After writing a radar piece where I sang my praises of the remarkable composer, I decided to go an extra mile and seek out an interview with Nico Muhly. Having seen the kind of man that he is from clips on Youtube, I realised that my usual method of emailing the questions to him would simply not be enough to learn about Nico, so I had a Skype interview arranged to at least get a bit more engaged with him and hear his responses first hand. This was the result: Nico Muhly: Hello? Will Slater: Hello? NM: Hello, oh! yay, I can hear you... WS: Great, alright... NM: Can you hear me okay? WS: Umm, it's a bit dodgy NM: Yeah, it's a bit choppy isn't it... (A while of interference fixing later...) WS: So how've you been? How's your day going? NM: The day is a little chaotic actually, I'm er.. like, going to Holland tonight and before that happens I have to unpack from Iceland, from two days ago, and then we pack, and find all our shit, and get all our hard drives organised... it's kinda nuts. WS: So you're quite the traveller. NM: Yeah, a little bit, I need to get better at the technology element of it. WS: Well anyway, for your age you've had quite an exceptional career. It seems that some people have only achieved half the stuff in their lifetimes that you've achieved in your life so far. Would I be correct in thinking this, or is it a common thing? NM: I don't know... I guess I'm productive, but I've always had that idea that, you know, when I'm 30 I'll just keel over and die. WS: Well I think it's remarkable anyway. NM: Thank you (chuckles) I try my best. WS: And in terms of mainstream success your greatest work so far is arguably the soundtrack to The Reader. How on Earth did that come about? NM: It was pretty straight forward actually, I had been working for Philip Glass for years and years and years, and through him I met, er... I had been working on the soundtrack to The Hours, which had the same director as The Reader and one of the same producers. So a couple of years after The Hours I just got a phone call and they said, "Do you wanna do this?" and I said, "Yeah, that sounds great". WS: Huh, contacts eh? NM: Yeah, it was a pretty random phone call! WS: Was it a challenge at all, or was it like any normal project? NM: Well the thing is, film music in a sense, is like the athletic counter-part to what I normally do, which is, you know, I sit in my apartment and think really hard about weird things, and there's a certain monastic element to music which is what I normally enjoy, whereas film music is more like a sprint, I mean you're essentially being asked to respond immediately to images and story. So you don't really have time to think, you just have to go. WS: I've always had this hunch that that Scandinavians are in a completely different musical league to the rest of us. Having worked with two of the best of them, would you care to contribute your thoughts on this? NM: On why Scandinavians are different musical citizens of the world? (chuckles) WS: I mean, they're just in a completely different league to us. Every time I hear something new from a Scandinavian artist, or one that I've never heard of, I just find it mind-blowing. NM: That's interesting... I've really never thought about it so explicitly, I guess there's something specific, in my experience, in Iceland, there's something very... they inhabit the warmth of the town and the starkness of nature at the same time. There's a sort of town and country element to the music simultaneously existing. I don't know if that applies to others, sort of Danish people or whatever, but I definitely find it to be true in Iceland. WS: Yeah, that's kind of what I was going at. One of the two that you've worked with, that I was referring to was Valgeir Sigurosson, part of the Bedroom Community label. It seems very true to its name, I mean in the community sense, you all work together in some way of producing each other's albums or designing the artwork. What's it like to work in a label where you're so close-knit like that? NM: Well I don't know any alternatives, so I don't have anything to compare it against, but the sense is that it's very special, in that the value, basically, the guiding light of it is that the value of the work that we all do is sort of priceless in a sense, and that the only way to exchange it is literally to barter. For instance if Valgeir wants to work on something of mine, I'll work on something of his, and Ben Frost will come in and do something on all of it, and then there's a real sense that... it feels like farm work in a sense that everybody feels like there's something that needs to get done, and you just have to do it. WS: Well that's what I was thinking because it's not something that you often come across. Record labels are mostly just businesses, with the exception of say, Factory Records from the 80s, they were more like a party. But with Bedroom Community, it's very much a community, like I said. NM: Yeah it definitely functions like that. Just last week, to give you an example, I was there, Ben Frost was there, Valgeir was there, and we were all manipulating this piece of music that Sam Amidon had come and sang a few weeks before, so there's this real sense of a family and that we're all under the same roof. WS: The other Scandinavian I was referring to was Bjork. As well as her you've worked alongside Antony and the Johnsons and Rufus Wainwright, all these renowned pop figures. Do you ever see this separate divide between the classical world and the popular, that you're flitting between? NM: I try not to think about it as much as possible. To a certain extent I'm busy enough that I don't have the time to think about what it means, which is sort of how I like to keep it because in a way, the more you obsess over the genre, the more it's sort of like a hole in a garment that'll never get smaller. I mean, it doesn't occur to me and it hasn't occurred to me, I'm too ensconced to think about how anything might... oh, you know 'this is this, plus this', it's just not interesting to me. WS: Yeah, it's just that there are people like me who have been fed on pop while growing up and can't help but notice the difference... NM: Oh yes, but the difference for me has more to do with venue. The thing is also when I was a kid there was a physical record shop and I haven't set foot in a record store in probably six years. I probably haven't bought a physical album in twice that much time and so to a certain extent, the physical familiarisation between the genres is gone because you can just search for the thing that you want, and it's just there on iTunes. In a certain sense you can horizontally navigate these credit lists and I