Is 21st-century wunderkind Nico Muhly the rightful heir to Stravinsky’s legacy?

By Claire Willett

Igor Stravinsky
Nico Muhly

The Game-Changer

“One spring evening in 1913 the intelligentsia of pre-war Paris gathered at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées to see & hear a sensational new ballet. The ballet, put on by famed Russian Impresario Serge Diaghilev, was something to see: Diaghilev’s idea of how primitive man got ritually excited, come springtime. The accompanying music, a boisterous, tom-tomming, banshee-wailing symphonic hullabaloo by Music’s No. 1 Bad Boy, Igor Stravinsky, had even more oomph than the ballet . . . [He] found himself the most influential composer of his generation. To younger composers [The Rite of Spring] became music’s Declaration of Independence.”

–TIME Magazine, March 1940

The 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring has gone down in history as one of classical music’s greatest scandals. From the first bassoon notes, the Parisians in attendance were beside themselves; stories abound (some historically verified, some probably urban legend) of celebrity guests storming out of the theatre, hooting and hollering from the galleries, fights breaking out in the audience, Stravinsky escaping through a basement window to dodge the rioting crowds. “One English critic described it as ‘a threat against the foundations of our tonal institutions,’ declaring that it should have been dedicated to Dr. Crippen, a dentist celebrated for murdering his wife, cutting her body in pieces.” (TIME Magazine 1940) But whether the stories are apocryphal or not, there is no denying that posterity has kept Rite of Spring a fresh, relevant, and vital piece of music, even in the 21st century. “If you listen to it, it’s amazing it’s nearly 100 years old,” says Evan Lewis of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. “Other things happening in 1913 include the invention of the crossword puzzle and the modern zipper. It’s funny to think that something from 1913 is still considered ‘modern.’ Woodrow Wilson was president, for goodness sake.”

Yes, there will only ever be one Stravinsky.

But like every other genre-defying artist since the earliest days of Western civilization, the cultural world is constantly champing at the bit to designate an heir-apparent; there’s always some young up-and-comer to be dubbed “the next Chekhov,” “the next Picasso,” or “the next John Lennon.” And because Stravinsky is so quintessentially, well, Stravinsky, we’re hesitant to play that game. So all we’ll say is: if you find Stravinsky interesting and engaging (the man and the music), we recommend you look into 29-year-old Nico Muhly, who might just be the hardest-working young composer you’ve never heard of.

The Genre-Bender

“Talking about genres is [pointless]. Pretend your mom is from India and your dad is from Iceland or wherever, and you move to New York and you’re just a young family trying to make it work and you make dinner, you have kids, and whenever people come over they talk about it being fusion-y. ‘Ohh, this is, like, India meets Iceland,’ and you’re all like, ‘No, it’s just what we like making for the kids.’”

–Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly (profiled here in two hugely entertaining interviews with New York Magazine in 2007 and the New Yorker in 2008) was born in rural Vermont in 1981 to an artist mother and filmmaker father, and grew up traveling the world with his globetrotting parents. Now splitting his time between New York and Iceland, he is one of the classical world’s rising stars, with a trajectory (and a personality) that seems to echo Stravinsky’s. He frequently collaborates or consults with pop stars and indie bands (“Bad string arrangements in rock music are a blight on all of our ears”), and like Stravinsky before him, bodes well to be a classical music megastar before 30. He is the youngest composer ever commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera (Two Boys, his collaboration with librettist Craig Lucas, is based on the true story of a British murder case from the late 1990s). Muhly shares Stravinsky’s diversity of musical influences; though his day job involves working in a digital sound studio for composer Phillip Glass, his passion is 400-year-old Anglican liturgical music. In his wry, witty 2007 essay in the U.K. Guardian, “Choral Sex,” he talks about finding himself alienated from the classical music traditions he was taught as a young student, and discovering a more immediate emotional connection to music from centuries earlier . . . a sentiment that echoes Stravinsky’s saying that “It’s one of nature’s ways that we often feel closer to distant generations than to the generation immediately preceding us.”

 “An Unclassifiable Musical Voice”

“Stravinsky never stopped adapting his style,” Lewis says. “He was always striving, always innovating.” The composer’s stylistic diversity is well-known (to the point of accusations from critics that his body of work had no consistency), ranging from his compositions for the Ballets Russe (Firebird, Petrushka, Rite of Spring) to his neo-classical period (shifting away from large ballet orchestras towards piano and chamber works) to the adoption of twelve-tone/atonal music later in life. Muhly, whose career is already similarly varied, has composed everything from film scores (including The Reader, which earned star Kate Winslet a Best Actress Oscar), to settings of 17th-century Anglican choral music, to arrangements for Icelandic pop singer Bjork. One of the tracks on his album Mothertongue blends an English folk ballad with the sounds of a pair of butcher’s knives scraping against each other, a recording of whistling Icelandic wind, and the sound of raw whale flesh slopping around a bowl. Another includes music looped over the voice of his friend singing strings of words, numbers and addresses. Both were surprisingly witty: Stravinsky’s “Greeting Prelude” is a clever reorchestration of “Happy Birthday,” while Muhly made waves with a song cycle based on Strunck & White’s writing manual The Elements of Style, performed at the New York Public Library. “What I really like about both composers,” says Lewis, “is their ability to write self-aware, difficult & intellectually complex music (Muhly’s By All Means, Stravinsky’s Agon), while still being able to compose deeply affecting and beautiful music (Muhly’s Senex puerum poratbat, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms). They prove that a wicked and probing mind can also have an earnest, thoughtful, pious side—both are merely different aspects of a larger and interesting and unclassifiable musical voice.”


