical studio space and, surprisingly, a childhood friend’s book publishing operation. I like the feeling of being part of an ecosystem of productivity and work; I’ve long been suspicious of the idea of the composer living in eccentric isolation and much prefer being in a room – though a soundproofed room! – mere paces away from where other people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and doing it well.

The tragedy and luxury of my life is that I travel a great deal, and so I’ve been trying to invent a way to re-create something like this setup with flexible applications in hotels and Airbnbs. I used to hire large screens and keyboards, but I found that in France and the UK the process is quite impractical, with exorbitant fees, 12-hour delivery windows, and resistance to bribery as a means of assuring punctuality. A life-changing development came when I discovered that a friend, who accompanies fashion photographers around the world and does on-the-spot edits to the shots, had had a flight case made for his iMac, meaning that he didn’t have to rent equipment, and could be working within minutes of arriving in a foreign hotel. I immediately bought one of these unwieldy things, and realised that an added bonus is that there is space, inside its padding, for soft objects: clothes, a pillow. My portable MIDI keyboard has a shoulder strap, and the rest of my things can fit into a small duffel bag over my other shoulder. The overall effect, as I traipse through Arrivals, is not unlike Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, but the convenience is worth any amount of staring and friction burns.

The one drawback of this setup is that, occasionally, nicer hotel rooms can’t accommodate the computer, MIDI keyboard, keyboard and mouse because of their overdesigned desks. I usually have to pull them out from the wall, or deploy a bedside table as a smaller staging area for documents. Newer hotels have all these things bolted to the floor, and the desks tend to be stylishly shallow (or sometimes curved), with fussy little slots and protrusions for the various attainments of what the hoteliers consider to be a business traveller’s routine. Airbnbs are safer, but unpredictable: the fisheye lenses employed by landlords in their online listings obscure any sense of dimension, and I’ve found that in more picturesque European cities, practical worksurfaces are jettisoned in favour of a round, usually tiled, café table, at which one presumably sits with a croissant and plans the day’s gravestone rubbings. I often email landlords asking them to take measurements of the apartment’s flat surfaces, which has resulted in no small number of cancellations; I imagine they think I’m going to perform home butchery or celebrate a casual Black Mass for my new Lyonnais Satanist Grindr friends.

I struggle with continuity both at home and on the road; sometimes I find myself begging, at night, to be fast-forwarded to the next morning so I can pick up right where I left off. Pieces in progress worry me, and it wasn’t until a few years ago that I found a way to find a certain poetry in discontinuity. I cut my finger very badly in New York while cooking, and the next evening I flew to the Netherlands for a series of concerts. When I got on the plane, I applied an unguent to the cut, and then when I woke up in Schiphol, I did so again. I took a train from the airport to Eindhoven, checked into my hotel, and did it once more. After a week in Holland, I flew to Iceland, and there, I applied the ointment after a dip in the municipal swimming pool, and the continuity of that cut somehow bound all the travel into one single gesture. A few years ago, I was researching a piece in southern Utah, a part of the world defined by rust-coloured red dirt. The morning I left, I took a long hike just after sunrise, and then hastily packed, knocking my shoes on the window ledge to clear them of dust. After a long day and night of travelling, I landed at Heathrow, took the Tube, changed trains, took a cab, and arrived in North London, where I was staying. I took off my shoes in the entryway, and a thimbleful of red dust tumbled out onto the floor; I found myself deeply moved by the impossible specificity of the dirt from St George, Utah lightly dusting the floor of a rectory in East Barnet. When I plan out a year’s work, I can see in advance that I’ll need to be writing certain pieces across several trips, and I seek out ways to keep my focus on work rather than the constantly changing environment. If the work were only saved on a computer, it would take me hours to refocus after a long trip, whereas if I bring a slim folder, the minute I see it on the desk or at the foot of the bed, I’m immediately ready to think about it again.

The folders accompany me everywhere; even if a piece is an unfertilised egg of an idea (‘Corpse Road’ is the title of an empty folder in my satchel right now), it is with me in my bag every day. At home, I save vegetable scraps and post-spatchcocking chicken necks and backs in a container in the freezer: a physical reminder that something can always be done with them. The folders, too, are a reminder of the endless possibility of what they might become.