think you'll find that the same sort of genre has been going on and just hasn't been organised, the music hasn't been organised in a way that would show that off. WS: So, seeming as you've studied classical music all your life, is that all you listened to when you got into music? NM: When I first discovered music what I was doing was really singing in a choir, an Anglican boys' choir, so to a certain extent it was not just classical music, it was more a slice of classical music, and that was my first love in a sense. WS: As you might have been able to tell, I'm this person who's very used to just hearing stuff from the mainstream and I used to see classical music as just something I had to learn about at school, and my taste for it has been nurtured over time. Only now I feel I'm ready to explore it and enjoy it fully. NM: Great! WS: So for all of us naive people who are just getting into it, what can you recommend? NM: What can I recommend? Interesting, well, I would say... it's hard because classical music represents many thousands of years of history. In terms of 20th Century, you'll never go wrong with one of the three early Stravinsky ballets, which is to say, either Petrushka or The Rite of Spring or The Firebird. I think that will appeal to... you will adore one of the three I think, you know, The Firebird is such a sort of romantic story, and then Petrushka sort of appeals to the mechanically obsessed, which was definitely me when I was first getting into Stravinsky, and then The Rite of Spring is such a sort of focussed, aggressive piece of orchestration. WS: Brilliant. On the news section of your website you keep this very interesting blog that I like to look at every now and then, where you basically include an extract of something you've read and have a good rant about it. Is there anything you'd like to rant about now? NM: Umm, you know, I'm trying to think of when I even posted this thing... nothing too exciting has happened in the news recently, sometimes I'm in the period where I can only write about things I've been listening to, although the thing I'm excited about now is about these pirate ships off the coast of Somalia, I find it extremely fascinating, I'm desperate to know more! WS: Yeah I heard about one of those pirate gangs. They call themselves, Al-Shabab, which means 'The Lads'. NM: (laughs) WS: Funny name for a group that murder and steal from other boats! NM: So crazy, this whole situation. WS: I've also noticed on your blog you mention people like Meredith Monk. Listening to her, I notice this vocal experimentation that's similar what you include in Mother Tongue. How well do you know her exactly? Do you and your fellow musicians share these sort of influences together? NM: Well, Meredith Monk is one of the grandmothers of downtown. She's one of the people who, in the 60s and 70s, were making such groundbreaking work, for anyone born after it, you have to engage with it in some way. And she made so much possible for people thinking about how to write for the voice and about how to write for communities of musicians. I would say among my friends everyone knows her very well, and performing musicians take something from her in a way that I would for instance. Meredith Monk's one of those composer/performers from whom you can learn a lot from. WS: You're touring soon, playing the Union Chapel in London and All Tomorrow's Parties in Minehead, here in the UK. You ever been here before? NM: Ever been to England? Yeah, I'm in England all the time. My publishers are in London, and I come to England, like, seven times a year. The thing I love about England is that English people cannot fathom having more than one or two engagements in a day, so when I'm over here (USA) I have an appointment every fifteen minutes, whereas where you are you can have a morning thing, then an afternoon thing, and then drinks and then supper or whatever, so I'm a big London enthusiast. WS: So for those seeing you perform for the first time, what can they expect? NM: You know, it's funny because I've been asked this a couple of times and I wish I had a better answer, but it's gonna be...(laughs) I don't even know yet, but there's gonna be a lot of singing and a lot of fast music.... How's that? (laughs) WS: That's great! (laughs) And I've read that Sam Amidon's joining you. NM: He is. WS: Yeah, so is this mainly gonna be a folk thing or is he conforming to your classical style? NM: He's gonna sing a song I wrote for him in his weird folky style. WS: The way that he works, I hear he revives old folk songs, but you'd think that he'd written them himself from the way he performs. NM: Yeah, I don't know... WS: I just find it interesting, the modern style he has anyway. NM: Yeah, he's the best, I love him. WS: I also read in your blog that you describe arranging music for someone as designing an outfit for them. Could you expand on that? NM: When someone comes to you asking for an arrangement what they're really asking for is for you to make their song sound better, and I keep thinking that's really the same as the reason you buy clothes. It's to make you look better, not to make the clothes look better, right? So, to extend that metaphor slightly the act of making an arrangement is of finding, accentuating things that are strong and covering up weaknesses. And it really is a lot like choosing an outfit, you know, and to an a certain extent, in the history of arranging there's a very classic style, which to me is like having a perfect suit. The things I'm more interested in are more costumey arrangements where it's not just dressing up and going to dinner, but it's more like putting on a show and putting on a costume where the arrangements, themselves, have more of a compositional identity. WS: The way you talk about it, it's clearly very important to you, so if you were stuck with the one option, would you rather arrange and compose or perform and conduct? NM: I'd perform and conduct, I think it's a lot more fun. Arranging is fun while you're having the ideas, but then there's a whoooole period of time where your just being a seamstress.  WS: Well that's all I have to ask, I'd just like to say thank you for your time Nico. NM: Oh great! My pleasure. WS: It's been great talking to you and I wish you good luck with all your projects. NM: Great, likewise.   For those of you fortunate enough to live in London, Nico Muhly will be gracing the stage of the Union Chapel, Islington on 8 May. Event details can be found here Also check out Nico Muhly's website: www.nicomuhly.com And Bedroom Community's website to find other great musicians like Valgeir Sigurosson, Sam Amidon and Ben Frost: www.bedroomcommunity.net