Nico Muhly: being a composer is like being a researcher and a scribe

Nico Muhly: being a composer is like being a researcher and a scribe

Photo by Heidi Solander

Nico, if you needed to explain to a young person what you’ve been doing in your career and what composing is, how would you go about it?

It is a hard question because composing is a verb, literally it means you’re creating something, but so much of what I do is preparing, and researching and thinking, and listening and talking, so the actual act of writing on paper is a small part of my day. Every project has its own issues, so if you’re writing a piece for orchestra that’s a certain amount of writing and thinking that has to happen, if you’re writing an opera it’s a whole different scale, if you’re writing a little song it’s also different. So basically being a composer is like being a researcher and a scribe, and you’ve a lot of different tasks.

Imagine if the language of music was introduced and the normal language disappeared, do you think it would have been possible? Is music just a bonus to our linguistic communication, or is it something essential? Could it have been another version of a language that could have been pushing the existing one outside of  human boundaries?

That’s an intense question! [laughs] I would push back on the question about what literally composing is, as in my practice composing is coding, it’s writing something down in code. I just write on a piece of paper, it doesn’t make any noise, and I can give it only to other people who can read that code. That is a form of musical language, Western notation, as a form of literally someone writing a code, someone else decoding it. There’s that but what I think your question probably refers to is the sound of music, correct?

My line of thought was the following: if we learn how to reflect emotions through singing or playing without words, without meanings, would that be enough? Would we be understood by others? Is music a complement to language or is it standing on its own feet as a language of communication?

That’s a very good question and not one I have really thought too much about, but let me give you an example of how that affects my own practice. If you think about sacred music, music in church, there’s a certain kind of music in church where you know exactly what’s being said, like hymns. One syllable, one note, you know what’s being said. But then if you think about these longer pieces from the 15th century, 16th century, 17th century, in the more florid tradition, you’ve no idea what’s being said because the lengths are all being spread out. But the question of course, which is the sort of what you are asking, is the meaning still there? I think that music is a stylised way of saying something that you could also say this way, but the style is what makes it have a richer and a thicker meaning. A good example would be if you read 19th century opera libretti in Italian: they are illegible and terrible, but when you sing them, they are so beautiful. There’s a sense in which language and music have a kind of… it’s sort of like when yeast causes something to happen, it’s like there’s a little fizz that happens between the two, that would be my initial answer to that prompt. That is a really good question. Also, going back to what I said before, treating music like a language is a useful shorthand for it, but it is also important to talk about it in terms of code. Let’s take Shostakovich for example. With Shostakovich it’s like you can listen to it as pure music, you don’t need to know anything about what was going on in the Soviet Union, but then you realise that he was so often speaking in a double-code, embedding personal information into this other code of musical information. There is a way in which there is this permeability between spoken language and meaning, between what’s on the page and what you hear.

Photo by Heidi Solander

Since you have spoken of the code, then one could ask you: «Is this profession exclusive?» We are to some extent always divided into artists and the ones who perceive their art, and then composers are even more exclusive, as everybody knows composition is a mystic profession, so this encoding — does it put you into a certain group that is hard to enter, become part of?

Well, yes in one sense, but in another sense what you can do is try to make whatever it is that you do really communicative so that the fact that it’s in code doesn’t matter to the people who are hearing it. The fact that it’s been made in this esoteric way that’s like a tradition that passed down through year, when you hear it should vanish. That’s what I think, some people would disagree. It’s also interesting now because you say composing is this esoteric thing, but there’s another thread which is un-notated music, folk music, music that’s passed down through oral tradition, and now there’s a way to make music pretty handily on a computer without worrying about the notation. So you can just take a laptop to make an album, it doesn’t matter what it looks like on the page. I think that’s as valid a technique of composition as any. It’s not what I do but it’s something that I know a lot of great music that I like has come out of that form of making, which I think democratises it in a sense, if that makes sense, it’s like it turns… I mean in the same way it’s like when suddenly after the reformation it’s like you’re not doing church services in Latin any more, you’re doing it in the language where you live, you’re doing it in English, you’re doing it in German, and everyone gets to participate once it leaves the language of only the priests, as you say to use The Magic Flute as an example, only the priests who have access to it.

