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Unidentified People: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Twenty-nine-year-old Nico Muhly has been called the poster boy for the edgier side of classical music. His work is influenced by traditional classical music and equally by pop works, by artists like Mariah Carey and Bjork.

In honor of President's Day, Muhly was commissioned to compose a brief musical tribute to the seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson. Let's listen.

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Unidentified People: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

WERTHEIMER: Nico Muhly joins me from our studios in New York City.

Welcome.

Mr. NICO MUHLY (Composer): Thanks so much. Good to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you were assigned Andrew Jackson...

Mr. MUHLY: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: ...and you were also assigned the quote, "One man with courage makes a majority." You know, by the way, I wondered, was it little boys or was it young women singing the very first phrase, the very first quote?

Mr. MUHLY: That was, I think, young women sounding like little boys.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, why did you decide to put that in the voice of women? You've got this rough, tough president, Andrew Jackson.

Mr. MUHLY: Well, surely - I mean, I think once something has left the mouth of the rough, tough president, it belongs to everybody, doesn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MUHLY: And also, musically, I prefer starting from the top down. It's, I think, a more elegant gesture.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Andrew Jackson is not one of our more admirable presidents. He was the leading advocate of forced relocation of the Indian tribes.

Mr. MUHLY: Of the Native Americans, exactly.

WERTHEIMER: So did you think he merited some kind of special approach, this mixed sort of character that he is?

Mr. MUHLY: I didn't do anything extra special, but I didn't imbue it with anything too majestic, either. When we get obsessed with these sort of the first 15 presidents, there's always going to be a mixed bag. And I think if you just take the text and set it as honestly as possible, room for different interpretations kind of carves itself out.

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Unidentified People: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

WERTHEIMER: You've written a lot of choir music. You've written for the Clare College Choir, for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Now, we have a piece of music to play here that was recorded with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon directing it, but it also has a children's choir. Let's just listen to a scrap of that.

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Unidentified People: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

WERTHEIMER: You are a former choirboy yourself.

Mr. MUHLY: I am indeed, yeah.

WERTHEIMER: Does that influence what you do?

Mr. MUHLY: Every day. That's sort of - that, for me, is sort of the emotional starting point for almost everything I write.

WERTHEIMER: Explain.

Mr. MUHLY: Well, for me, making music in a choir, there's a sense of being on a team. The other thing that I always think about is that the majority of choral music is not performed to applause. It's performed in a liturgical context.

And that's something that I think is very exciting as a model to think about when you're writing music is that it's not about putting anything in the spotlight, but it's more about really thinking about the text and thinking about the context in which the work is being presented.

WERTHEIMER: It would be inappropriate to write applause lines if something like that can be said about music.

Mr. MUHLY: Right. Exactly. And also, you want music that invites the listener to think elsewhere, to think upwards, or to think to the side or to think below, if that makes sense. It's sort of an act of slight of hand.

WERTHEIMER: I thought where you were heading was that there would be a spiritual component to it, that it would somehow lift a person, a listener out of themselves a bit.

Mr. MUHLY: Yes. And that, of course, is the goal. In a sense, you're sort of helping others before you help yourself in that way with choral music. You're inviting the listener to negotiate a spiritual relationship at the time of the listening.

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Unidentified People: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

WERTHEIMER: But you've also written scores for movies, including "The Reader." You've written orchestral works that have been performed by the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony. Just to circle back to Andrew Jackson, a canon is a tiny piece of music. It's - this one is just a little bit more than a minute long.

Since you were writing in such a brief form, is that harder?

Mr. MUHLY: It's a little bit harder inasmuch as you have to have basically one idea. Yeah. It's one idea that has to work against itself at different times, which is the nature of a canon, right? So one voice comes in, and then the next voice comes in, the third voice comes in all singing the same material.

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Unidentified People: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

Mr. MUHLY: So the idea had to be foldable, in that sense. The idea contains pleats that meet up at, you know, clever junctions.

And then the other thing that I did, I wrote this sort of descant of other - on the word majority, which I think has nice vowels in it.

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Unidentified People: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

Mr. MUHLY: I felt especially lucky because some of my colleagues who were working on the same commission to write these presidential canons, I think had less forgiving vowels in their quotes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Some horribly ugly word that they had to...

Mr. MUHLY: Right. Exactly. A sort of procession of diphthongs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Now, your musical influences, as I understand it, are all over the place, 16th and 17th century English composers of religious music like Byrd and Taverner, and then Bjork and Carey. I mean, how do you work it all together?

Mr. MUHLY: I guess the simple answer is that for me, the emotional palette of the music is always coming from 15th and 16th centuries, really. But then, on top of that, you know, technical things come a lot from popular song.

I think one of the great things about earlier English choral music is that the lines can last for so long that you sort of lose track of the text. You know, in a pop song now, the opposite has to be true, right, where the text has to be presented in such an explicit and clear way that you can hear it even if the radio is halfway down. And I think there's something to be said for thinking about text in both of those ways simultaneously.

WERTHEIMER: Does any of that work its way back into the canon on Andrew Jackson?

Mr. MUHLY: Well, the Andrew Jackson canon, to a certain extent, has an Ella Fitzgerald thing, where you can - the idea is that you should immediately be able to understand what's being said.

But it also has a lot to do with sort of Steve Reich's music, where once you've heard the text the first time, it slowly unfolds itself, sort of like a noodle being teased out of a wheat ball, you know what I mean? And then you end up with this - what I think sounds like a very sort of Tudor choral texture at the end. So it's using different things. Again, it's also 90 seconds. So there's not a whole lot one can do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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Unidentified People: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

WERTHEIMER: Nico Muhly is 29 years old. He's a composer. His canon on Andrew Jackson is part of the larger musical cycle from the choir group Essential Voices USA. The whole work is called "Mister President."

You can listen to Nico and other composers' work for the project at our website, npr.org.

Thank you very much.

Mr. MUHLY: It's been my pleasure.

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Unidentified People: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

WERTHEIMER: For Sunday, that's WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our new podcast, WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Subscribe or listen at npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode Sunday nights. We'll be back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening, have a great week.

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