Nico Muhly: The Protest Issue Bonus Interview | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Nico Muhly: The Protest Issue Bonus Interview

"I want to write a pre-nup like I want a hole in the head!"

Sep 28, 2012 Issue #42 - The Protest Issue Bookmark and Share

While probably best known to indie rock audiences as a collaborator and arranger on albums by Grizzly Bear, Jónsi, and Antony and the Johnsons, the vast majority of Nico Muhly’s work since his emergence in the early Aughts has been in the classical arena: an insanely prolific output of choral, orchestral, and chamber pieces, film scores, the 2008 solo release Mothertongue, and two operas: Two Boys, based on a true story involving adolescents, sex, Internet deception, and a violent crime, which will debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 2013, and Dark Sisters, set in the world of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Recently, Muhly has also been working on a new album in Iceland, and performing from Sydney to Paris in an astronomically-themed collaboration with Sufjan Stevens and The National’s Bryce Dessner, entitled Planetarium. When exactly Muhly finds time to sleep, we can’t tell you.

(Muhly was interviewed for, and is quoted in, an article on gay issues in our Protest Issue entitled “The Rainbow Connection: Gay and Lesbian Artists on Marriage and More.” This is a bonus web-exclusive interview, featuring portions of the interview not included in the print magazine. For more of our interview with Muhly pick up The Protest Issue, on newsstands now. You can buy a copy directly from us here. Or you can download the digital version for iPads, Macs, PCs, and Android devices here. )

John Norris: Nico, just being one of your 12,000-plus Twitter followers, I feel like I have some sense of the whirlwind life you lead most of the time. It seems like the classic “If it’s Tuesday, this must be London” thing. Do you still enjoy being so perpetually on the go?

Nico Muhly: Yes and no. There’s an amount of bullshit attendant to travel that’s really unbelievable. And just the uprooting—in the last two weeks I was in Australia, and I played four shows at the Sydney Opera House, and then flew right back and went to Philadelphia and mounted an opera. I’m about to go back there, and then it’s London, and Paris, and Iceland, then back to London. And just the act of getting off the plane and meeting all the people you need to meet…it’s a lot.

And these are all for different projects?

Mostly, yeah.

Well I’m glad I was able to catch you in New York. As you know, the marriage equality train has really seemed to pick up steam of late, especially in the wake of the president’s endorsement of same-sex marriage. Are you as surprised as a lot of people seem to be at the speed with which it’s gaining acceptance?

I guess so, though I suppose the time when equality should have really, really picked up speed was just after September 11th when the Army had all these issues with hiring Arabic translators. That for me was kind of a real turning point in my willingness to get involved. Because that idea—that you weren’t good enough to do something that was really desperately needed. That to me was really shocking. But marriage is one of those things that I think was a complicated issue. Because it felt to me like a lot of the older gay role models I had growing up were like, “Fuck gay marriage! Forget that. Why do you want to get married? That’s like straight people’s thing to do.” You know what I mean? That it’s like something that belongs to another culture. Whereas translating—not that being in the Army wasn’t culturally complicated—but there was a sense that that was like saying you are not a full citizen. So anyway, that’s a sort of oblique answer to your question, but I guess I haven’t been sitting back saying, “It’s amazing how quickly marriage is moving!” ‘Cause I guess like in 2002 I was like “fuck this.”

You know, both of those institutions-marriage and the military-to me represent profoundly conservative aspirations. I do think there is an impulse toward assimilation and the idea that, OK, we can now, at least in a handful of states, get legally married-maybe we should! Or “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Where do these advances in equality leave pacifists or confirmed bachelors?

I see what you’re saying, the idea that what we’re doing is fighting very hard for conservative things, but I think that’s always gonna be the case with these things though, isn’t it? People aren’t going to be taking the streets for queer, separatist lesbian communities.

Or for the return of sex clubs…

Right, exactly. That’s not what the fight is gonna be. But marriage for me, the fight is less that I want to do it than that I think people should be allowed to do it. And if people want to uphold a traditional thing in society, I always think that’s good. Even if it’s straight people. I always fetishize when I go to the Midwest and my friend’s family is like mom, dad, two kids… I’m like, “That’s amazing! What must that be like?” And if gay people want to do that with a picket fence, I’m like “that’s great.” That’s exotic to me.

Because you didn’t grow up around that?

No, not at all. My dad is this combination sort of academic-bohemian-whatever, and people were floating in and out, lived in different places. So I like it when it’s not like these crazy like multi-racial families where everyone lives with a million partners, these like communes.

How did you feel when you heard about New York legalizing marriage in June of 2011? I know that’s around the time that your opera Two Boys was opening in England.

Yeah, I was in London and I got a text message from Renee Fleming. Isn’t that the gayest thing you’ve ever heard? Oh my God. I was lying in my bed in London and Ne-ne texted me. That’s how I found out!

And were you excited or were you just sort of, “eh… that’s nice.”

I was hung over.

Oh, OK. And here I thought you were this workaholic who never partied.

Haha. No, I was excited but it also seemed clear it was going to happen, and didn’t it happen in a sort of heartwarming way where some Republicans started to act right?


And it was actually kind of cute, the next day at the Opera a lot of people were like “congratulations!” The Internet was good about that. But honestly though, like real talk: it didn’t feel as good as when Obama won, or when Whitney died. In terms of gay activity on the Internet.

You’ve been with your boyfriend now for three years. At that moment did you look at him and say, “Should we do it?”