— In what way do you think your input that was to develop in future is defined by the fact that you’re an American, went to Juilliard School, worked with those collaborators in American, English tradition, Western… say if you were born here in my place, in the Soviet Union, with the same talents, how much it would have affected. So basically, your talent, is it part dependent on the place where you were born and where you started and the tradition…

— Interesting. Let me answer that in a slightly roundabout way. I don’t know very many composers my age who have come out of anywhere like east of Vienna. I can name like three. [Laughs] On the other hand I know 800,000 instrumentalists who’ve come out of the Soviet Union, from Hungary, from Czech Republic, so in my experience that’s the only point of reference that I have to compare. I’ll say that talent is one idea, technique is another idea, and technique not just as it’s like immediate to you, but as a pedagogical thing where it’s like OK this is this tradition that comes out of one conservatory that does this thing, and you see that a lot with string players. You can hear some of a violin for a minute and know if they were trained in Russia, a minute not even like twenty seconds — it’s about the vibrato [laughs] — but there is this technical thing that’s really easy to perceive. What isn’t easy to perceive I think is compositional style any more. It’s unclear to me… I don’t think I would be able to articulate oh that’s a sound that comes from this place, because now it’s like again it’s a little bit more democratised, you can listen to anything from anywhere so you don’t have to be in Darmstadt to write that kind of music if you want to, and you don’t have to be in SoHo in the seventies to write minimalism or whatever, it’s much more accessible. To answer your question, I couldn’t speak to that specifically in terms of being from St. Petersburg, but definitely it’s the case that educational tradition moulds you in a way that is both subtle and really obvious. The other thing that I want to say, that I hope is actually more relevant to your question, is actually the really ugly business of who pays for art to get made and why. That’s something that is really difficult because baked into the world of traditional classical composition is the idea that someone else is going to pay for it. The idea that government’s going to pay for it, or is the idea that the Ballet Russe is going to pay for it, whatever. You don’t think about the money, that’s kind of built into the system and as a result it’s built into the pedagogy because like sure let’s have 200 violinists when you realise there’s like 2 violin jobs in orchestras and you’re just not going to get to be Hilary Hahn. Statistically the educational system is based on there being this infinite landscape, and most of the great music that we like was made in the context of… I’m thinking 19th century and before.. in a context where it was like things are going to get paid for. It’s interesting to me when I meet people my age who come from like the Netherlands where any project they want to do was like so funded by the government, and they’re like I want to write a piece for 97 trombones and all outside and amplified, and the Dutch government’s like «Cool!» [laughs] whereas like my ass….it’s like a very different proposition! [laughs] So that does change what kind of… the kind of resources you have to make music and the kind of venues you have in which to make music. All those things I think have a much more… a much deeper impact on what you create and how you create it. I would also say right now during Covid we’re all having this conversation like what is the literal value of the arts, like literally what is it worth to get people back to a concert. You see yesterday 25,000 people went to the Super Bowl in person and the teams paid for doctors and nurses to get free tickets, can you imagine if they did that like at the Bolshoi Ballet? Can you imagine? It’s such a really interesting thing about value. So, again going back to what you asked, I think it’s less about like what my talent vs style vs nurturing, and more about those institutions and your access to them, and how you navigate that.

Photo by Heidi Solander

— I thought about questions that maybe some people are afraid to ask because they would look stupid. I wonder if I can ask you like I think nobody knows how does the composer… like how do you learn to listen, to imagine first every instrument and then the combination of the instruments before you actually hear them? For a normal person it’s absolutely unfathomable how this thing happens.

