Nico Muhly: Classical Music's Coolest Cat

Don't hate Nico Muhly just because he's popular. Though classical composers aren't supposed to get any love until they're old (or dead), the 27-year-old is already collecting commissions at a graybeard's pace. His first opera, which he's still writing, was requested by the Met. In the last year, Muhly composed the soundtrack to The Reader, issued the dizzyingly fine disc Mothertongue, had an evening of works presented by Lincoln Center and collaborated with indie "it" group Grizzly Bear on its must-listen new album of experimental folk suites, Veckatimest. "I'm really spoiled," Muhly says, "because not only do people come to my things, they also pay attention to what my friends are doing." With that, Muhly dashes off to rehearse and conduct a score for another group of A-list collaborators—the sensual acrobats of Stephen Petronio's dance company.

All of which presents Muhly with a problem rare enough for classical artists of any age: overexposure. He's avoided that (so far) by turning out consistently tasty work. And, like a good fusion chef, he's particular about his ingredients. He combines the rhythmic exuberance of early American minimalism (thus his appeal to the hipsters) with the harmonies of early choral music to create a sound of unique clarity. His pieces are short on grand themes and long on figures that writhe with the delighted physicality of youth. The music is actually so distinct that it can overpower the voices of collaborators. Ed Droste—a sharp writer himself—says that for their new record, Grizzly Bear used only a fraction of Muhly's orchestrations: "There was a lot of great stuff that was just too much Nico."

But in his own pieces, that distinctness is more blessing than burden. They are also shot through with fun. Muhly delights in setting lines from Strunk and White's The Elements of Style to music, or, over a cup of coffee, breaking into a gleeful imitation of the austere composer Pierre Boulez. (He loves Boulez, however, and wants the 84-year-old iconoclast to open a Twitter account.) The most serious charge you could level against Muhly is that he lacks the heavy-duty seriousness of Boulez, or even of some sad-sack indie types. But give Muhly time to actually become a wizened old composer, and he might nail that too.