Stravinsky tells us how he really feels about film music:




TIME Magazine Profile on Stravinsky Written By Philip Glass

Muhly’s Hilarious and Awesome Blog

Download OBT’s favorite Stravinsky and Muhly music


The creative process

“The real composer thinks about his work the whole time; he is not always conscious of this, but he is aware of it later when he suddenly knows what he will do.” – Igor

When asked, “How do you compose?”: “I’m a pack rat; I make these little piles of documents, a lot of documents – very little music paper involved, it’s all much later. It’s images, it’s drawings, it’s numbers, it’s schemes, it’s food, it’s almost never music.” – Nico

Film scores

“Film music should have the same relationship to the film drama that somebody’s piano playing in my living room has on the book I am reading.” – Igor

People often ask me if it’s some sort of dream to be involved in the movie business, but it’s not really. I’m not an enormous movies fan. I feel like I have something better to do for two hours. [Most film scores are] just explicit manipulation.” – Nico


The music they DON’T like

“Every couple of years someone sues someone else for having ripped off their song, and I always follow those cases very intently. Now, it’s Joe Satriani v Coldplay, which is hilarious. The thing with Coldplay is: the reason their music is so successful is that it sounds like you’ve heard it before anyway. So, it’s almost like a constant intellectual copyright violation.” – Nico

“Harpists spend 90 percent of their lives tuning their harps and 10 percent playing out of tune.” – Igor

The freedom of artistic constraint

“One of the hardest things about writing music now is that structure is politically loaded, thanks in part to everybody’s bad attitude in the 60s and 70s . . . I know that there’s this belief that structural knowledge can be creatively limiting, but I think the exact opposite.” – Nico

“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.” – Igor

Knowing when to stop

“Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end.” – Igor

“The biggest question for me has always been, always, whatever I’m doing: is this, this thing I’m working on, is it preferable to silence? If someone tells me to write twelve minutes for orchestra, whatever I make had better to be so great that it deserves to exist. If people could spend twelve minutes sitting around in their house and have a better time, then I’ll cut it. You know, a lot of music is not preferable to silence.” – Nico

Inspiration from the past

“My love for Thomas Weelkes was like a childish celebrity infatuation. If the internet had existed, I would have been running the Weelkes fan site and moderating the message boards. There was something about his 400-year-old music that felt so right in the throat and brain; I would have followed him on tour and lit my lighter during When David Heard. I’d have told all my friends that he had written the Ninth Service for me.” – Nico
“It’s one of nature’s ways that we often feel closer to distant generations than to the generation immediately preceding us.” – Igor

Personal indulgences

“My God, so much I like to drink Scotch that sometimes I think my name is Igor Stra-whiskey.” – Igor

“I only buy expensive food. If you’re paying an exorbitant amount of money for something, chances are it’s good.” – Nico

Don’t overthink it

“The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music they should be taught to love it instead.” – Igor
“Talking about genres is [pointless]. Pretend your mom is from India and your dad is from Iceland or wherever, and you move to New York and you’re just a young family trying to make it work and you make dinner, you have kids, and whenever people come over they talk about it being fusion-y. ‘Ohh, this is, like, India meets Iceland,’ and you’re all like, ‘No, it’s just what we like making for the kids.’” – Nico


“One has a nose. The nose scents and it chooses. An artist is simply a kind of pig snouting truffles.” – Igor

“My mother goes to the store not knowing what to cook, she’ll just buy the stuff that looks good and mixes it all together into something amazing. And that’s kind of how you have to be, a mix of instinct and insight. We might be eating this cauliflower anchovy thing; even if it sounds f***ed up you know it’ll be genius by accident.” – Nico


Trends in music

“Anytime you read a sentence about classical music with the formula ‘_______ is dead’ it’s almost always written by some kind of revolutionary or reactionary or crazy person. My response to this — and really to most meta-figurations about music — is to put my fingers in my ears and apply myself to the business of continuing to write good music.” – Nico

“Conformism is so hot on the heels of the mass-produced avant-garde that the ‘ins’ and the ‘outs’ change places with the speed of Mach 3.” – Igor

The Stravinsky Project opens February 26th at the Keller Auditorium.

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