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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Composer Nico Muhly Talks Vermont, His Bias Against Brooklyn, and How Classical is Overcoming its Porn-Like Stigma

Composer Nico Muhly Talks Vermont, His Bias Against Brooklyn, and How Classical is Overcoming its Porn-Like Stigma

Nico Muhly has always been a genre-obliterator.

At the age of 30, the wunderkind composer, schooled at Julliard and mentored by Phillip Glass, has graced both concert halls and metal clubs with his lit-firecracker genius, collaborating with everyone from the Boston Pops and Bjork to indie stars Rufus Wainwright and the National. Just last summer, he debuted his first full-length opera, a social media-inspired murder tale called Two Boys.

But when Muhly comes to the Walker this weekend, it may prove to be his most improbably enchanting mash-up yet. The 802 Tour finds Muhly hooking up with three childhood friends from Vermont—each of whom has also grown up to be an internationally celebrated musician—for a collaborative chamber performance blending contemporary classical, deep folk, and modern pop.

Sam Amidon, Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota, Doveman

There’s avant-folkie Sam Amidon, whose rootsy, old-America performances incorporate Appalachian ballads, recited snippets of Melville, and liturgical dance.

There’s Nadia Sirota, a new-music virtuoso and current violinist-of-choice among downtown New York City ensembles.

And then there’s Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett, a melancholic/ambient singer-songwriter (and former Salon.com music critic) who has recently worked with David Byrne and Bebel Gilberto.

Special guests from The Laurel String Quartet bring a local flavor to the collaboration.

We called up Muhly to talk about the Walker event, the Vermont music scene, and what's it like performing with old friends.

So, we get it. You guys are buds. You all grew up in Vermont’s 802 area code, you shared similar career ascents, and now you spontaneously show up at each other’s performances. How did you first meet Sam, Nadia, and Thomas?

Sam’s family is kind of like folk music royalty in Vermont, so I’ve known him since I was old enough to think. The Amidons—you can Google them—they’re like the Von Trapp family of southern Vermont. Anytime anyone is singing, they’re there.

And then Thomas’s family…In Vermont, there are so many stories that are like, “I always used to go to this weird hippie puppet festival in northern Vermont, that Thomas’s older brother was somehow involved in.” So it’s kind of one of those strange osmotic procedures where you eventually meet everyone.

But we didn’t really become friends until we all went to New York. Sam went to Sarah Lawrence [College] and would come down on weekends to see Thomas, who lived in Harlem. And Thomas was at Columbia with me [as an undergrad]. And Nadia and I were at Juilliard together. We just sort of fell into each other’s orbits. Since then we’ve been in near constant contact.

Hippie puppet festival, huh? Is that what the Vermont scene is like? What are the cool kids there into?

Sam and Thomas are probably better people to describe it. They’re from Putney and Brattleboro—which are actual places. There is just this riotously fun folk music scene. I’m from a town called Randolph, which is a very, very, very small town in the middle of the state. There, it has a lot to do with women making cheese from a single cow. Or, you know, a woman who only makes vague, wire-work outdoor sculpture. The area was and continues to be dairy farm area. So it probably has more in common with, like, Wisconsin.

Huh. So has that rural vibe affected what you do?

It’s the American folk tradition. It’s a place where you still have shape-note singing. Which is an incredibly old fashion way to think about how music works. That’s interested me for a long time.

Sam and I have a piece that we’re going to do in Minneapolis called “The Only Tune,” which is an old, old, shape-note piece to which I’ve done new music violence to. It really has a lot to do with Vermont. It’s very site-specific. But it’s funny, we’ve played it all over the world, and people—like in Ireland, they say, “It’s such an Irish piece!” So maybe in Minnesota it will feel like a Minnesotan piece. That’s the magic of folk music, isn’t it? You sort of trick yourself into thinking that it’s from wherever you are.

Whose idea was it to tour together?

Like most things, it was something we’d been toying with. A couple years ago we thought, “Well, it’d be great to play together on purpose.” [laughs] Forever, we would just ask each other, “Hey, I have this gig. Can you come and play?” Or if some of us are in the same city, the phone will ring and we’ll say, “Hey hop up on stage tonight and play a few songs.” Essentially, the tour was an effort to formalize that. We all work together so easily, and our shared language is super-fluent.

Have there been any pitfalls in switching from spontaneous collaborating to a more formal plan?

No one’s ever asked me that, and I have a very good answer. One of the things that makes Sam’s live performances really special is that there’s an enormous amount of spontaneity. He very rarely makes a set list and sticks to it. And then Nadia and I are like notation freaks. I like to have everything written down—and then bind it in a pretty book! So there’s become what I would call a very productive tension between those ways of working. We’ve built in ways to have both. Some of Sam’s songs are hyper-arranged, hyper-precise, like basically notated out. And other times, he just kinda leads and we follow.

How did you connect with the Laurel Strings Quartet?

Through Kate Nordstrum. She’s like the impresario of Twin Cities new music. She’s the best.

Totally. She’s like our pipeline to Brooklyn.

Yeah, but by the way, neither Tom nor I live in Brooklyn. We both live in Manhattan, and we’re die-hard Manhattanites. I calculated that I’ve been to Iceland more times than I’ve been to Brooklyn.

Really? Do you have something against that particular borough?

No, no, no! It’s one of those things…like people in London are obsessed with the idea of Brooklyn. Which is very odd. But you know, how often do people in Minneapolis go to St. Paul? I’ve been in Minneapolis a million times. And I had friends in St. Paul that wouldn’t even come over! It’s not even far. But actually—okay, I’m looking at Brooklyn right now. But I’m not going over there! [laughs]

Do you feel like you’re supposed to be classical’s ambassador to the indie crowd?

If anything, it’s the other way around. I feel like the best way to be a musical citizen is to promote the music that you like. Just before you called me, a friend of mine was IM-ing me. He’s a professional coin collector. He lives in Munich. And he was like, “Send me music.” So I sent him all of this English choral music. And he sent me some Brazilian funk band that he’s gotten into. And that to me is the essence of the perfect way to be a musical citizen.

I haven’t been in a record store forever, but do you remember that room they had for classical music? That crazy room you had to go into? And it felt like you were buying some really specific kind of pornography? It was like you had some messed-up predilection. And all of that is undoing itself. It’s not genres.

Last time I saw you, at the Southern Theater, you made a reference to drinking pink champagne and listening to Mariah Carey records. What other guilty pleasures do you find inspiration in?

Well, that sounds like a typical Tuesday. [laughs] First of all, I have absolutely no guilt about listening to Mariah Carey. [still laughing] That’s actually a proud pleasure. I don’t have that many guilty pleasures.

I’m trying to think of the last thing I felt legitimately guilty about. For me, my sense of guilt, shame, and virtue comes so much for a work ethic. A guilty pleasure for me is taking an ENTIRE DAY OFF. To take a walk. To surf the Internet. I’m constantly in motion.

The 802 Tour
March 22­–23, 8 p.m.
William and Nadine McGuire Theater, Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls. walkerart.org

Posted on Wednesday, March 21, 2012 in Permalink

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