Oh no, I looked at him and was like, “Don’t even think about it.” [Laughs] I don’t know, I’m not sure I like the whole idea of like “let us do it.” There’s something weird about that. It feels a little like opening the door to the zoo or like there’s something weird about the power structure there. It feels like those people who wait in line at the Apple store for the newest things. And also, the terms on which I entered into this relationship just a little bit preclude that kind of sentimentality. Of like, “Now that we can, we should!” I’d like to think so. Maybe he disagrees.

So it’s not something that’s been discussed, marriage?

Yeah, I’m like not quite sure what the point would be? Unless he wants to deal with my four million dollars of student loan. [Laughs]

[Laughs] Well, there’s pre-nups right?

Who wants to…do you know what I mean? I want to write a pre-nup like I want a hole in the head. [Laughs]


Seriously the minute you start entering into…

It’s pretty gross, yeah.

It’s so gross. Like what lawyer am I even gonna get? Then we’ve like entered a whole universe of shit I don’t have time for and then it’s like “why am I even doing this?”

I’d think that you would have an interesting perspective on the whole idea of the law regulating marriage, the state’s interest in marriage, because of your most recent opera Dark Sisters, which has to do with the FLDS church and polygamy, among other things. Did your feelings about any of those issues change as result of the research for the opera?

I definitely heard every variation of those arguments. The variation of the polygamy argument that polygamists and their lawyers make is, I wouldn’t say brilliantly nuanced, but I would say nuanced nonetheless, which is essentially if you’re gonna allow men to marry men, why can’t there be marriages between multiple men and multiple women. But the weird thing about polygamists is that legally they’re not actually all married. Only one pair is married. They’re spiritually married, but that’s not recognized by the state. Nor do they want it to be, because what they do is all the other women are registered as single mothers. So their argument is not, they don’t want polygamy to be legalized. The real FLDS, the people who are doing this for cultural and religious reasons, they have no interest in the state acknowledging it. It would, in fact, mess up their whole program. ‘Cause the structure is this: the first wife and the father are legally married by the state, with a witness. Then the rest of them are “sealed” in the church, but it’s not acknowledged by the state. So all the children from the subsequent marriages are all listed with “father unknown.” And the mothers are all listed as single mothers. And they and the children are all on public assistance.


It gets complicated, but that procedure along with other things that involve taxes are referred to as the “bleeding of the beast,” which is taking as much money from the federal government as you can. So the point is, it kind of skirts around it because they’re not actually aiming for legality.

How much do you think gay identity is infused into your work? I guess some people could say that you seem drawn to, if not gay then at least somewhat transgressive material. I mean, certainly the operas each in their own way deal with stuff that pushes some buttons.

Yeah, but the thing for me, I’ve gotten that question a lot but I can’t think of an opera that doesn’t. And one of the most irritating things about Two Boys is that I had to deal with the press of it. I mean like Two Boys is one-tenth as sexually transgressive as Don Giovanni. Right? I mean no one gets raped in Two Boys. Or maybe one person gets raped offstage. Don Giovanni is like the rape-iest opera ever. And also, Two Boys is no different from all those operas where people costume themselves and behave terribly, sexually. And you see this since the beginning of opera, literally. Since literally like the second opera this happens. You have this in Handel, you have this in Rameau, and all over Mozart, in Così Fan Tutte and of course Don Giovanni—it’s all throughout opera that people are putting on a costume to get pussy. I didn’t invent this, do you know what I mean? And in fact, the crazy thing is in a lot of these operas, people are actually getting actual pussy on stage! In mine it’s just online. So I was always a little shocked, because in Don Giovanni the implication is that you are witnessing intercourse. Intercourse! On my stage people are just typing about intercourse.

What about the title? I mean, is it fair to say that the title is trying to be, I mean you didn’t have to call it Two Boys which…

I didn’t, but again, Così Fan Tutte means like, “That’s how bitches do!” [Laughs]

[Laughs]But no, the shorter answer to your question is, I don’t think too much actively about a sort of gay identity in what I do. But that having been said, I like the idea of there having been a period this century when there was a kind of eros of the closet. And especially I’m thinking about artists like Benjamin Britten, I’m thinking about Tippett and Auden and that sort of thing, and obviously the people that weren’t closeted like, sort of, Sondheim. But the music that they made bearing traces of and resonances of and nothing very explicit but it’s always a kind of shimmer or glaze of kind of what you’re describing, of this sort of sexual taboo just underneath the surface of something. Obviously I’m an out homosexual person but that having been said, I still appreciate the lighting in the closet. You know what I mean? And there was a lot of music written in there, and there was a lot written even when the door was open. Right? Even when most of this shit had been moved out, there’s still—and I think with Britten this is very interesting—he had access to it, but Britten sort of vacationed in the closet. And with Britten the closet is the most delicious place in the world.

Care to make a prediction on where this marriage fight is headed? Is it gonna take the Supreme Court stepping in, as they did with interracial marriage?

I don’t know what it takes to make people act right. I’m not sure the Supreme Court is the best way. I’d like to think it has to happen from both ends, right? Maybe it has to occur on a person-to-person level, with people seeing that people are people. And maybe it requires that every hairdresser in Muscle Shoals, Alabama refuses to give people those up-do’s for their straight weddings until they act right? That would be my, I mean, shut down all these weddings and make straight people throw their own damn party, and we’ll see how good that looks! Can you imagine? Just tell Preston Bailey to take the month off. That would be so crazy to me.


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