Saturday, May 24, 2014

Nico Muhly and the oppositional Owen Pallett

Photo from Bedroom Community

When writing about Owen Pallett, as I do in this week’s issue of Maclean’s (on newsstands now), who better to grill as a secondary source than Nico Muhly? The two men are mirror images: they were each born on either side of 1980; both studied composition academically; both straddle the pop/classical divide with ease; both are queer; both are entertaining essayists; both juggle work for hire with their acclaimed solo work.

If you don’t know Nico Muhly, you should: he apprenticed under Philip Glass, worked with Bjork, Antony and the Johnsons, Grizzly Bear and Jonsi of Sigur Ros, wrote string arrangements for Usher, and had his debut opera, Two Boys, debut at the Met in 2013. Muhly co-runs an Icelandic record label, Bedroom Community, and a studio there, Greenhouse, where Pallett has recorded much of his last two albums.

Among many other things, Muhly has strong opinions on why the death of record stores is not necessarily a bad thing.

Nico Muhly
April 23, 2014
On the phone from his NYC apartment

How and when did you first cross paths with Owen?

I’ve been a huge fan of his music forever, from the beginnings of the Final Fantasy era. In the early Internet days, you’d just find stuff you like. I remember we had mutual friends and I asked for an introduction so I could write him fan mail. Weirdly, he had just done the same thing. We’ve been in touch ever since. Because we travel so much, we literally run into each other in Ireland or London or somewhere. He’s a joy to be around.

Are you the Icelandic connection? Is it your studio where Owen does a lot of recording there?

Yes. On Heartland you can hear me playing prepared piano.

What would you say you two have in common?

We’re both obsessive. We both love language. We’re simultaneously addicted and wary of technology. We’re both interested in pattern music that breaks the pattern, making something that feels like it should obey a set of logical rules, and then smudging it.

Regarding technology, Owen is one of the only creative people I know who admits to reading YouTube comments on his own work, which seems to be a terrible idea, and then he says a bad comment can really throw off his whole day.

And then he writes back to them! Owen was the first person I knew who engaged with the Internet that way. There was a real sense of total immersion.

From knowing Owen personally and from what I’ve read about you, you’re both omnivorous consumers of digital culture. Which is one sense seems to be at odds with music that seems to demand patience and discipline, the opposite of ADD digital culture. How do you think the age of instant accessibility to everything and constant distraction influences this generation of composers?

I’ve never bought into the idea that discipline can’t happen in a state of distraction. The discipline it takes to read the whole Internet about something is serious, to find the bottom of the Internet on a topic. The mistake is to assume that that’s indicative of someone who can’t pay attention—I think it’s the opposite. For me, taking a two-hour detour into some back alley about linguists arguing about some really specific dialect in Canadian French, that can turn into a pearl six years later.

If you read Owen’s lyrics, you can tell they’re a result of not just research, but finding something and fretting over it and working it and really whipping it as you would a dairy product into something else, some biological matrix of connected ideas. I can’t really listen to lyrics [in general]; it took me a while to warm to how good his lyrics are. On the other hand, I know his music well enough to write it all out on a piece of paper.

Both of you studied music academically, but Owen has largely focused on pop music, or his version of it. Whereas your work in the pop realm has mostly been arrangements for other people. Have you ever wanted to move into something more akin to what Owen does?

I feel I wouldn’t be very good at it. I can’t write a tune. I know my limitations.

How do you feel about his orchestral work or his film scores?

What I like about it is that it’s so different from what he does. This is one of the reasons I adore Owen: even if I give him the highest praise, he’ll disagree 180 degrees. He’ll say, “That’s the exact opposite of what I’m trying to do!” I’ll say, “That was really beautiful,” and he’ll counter with, “I didn’t mean for it be beautiful!” He operates in this absolute value of the ability to be loosely offended.

What I like about his instrumental music is that the things that are grace notes in his stage music, the music he performs by himself: the colours, the effects, the textural side interests, those are the things that are foregrounded [in his orchestral work]. Again, he will disagree with this. But what I like about it is that it feels like it’s the butcher’s cuts of meat. It’s the spleen and the liver that the tradesmen take home to their families, as opposed to for the festival crowd.

Owen once told me that you gave him a devastating critique of one of his early orchestral works after a performance in Brooklyn.

I would never tell him I liked something if I didn’t. It’s really important to have people like that in your life. Especially if the majority of your time is on tour with a band, but you’re working on an orchestral piece in your spare time. It can be very difficult to find people in other communities who are critical enough of what you do.

Owen told me he took the Arcade Fire tour this year for a variety of reasons: of course they’re old friends, but he also wanted to have some financial security, and not to have to worry about commercial concerns for In Conflict while he was making it. He’s also done work for huge pop acts. Have you ever been in a position where you felt you needed to do that for the sake of your own work?

