Impish Über-talent Nico Muhly, known to some as Philip Glass’s protégée, to others as the guy who helps make Björk, Rufus Wainwright, and Antony sound better, and to most as the one of the next great hopes for the future of classical music, is about the head to Paris for the premiere of his second collaboration with choreographer Benjamin Millepied. Until then he’s occupied with the release of his second album, Mothertongue, and his accompanying tour with Appalachian singer Sam Amidon and singer-pianist Thomas Bartlett, also known as Doveman. “The 802 Tour,” as the three have dubbed it (they’re all from Vermont; it’s the only area code in the state) comes to Le Poisson Rouge Saturday. Muhly took a moment pre–sound check in Seattle to discuss the album, his love of trombones, and how he plans to amend the current plague of Boring Composer Headshots.
So, what’s up with the freaky photo of your face covered in blood on the tour’s Facebook page?
Listen, if you deal with classical-music people, the kind of head shots you have to have as a composer are APPALLING. Go to ten composers’ Websites, you’ll want to kill yourself. It looks like some seventh-grade … it’s so bad. I just thought, Fuck that, it’s so uninteresting. The stuff I was sending out of myself last year was like, you know the one where I look all giddy and sort of like a serial killer? They were like, “Do you have anything more serious?” And I was like, “Well, yeah, I do, but I’m going to have blood on my face.” There’s no in between. It’s sad, too — have you ever noticed, you see a picture of Philip Glass and it’s always that same pose? You can just hear the photographer being like, ‘Put your hand over your mouth, look pensive!’ You’re like, ugh, God. It drives me crazy. You know who has great head shots? James Levine. It’s that one of him looking super excited to be conducting Berlioz. It’s awesome.
The album’s title track involves mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer repeatedly singing addresses and phone numbers. How did the idea occur to you?
I was thinking about writing for the voice, and in the classical tradition what you’re trained to think the voice carries. And the answer is the voice is the bearer of narrative, the voice is the bearer of emotion, it’s the oldest instrument, the simplest instrument. And I was interested in accepting all of those conditions except for narrative, right? I wanted to write a song without a plot. So I thought, okay, it would be great if I could just ask this girl everything she knows about her whole life: what phone numbers she can remember, what addresses, and if you think about it, it’s an interesting question. Like, what phone numbers do you have memorized? If someone asked you right now what numbers you have memorized, it would be an interesting list, because it probably wouldn’t be your best friends.
The album also includes Wonders, a piece for vocalist and trombonist Helgi Hrafn Jonsson. It seems like you’ve recently developed quite a love of the trombone…
I just got into it! It’s sort of like how people all of a sudden get into pork belly, you know? You find yourself eating the same thing for lunch every day, like, “Chipooootle!” I found a friend who was a countertenor AND a trombonist and was like, “Well, that’s perfect. Piece for you, coming right up!”
The press release for this concert mentioned liturgical dancing would be involved…
Oh, I don’t know what that is. That has nothing to do with me. Liturgical dancing is the lowest of the art forms, really. Honestly, that’s Sam Amidon just being indie. Don’t ask me about that.
Did you consider making this a theatrical show like your recent one at the Kitchen — which featured Sam singing atop a giant plaster horse?
No, listen, if we could have carted that horse around in the minivan, this would be a different conversation. I actually thought about it, but [Icelandic artist] Shoplifter is in Poland for the summer. And you need to bring a million trannies to do the makeup, so we decided to do it simple style this time. Next year!
You’ll be speaking from the stage at these shows, something different for you. Is it something you’ve ever wished you could do in a more traditional classical concert?
I actually like all the rules in concert halls, the silence, the clap here — all that shit I find very erotic. I never feel like I have to break down the fourth wall; that to me is uninteresting — I’m kind of mistrustful of trying to break that tradition too much. But you know when David Robertson [at the Philharmonic] does those pre-concert speeches and sometimes you’re like, “This is the best thing that’s ever happened” and other times you’re like, “Just turn around, Blondie, and conduct that Messiaen”? Sometimes you want it to just go.