SIFA 2018: Jazz Composer Nico Muhly Finds Walking Around Hawker Centres Thrilling

This year’s Singapore International Festival of The Arts promises to feature more mainstream performances and to give us a new perspective of what The Arts can be, welcoming new festival director Gaurav Kripalani‘s vision. Part of the music line up, among all the jazz features, will be Nico Muhly Speaks Volumes – a 90 minute show on his compositions for solos, duos and small ensembles.

The New York City-based classical music composer is a much sought after collaborator, with his influences ranging from American minimalism to the Anglican choral tradition.

In this performance, he will be performing alongside his closest American collaborators Lisa Liu, Matt Albert and Paul Wiancko together with Singapore-based musicians Lim Yan and Ramu Thiruyanam. The ensemble will perform works like A Hudson Cycle, Honest Music, and Skip Town.

Popspoken finds out more about his up-coming debut in Singapore and what advice he has for up-and-coming musicians wanting to build their portfolio.

Popspoken: Do you think this visit to Singapore will inspire some new music of yours?

Nico Muhly: I hope so! I find cities incredibly thrilling and inspiring, and Singapore in particular. It reminds me of “my” New York in some ways — I live in Chinatown — but is, of course, the city of the future. Unfortunately, this trip is only for a week or so, but I hope to come for longer next time and marinate further.

One thing I will say is that I find walking around the hawker centres in Singapore to be deeply thrilling — the sense of people doing one thing very, very well reminds me so much of the classical music tradition, where you basically take a lifetime to perfect playing the violin, or the flute, or timpani. There is rather a symphonic effect to somewhere like the Chinatown Complex Food Centre which is huge but highly, highly specialised.

PS: Talk us through this show that features collaborations with Singapore-based musicians as well as your closest collaborators?

NM: So, this show is meant to be a sort of mini-retrospective of my music. The earliest piece is from 2005, and it’s also the smallest (for solo piano).  We then radiate outwards into pieces for two instruments, three instruments, instruments with pre-recorded electronics… and then the evening will end with a large chamber piece written last year combining the four American musicians with a Singaporean pianist and percussionist. I’m excited to present this evening in particular as it’s a rather comprehensive look at how I approach writing chamber music and how I approach collaboration.

PS: You’re known to be very versatile at your craft. How do you balance your style against others, especially when you collaborate with musicians across different genres?

NM: I always think about genre and style as red herrings; I never worry about it and most people I work with don’t either. I think that you hone your craft usually in the context of a certain tradition (notice, I don’t say genre…) — so the two traditions out of which I come are classical instrumental and operatic music, and English choral music. Once I spent enough time honing those things, I felt comfortable, for instance, collaborating with my friends in the band The National, or making an arrangement of a folk song, or writing music for a film.

Your ‘private’ work is sort of like going to the gym and getting your body ready for the quick sprint that is a collaborative process.

PS: Speaking of musical style, how much of an impact does non-musical influences (such as people within the theatre and literary scenes) have on the way you compose and arrange?

NM: I am in a constant state of reading things, and thinking about language. In a sense, most if not all of my music is about language — how grammar works, how languages develop from old English into middle English into the modern English we speak today which has so many sources; Singapore is actually a great example of this kind of crossroads-language; I spent a fair bit of time in Iceland which has sort of the opposite problem… A lot of my music takes its cues from certain kind of prose stylists; Salman Rushdie’s free-wheeling sentences are always delicious, as are fashion writer Cintra Wilson’s.

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PS: At the end of the day, what goal(s) are you trying to achieve through your compositions?

NM: For me it’s about creating an environment in which the listener can have specific (but not prescribed) emotional experiences.  My music specifically resists the romantic musical journey where the climax is clear and the road to and from it is strongly delineated and there is a sense of emotional narrative.

I try to make work that feels more like religious music, where the thrill is in carving out your own itinerary as a listener; the piano pieces on the programme are good examples of this strategy.  That having been said, I also like creating moments of specific drama and fun, which comes across in the works for solo instruments with electronic landscapes supporting and antagonising them from behind.

PS: One piece of advice for any musician or composer out there hoping to strike it out on their own in the industry?

NM: I say this all the time: get your craft as good as it can be, write for your friends, and don’t be rude. Getting your craft right is so, so important; I can’t tell you how sad it makes me when I see young musicians not taking advantage of every single resource at their university or conservatory — you will never regret learning how to analyse harmony, you will never regret learning how to write a fugue or transpose Bach chorales or read some crazy clef or understand how extended techniques work on the bass clarinet.

Then, write for your friends. Bands have this figured out, where they generally start as friends who like making music together; in the classical universe, oftentimes composers are seen as these brilliant hermits.

The only reason I’m doing well as a composer today is because I didn’t have the resources to be a brilliant hermit straight out of graduate school, so I wrote music for my close friends instead of waiting for the phone to ring and have it be a giant orchestra commission.

Some of those pieces for friends anchor the SIFA programme!

The third bit is to not behave like an idiot. Don’t bad-mouth other composers, learn how to talk to musicians as colleagues and teachers rather than employees, say please & thank you…!

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To find out more about the Singapore International Festival of The Arts 2018, click here.

Purchase your tickets for Nico Muhly Speaks Volumes here.

Photographs courtesy of SIFA and credits to Ana Cuba.


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