Composer Nico Muhly on opera, MJ and Mo’Nique

It's hard to miss Nico Muhly these days: the young composer's work is everywhere, from the multiplex (his haunting soundtrack for The Reader) to the Guggenheim (the site of a recent "scent opera" for which...


The “scent opera” you collaborated on with perfumer Christophe Laudamiel literally immersed audience members in different smells. What was that like? Fun and strange! The trick was getting the music to be as complicated and distinct as Christophe’s scents while keeping the movement going. My favorite smell was the one called “Zero Cold” or “Absolute Zero,” which had a steely but organic smell, like an iris growing inside a Sub-Zero.

You were a longtime assistant of Philip Glass’s. What was it like working with him? I haven’t worked for him as such for about two years, although my studio space still exists inside his, so everybody’s still family. What I like about Philip is that he set up this series of companies to publish, produce and record his music, which means that he is responsible to his employees. He can’t just peace out to Guam for six months and be like, ”Bye!”

At this stage in your career, do you think your compositions have a quality that makes them identifiable as “Nico Muhly’s”? I hope so—though I don’t know what that would be. On a really technical level, there’s a certain internal clock that I really like; listening to the music, you always get the sense that there’s a pacemaker there, regulating the pull. I assume that the magic thing why people would want to hire me is not under my control, which is how I’d like to keep it.

Do you have any guilty pop-culture pleasures—singing karaoke or watching trashy TV shows? Are you kidding, those aren’t guilty pleasures. I’ve been glued to True Blood for the last month. I yearn for the good old days of the Flavor of Love and its spinoffs—Mo’Nique’s Charm School was literally the highlight of my week.

Any thoughts on Michael Jackson’s passing? I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, when he died. In the middle of the night, my phone started freaking out—it was making that Twitter noise, that text-message noise, every noise it could make. I thought it was the apocalypse. I picked up the phone and everyone was like, “Girl, did you hear what happened?” And then the next morning everyone in Russia was weeping. Total insanity.

You’ve found inspiration in sonnets, astronomy and YouTube clips. What’s been intriguing you lately? I’ve been really into small manual tasks that people specialize in. I guess tying shoes is the simplest one I can think of, and then expanding out into things like knitting, or making tortellini, or anything that happens in a sort of six-inch spatial cube. The obvious correlation is to playing an instrument, or writing. We’ll see how that leads.

To read Muhly’s own blog, click HERE.

Photo by Samantha West.