In the second instalment of The 405's celebration of Bedroom Community's 10th anniversary, Andrew Darley speaks to contemporary classical composer Nico Muhly, an artist who witnessed its beginning and was influential in its direction.

After graduating from Julliard School, Nico met Valgeir Sigurðsson at a recording studio which they were both working in. Following their chance meeting, Nico sent him a rough recording of his own compositions and Valgeir offered to work with him on a debut record. Along with Ben Frost, the three were concurrently recording their individual records, which Muhly describes as "homeless music", while laying the unique foundations of Bedroom Community.

How did you come to meet Valgeir and be a part of the label?

He and I met when he was working on Björk's album Medúlla. He was working at the studio where I was too and we basically met in the hallway. He asked me what music my sounded like so I played him a rough-and-tumble live recording of something I did on cassette tape. He was shocked by the poor quality of the physical recording but thought the playing was amazing. He offered for me to come to Iceland and record properly there with him. At the same time, Ben Frost had moved to Iceland and Valgeir was working on his own solo project. All three records felt like homeless music; music that wasn't clear what to do with it. It wasn't obviously acoustic or electronic - there was no obvious home for them. Those three records became the first Bedroom Community releases.

What was your experience of releasing music before Bedroom Community?

None! I met Valgeir just two years out of grad school. Out of the Bedroom Community artists, mine is probably the most traditionally classical. In the classical world, there's a very different dissemination process in how you get your music out there. The live setting is still the premium thing in the classical world so it never occurred to me to find a way to release music.

Being there from the beginning, did you have clear ideas about what the label should be?

There was no manifesto. It's music that stems out of the collaborative gesture: we are all involved in each other's music, we all listen to each other's music and we are each other's first set of other ears. We're all in constant touch. The best thing about the label is that our music doesn't sound like one another. We're all over the place with genre.

When I spoke to Valgeir, he referred to it like an art gallery where there are so many styles but there's some underlying unifying quality in the work.

That's a really good way to think about it. The thing about labels is that, especially the world I come from, it's more of a museum than a gallery. Museums have to be this grand thing and things are presented in a precise way, whereas a gallery things come and go and people can do a group show when they want and experiment.

Do you think there has been any change in how classical music is received now compared to when the label first started?

The scariest thing about making classical music is record stores. Pop and rock music are always presented first and then there's a sealed environment in which classical music is sold. Within that then, there is a separate section for opera. Where do you put Phillip Glass or Laurie Anderson? Where do you put Laurie Anderson at all? What's changed, for me anyways, is that it feels like we're all in the same space now. I hammer the point that the classical tradition isn't changing but there's been an acknowledgement that there are different delivery systems of the same drug. The best thing about classical music is that we do have this formal training. Going to school and learning music is still an important thing but that doesn't mean you have to live the rest of your life in that sealed environment.

Did having the support from Valgeir and the label give you confidence on your first record?

It opened up the ways in how I could make music. It made me a better listener; it's allowed me to engage with such pleasurable other music that I've had a visceral reaction to. It opened up collaborations for me, like the work I did with Sam Amidon, we all worked on that album but not at the same time so it's like an exquisite corpse game, where we picked up where each other left off. That way of thinking has opened up how I work, even with classical ensembles. It's about decentralising the composer during the artistic process. It's made me want to listen to the musicians more and talk with them with them with nothing written, as a true collaboration.

Was there a period when you realised that you had to look within, not externally, to know when what you're working on is good or not?

I try not to be dependent on too reliant many external sources. My close stable of my collaborative family which of course includes Ben, Sam, Valgeir and Nadia, if they like what I'm doing then it's fine.

They're your people!

Exactly.

Did things change for you when you had an audience after its release?

Not realIy. I'd like to think I'd never write for a perceived audience. My music gained a confidence because I'm from the world of notated music and my favourite is 16th century choral from England, the idea that people who aren't from that world listening to my on purpose was an amazing thing.

You've worked on so many collaborations with other people since. How do you find an entry-point to a new work with someone else?

Each one is different. If there's more than one person involved, the best thing is to share a meal and figure it out. If you can exist in the same room as each other, I think it's possible to make music together. If you can enjoy talking about food with someone, you will get along fine. You can agree on one thing.

Over the ten years of Bedroom Community, are there any releases that you consider to be milestones?

The viola concerta that I have coming out with Nadia Sirota represents a really long story arc in my life. I met her when we were undergrads at Julliard and then suddenly we have this magical piece. There's this new piece and we recorded next to an older piece called 'Keep In Touch' with a new arrangement by another friend. It's turned into something else and that to me is really touching.

You have been vocal about the romanticism of mental health in the music industry and the stereotype of the tortured artist. Do you think listeners seek a story behind an artist because we're simply curious by nature?

I don't have a total answer to this. In the classical world, there is an obsession during the Romantic period as the artist as a tortured genius. We can get caught up on biographical details rather than thinking about the music itself. If there's one thing people know about Beethoven it's that he was deaf at the end of his life, rather than the amazing structural work in his music. There's so much more interesting things about him than that he was deaf but that's what people talk about.

When that happens, the music and the story become inextricable. People can't detach the story from the work itself.

Exactly and I think that's really tragic. It's great people are thinking about musicians but I think it's too easy.

In your own life with online platforms, would you consider yourself as being open with your listeners?

I try to be as demystifying as much as I can be so it's the opposite of tortured artist. It's more "Ask me anything!". I'm an open book.


What role does music play in your life?

I've never really thought about it, what an interesting question. I think about language all the time and, to me, music is the best language. It's a way of processing and making obsessions beautiful.

A way of seeking clarity in your own life?

It's more making clarity. I have all these ideas, from the tiny to the large, and then I turn them into something that has this visible structure.

Check out Nico's official website here for all upcoming releases. For more information on Bedroom Community and The Whale Watching Tour, beginning October 1st, can be here.