The Ultimate Culture Guide 2009: P

The Player

At 27, Nico Muhly is an unusual specimen in the music world: Classically trained yet fearless and roving, he is embraced by the establishment but still pursues a diverse experimental career. So while he’s composing a work for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where he lives, Muhly also wrote the score for Stephen Daldry’s film The Reader, created a soundtrack for an Isaac Mizrahi fashion show, and collaborated with Faeroe Islands singer Teitur Lassen on a piece accompanied by random YouTube clips.

“Nico is the rare composer, young or old, who is both original and widely appealing in his ideas,” says Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb. It says a lot that Gelb awarded a commission to the young musician, who has emerged as an heir to such avant-garde figures as Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

Indeed, the influence of those two minimalist masters on Muhly is often noted. His work can also be linked to 16th- and 17th-century English music, and he draws as well from American folk, electronica, pop, and the jagged rhythms of art-rock. His second album, Mothertongue, is a trio of suites that veer from jarring to exquisitely lyrical and are peppered with everything from sampled bits of Farfisa-organ music to sounds of whale flesh being swished around in a bowl.

Muhly has a dark, certainly provocative, streak that’s evident in the libretto for his Met commission (no première date has been set). Based on a lurid true story, it concerns a 14-year-old British boy who incited his own stabbing by posing as a female spy in an online chat room and persuading his friend to try to kill him. “It’s a story about one of the first crimes using the Internet as a tool for manipulation, creating different identities,” says Muhly. “There’s something really Hitchcockian about it.”

Unfazed by any suggestion that he jumps around too much from concert hall to club to soundstage, Muhly doesn’t see why he can’t have it all. “Right now,” he says, “I’m just having fun.”

Nico’s Jukebox

To date, Nico Muhly has released two albums, Speaks Volumes (2006) and Mothertongue (2008)—cited by New Yorker critic Alex Ross as one of last year’s best—both on the Icelandic label Bedroom Community. His Web site,, features his blog, news, and links to download his music. A voracious listener, Muhly suggests five iPod essentials.

1 Arvo Pärt Te Deum (ECM, 1993) “The stillness and spacing of this music is one of a kind, and it rocked my world when it came out.”

2 Steve Reich Music for 18 Musicians (ECM, 1978) “It’s an hour, with no breaks, which demands thorough listening. From the first piano pulse to the last fade-out, I know this like the back of my hand.”

3 J. S. Bach Goldberg Variations, performed by Glenn Gould (Sony, 1955) “A classic, revolutionary recording. People either love it or hate it, which can only be good.”

4 Paul Simon Graceland (Warner Bros., 1986) “This is the best example of ‘world music’ coexisting with Western music. There is something effortless about the way Paul Simon folds in the different elements without seeming token-y or racist.”

5 John Adams Harmonielehre (Nonesuch, 1990) “The first twenty seconds of this recording by the San Francisco Symphony are the most thrilling music ever.”

Penney Pinched

On March 12 Bernard Madoff pleaded guilty to the biggest financial fraud in history. On December 11, after learning she’d lost her life savings to Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, artist and Departures contributing editor Alexandra Penney started The Bag Lady Papers, a blog detailing her experience, for the Web site The Daily Beast. In October Hyperion will publish Penney’s complete account of her own private trip to hell, thanks to the man she calls the M.F. (You can figure that one out.)

December 17, 2008

“I began to think about my options: I’d have to sell the cottage in West Palm Beach. I’d need to lay off Yolanda…Then there is my jewelry. I’ve always collected nice watches and pearls. I’d think, ‘Buy good stuff because if you’re ever a bag lady, you can sell it.’ ”

December 22, 2008

“Hundreds of vitriolic comments blasted onto the site basically calling me a rich bitch…I’ve worked in smelly fish markets and walked through the rarefied air of the Condé Nast offices in three-inch Manolos, I’ve lived in a cubbyhole cold-water walk-up studio and owned a (highly mortgaged) house as a getaway, so I know a thing or two about many aspects of this complex world. If you think that makes me a whiny, guilty, self-serving, self-referential bitch, be my guest. (Although I won’t be able to serve you caviar or white truffles anymore.)”

January 6, 2009

“I’m heading south to sell a trailer- size cottage in the funkier part of Florida. …In the back of my station wagon is a load of boxes and shopping bags with blow-up sex dolls, complete with wigs, clothes, and shoes. (The dolls are the subjects of my most recent photographs.)…The irony is that my artwork comments on the insatiable consumerism, greed, dishonesty, and the deformed and warped values of our time.”

February 5, 2009

“Let me say with the clarity of a Harry Winston diamond: I am not a bag lady.…I am only a PoRC (Person of Reduced Circumstances) and a supremely lucky one to be escaping down south again. A pal who travels by private jet offered me a lift. I am still, however, trying to figure out if there is public transportation to the airport in Teterboro.”