I’ve done my share of commercial work. I did some stuff for Jonsi, for Usher. It’s a slightly different situation. The necessities of how one makes money and how much money one needs to make: If the majority of your work is on commission, the economic structure is this crazy thing where everything is happening three years out. The piece I’m writing today was commissioned a year and half ago, is due in two months, and will be premiered next January. That means one gets paid for it in three different installments. It’s a different set of calculations. What he’s doing is what he should be doing: making the kind of complicated music he makes, you can imagine spending two years on it and not making any money. I can’t imagine being on the road as much as he is. It’s hard. But it’s also part of his practice. It’s important for him as a collaborative artist to not be a hermit, to not lock himself up in a cabin somewhere.

I’ll ask you a question I know you’ve been asked a million times, and that I didn’t ask Owen this month because I know he’s so tired of answering it. How do you think so-called classical music—and I say so-called because I’m talking about new composers, not century-old work—fits into the last 10 or 15 years of the poptimism era?

I’m sorry, what? I’ve never heard that word before. What are you talking about?

Poptimism, the post-Pitchfork era where genres have blurred so significantly for audiences and creators, where lovers of so-called serious music equally embrace pop music…

Seriously, are you having a stroke? Did you just say post-Pitchfork?

Okay, an example would be the day and age when Nico Muhly writes an extensive review of the new Beyoncé record, say.

How are you not going to pay attention to Bee-ahnce? C’mon, if you’re gay, they send you that shit from headquarters.

But John Adams didn’t write think pieces about the Beatles.

Maybe not, but he probably listened to them. It’s a function of whether you’re a human being who participates in the world around you or not. To give it a name is to put too much weight on it. If you’re paying attention to the objects around it, you’ll pay attention to a lot of different things. It seems like an affectation to not know about stuff. I’ve always felt you should know about everything. If I have an oblique fascination with something, chances are I’ll read 10 books about it.

That’s you as a creator, though, and I think that’s hopefully always been true for artists. But do you not think there’s been a huge shift in the way audiences consume and understand different music?

I think a lot of this stuff happened with the death of the record store—a really useful thing. It meant that the physical performance of buying music in a store was gone. In the early ’90s there was a Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass album called Passages. Where in the traditional record store would that have been found? Same thing with CocoRosie where they use all these Rajasthani musicians. If you were a fan of the Rajasthani musicians, you couldn't find the CocoRosie album without leaving the aisle you were in. One of the things that was especially true with classical music, if you were in the bigger stores, is that they were kept in a separate room, as if you were buying porn. Inside that there was an extra special holy of holies, which was the opera section. It’s only by association that the Robert Wilson operas were in the opera section, even though they were experimental and electronic.

Now, it doesn’t matter at all. If you are online, all the contributors to an album will be hyperlinked. Anyone who had played on Heartland, you could find what else they had done. In the case of my albums, if you click through them, you end up in a lot of fun places really quickly in ways you wouldn’t be able to do in the store era. It’s the way music has worked for a very long time, but we were limited by the way it was sold, even the way people used to organize their CDs. You know, then some weird German guy would organize his by colour. Now that organization is completely virtual.

A lot of people’s music has always borne the traces of many, many different inputs and outputs. Arcade Fire is a great example. It’s journalist and record-store shorthand that we call it indie rock. But it doesn’t have to be called anything. Remember that early Amazon algorithm that told you if you like this, you’ll like this? It was often literally true.

Owen is one of those artists—let’s call it the sphere of influence both on the input and output side, who is very well curated; specific, but large. It’s not necessarily the case that if it gets wide it gets bigger, the tentacles are reaching for very specific objects. He takes things from Laurie Anderson, from Wagernian string writing, from West African patterns, from his colleagues. It’s a curatorial gesture, not an ADD thing. It’s a generational fallacy that people can’t understand what it means to have access to everything. This discernment and discrimination is a skill.

Have you heard In Conflict?

Oh yeah, I’ve heard it in all its various stages. Every time I make something, I send it to Owen as soon as I can, in any draft form. And he does the same. When I heard the sketches for Heartland, I thought, oh shit! That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard!

What do you think of In Conflict?

“Song for Five and Six” is one of the best things he’s written. 
What I like about it is that it seems his meat-and-potatoes songwriting is in tip-top form, but also the impulse to fuck that up with weirdness is at a minimum. I mean this in the best way: it’s an easy door to walk through. I like the speed of everything. I like all the songs have this propulsion to them. I like that there’s a real landscape of how it’s mixed; it’s really satisfying. It doesn’t feel in any way like it’s antagonizing to me—which he would take enormous offense to, if I told him that.

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