— So that’s a really good question and I have a really good answer [laughs]. So, basically, in my experience there’s a triangle, right, and the triangle is this. There’s what music looks like on paper, as in how it’s notated, there’s what music sounds like, as in literally just what you hear, how it fits into your body, so either playing or singing, or playing and whatver, and those things connect. What you do through school is you learn how to make the arrows go both ways. So, if you know how a Brahms symphony sounds, we all know how a Brahms symphony sounds, and then you look at the score and then you’re OK that’s how he got that sound, OK that sound is reflected by that piece of code. Your brain, it doesn’t happen overnight, but your brain through repeated repeated repeated application to that process says, oh this looks like that, that looks like this, this sounds like that, and eventually you perceive that information not as little connections but as big connections in the same way that you learn any language. You know as a speaker of English as a second language that there is a moment where it was just like word to word, word to word, word to word, and then suddenly you’re combining words and combining sentences. Remember the first time you made a joke in another language and you felt that some part of your brain had like [makes popping sound] really done it? That’s what that part of the triangle is. The other part of the triangle is playing it yourself, so sitting down with the score of a Brahms symphony and playing it out and just saying oh this flute line, OK this Bach, this Beethoven, and when all those things are working in unison that’s when you’re able to say OK in my head I hear a certain sound and I think what that sound is made up of is an oboe and a clarinet, and you don’t know where you got that and it might be some Sibelius or it might be not, it might be from Brahms, or you hear this thing and it’s like that’s a marimba and a flute, and it just goes back to that initial process of observation. That is literally how it works, at least in my experience. You just study, study, study until your brain does it automatically and you don’t have to worry about it any more. What this requires is access to an institution that has scores [laughs] or access to the time and resources to do that. That’s literally how I did that, so it’s an easy answer…

— But then you do your composition, how then to be sure that your brain unconsciously does reproduce this Brahms and connections you’ve been trained on? Basically how much you have to absorb yourself in all the previous culture and how do you step out of unconscious dependence on all this culture that you’ve been learning on?

— That’s a really good question and you kind of never get over that. I mean still sometimes I’ll write and I’m like, did I take that from John Adams? and the answer is probably yes [laughs]. So, I don’t know, it’s hard, it’s a weird piece of business and it’s like you… but I think you know, if you’re an author, I think you know if you’ve written a sentence that’s like taken from Dickens or something, you know [laughs]…that’s how I think about it. But the other thing, it’s hard, like you get better each time. I still barely know what I’m doing! That thing you were saying about all te instruments, and the instrumentation, whatever, you learn something about that everyday and it doesn’t matter how or where, if by studying other scores, with your own work it’s by messing up, it’s by getting it wrong. The real scary thing is orchestras, everything else is easier because you have more time to experiment, chamber music, whatever, but with an orchestra you have like 2 seconds to rehearse and you can’t go around re-orchestrating everything so you really have to… if you hear something that’s wrong you have to know immediately how to fix it and you just go up to their music stand and you change one note or whatever it is. But you still get it wrong, I’ve been doing this for twenty years now as a professional and still there are things like ughhh!! that’s not what I meant.

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— Can I ask you, I’m only now beginning to perceive the whole picture of big names and all the composers and performers that exist in the world because in Russia we are sort of a bit fenced off, I only learnt it in London and in England, so my question is was it difficult to become part of the establishment? How does one enter into the field of being commissioned, being considered the person of a certain rank? Is there a hierarchy? How does this whole world of modern composers function and how does it influence your ego and would you have been able to compose if you hadn’t had your successes? How does one sort of relate to one’s own successes when one composes?

— That’s a really hard question and it’s something that I think about all the time. Much of it as like being in the right place at the right time. You’d like to trick yourself and think that it’s literally if you just work hard enough then it happens, of course that’s not true like it’s part of it, you’ve got to, it’s not a magic think, I mean I wouldn’t be able to really tell you like how I did it, but I would say it’s a combination of being here in New York at the right moment, like studying 1999-2001, having sort of a kind of cultural access through Juilliard but also through friends or whatever who were connected to like the outside world aside from the contemporary music world, people who were artists of people who went to Columbia and studied English I knew, a lot of people who weren’t composers. I should preface this by saying none of this is actually advice, this is just what happened [laughs]. So there is that kind of register of my life, and then as with a lot of these things one little thing… a bigger thing… a bigger thing. If I were to be really self-analytical about it I think a lot of it was just really really really hard work on one side of it, but then also being a kind of citizen of like music and just supporting my friends and writing music for my friends, and behaving normally. But you’d actually be really surprised by how many composers just shoot themselves in the foot by being assholes. Like, literally you’ll meet some younger composers who are really talented, really hard-working but they’re just assholes. I wish it were more common, you just think like this is not going anywhere because you’re an asshole [laughs], like you’re not nice to your colleagues, you don’t acknowledge the players when you come on stage, bad in rehearsals, you don’t know how to shake hands with people, it’s like this whole other weird like lack of awareness that this is a community, right?, and it’s not just like you as a genius, so I think a lot of it is that. I just kind of try to exist [laughs] rather than… you know, I think this goes back to something else that we were talking about before which is if you’re told that as a composer you’re like special, and that you exist in this special walled-off world, it’s really easy to forget that there are other people who are involved in this bigger eco-system. It’s the people who programme orchestras, it’s the people who, you know, like, work security at the orchestra… it’s a bigger system, and this isn’t to say like just schmooze, just be charming, because that’s it’s own problem, it’s built in, we really are part of an eco-system and as much as we’d like to pretend that it’s pure music and you just make the music and then you can say whatever you want and behave however you want, it’s just not true anymore [laughs] so, anyway, it’s basically like don’t be an asshole.

