Thursday, February 19, 2015

What Nico Muhly and I have in common

I was reading this interview with Nico Muhly the other day and loved this remark:
How do you listen to music?
In general, I listen at home on my big speakers. When in transit, iPhone with headphones. On the road, via satellite radio tuned almost entirely to 90’s on 9. Radio 3 until once they played Hindemith saxophone music and I had to take a month off.
You betcha. I was in a chamber music society board meeting a while back when the subject under discussion was the various levels of patron membership. We survive entirely on the generosity of private patrons: no government funding. There are various levels from Mendelssohn ($100 to $499) to Beethoven (minimum $5000 donation). The complaint was that the Mendelssohn level folks were getting too many perks for their paltry donations and we had to discourage people from staying at that level--get them to upgrade. So in the meditative pause that ensued I said, "well, why don't we just re-name the Mendelssohn patrons Hindemith patrons?" After another pause a few board members started to chuckle, tentatively. Yes, it's a joke! Poor Paul Hindemith. He was once regarded as one of the key figures in musical modernism in the first half of the century right alongside Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. But over the decades it has become evident that Paul Hindemith wasn't a terribly good composer. About the only piece of his that survives into concert programs these days is the suite from his opera Mathis der Maler:

Which frankly sounds a lot like tidier and more polite Wagner (with better voice-leading). There might come a time, when the last traces of avant-gardism have been washed out of the musical ecosphere, when we might re-evaluate Hindemith and find he wasn't so bad after all. But that time is not yet. Plus, as Nico mentioned, there is all that damned saxophone music:

And I have to confess sometimes I wake up screaming in the middle of the night after having a nightmare that my latest composition when first heard in performance, came out sounding a lot like Hindemith or Metallica!

Like many composers Nico Muhly likes putting on the interviewer:
Imagine you’re a festival director here in London with unlimited resources. What would you programme - or commission - for your opening event? 
Obviously Tom Adès arrangements of Beyoncé’s entire catalogue - including Destiny’s Child-era best-of. Then you get a huge orchestra together, fly Bey over, and get a graphic designer to make a big deal about accents aigu and gravewith perhaps a commissioned sculpture and boudoir photographs. I’m shocked nobody has done this already. Can you imagine his version of “Nasty put some clothes on[gong] I told you [bell + muted trumpet] don’t walk out the house without your clothes on [piccolo filigree]”?
At least I think he is putting on the interviewer. Or perhaps it really is de riguer for all young artists today to at least pay lip-service to anything that contributes to the downfall of Western Civilization. Sadly, Blogger doesn't want to embed the original video so you will have to make to with this live performance:


Ken Fasano said...

Maybe a hybrid cross of a Hindemith saxophone sonata and Metallica might be interesting! Perhaps not a (late) Hindemith saxophone sonata and late John Coltrane. Muhly or Ades hybridizing Beyonce might actually be better than Beyonce alone! Schoenberg's cabaret songs are actually quite good (I like the one about the "Kätchen"...

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh for sure, Adès or Muhly could certainly upgrade Beyoncé, but I'm sure sales would plummet!

Thanks for appreciating my sense of humor! (Not to mention Nico's.)

Now I have to listen to those Schoenberg cabaret songs...

Ken Fasano said...

Nico Muhly - I consider him to be a masterful composer, who can create strange and wonderful hybrids (Chopin + Xenakis?), and suprise me with music I haven't heard before. I'm a composer - but next to composers like Muhly, Ades, George Benjamin, Jennifer Higdon, I get the sense I should go back to school and start over. There ARE many wonderful living "classical" composers. But I think we need to stop calling ourselves "classical". Even though we consider ourselves part of a lineage going back to Charlemagne's day, through Josquin, Bach, Beethoven, etc., many of us have been influenced by Beatles, Miles Davis, Hendrix... What would be a better genre name than "classical", so that the Beyonce fans, when hearing "I am a classical composer", do not think of John Belushi doing Beethoven?

Bryan Townsend said...

Ken, you hit the nail on the head. I'm not yet captivated by the music of Nico Muhly--still trying to get over the boring drone music--but perhaps I will be soon. But I completely agree, there are some wonderful composers working today. I would add Esa-Pekka Salonen to your list.

And yes, we have a problem with names. I think it was Confucius that pointed out the necessity to call things by their right names. I sometimes tell people that I write "contemporary classical" music, but yes, it is a poor term for what we do. You could say we write concert or art music, but those circumlocutions don't seem to have caught on. The one slim thing in favor of saying that you are a classical composer is that there is at least a hint that you are writing music not intended to be the pop hit of the week. Sometimes I just say I am a "non-commercial" musician or composer. There is always the via negativa!

Yes, we are influenced by the music of our day, such as the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix. I think I draw the line at Farrell Williams, though. I wrote a substantial song cycle whose influences are probably equally owing to John Lennon and Guillaume DuFay. The problem turns out to be that it is really unsuited to most classically-trained singers with their operatic vocal production.

Thanks for a very stimulating comment!