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Podcast #92: Nico Muhly and Ira Glass on Composers and the Internet


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Nico Muhly is the youngest composer ever to have his work performed at the Metropolitan Opera. Recently, he joined Ira Glass, best known as the host of This American Life, to discuss his new opera Two Boys. This week, for the New York Public Library Podcast, we're proud to present Nico Muhly and Ira Glass on composing music, Bach, and the Internet. 

Nico Muhly and Ira Glass
Nico Muhly and Ira Glass

As a young man, Muhly worked for Philip Glass. He admired the way in which Glass's compositions underscore the movement of time as musical:

"One of the things that’s fascinating about Philip’s music is that it can be simultaneously very fast and very slow, where the actual activity on the surface of the water is incredibly quick but then there’s this secondary piece of information that is glacial. And in some cases, you know, in his really early work, like most of which made in the late seventies and early eighties, is—when I say glacial, I mean it actually doesn’t move at all. It’s basically a single—a single sort of drone thing that can go on for, you know, forty minutes or whatever. There will be activity on top of it but the harmonic structure is the same. Or it feels like for me I always think about it as, you know, if you’re flying over a landscape, it feels like you’re moving very slowly although you’re actually moving very quickly and then there’s this other kinetic information inside the airplane cabin of, you know, screaming people and the clinking of forks and all that. And, you know, with Philip’s early music you get the sense of an acute awareness of how to deeply the passage of time itself as a musical thing."

Muhly shared how bleak many composers' lives have been, pointing to Bach's extraordinary life as a father of and ambitious artist:

"I find composer biographies tend to be a little macabre. It’s usually about syphilis and straight people. But with Bach it’s amazing because he’s so overworked, and they didn’t have quite enough money to pay him so they paid him in beer. There were a couple of years when he was literally paid in, like, cases—kegs of ale, he had more children than fingers and toes, which is amazing. He had crazy deadlines and not just for church music, but for chamber music, and other stuff he was writing for fun. And, you know, there are pieces that it’s clear he’s just writing it to keep the kids out of his hair. Right? Where instead of being like, 'Daddy, will you play with me?' He’s like, 'Why don’t you learn this?'"

The plot of Two Boys is very much centered around an era in which social interaction increasingly occurs online. Muhly warned of the dangers of internet intimacy:

"You find yourself in situations of unexpected like emotional closeness with people. You send someone an e-mail saying, 'Hey, how’s it going?' and then they’re like—then they say all this horrible stuff about their family, and then you write back and you’re like, 'Oh my God, I’m so sorry,' then you sort of tell them another thing, and then they tell you another thing and then all of a sudden very, very quickly you’re in this, you’re in what feels like a kind of you’re—you have like a certain almost emotional commitment to someone. You’ve uncovered the rock and you put the things back in. That’s the most mixed metaphor ever."

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