— Could you say something about your teachers and to what extent do composition skills and practices and outlooks can be transmitted, or is the teacher just someone who recognises your talent, fosters you, like I would say I read that you studied with John Corigliano, with Christopher Rouse, you worked with Philip Glass, I mention these three people, but can you just say something about the role of teachers in your life?

— So, I want to phrase this correctly. There are a couple of ways I think to approach that form of one-on-one education. I’m thinking now exclusively about John Corigliano and Chris Rouse. I, at that time when I was 18 or 19, I had a lot of holes in my musical knowledge. There was a lot of stuff I didn’t know, and there was a lot of stuff that I felt uncomfortable, well not uncomfortable I just felt insecure about. I treated Christopher Rouse as almost like a doctor where it was like he was there to figure out what was wrong with me [laughs] and to tell me what would fix it. He was very good at that diagnostic… like I can see from looking at your music what you don’t know and so let me give you a bunch of stuff to know, and then let’s have you write things that acknowledge that you listened to this new thing. At that point when your 18 a lot of it is literally just rep, it’s literally just you have to know way more music than you know, and you have to listen to music that you don’t think you like, and you have to listen to obscure music that fell into obscurity for some reason. So with Chris it was very much that, it was like prescriptions for a pharmacist of what I had to listen to and then he trusted, I think correctly, that just that amount of work would kind of infuse the actual pieces, and he was correct in that regard, I started to get more aware and more kind of… just the music was less surface and richer. With John Corigliano, and this is where it gets actually really interesting, I’d gone for a couple of years with Chris, John was like you are really good at spitting out a bunch of notes really fast, every idea is like really bright and brilliant and fabulous and whatever, but it has absolutely no shape or structure and therefore it has no emotional impact [laughs]. Which was true, it was really embarrassing, it was really true. That’s how I wrote. I would sit down and I would have like 16 really good ideas and I would put them in that order [laughs] so it was always like tapas and never an actual meal. What John did, we just did structure basically, like these notes are fine, the rhythms are fine, all that’s fine, but like what does it mean? With teachers like that I think each one has their own pedagogical style and you could make the argument that both of those teachers are pretty technically hands-off, Chris wasn’t like OK with the flute you should double it this way or like this harmonic, it was never that, which some people need, I could probably have used a little bit more. There’s that, and then there’s another thing which is sort of what when I worked with Philip which was really interesting because when I worked for him at no point ever did I ever show him my music. Not once. He knew I was a composer but I never wanted to be like you know can you look at my score? Because I was there for work, I was there to be a good employee. Philip doesn’t teach and what I realised about Philip was that, going back to what we said before about being a kind of citizen of a place, the thing that you learned from Philip is that he owns his own publishing company, owns a production company that handles all his live shows, at that time owned a recording studio, pays his ensemble as salaries, and you realise that time that the composer is at the centre of and responsible to, responsible for and responsible to, a huge group of people, and I can’t tell you how eye-opening that was, the idea that one composer is paying all these people’s health care. That sense of citizenship. Also, when I worked for Philip, much of what I was doing was like MIDI demos for collaborative projects and a lot of those were complicated and one of the things I was shocked by, we were doing a film and the director was like really blunt and like I like this one, this one doesn’t work… I was like you’re just going to tell Philip it doesn’t work? Philip didn’t give a single shit. It was like, OK it doesn’t work? I’ll write another. I was like offended and gasping, and Philip was literally like he took the manuscript, put it over there, and started writing another thing. He was like the most inspirational, inspirational’s the wrong word but it was the most educational moment of my early 20s just to watch this man whose music I admired so much, who can do whatever the hell he wants, just put something aside in the interest of a project, in the interest of the collaboration. He just jettisoned what I thought was a pretty good cue [laughs]. Anyway, that was amazing, and again that’s not something he would set out to teach anyone, you could only perceive it by being there.

