It’s easy to forget that some art forms, specifically operas, are actually still being created today, considering that some of the most recognizable ones were composed about a century ago. However, there are indeed contemporary composers whose works focus on both old and new subject matter and who are reshaping classical music. One such notable artist is Nico Muhly, the youngest composer commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. He is a particularly interesting figure not for his youth or personality (although those two factors have made him a hot commodity in the classical music realm), but because of the subject matter that he writes about and is inspired by. The themes range “from Renaissance astrology to the ethics of artificial intelligence.” His work is phenomenal, and he is considered to be a very sought-after collaborator. He has worked with several choreographers, and he has contributed to many bands as an arranger. He has also worked on the scores for films such as Kill Your Darlings; Me, Earl and the Dying Girl; and the Academy Award-winning The Reader.
Muhly has been turning out new projects rapid fired and describes his productivity as “fiercely unambitious.” He says, “I have never made a plan that has anything to do with my career, or my ‘trajectory’ or whatever euphemistic phrase I’m meant to use. Instead, I work — not to repeat the word — vigorously on everything, so that the work itself is the ambition.” He draws a lot of his inspiration from seemingly random things and builds an entire piece around that one specific concept. Here is one such example:
“Commissioned for countertenor and lute, Old Bones grows out of the buzz surrounding the 2012 discovery of Richard III’s body under a parking lot in Leicester. For the sung text, Muhly draws from the scientific press release confirming the body’s identity, a slightly poetic but delirious interview with the president of the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society and an ode to Richard’s killer by a “slightly gay” Welsh war poet. This unexpected combination of texts paints a fuller picture not of the king, but of the circumstances of his exhumation – a decidedly unconventional and contemporary distinction. Indeed, Muhly said that his goal was to allow for multiple interpretations, such as reverence for Richard or his killer.”
This piece in particular does not necessarily tell a narrative, but the story is there and it is intentionally weaved into all the musical decisions.
Muhly is incredibly creative because of his ability to tell stories about such oddly specific things, but he does so in a truly innovative way. “It is hypothesized that the more accessible and diverse the creative material available to artists and the more artists can lower the risks of experimentation, the more likely it is that artists can see opportunities for creativity or be forced to assimilate material from earlier periods into something fresh and new that succeeds with audiences, critics, or both” (Uzzi & Spiro). So it’s not necessarily the source material itself that makes Muhly’s work so creative, but rather the unconventionality of his thought process regarding the material, coupled with the beautiful output. It’s evident that at age 35, Muhly is already wrapping the world of classical music tightly around his finger.
Uzzi, Brian, and Jarrett Spiro. "Collaboration and Creativity: The Small World Problem." American Journal of Sociology 111.2 (2005): 447-504. Web