Nico Muhly: A Contemporary Approach to the Classical


by Alyse Brown

Have you heard of the name Nico Muhly? If not, then it is time to become familiar with this notable, yet controversial composer. He’s the youngest composer to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, and has made a significant presence within the classical music community. At just 36 years old, he has composed everything from operas to chamber ensembles to violin and tape pieces.

I first came across Nico Muhly when he made an appearance at The Boston Conservatory for Berklee’s New Music Festival. He was the 2016-2017 Kunkemueller Artist in Residence, and created much discussion throughout the conservatory as his residency approached. The anticipation for his arrival stemmed from his remarkable background and his interesting oeuvre. His musical compilations reflect older compositional techniques that he reformulates to forge a new style. While an extremely impressive composer, Muhly has caused quite a stir with his combination of the traditional and the contemporary.

He is known for applying the old style of the Anglican choral tradition in his works. This has been criticized as an inaccurate way of depicting his music. Although he uses attributes commonly associated with the Anglican choral tradition, it is difficult to put him in this box. Some would argue that there is no real definition for the Anglican choral tradition, but rather it is better to classify his music as traditional in the sense of being old versus new (or contemporary). An example that corresponds with Muhly’s conventional roots is his use of setting. In his Bright Mass with Canons, he composes a Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei that contain classical liturgical texts and are presented in a historic order that evoke the historical conventions of the Mass. His compositions also often utilize canons, which are frequently recognized in pieces associated with the Anglican choral tradition. This canonic idea is not necessarily exclusive to the Anglican choral tradition. It can be heard in several categorically traditional or older pieces. Therefore, through examples such as these and more, Muhly has inspired discussion around exactly how to classify his music.

Not only has Muhly’s Anglican choral tradition influence caused controversy, but also his overall choice of narratives. Being the youngest composer commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera has a great amount of pressure attached to it, but Muhly is handling it well by pushing boundaries. For example, in a truly modern twist, his opera, Two Boys, has a plot surrounding a teenager who gets involved with a spy-ring in a chatroom. He incorporates the use of technology through laptops and explores what it is like to be a teenager in the modern era. This is not your typical Wagner opera with gods and fire consuming the stage. In his opera, Dark Sisters, he also introduces a fascinating narrative, surrounding a polygamous family who has their children taken away by the state. The father of the children is called the Prophet, and due to suspicions that minors are being forced into marriage and abused, the children are forced to leave the compound. The topic itself has stirred conversation as it brings religious issues into the spotlight. Perhaps even more interesting, is Muhly’s take on the actual wives. The opera is mainly presented from the perspective of the wives, and it is both heartwarming and heartbreaking to see what they go through each day. While I was originally skeptical of this opera, I understood what the women went through by the end. I felt enlightened with a new perspective, and found that it really did align with politically controversial dialogue happening today.

Nico Muhly is an overall highly respected composer, yet he has received mixed reviews on his music. Keep in mind that today’s “classical” genre is constantly being defined and re-defined. Therefore, even if Nico Muhly cannot necessarily be categorized into one box, maybe that is the point. Thus, he truly is finding his own voice.

Should Nico Muhly continue to push the boundaries of classical music? Sound off in the comments!

*Alyse Brown is a Contributing Writer for Berklee Groove, attending Boston Conservatory at Berklee*