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— You mentioned that Chris asked you to listen to all kinds of music and that’s actually what really impressed me in your work, that you have been trying all those different genres in your output, and I wonder first how you decide that you are now moving out of a classical canon and doing this recording or this album with an artist like Björk or others you’ve worked with, and also within say a broad contemporary classical music how do you decide it would now be a solo piece, or an orchestral piece, or a score for film and so on, the genre of your output?

— That’s a really good question also, and I also have a good answer for it which is that even though I’ve done a lot of work, I’ve written a ton, I’m not very ambitious I’m just a hard worker so in a lot of cases these just happen and you just say yes. Like, say yes to everything, that’s been my philosophy. I’m literally not kidding, I have never sought, until like two years ago, I’ve never really actively pursued something specific. I would say that those two albums Speaks Volumes and Mothertongue, those albums that I put on Bedroom Community, those were the result of my not having another outlet to… I’d written all this music that kind of you couldn’t really do anywhere, or you could but it was weird and like… and Valgeir Sigurðsson had this genius why don’t we just start a label? We’ll start a label and just put this stuff out. That was completely serendipitous, there was no plan, I certainly wasn’t like you know in two years I will go to Iceland and make this, it was very organic. Similarly, you know, collaborations with non-classical people it literally is the result of you’re out to dinner with someone and they’re like oh my friend has a band and they’re looking for someone to do strings on it, do you want to? And then you say, yes [laughs]. It’s literally that complicated! Then you do it and it’s great or it’s not, then if it’s great you do another, it happens, and you kind of grow up with these people and it just kind of blossoms in that way. So there’s never a plan. Vis-à-vis just the normal commissions over the course of a year, I think that’s why you’re asking why is this solo piano, why is this orchestral, it literally is just the commissions. I get together with my publishers and we have this big meeting where we plan out when I physically can write something [laughs], for instance an opera, these big operas I have like the ones with the Met, each one takes about 4 or 5 years, 3 or 4 years, to write, and «write» is complicated because it’s like you’re writing but then you’re also revising, sing-throughs, there’s a lot of sub-process to it. So you look at that and then you say, OK within these three years how much other stuff do you have time to do? And the answer is OK maybe I could write two orchestra pieces at some point in there, and everything else needs to be small. At that point it becomes a game of how much stuff can you fit into a small apartment and an opera is like a big couch that you cannot move [laughs], everything else you have to fit around it. There really isn’t any logic to it aside from practicality, but I will say that I personally really like… right now I’m writing actually a solo piano piece and every day that I’m writing it I think to myself, I cannot wait to be done with this so I can write an orchestra piece. Then, when I’m writing the orchestra piece I’ll be in the middle of it and I’ll think I cannot wait to write a piece for like solo tenor, you know what I mean? It’s always nice to have the next thing be different if that makes sense. You set it up that way, I say you set it up that way but again I’m in a position of enormous privilege to be able to even say any of that. [LAUGHS]

— But how you accommodate your personal inspiration and all this composing alone routine that we know about and the need to collaborate, to meet expectations of certain people, like now it’s especially important, as you said, the building of the ecosystem, the collaborations of diverse voices, and also the building of one project is maybe hundreds of people, but then you get into your room, you’re alone and you have to find your own motivation to do it, not depending on this other people?

