Sometimes it's easy to forget that musicians do other stuff, too. When your only connection with an artist or band is through live shows and recordings, it's difficult to imagine them having a life outside of that bar or concert hall, or that record player/stereo/iPod. Like running into your grade school teacher in the supermarket, it takes seeing a musician in a different setting to jar your senses back to what should have been obvious all along: artists are people too, no larger than life than life.

With the Internet, finding out more about artists' lives outside of music becomes stalker-easy. Many of them, such as composer Nico Muhly, keep weblogs of their travels, detailing their hobbies and musings of a less musical nature. Sometimes, as Davecat found out, you have a lot in common with an artist. Except for working with Björk, Philip Glass, and Antony Hegarty, scoring films, writing cantatas inspired by grammar books, releasing two albums of achingly, head-splittingly gorgeous contemporary classical music (Speaks Volumes, and this year's fantastic Mothertongue), graduating from Julliard, etc. etc. etc., he and Mr. Muhly are pretty much into the same things.

Here, Davecat attempts to talk with Mr. Muhly (who he refers to as Mister to feel better about his own wasted youth: Muhly is only 27, which is obligatory to point out) about some of their shared interests, in part to demystify what it means to be a Composer -- especially of contemporary classical music -- and to learn more about the person behind the notes, but mostly because, as stated, Davecat is a big dork.


>>>> In all of the reviews I've read, for both Mothertongue and Speaks Volumes, the critic always mentions your age. Do you feel like a "young" composer, or that your age has any bearing on what you write? What does it mean to you to have praise (or criticism) qualified by how old you are?

Oh, this will pass. People just don't like to write unqualified nouns anymore, so you can't just say "composer." You have to say "young" or "venerable" or something. The 30's are a desolate wasteland where you're neither young nor venerable, though. So we'll see what happens in 3 years.

>>>> The pieces on Mothertongue come from very personal places: writing out all the phone numbers and addresses stored away in your brain, your parents singing "Twa Sisters" to you as a child, the time you've spent in Iceland. Was making this album a cathartic experience for you? Are the pieces on Speaks Volumes as personal in other, non-textual ways? Or is writing from specific events in your life something new about this work?

Well, Speaks Volumes was very impersonal inasmuch as I was trying to make chamber music, the historical idea of which being that it belongs in other people's houses, not mine. Mothertongue, on the other hand, is a vocal album, and as such, required explicit "texts," which were more personal. So: yes. I'm not sure if it was Cathartic, although it was incredibly exciting to me (and still is) to hear Abby scream out those zip codes at the end of the fourth part of Mothertongue, and I find the entirety of The Only Tune to be very autobiographically titillating.

>>>> What has your audience been like on tour? Indie kids? People dressed for a night at the theatre? Are you ever surprised by who shows up to see you perform?

I am always surprised. Like, literally always. It was different in different cities – I assume you're asking about these most recent shows in the Coastal Areas (+ Chicago). Boston and DC were mainly older, NPR-listening people, with some indie kids scattered around. San Francisco was a lot of young people! I seriously have no idea. I should have handed out a questionnaire. In Montréal, there were a bunch of young, straight-seeming MBA students and law students. What? In L.A. there were a lot of single handsome gays. In New York it was all about 40-year old gay couples. In Seattle one 50-year old couple (straight) turned up like they were going to the opera. A total mystery to me.

>>>> What's the best thing you've learned this week/month?

I finally figured out how to use the expression "I shudder to think" in Icelandic, which is like "shiver with" — very satisfying. Hrylla.

>>>> What have you been reading recently?

Tana French's In the Woods, Chris Bohjalian Midwives, really whatever Oprah tells me.

>>>> Back in 2005, you wrote a cantata based on Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Being a grammar dork myself, I have to ask: what's your favorite didactic example from the book?

"Somebody else's umbrella."

>>>> In previous interviews you've talked about your love of "text and language games," particularly Scrabble. Being a Scrabble dork myself: what's the best bingo you've ever gotten? What is it about taking words apart, not for grammatical or communicative purposes, but to gain more points, that's so exciting?

"Lesbian." I don't know what it is. It's like, motivic development in Brahms or something, re-arranging a scrabble board.

>>>> How many languages do you speak? Do you have a favorite language? Sound? Character? Orthography? Linguistic feature?

I have good English, French and Italian, in that order. Then I have bullshit Icelandic and even more bullshit Arabic. I love the way that Arabic uses a rhythmic pattern to make the difference between words related to the same root. I am also really into the specific Icelandic sounds, especially aspirated consonants and pauses inside words; I'm not going to write you an ipa rendering of it, but check out this webpage: http://accent.gmu.edu/browse_language.php?function=detail&speakerid=94 and have fun.

>>>> One of my favorite parts of your website is reading about your adventures with food. You talk about sauces as narratives, whale recipes, and all the great things you've eaten on your travels around the world. Aside from being delicious, what is it about gastronomy, as an art, that hits home for you and makes it such a big part of your life?

I'm going to give you a long answer, but basically, I had a long conversation with my friend the other night about this. She is a total gourmande and sensual æsthete. We realized that you can divide the world into people for whom eating and sharing a meal is THE social intercourse, and those for whom it is not. For me, it definitely is. When I talk to my mother, or her mother, 95% of the time it's about food: what we're eating, what we're thinking about eating, what color the stalk of a chard might have been. For me, food is really the only thing that there is. It's how I plan my day.