Nico Muhly, wunderkind, comes home

High Note
By PHILIP EIL  |  September 26, 2012

It would be nearly impossible to summarize everything Nico Muhly has accomplished since graduating high school in Providence in 1999 — though, certainly, plenty have tried. Vogue has called him "prodigiously gifted . . . the poster boy for a new generation of composers." The New Yorker has dubbed him "the ebullient star of New York's young-composer scene." The BBC recently labeled him "the musician who is often touted as the best composer on the planet." A full index of every "wunderkind" reference would exceed this article's word limit.

And any description of the megastar's day-to-day life — hopping from New York to London to the Netherlands to Australia to Philadelphia to Winnipeg to Iceland and Paris in the last year, alone — would pale next to Muhly's own account of his travels. More than 13,000 people subscribe to his delicious, rapid-fire tweets: "Confused polish vegetarian hippies on MDMA just made me miss this rather necessary bus. I feel like this is a turning point for me" and "I am gonna lock my ass into a hotel room in Amsterdam and finish this ballet."

A recent blog post at his web site,, mused, "The process of idling at the airport, taxiing, and taking off (to say nothing of the flight itself) is a series of changing drones. Idling, for instance, is a constant C#, with an ever-changing top note: F#, E#, or E . . . The ventilation system insists on a kind of extra-flat G#, but the whole thing is gorgeously rooted on the everpresent C#. When the plane levels out, though, a G# in the bass reframes the whole thing, so you end up with a chord in a strange position: confident, but with a changing root."

So, rather than try to upstage The New Yorker, the BBC, or the maestro himself, I will simply offer up this fact: for two days in early October, Muhly will return to Providence to take part in a series of free public events. The Phoenix is not responsible for injuries sustained while fighting to secure a seat.

Muhly — along with his frequent collaborator, the pianist Bruce Brubaker — will be a guest of the Brown University Music Department for a mini-residency October 4 and 5. It's a lucky break for the school's students; both musicians will take part in private coaching and master classes. And it's also lucky for Providence. In between private sessions, Muhly will speak publicly in the town where he once wandered into experimental jazz shows at AS220 (his mother, a painter, had a studio nearby) and sang in youth choirs downtown at Grace Church.

On Thursday afternoon, October 4, Brubaker and Muhly will sit for a panel discussion entitled "Appropriation + Authorship in Contemporary Music." There, you might hear Muhly discuss the string arrangement he wrote for the R&B star Usher's single, "Climax." Or Brubaker might pick up a conversation about Philip Glass, Battlestar Galactica, Glee fanfiction, and This American Life that he started on his blog, "Pianomorphosis." The following day, Muhly will be discussing contemporary opera — in particular, his chamber opera, Dark Sisters and its follow-up, Two Boys, about a murder plot and identity-swapping on the Internet, premiering at New York's Metropolitan Opera next year. Then, on Friday night — the residency's "center of gravity," according to Brown music professor Dana Gooley — Brown's Granoff Center will host a concert featuring Muhly's music and performances by Brubaker and Brown students.

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