fb-pixel Skip to main content

Nico Muhly sounds off

Matthew Murphy

The idea of an early-music festival commissioning a new piece might seem contradictory. But the works of Nico Muhly blend the inspirations of past and present so seamlessly and ingeniously that the paradox dissolves. In addition to a large number of works for standard modern forces, Muhly, 32, has written for early-music groups such as Fretwork, the Hilliard Ensemble, and the Holland Baroque Society.

His newest work in this vein is “Aston Magna,” for two violins, viola da gamba, and harpsichord. It was commissioned by the eponymous period-instrument festival, which is scheduled to premiere the piece in three concerts this week. Yet the piece is not named for the festival, but for the Great Barrington estate after which it was named. The 50-acre site, itself named after an idyllic English village, was bought in 1971 by Lee Elman, a businessman who would co-found the music festival a year later. Elman still serves on Aston Magna’s board, and it was he who selected Muhly to write a new piece for this summer’s concert series.


“The music fits in very well with the Aston Magna Festival’s musical fare,” artistic director Daniel Stepner wrote in an
e-mail. “Baroque music’s patterned sequences and (as in Bach) complex yet organic counterpoint find echoes in Nico’s music, and in this piece in particular.”

Though Muhly has been to Aston Magna several times, the piece is meant not as a strict aural description; rather, it uses the estate — its structure and shape — as an imaginative catalyst. “In a sense, I was trying to figure out what makes that specific not just house, but also site, unique in the world,” he said during a recent phone conversation from his parents’ home in Vermont. “It’s a place [with] a sort of special quality of outdoor space — how trees are organized, how shade is organized. I think that’s something that’s unique to the Berkshires. But also specifically, this estate is a specific version of that.”


There are five movements, each named after one part of the estate. The first and fifth (“The Grove”) are mirror images of one another; between them come “The Studio,” “The Pool/Sky,” and “The Salon.” There is a clear distinction, Muhly said, between the indoor and outdoor musics.

“I’ve been interested for a lot of years in music that changes incredibly slowly, and is based on atmospheres and ambiences rather than a sort of Romantic narrative,” he explained. “The outdoor music in this case is very static. It’s music that’s meant to just exist in a space; there’s no real thrust to it. On the other hand, the indoor space music is much more directional and much more workmanlike. It feels like people are getting things done. What’s great about period strings is that they can do both.

“It’s a very simple piece, I have to say,” he continued. “I wasn’t trying to make anything incredibly complicated; I was really interested in saying, this is a very simple expression of this house and this space and this architecture and the landscape.”

Things are not always so straightforward. Last fall Muhly’s opera “Two Boys” had its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. Because the commission came early in the tenure of Met general manager Peter Gelb, it carried what Muhly in a blog post called “a huge matrix of expectations about it and what it Meant.” Having volunteered to do “an unreal amount of press” for the opera, he grew disenchanted with the incessant focus on trends rather than notes, “imagined patterns rather than musical ones.” He generally doesn’t read stories written about him, preferring to remain disengaged from, as he put it during the interview, “the economy of press and reviews and previews and all of that.”


Muhly is so sharply critical of the state of music writing in his blog post — “It’s a vile little human-centipede situation” — that it seemed worth asking whether he thought that it serves any useful purpose.

“I’m sure it does,” he answered. “I do it myself. I just think I do it better than everyone else.”

He laughed, because he was partly joking. But he was also serious. He has written frequently about music, including a brilliant review of Beyoncé’s 2013 eponymous album for the website The Talkhouse.

“When I write about music, I write about it as someone that makes it,” he said. “I write it from the point of view of someone who understands how things work.” What sets off his alarms is the kind of writing that aims only at grander cultural meanings, and skips engagement with the music at hand. For him, criticism needs to be rooted in a curiosity about the guts of the piece under scrutiny.


“The implication was that [“Two Boys”] had to be a lot more than just a piece,” he said. “And I could tell this from the kinds of questions I was being asked in every interview. Literally, without exception. It was as if the piece itself was obligated to be a comment on the future of the form. Which is the craziest way to think about making art.”

Which brought him back around to “Aston Magna,” the premiere of which he was anticipating keenly — in part because it brings with it no broader significance, no trend to be ferreted out and explored at length. It simply is what it is.

“To me, as a musician, I’m so much more interested in writing things that have nothing to do with big narrative,” Muhly said. “I’m not trying to advance anything by writing a five-movement thing for early music to be performed on a hill in Great Barrington.’’

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes