The dissection unit of high-school biology is an adolescent rite of passage, even for those who don't participate: Some kids opt to cut class rather than frogs; others call in PETA. But not composer Nico Muhly. "My lab partner and I made short work of LaShawnda, our fetal pig," he remembers. Muhly, 26, scoffs at the notion that he might have been squeamish: "What kind of show do you think I'm running here?"
At first glance, a very respectable, highbrow one. The New England native has genuine cred with the tuxedoes-and-tiaras set. He holds a master's in music from Juilliard, where his instructors included John Corigliano, winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Music. He has written works for the Boston Pops, the American Ballet Theatre, and the Chicago Symphony MusicNOW. Prestigious institutions including the BBC, Carnegie Hall, and the Whitney Museum have hosted premieres of his pieces.
But appearances are deceptive. Scrape below the surface, and one discovers an individual fascinated with taking things apart and reassembling them in unorthodox ways. One of Muhly's recent works, the oceanic sound collage "Wonders," uses a bowl of whale meat for percussion. His closet houses Comme des Garçons deconstructed shirts and a series of smocks "recycled from 'authentic French workers garments.'" On his blog, he raves about the repurposed tapestries and chairs of sculptor Louise Bourgeois. His favorite bedtime reading as a child was David Macaulay's The Way Things Work, a vividly illustrated book that demystifies machines large and small.
Consequently, Muhly attracts other artists who rend conventions asunder; his résumé lists credits more familiar to folks who get their music tips from Pitchfork rather than season- ticket subscription brochures. Björk has utilized his gifts—as a pianist, arranger, and conductor—on her last three albums. Ditto the National, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Teitur, and Rufus Wainwright. "Keep in Touch," from Muhly's 2006 debut, Speaks Volumes, was written with its distinctive singer, Antony, as much in mind as the violist who solicited the piece.
Incongruous? Not to Muhly. "I remember when my mom and I lived in Italy," he recalls. "I went to Italian public school, and my friends could not get over the fact that we didn't eat hot dogs and hamburgers at home. The idea that my mother could navigate tortellini totally rocked their world. Other times, Mom would make a potato salad, and that was totally fine, too. We never felt like we were doing fusion or Tex-Mex, we were just living our lives."
He arrived at his musical style via similarly crossed paths. He discovered underground sounds slowly, while studying English Lit at Columbia. "This kid I knew said, 'Hey, you like music—check out this bizarre, noisy CD my friend sent me from Japan.'" A Sugarcubes fan tipped him off to Björk. Gradually, his sonic world expanded. "But it didn't all jell until later," he stresses. "It's like evolution: Not all giraffes got longer necks in the same year."
So don't ask Muhly to stick a pin labeled "You Are Here" apropos of his place in modern music. He prefers to locate his work via his stylistic points of origin: pre-Baroque English composers of church music, and classical minimalists like Philip Glass (for whom he has edited, scored, and conducted myriad projects) and Steve Reich; he discusses the merits of the latest Rihanna single ("her voice is totally crazy") with the same relish as John Adams's orchestral piece "Short Ride in a Fast Machine."
"I feel like I have a lot of fun access," he adds of his ability to move between worlds. "At this point, people aren't in my grill about my decisions." Last year, he even wrote the score for the horror movie Joshua.
Despite that curious credit, Nico Muhly is hardly l'enfant terrible, cutting up sacred cows like he did poor LaShawnda. His creative process is intense. He starts by brainstorming wildly, culling from disparate sources and inspirations. Then he meticulously reassembles select bits to his specifications. Whether the results evoke Frankenstein's monster or an heirloom patchwork quilt is beside the point; either way, his music is striking.
As scattershot as his processes may seem, he does not eschew structure. Even his most disorienting pieces are carefully scored. He just sifts through tons of ideas before he gets to that stage; when composing the percussion piece "Pillaging Music," he created far more content than the piece required, then stripped parts away, sometimes with jarring results. "The idea is you're left with these husks of music," he explains.
His new album, Mothertongue, slices, stretches, and stratifies language and the human voice. "The Only Tune," featuring folk musician Sam Amidon, explodes a woodsy murder ballad. At first, the lyric is splintered, Amidon teasing out words one at a time. But as his banjo comes in, the singer finds a center of gravity, and a more traditional song, some mystic Appalachian air, takes shape... only to disintegrate and regenerate in other configurations, as wind and rain mingle with piano and viola.
"The Only Tune" features on the program for the 802 Tour, on which Muhly, Amidon, and Thomas Barlett of Doveman perform selections from their individual repertory in various permutations. Like most things in Muhly's universe, these shows are neither fish nor fowl, recital nor rock concert. Being out of the concert hall, he says, is a thrilling prospect.
"In classical music, when you do a show, you prepare for months and months, and know everything way in advance," he observes. "Whereas on a tour, a tire blows out and all of the sudden your date is canceled." Well, that might be an exaggeration: The industrious youngster who memorized The Way Things Work can undoubtedly change a tire... or just patch the damaged one with pigskin.