Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Boys' Own Story: Interview with Nico Muhly

For Nico Muhly, there are two types of people: those that are good at being online, and those that are bad at being online. 'I live a life which is basically online/offline all the time,' the 29-year old composer says from his apartment on the Northern fringes of Chinatown, New York. 'I heard a report on the radio two days ago about how young people have different online and offline identities, and you think 'hmm, kind of...' But there's a huge permeability there.'

Nico has a deft hand at merging the esoteric and the ultra-modern. In addition to releasing his own acclaimed, genre-eschewing modern classical releases Speaks Volumes (2007) and Mothertongue (2008), in recent years Nico has become the most sought-after collaborator for indie bands experimenting with orchestral arrangements. Anthony Hegarty, Jonsi, Grizzly Bear? Check, check check. Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson? He's known them for years. Bjork? Duh. Essentially, he’s the Nicki Minaj of the classical world.

For the past two years, Nico has been working on Two Boys, an opera about gay cyber-homicide that opens in London this month and will transfer to New York in 2014. The piece is loosely based on a notorious 1990s internet murder which happened in Manchester.

'The opera begins with the fact that there's a boy that's been stabbed, and another boy who's been seen stabbing him on camera,' he explains. 'And there's a policewoman who has to figure out how and why this happened; she's essentially a creature of the analogue world, and we trace her journey into understanding what the dangers, possibilities and ecstatic moments of a life online could mean.'

The policewoman, played by the 'wonderful' Susan Bickley, uncovers a digital world previously unknown to her, where physical location is irrelevant and identity mutable.

Two Boys

'I think one of the things the Internet does is de-specify people,' Nico says. 'You can be chatting with someone that’s saying they're in London, but actually they're in Singapore and a different gender and the wrong age. When the boys are IM-ing in Two Boys and one says 'what do you look like?' all of a sudden there's a picture of a girl. That moment is an intimacy; it also happens to be a lie. To me, that is an enormously exciting dramatic moment, and it reminds me of the shifting identities in Mozart or Rossini, and which you see as long as there’s been opera.’

If anyone was going to transpose the old world of opera into a digital context it would be Nico. He talks enthusiastically and expansively, casually littering his conversation with polysyllabic bon mots and Classical references, with his tone falling somewhere between music dork and old-school camp.

The latter is not particularly surprising, given his upbringing surrounded by gay separatists. 'It's fair to say that my parents were pretty bohemian, and some of my Mom's best friends were Radical Faeries,' he says nonchalantly. 'It was a very queer-normative household in a genuine sense. It didn't feel different.'

But amid the 'strange polygamist configurations' that went on, the 11 year-old Nico took to his piano and joined a boys' choir. 'It was incredibly rigorous,' he recalls of the Tudor hymns that he memorised as a boy. 'But if your mind is open to it, it can turn very quickly into an academic pursuit while never abandoning the beauty of it. I feel like if you're gonna know a thing, you might as well know it to the bottom of it.'

There’s a frenetic energy to his conversation which perhaps goes some way to explaining his extraordinary work output. I wonder aloud where his drive comes from. 'At the moment there's this unspeakable debate about whether gays should be in the military in America, which is so crazy on a really fundamental level. If you're putting a flaw on someone's willingness to perform a public service you're basically saying they're not citizens! So for me as an artist, I feel an especial drive to achieve consistent excellence, just to prove that I am citizen of something, if not the country where I live.'

After all, the majority of Nico's indie-world collaborations have been with gay musicians. 'I sometimes find myself in these weird situations, where the only answer is just this weird queer supremacy, where you just think 'let straight people be late for the bus, and let straight people not know their music, and all us queens are gonna get our shit done.' It doesn't mean anything, it just means that it's done! There's no connotation except the fact that we're awesome.'

Like the narrative of Two Boys, Nico's story bridges the gap between analogue and digital: bookishly steeped in tradition and literary references, but constantly travelling and tied to his iPhone. Throughout our conversation, an image of him struggling with opera manuscripts on the seat-back table of an aeroplane keeps popping into my mind.

After our conversation I get home and check Facebook. I have a Friend Request from Nico. "I'M E STALKING YOU!' reads the message. I'd expect nothing less. Say what you like about Nico Muhly, but this queen is getting his shit done.

An edited version of this article appeared in the June issue of Attitude.

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