— That’s also a really good question and hard to answer, but… I don’t know how you function but I always have like a million books that I’m reading, a million like random things that I’m just kind of, you know… and whether or not that’s like, you know, the newspaper, Palestinian cookbook, a nineteenth century novel, whatever it is, I always have stuff happening. I’m just all constant stimulus. Inspiration, meaning like drawing breath, the root of that word, as long as you have things around you that make you gasp you’ve got inspiration. The other thing is to a certain extent so much of my music is about these little linguistic things, a lot of time all it takes is a book, all it takes is the news, all it takes is something, some little tiny thing and then you worry it and you get it kind of agitated. And then also part of it is, and why Covid is so awful, is how much you’re addicted to being with other people. I haven’t heard people play music in the same room as me for months, almost a year, and it’s not just that, it’s like going to someone else’s concert and hearing what they’re interested in. Or it’s like going to some random party in an oboists house and being just like, what are you playing, what’s going on with your crazy boyfriend drama, whatever it is. All that stuff enriches your, you know… do you cook at all?

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— I must confess I don’t!

— OK, well, let me give you examples. Whenever you’re cooking and you get a little scrap of celery, a little scrap of carrot, a little scrap of onion and put it in the stockpot, right, and then you get a little scrap of chicken and you put it in the stockpot, and you always have this boiling thing, you have a chicken stock always going. What goes in there, that’s the stuff that I’m talking about. It’s like the random flotsam that you pick up throughout your day, and it’s very easy to pick that stuff up if you are going to concerts and seeing people, going to dinner and getting drunk with clarinet players or not, whatever. All that stuff is like really important and Covid has made us re-examine where we find that, but it’s still that process.

— We’re talking about collaborations, well we’ve mentioned them, and I’m really interested in this new involvement of yours with the San Francisco Symphony. Have there been any precedents, firstly of such sort of union of people as collaborative partners, and also could you talk about Throughline — have you done anything like this before and what were the… not the technical challenges but what were the mental and compositional challenges for you?

— In terms of artistic partners like that, I don’t know if anything like that specifically has happened before, but honestly like we’re not really sure what it means because it was like Esa-Pekka asked us and we were all supposed to have this gigantic meeting to figure it all out…[sorry my dog is being weird]…so we don’t know what that means. Throughline, so two things. Number one, no I’ve never really quite done anything like that before, but two it kind of was a film score, we record everything separately to click, mix it all together, it’s like a bunch of disparate stuff that you write the piece but all the while you’re thinking but how are we going to record this, how are we going to make this happen. That’s like… in that sense it wasn’t unfamiliar to me, in terms of the process. However, the technical process of doing that is so not mine, that was their genius, like they had a whole team of people who… and we were all learning on the fly. A big difference with doing something like that and a film score, is that they were on these absolutely insane union schedules, they’d go crazy… it was something that was so insane to me like I think everyone should be unionised, that’s great, I also think that what we were kind f navigating was so complicated number one, number two the Covid situation made everything really complicated because it was like there was only a certain number of people allowed on the stage, and like woodwind players had to be in their own thing, there were a lot of extra artistic concerns that were… you know, just made it complicated [laughs].

— In the future would you like to do this, like the things that you would be doing SoundBox, like you would do the curation of the digital programme but also what are your other plans, are you planning to conduct, to compose for the San Francisco Symphony, or is it just to curate…

— I wish I knew. I’ll do one of the SoundBoxes later this season. As you know, like every orchestra in the world is trying to figure out what they’re doing, and no-one knows what it’s going to look like. It’s like, can we in September do a huge orchestral concert? May be. If so, how do I participate and if not, then what…

— I wanted to ask about the operas because actually I’ve seen them because I lived in London for quite a long time. Firstly, how do you choose the subject matter, the librettist, and actually the subject matters are really almost non-conformist I would say, and how do you work on this I would say complicated, sexualised, psychological deeply nuanced subject matter in both America and Britain who are, say, more puritan than some other countries.

— Well, I mean, OK we can talk about them separately because they’re two very different things. Two Boys, the idea was my idea, and the Met was like, what would you write if you wanted to write an opera for us, and I was like that story, it’s crazy. Fine, and they helped me find Craig Lucas the librettist and I talked to Craig and within two seconds we were like Oh My God this is amazing… that was a very fast process. Marnie, Michael Mayer, who directed it, called me up and he said, wouldn’t Marnie be a great opera, and I said yeah! [laughs] and then the Met called two hours later and they’re like, cool. So that was director led and the first one was a more collaborative process. In terms of the sort of sexualisation of both of them, Two Boys was the most tricky but in a sense the easier one because it’s not unlike Cosi Fan Tutte in a way, where disguise is this thing that allows you to treat other people in a different way, and allows you to be treated in a way you want, sometimes. So for the men in Cosi it’s exciting for them to be like new and sexually attractive. I think that’s a thing we all get, I think that’s a cultural… that’s a kind of through line in a lot of places and I think you can’t open up the newspaper in the UK or in America without something like that having had happened. Like all that catfishing… there are a bunch of examples of people who thought that they had like an online girlfriend who was actually some guy. There’s a lot of that. But I think also in the UK that piece registered on the level of the kind of uncomfortable sexuality that you find with kids in the Britten operas, so in Midsummer, in Turn of the Screw, more specifically in Peter Grimes where you don’t quite know what happened, there’s an implication of something sexy but also kind of not quite, I think that’s culturally accessible there. In the States it’s an interesting business because I think you know if you turn on the TV in the States everything is a sex crime [laughs] there are entire shows that are like «Sex Crimes Against Kids», we’re like obsessed with it here, so there’s that. Marnie was more complicated because it is a story that involves sexual assault in the middle of it, but it’s also a story about a woman being observed by men, a woman being antagonised by men, that is not just her but her mothers like entire force, like resisting force, is that energy. There are problems when three people — director, composer and writer — are white guys, all gay [laughs] because it’s like really not specific to our experience, it’s like a couple of things removed from our experience, and in the middle of the first process that’s when all the me too stuff exploded, and that’s when the me too stuff in opera specifically was really coming out and we had to have a big conversation in the process, and it’s hard… it’s hard to tell a woman’s, even a fictional woman’s story with that much sexual menace in a way that feels appropriate. But then what we realised was that as creators we actually had an additional partner, the cast, and we had an additional partner specifically a creative partner in Sasha Cooke who premiered the role at ENO and Isabel Leonard who did it at the Met, both of whom have this… again became creative partners in how we deal with her story, and how we deal with that complicated relationship. I cannot tell you… that going forward that’s always how I want to make an opera is to have the people you’re working with in the room, not just like do what it says in the score and act nice and look pretty on stage, but to really be… like creators in that sense. I think that’s the real way to handle tough material, to treat it in a way much more like a straight play where you really do a lot of work around the table, and you do read-throughs and sing-throughs, and musical processes whose function is to tease out dramatic intensities, I think [laughs]. That’s like my answer to that, it was really tough and we really had to work in this way.

— The final one, which might be a bit controversial, I saw that for Throughline Carol Reilly made an AI composition, and if someone would now tell you, well OK maybe in twenty years AI would have a notebook, as you said it’s now possible to compose on a notebook, your brain wouldn’t be needed any more. How would you answer to this?

— It would be nice to have a year off! [laughs] I don’t know, I don’t know. What was fun about Carol’s machine was that it was smart in some ways and stupid in other ways, and the way in which it was smart was imitative but not generative. So you really got the sense that it was a kind of mimic and not a conversational partner. That of course goes back to Alan Turing and the Turing test and all that stuff. I don’t know… have you seen those Google like dream images where the AI makes an image and you can’t tell what anything is in it? I feel like it will always be like that. I can’t imagine that the technology will get that good that fast, in the same way that remember in the 80s it was like soon robots will take over and robots will do everything, that hasn’t happened and in all those movies in the 80s by 2020 humans will just be in pods and robots will be doing everything… I think, but that’s one of those things also where, you know, when I hear myself say that I realise what’s probably going to happen in like 9 months is some robot’s going to kill me and take over [laughs]. Listen, I’ve got to run, I have to catch a train. Thank you for your questions, really thought-provoking and useful.

— Thank you. I hope to see you either in New York or San Francisco, I really want to go to the US when it opens for visitors.

— When we can, I will raise a glass to you and we will be in the same room.

— Thank you so much.