There are 2,000-plus miles of ocean separating New York composer Nico Muhly from Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurðsson, but when they come together to perform this Saturday at the Southern Theater, any sense of geographical distance will evaporate. The pair work closely together, a collaboration that started a few years back, when Björk brought the young twentysomething Muhly over to Iceland to help her realize some of the music on Medulla. "She was like, 'Look, here's my vision for this thing: I want dueling pianists like Liberace, completely over-the-top,'" Muhly recounts as we sit in his sixth-floor walk-up in New York's Chinatown. "I basically figured out how to make it playable."
For half a decade, Valgeir Sigurðsson acted in a similar capacity for Björk, figuring out how to convert her alien notions into something sonically coherent, starting with 2000's Selmasongs and continuing on through 2004's Medulla. "Björk has this vision in her head how something could be; it's usually bat-shit crazy. [Sigurðsson] has to technically figure out how it's going to work," Muhly divulges.
Sigurðsson himself is more tactful when describing the creative process. "[The experience] was rewarding because I got to put on all my different hats at some point, from programming to mixing to producing," he tells me via email from his base at Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavik. As his collaborative work with Mrs. Guðmundsdóttir played itself out, Sigurðsson struck out on his own. He recorded the latest albums from Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Coco Rosie at Greenhouse, and set up his own record label, Bedroom Community, which released debuts by both Muhly and himself.
Sigurðsson played a crucial role in helping Muhly realize his vision for his first disc, Speaks Volumes. "[Sigurðsson] has a lot to do with how you see it," Muhly says, expanding upon his visual metaphor to capture their working relationship. "To work with him is like, you know, a photograph. There's a way the photographer controls the interface. He teases out what works. In other cases he exposes things that should be exposed, weird blemishes."
Intense and energetic, Volumes' seven pieces behave much like Muhly himself, randomly jumping from point to point until a scattered pattern manifests itself, no doubt clarified and honed by Sigurðsson's ear. The sparkling lullaby of a celesta line interacts with harp coruscations and heaving cellos on "Clear Music," and epic closer "Keep in Touch" packs a bit of everything in its 12 minutes: a sobbing viola solo, industrial percussion, processional passages, horn skronks, and the wordless warbling of Antony Hegarty, from Antony and the Johnsons. "I was thinking about the issues of the viola's size and its resonating chamber being too small or too big or whatever," Muhly explains. "I realized that a lot of the terms you use to talk about it are the same as those you'd use to talk about people in 'transitional gender situations,' if you know what I mean. So I called up Antony and was like, 'Come sing this thing.'"
Despite his striking youth, Muhly wasn't what you'd consider a prodigy. "I started so late," he says, refilling our glasses with Riesling. "I had been in this boys' choir and simultaneously taking piano lessons." Neither one resonated with him until he was 14 and attended a program at Tanglewood, the venerable classical music institution in Lenox, Massachusetts: "I realized that I didn't know shit."
Whereas many teens dabble in guitar-strumming and recording four-tracks, Muhly spent his high school days poring over scores, composing choral music, and unlocking the mystery of just how classical works were put together. Studying the oeuvre of Igor Stravinsky, he had an epiphany: "I figured out how it worked, in the literal sense. It reminded me of a Rube Goldberg contraption—there was always a sense of a device. [Stravinsky] was always doing it through mechanism, which I always found to be very moving. A lot of people find it heartless—for me, the heart was in the mechanism."
Muhly moves readily between the classical avant-garde and indie-pop worlds, interacting with the likes of Laurie Anderson and Grizzly Bear. He swoons not just to a Benjamin Britten passacaglia, but also to Final Fantasy. The distinction in his mind comes not so much from the music, but the scenes surrounding each. "In classical, there's not much performer-based, ground-up access," he says. "With the indie-rock world, it's just people your age making stuff that you love. That I can work with everyone that I like is indicative that it's more open-minded."
Such open-mindedness means his compositions can alight upon gamelan music, Scrooge McDuck, and Tintin (as recent composition "Wish You Were Here" does), or English choral music and Icelandic apocalyptic text (as in "Syllables," a piece written for the Brooklyn Youth Choir). The frenetic juxtaposing matches Muhly's work schedule. He not only acts as Philip Glass's copyist, but recently contributed music to the soundtrack of Joshua, in addition to playing piano and arranging brass on Sigurðsson's album, Ekvílibríum.
On "The Only Tune," a recent composition realized with both Sigurðsson and banjo player Sam Amidon (to be released on Muhly's next album), he recasts the text of "The Two Sisters," an old Appalachian murder ballad wherein a drowned girl's body gets carved into a violin.
"I came across it because my parents sang it when I was growing up," Muhly says. "But there is so much about it that's great. Primarily, the notion of the body-as-instrument—and then also the terror of that line, 'The miller fished her out with his long, long hook.' It's quite beautiful and scary." The end result sounds like a mash-up between Will Oldham and Steve Reich, folky yet orchestral, down-home and dizzying. For both Muhly and Sigurðsson, the thrill comes in capturing such extremes in a single frame.
NICO MUHLY and VALGEIR SIGURðSSON perform on SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 29, at the SOUTHERN THEATER; 612.340.1125
Nico MuhlySpeaks Volumes