Nico Muhly: From pastries to pelicans – the Britain that I love

As his first opera, 'Two Boys', premieres in London, the young American composer lists seven things about Blighty that give him the most pleasure



Herbert Howells


Herbert Howells is unendingly fascinating to me.

His dates (1892-1983) resist the traditional narrative about how music was meant to modernise itself after the two world wars. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis texts – which Howells set many, many times over the course of his life – have what I call an anti-romantic structure inasmuch as the peaks and valleys of the emotional content do not follow the usual formulas of tension and release one finds in Bruckner. Howells found ways to imbue the texts with ecstatic romantic sensibilities while keeping them appropriate for the intimacies of worship. In the final two minutes of his 1944 Te Deum setting for King's College, Cambridge, the line "vouchsafe O Lord to keep us this day without sin" floats downwards in the trebles and picks up speed and mass through a series of unisons until exploding on the text, "O Lord, in thee have I trusted; Let me never be confounded." It is one of the 20th century's most spectacular crescendi. In this opera I have just finished, Two Boys, the libretto calls for one scene to happen during an evensong service. I imagined that the church in which this takes place had, perhaps, commissioned a set of preces and responses from Howells in his later years, and has been singing them twice a year since 1964; the result is, I hope, a fitting homage. Like Howells, I have always had a huge love for Byrd and Gibbons, and have arranged their choral music for small ensemble as a form of devotional mnemonic – I get as far as I can from memory before consulting a score. Three of these arrangements appear on Seeing is Believing, my new album, which Decca is about to release with the young British Aurora Orchestra; many of the musicians (save the conductor, who had a choral background himself) had never heard these motets and, as a result, bring a refreshing perspective to their realisation.

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and the swan...

I am obsessed by the time that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies ate that swan [in 2005]. It brings together many of my loves: music, game birds, terrine, Udal law, and English tradition. Orkney, apparently, still loosely observes a Norwegian legal code of property ownership and when a swan hit the phone lines near Sir Peter's house, he felt it appropriate to make a "delicious terrine" out of its meat, after dutifully calling the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

St John Restaurant

The bar at the St John restaurant in Smithfield is, I think, the handsomest room in the world. One walks in via a spare, white, sun-drenched corridor, passing a slightly elevated dining room at shoulder-height. The ceiling opens up into a cathedral-like space, painted white, with white coat hooks and an uncompromisingly concrete floor. The effect is austere and religious, but fundamentally romantic: the smells of the pastry kitchen are welcoming to an extreme. When I lived in Smithfield last year, I came here at least twice a day. The menu quietly refutes all the stereotypes about English food I grew up with: the food is unapologetically English (going so far as to call crème brûlée "burnt cream") but insistent in combining great English ingredients: snails and oakleaf lettuce, gulls' eggs and Cornish new potatoes.

The pelicans of St James's Park

I adore the pelicans in St James's Park. A few years ago, one of them was caught on video eating a pigeon whole, and it sparked, for some, an interest in cannibalistic tendencies in birds. Did everybody know that the pelicans were a 1664 gift from the Russian Ambassador? A spokeswoman for the park observed at the time that "birds used to human contact tend to be much more opportunistic"; I don't think I have ever been happier than when I read that.

Alan Hollinghurst

England has maintained, in Alan Hollinghurst, the art of the perfect sentence. All musicians should get involved in these sentences: they are tightly coiled but luxurious, meaningful without being wasteful. On an outfit (from The Swimming Pool Library): "I had come along in what was virtually a pair of pyjamas – a super-light African cotton outfit, the queenery of which was chastened by a hint of martial arts." It's devastatingly efficient, and the wordcraft speaks, I think, across genres into, say, what it means to write a wonderful phrase for a clarinet in a chamber music context. He has a new book – The Stranger's Child – out right now and I am twitching with anticipation.

Benjamin Britten

The other ghost who looms over Two Boys is Benjamin Britten (inset below). I had the pleasure of seeing English National Opera's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which teases a disturbing subtext out of the opera and puts the music into chilling, shimmering relief. One of the many things I have stolen from Britten in Two Boys is his abstract, stylised use of Balinese gamelan. The last few minutes of Death in Venice – one of his last works – uses mallet percussion and strings in a misty dissolve that asks as many questions as it answers. I use this as a springboard for many of the vague online and offline musical spaces in Two Boys.

The Wilton Diptych

Whenever I have a few moments free in London, I go see the Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery. It's two late-14th-century two-sided panels, four images in total, which make a gorgeous and abstract symbolic poetry. The inside panels depict Richard II kneeling before angels surrounding the Christ Child held by the Virgin, whose blue robes are the absolute best lapis lazuli colour ever. You really should go and see the Diptych if you haven't recently; there are too many things to think about; the red shoes, the white hart's gracefully bent knees, the weirdly proportioned flowers, Edward the Confessor's intense side-eye. It's about the size of a laptop, and yet....

'Two Boys' opens at the London Coliseum on 24 June and runs to 8 July. For tickets visit eno.org or call 0871 472 0600. 'Seeing is Believing' (Decca Classics) is available now

Curriculum Vitae

Nico Muhly is, according to one British newspaper, the "planet's hottest composer". Certainly, at just 29, he has an enviably long, varied and hip CV: he has worked with Björk, Antony and the Johnsons, and Bonnie Prince Billy, among other alt.pop luminaries; he also scored the 2008 film adaptation of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader. All this is built on an impressive record of choral and orchestral compositions: Seeing is Believing, Wish You Were Here and Detailed Instructions.

Muhly is currently putting the finishing touches to his first opera, Two Boys: its libretto is by Craig Lucas, and, says Muhly, it "deals with the romance and the violence that come with living a life online".

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?