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Nico Muhly – A Composer’s Journey

Submitted by on 2 Apr 2008 – 2:38 AM Comments

Nico Muhly

“I felt really weird because I was the only one wearing clothes.” This was the first thing that composer Nico Muhly noticed when he entered the room.“ Everyone else was wearing these ridiculous warm-up outfits, and there I was in the corner in my jeans.” For a man who spends his time behind a piano or a computer screen, sitting in a dance studio was a departure from the usual. Getting used to scantily clad bodies would take time, but watching dancers move to his composition was something he was fully prepared for.

The 26-year-old Muhly began composing at 12, and later polished his craft at Juilliard. It was there that he cultivated his sound, which has an atmospheric quality that escapes into Stravinsky-inspired layering for the 21-st century. After years of writing his own chamber pieces, working with Björk, and scoring films, Muhly was eager to explore other facets of composition. He has an expressive physicality when he speaks, but it took meeting New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Benjamin Millipied to channel that energy into a composition for ballet.

The collaboration started in Paris in 2006, when Millepied was choreographing a ballet to Philip Glass’ music. Muhly was conducting, and the two men were drawn to each other. For Muhly, finding a ballet dancer with as rich an understanding of music as Millepied had was a surprise. “There is no possible way in which learning about music will make you a worse dancer. It’s not like learning the Dark Arts,” Muhly joked. He discovered that musical naiveté is common in the ballet world. “If you’re composing, you don’t actually deal with the vocabulary of dance,” he confessed. “But as a dancer, it’s appalling that people don’t know the different instruments that are being played.”

Muhly is building an understanding of the craft. “If I’m doing something that involves a collaboration, I want to know everything I can,” he admits. “I want to learn the names of all of the steps. If you go somewhere, you want to learn the language so you don’t make a fool of yourself.”

Millepied invited Muhly to compose music for a ballet he was choreographing on American Ballet Theatre, the first new work of its kind in 11 years. Muhly gladly accepted and the collaboration was a fruitful one.

“He’s never telling me what to do. We agree on things. Structurally, it’s more of a conversation of what will work,” he said with a smile. He realized that the typical one movement structure of his chamber pieces didn’t work for the stage because it lost energy. So they separated it into three sections to keep the audience and dancers engaged. “From Here On Out” debuted in October 2007 and garnered favorable reviews.

At the moment, Muhly is preparing to buckle down on his next project, which is set to debut at the famed Paris Opera Ballet in fall 2008. The work, part of a tribute to Jerome Robbins, will be more intimate than his last. Muhly will play piano with two trombones placed in the balcony of the theater, and three dancers, as compared to the 12 at ABT. Muhly is excited to build on his prior experience: “I think I know a little bit more about the formal structure of a ballet company,” he said with confidence. “So I think I should be able to really tailor something for that space and for those dancers and musicians.”

Ballet isn’t the only thing on his plate. Before he heads to Paris again, he’ll travel to Iceland to put the finishing touches on his second album produced by Björk musician Valgeir Sigurosson. A hybrid of classical music and hints of folk, the album marks yet another adventure in Muhly’s sonic escapades.No matter the context, it’s clear that Nico Muhly is constantly evolving. There are few young composers today as accomplished. If the past few years are any indication, his ambitions have no limits.

Matthew Murphy*To get to know more about Nico Muhly:

This article was first published in movmnt magazine’s Issue 6 – Keep it Real – Spring 2008

Matthew Murphy

*Matthew Murphy has been dancing ever since he choreographed a Star Wars ballet in his basement as a kid. He has since moved on to dancing with American Ballet Theatre, but he still dreams of one day bringing a corps of dancing Stormtroopers to the stage.

In the meantime, he’s got a camera glued to his face as he tries shooting everything around him. Between dancing, choreographing, writing and taking pictures, he’s got his hands full of artistic projects.

Some may say his addiction to Peanut Butter Puffins is a problem, but Murphy claims the delicious cereal fuels his artistic life. How else could he explore so many ventures with so much success?

His blog is read by hundreds, his dancing seen by thousands. He does it all with a sense of humor. Now if only he could get that Star Wars ballet off the ground. For movmnt, Matthew approached two different aspects of the dance world with his portraits of Kenny Wormald, soon to be seen in Center Stage 2, and a look at music composer Nico Muhly, who’s latest piece was featured by American Ballet Theatre.
Matthew Murphy is now movmnt magazine’s Copy Editor.

Check out Matt’s blog at or read his dancer’s life on