My Favorite Page: Nico Muhly on the ‘Ecstatic Disruption’ of Philip Glass’s Music


The first page of the score “has everything you want with this period of Philip’s output,” Mr. Muhly said during the interview, in which he spoke with his trademark inexhaustible enthusiasm despite fighting off a sinus infection he’s had “since, like, the Obama administration.” Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.


The manuscript for Philip Glass’s “Are Years What? (for Marianne Moore)” from “Étoile Polaire.” Credit Dunvagen Music Publishers

Why this page?

The first time I heard it, I must have been in Philip’s CD archive. This was the second track on “Étoile Polaire” that I listened to, and there was just something really beautiful about it. It has all the processes that he was doing in “Music in 12 Parts,” but it has this luxurious French harmony. It also looks exactly like it sounds: bubbly, ebullient and fun. Philip’s body of work has these forgotten gems. Finding this is like finding a door in your house to a room you never knew existed.

I play it off the manuscript because there’s something about the printed edition I don’t quite get. I really like Philip’s hand. I’m really used to it, and I have a sentimental relationship with looking at it. There are sometimes these ambiguities with his notations, and so much of my life for years was deciphering his manuscripts.

What about this music is quintessentially Glass?

You can see the construction of the rhythmic cycle. You can see how at the beginning each figure contains two units of six notes, each one repeated four times. In Figure 2, interestingly, it’s the same, but each cell of eight notes is repeated four times. Then Figure 3 augments the rhythm and goes eight-six-eight-six. It’s a fake-out: You don’t actually perceive the change until the middle of the figure.

What’s scary is that the beginning of Figure 3 is identical to the beginning of Figure 2, so you end up with this situation where you all have to be in a really tight chamber music space to agree where you are. Philip’s music uses repetition, but there’s a lot of drama to be found in the deviation.


Mr. Muhly at work on Glass arrangements in his studio. Credit Cole Wilson for The New York Times

What is that shift in rhythm like as a listener?

For me, it’s a switch in perspective, or like a glitch in the matrix. It feels like something you thought was there was actually a little bit closer or a little bit farther away. It’s that weird thing of a slight ecstatic disruption.

And what about as a player, especially as part of an ensemble?

You’ve repeated the damn thing and then you’re like, O.K., here we go. Then you all agree to have a glitch in the matrix together. It’s a trust fall, a little bit. And it’s so joyful when it works. It’s that intersection of math and instinct and musicality that just makes me so happy.

What’s it like revisiting something you discovered as a teenager?

I had such an intimate relationship with Philip’s physical manuscripts. I learned so much from working for him, probably because I never made a big deal about being a composer. I wasn’t constantly showing him stuff, but instead I just wanted to take as much away from his scores as I could. So to have his manuscripts — it’s like connecting back to that time in my life when I was learning a new thing all the time. Now, because I’m so busy and constantly in this kind of chaos and rat race, it’s great to go back and remember what it was like to be holding 75 pages of manuscript from someone whose music I really respected. It just feels like a happy homecoming.

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