Nico Muhly
Photo by Heidi Solander

Nico Muhly: “Pick your battles”

Short Profile

Name: Nico Asher Muhly
DOB: 26 August 1981
Place of birth: Randolph, Vermont, United States
Occupation: Composer, arranger

Mr. Muhly, you once said that everything about writing an opera is difficult. Is there any part of your job as a composer that’s easy?

(Laughs) The initial moment of starting any piece is still as hard as it ever was! But I think I wouldn't want it to be any any other way. I would never want to feel like starting a piece is as easy as getting on the train. There has to be some slight torment. But I would say that once I get to the third to last part of writing an opera score, it starts to get easier.

How come?

The beginning is a bit like rock climbing where you’re wondering where's the grip, where can I get purchase on this thing. And then once you see the whole structure, it topples over and it’s like you’re running over a rocky beach, and going faster is easier. It feels like a fluency, rather than, you know, like level one of Rosetta Stone where you don’t know what's going on. Each piece is like that! And I try to challenge myself so that each piece has its own little ecosystem of challenges and difficult to grasp things, so there’s something kind of tricky about it.

“Opera offers a very complicated text, this document that is going to occupy a lot of people's lives for a long time. So the score has an enormous amount of power.”

What kind of challenges come to mind?

Opera offers a very complicated text, which is to say that what you're physically making is this document that is going to occupy a lot of people's lives for a long time. So the score is this thing that has an enormous amount of power. But the score itself comes from a libretto. And from my personal experience of writing three operas, all of which have had living librettists working with me during that process, a lot of things are happening at the same time. There’s an initial level of collaboration between the composer and the librettist and the director, there’s the writing of the piece, the design of the piece, the casting of the piece. Those things determine how many stage managers do you need, where does the chorus physically need to be by the time they have to sing… There's a million people reading off of this one text, so there's a lot of pressure on that text. But it also has to be a living document.

As in, you also have to make changes as you move forward?

Right, so you're in the rehearsal room, and you think this isn't working, you know we've got to cut this, we've got to move her to get it right. But there’s also pressure to not rush. Something that I learned, and that I tell younger composers all the time is that there's also a constant negotiation about whose rehearsal it is; sometimes it’s for the director, sometimes it’s the lighting or costumes, sometimes there’s a premium on the music… There’s a whole bunch of people who are trying to figure out their element in it, and the dance between all these different elements was a surprise to think, “Okay, this rehearsal is really actually not about me.”

Is the ability to freestyle and adapt perhaps your best weapon as a composer?

I mean, in any musical context, you have to pick your battles. And there are different configurations for how flexible a situation is! If you’re working with a friend on something, that’s one thing. But if you are doing something in a major orchestra house… Let's pretend I'm working at the Philharmonie in Berlin, and the concert is on Friday night. And on Tuesday, they'll read it through and fix a couple of things, on Wednesday the same thing, but then they probably won't look at it on Thursday, and then on Friday, this is when you do it. So you're not talking about a huge amount of physical time, right? At those moments, there's not much you can do, you really can't change anything structural. But if something isn't working compositionally in that moment, that's actually on you. That's your problem, and you can't fix it.

What do you do in that case?

You live with it. You can’t just say, “Oh, this middle section is way too long.” A big orchestra has big overheads. It's a machinery and you're in it. You're in the ecosystem and you're beholden to everyone else. It’s not a kind of kumbaya journey.

Are the challenges part of the fun of it? Or is that being a bit romantic?

That's a little romantic! (Laughs) That said, all the challenges and tasks are beyond worth it in the end.

After a certain number of performances, though, are you pretty adept at navigating those challenges, even if they are still present?

That's a great question. My experience is that the first stage rehearsal of your opera is going to be a nightmare. And you just let Jesus take the wheel about that. However, I have worked a long time with the choreographer Benjamin Millepied, he’s a dear old friend. The last major work we did together was in Paris a couple years ago, and we had made probably 10 ballets together by that time, and it was always stressful. But the last time we worked together, the first rehearsal happened and we looked at each other and just said, “Okay, we know how to do this now.” It wasn't a nightmare, I think we had sort of figured out how to how to pre solve things that had vexed us 10 years before that.

Is collaborating something that really excites you creatively?

Well, when I'm on my own, it can turn into a feedback loop of not healthy thoughts. I'm writing a piece right now for orchestra and no one is going to hear this thing until the first rehearsal, right? I'm on my own. So I'm not going to have any sounding boards in a formal context. Whereas, you know, with an opera, every two seconds you have a check in about this and that, you send the thing back and forth and get notes every day, sometimes twice a day. And none of this is better or worse than the other thing. During the middle of that process, all I want to do is be alone. But now that I'm alone, I'm like, “Please, God someone give me feedback!” (Laughs)

“If the collaborative energy is simple, suddenly you can make something much more complicated.”

How do you generally decide who you want to work with?

With collaboration, there’s always this question of: why us? For example, I made a piece with Justin Peck from the New York City Ballet — he and I have known each other socially for 15 years, we've never worked together. We’ve always liked each other’s work, but when the opportunity arose to make something together, the question was: Why? What’s the thing that we can offer together? But in the end, we made something really beautiful and great. It was really fun to do it with someone new with whom I was already friends. And that's a magic feeling to when you're when you're collaborating with someone where you feel like you've known them forever. Sometimes it’s just the simplest thing. And if the collaborative energy is simple, suddenly you can make something much more complicated. In terms of projects, though, there’s definitely an element right now of having the luxury to be able to say no in a way that I probably wouldn't have done 15 years ago.

Have these past 15 years of experience also brought you to a point in your career where you feel like an authority or an expert in your field, where you aren’t afraid to speak up for yourself?

It’s a pick your battles kind of situation and how you express your view, whatever that might be. I've never gotten into a huge artistic issue with anything; it's a weird thing about being composer is that you are and aren't in charge. There are so many people involved, and it’s sort of what we were talking about earlier: is it your rehearsal? Is it your piece?

I’m asking because when you were first starting out, many articles talked about how you were so young to have an opera commissioned by these grand institutions — was there ever a time where people didn’t give you that same level of authority?

If I have any problems in terms of speaking up for myself now — it’s funny that you've accessed the thing that I'm dealing with very actively in my therapeutic journey — but the thing I deal with a lot is that there isn't enough rehearsal. Sometimes I feel a tension about that in terms of how much extra time and effort I take, and then getting into a situation where that's not reciprocated. It can be tricky. But I try to be really straightforward about it. You can't expect other people to match whatever your work ethic or intensity or speed. When I first started out, there wasn't actually any issues like what you mentioned. That was really extraordinary about those early days: I never really felt that tension because the people who commissioned me believed in the music. And that was a miracle of my early days that I’m so grateful for.