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Interview: Nico Muhly

"It’s like the difference between working out, then being asked to lift a car."


Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly

Bedroom Community

How different is dressing someone else as opposed to being the one with your name on the CD?
“I guess it’s identical, but it’s also very different. The skill-set is the same, but it’s a completely different mindset; I like my stuff to feel more like I’m out on the limb, I’m taking the risk. With me, I try to do it in a more severe climate, set up more punishing rules for myself to create a more extreme result. It’s like regular yoga versus hot yoga.”

What were the punishing rules for Mothertongue?
“That everything had to be about language, on its most elemental level. And, also, that it had to be a really explicitly studio beast, had to be something that required the recording studio as an instrument to realize it. Something that required extremities of volume: a very soft sound amplified hugely and a very loud sound amplified softly. Something like the loud sound of the inside of someone’s mouth biting into a chicken bone, mixed with the very soft sound of a tam-tam. It’s an extreme you could never achieve in existence.”

Were you aware of other people, like Matthew Herbert or Matmos, who’d used sampled sound in a really considered way?
“Yeah, the texture around those Matmos records is hugely important. The way they surround the sounds, the way everything sounds very 3D, no matter how tiny. Also, The Books, to a certain extent; the way they use found sounds and making it all feel part of a piece. And then there’s people like Ives and Varèse.”

Were you working on this album at the same time as you were working on the Sam Amidon album [All is Well]?
“Pretty much. We tracked Sam’s contribution to Mothertongue at the same time as we tracked the vocals for his own album.”

Did they feel like they were twin studies in similar ideas on folksong, just expressed in different ways?
“A little bit. Obviously, Mothertongue's ‘The Only Tune’ is much longer, much more severe, and much more my own vision of violence and nastiness than Sam’s album. With Sam’s album, we were just trying to make something exquisitely beautiful. That album was like putting Sam into a wonderfully tailored suit: there was a really classical line and symmetry to it. ‘The Only Tune’ was about exploding that tradition, forcing it to be aggressive, forcing it to embrace its infanticide and butchery and rape and cannibalism. It was the same project in that it took place in the same room in Iceland, but ideologically we were on opposite sides of the room.”

Does Iceland feel like a home-away-from-home for you?
“Absolutely. I’m going there again tomorrow night, to start work on another album with Sam. I’m just desperate to go there, to leave New York. But, I’ve been scoring this holocaust drama, The Reader, and they just wouldn’t let me go. I couldn’t leave! They needed me all the time to work on it. But now I’m free to go back to Iceland. There’s something about the pace of it that I find very conducive to writing; maybe it just reminds me of Vermont. I’ve been going there since 2004, so it is a kind of home for me. I had met Valgeir [Sigurðsson] through working with Björk, and he and I decided it would be fun to work together. We came up with a scheme where I’d come over and hang out all summer, and see what happened. And what happened was Speaks Volumes.”

How did you end up getting roped into that amazing final episode to Wonder Showzen?
“I have no idea. One of the things I never ask people is: ‘how did you find me?’ Because I’m scared they’d say they asked someone else first, and then they were forced to settle for me. But, with Wonder Showzen, they called me. I don't know how they got my name. I hadn’t worked with Will [Oldham] at that time, so it wasn’t him. I think they were just looking for a composer who they could force a score out of them, and it was for TV, so the turnaround was like 15 minutes. John [Lee] and Vernon [Chatman], they’re so smart those boys. They knew what they wanted. So, I cranked out a score, written directly to picture, and sent it to them.”

Were you trying to summon overwrought cinematic scores?
“I wanted something Prospero’s Books. You know that Peter Greenaway movie? That’s what I was going for. I wanted to have that kind of ecstatic melancholy that only Nyman can get.”

How much more restrictive is it authoring film scores, working so specifically to such a precise limitations?
“It's really hard. It’s so much work in such a small amount of time. It’s an enormous amount of heavy-lifting. It’s kind of like the difference between working out, and then being asked to lift a car. It’s essentially saying: ‘How in shape are you? Can you take this eight minute piece of footage and react intelligently to it, in a short amount of time, pull the right answer out of your ass, and make it be meaningful?’ People often ask me if it’s some sort of dream to be involved in the movie business, but it’s not really. I’m not an enormous movies fan. I feel like I have something better to do for two hours. It makes me feel this cavernous distance between me and people my age, when they want to spend their time watching those painfully long and slow and beautiful Wong Kar-wai movies, when I just spend the whole time feeling bored, beset by the nagging feeling that I should be doing something more constructive with my time.”

Most movie scores seem, to me, to be really blunt, thoughtless emotional cues.
“Absolutely. It’s just explicit manipulation. Totally. I mean, it is what it is. In general, movie scores are terrible, but not all are. Older is better. Hitchcock movies have the most unreal scores; you can listen to Bernard Hermann and think it’s the most genius thing you’ve ever heard. I really loved recently the way music was used in that film Birth, with Nicole Kidman. There’s that scene where she’s sitting there watching the first act of The Valykrie, and it’s just the best thing in the world. Because all you’re doing is watching her immovable, botox-ass’d face react to this Wagner. That’s how music should be used in movies! Take something beautiful and force it onto the world of the film itself.”

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