Nico Muhly vs. Rival Consoles: The Long and Short of it

Music Features Nico Muhly
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Ryan West’s new album Howl, recorded under his Rival Consoles moniker, doesn’t fit easily into any box. The skittering beats of his nine-song cycle sit comfortably new to acoustic guitar lines, live-recorded percussion, voice modulation, and even a cello. Neither ambient or dance music, his minimalist compositions sit comfortably between the two worlds, drawing the listener in with an undeniable, unhurried grace. It’s a beguiling blend. Even if it means (much to the chagrin of lazy journalists and record shop employees everywhere) that yet another nail in the whole “genre is passé” coffin has been hammered into place.

It figures West would call experimental composer Nico Muhly a friend. Since 2006 the New York/London-based West has made a career out of blurring musical boundaries, creating string compositions indie mainstays such as Grizzly Bear, Antony and the Johnsons, and Jónsi, in addition to pursuing his own choral, piano, and orchestral compositions. In 2011 he premiered Two Boys in London, a production considered to be the first Internet-inspired opera.

Surrounded by the renovation dust of his newly appointed studio, Muhly called West to discuss the ins and outs of Howl, classical verses club music, and why Dolly Parton may be the only one who has it all figured out.

Nico Muhly: You sound great. Do you feel great?
Ryan West: Do I feel great? A little bit tired. We just did a 10-hour drive. But I’m ready for the interview!

Muhly: Tell me about your life right now. What’s been the last 24 hours?
West: I had a show in Glasgow. It went really well. We had a few drinks. Had some great food. Then drove through the beautiful north of England.

Muhly: Tell me about the shows. How long are the shows?
West: I perform for an hour.

Muhly: Who all comes to these shows? What’s the main demographic?
West: It’s different really. Last night it was very much students and then some people in their 30s. I don’t really know other than age how to describe them. It’s quite varied.

Muhly: What were they wearing? And were they on MDMA?
West: Not really. I don’t think I appeal to a sort of audience that loves taking drugs. What were they wearing? They were wearing Yves Saint Laurent suits. Top hats. I don’t know. Regular people. [laughs]

Muhly: I’ve listened to your album now at every imaginable time of day. And in a few different contexts, actually. I listened in the car; I listened very early in the morning, because I’m keeping U.K. time right now…I’ve listened very late at night. What’s interesting about it is that it has a different effect at different times of day. It can work quite successfully as a slightly drunk slightly druggy, everyone’s moving together, waiting for the revelations and the beats to change. In a subtle and mature way, though. You’re not dropping four on the floor. It reminded me a couple of months ago, in an inexplicable way; I ended up at a Jon Hopkins show at three o’clock in the morning. You realize the fun of such music is the context in which it’s heard.
West: Yeah of course.

Muhly: Making music that’s primarily electronic is an intimate act, right? It’s something that I imagine happens in your small workspace. Then suddenly it transforms into something that a bunch of people are involved in. Especially when you’re in touring mode. I’m wondering what you think of the transference between the conditions between which it’s created and the conditions in which it’s received.
West: I think the thing I’ve learned over the last five years is the best thing to have is a carefully considered set of ideas that aren’t too ridged. I don’t like the idea of beautifully crafting something at home and then not knowing what the hell to do with it live. So I tend to be quite sparing with the details of my ideas. Live I can explore them in quite a free way.

Muhly: Right. So you react to the space and react to the mood.
West: Yeah, always.

Muhly: Do you always do the same set list?
West: No, it’s been changing quite a lot. Certain points will reoccur at the same time. But generally there’s quite a lot of movement. I don’t let the audience fully dictate what I do. I don’t play too much to what the audience wants. Which sounds a bit mental.

Muhly: I think the sign of a good concert, I would say, is a friendly antagonism between performer and audience. You don’t want to go and hear exactly what you thought you were going to hear. You want to be slightly jostled by it. What’s also interesting to me about this album in context of your work, it feels like you’re operating in pieces like “Howl” where you don’t give everything away at once. There’s this sense of new information being revealed slowly. It’s not the fast revelations of a whole new door opens. It’s a different thing, sort of like a ship hoving into view. I’m wondering if you agree or disagree with this observation.
West: Yeah, I think so. Although I think I’m still a little bit, even with this album, too impatient. I think it could be stretched out even further so there’s a much more confidant gradual development of an idea. That’s the sort of thing that I’m interested in.

Muhly: Another reason why I say “hoving into view” is exactly for that reason. It feels like there could be a live edition of this material that contains only four of the songs or something. Each one going on for 15 minutes. There’s a density of information. The sonic landscape of each piece, I feel like wouldn’t work live in that way. In “The Three Laments” you have this mellotron idea where I feel like unless you really have those instruments live onstage, it wouldn’t quite work.
West: Actually that was my voice. That piece of music is purely my voice. That synth sound. That was played live with no editing, apart from the fact I cut off a little bit of it at the end.

Muhly: Really? How does that work? I don’t believe you. Let me check that. [Cues up the track] When you play it live, do you play it back or recreate it?
West: No I haven’t done that live and probably won’t ever do that unless it’s a really small gig. If I did I wouldn’t sample my voice again. What’s really special about that particular point in time is that when I sampled my voice my ex was saying something in the back quite noisily. There’s a lot of disruption to the tone, but not in a way that you can recreate easily.

Muhly: I suppose having people milling around and buying drinks might create its own serendipitous, Cagean moment. Or you could just get the ex-girlfriend back on stage. I’m sure she has some shit she’d like to say to you.
West: [laughs] Yeah! That would be a very different piece.

Muhly: That would be four laments, I would imagine. I feel like there’s a lot going on sonically that is the result of extreme transformation that starts with something intimate and then becomes radically changed. Do you feel comfortable talking about that stuff? Or would you prefer it remaining a mystery?
West: No, not at all. I’m happy to talk about anything in detail.

Muhly: What would you consider to be the most radical transformation on the album. What started at A and ended at Zed?
West: I don’t think there’s anything to radical on the album, really. I just think it’s quite raw and rough around the edges. I don’t ever do anything super technical, because I’m not interested in gimmicks.

Muhly: You’ve got dear cellist Peter Gregson growling around on there. You never expose it for exactly what it is. Do you agree?
West: Yeah. It serves the piece.

Muhly: It’s interesting. I feel in that case, you’re using the instrument in the most radical sense of that word. It’s an instrument that exists to serve the composition. Which is exciting. I always get nervous when I read press releases about anything. I read this and I was like, “Oh shit, it’s going to be electronic music with a long cello lament over the top of it.” I thought, oh fuck; they’re going to be selling this at Starbucks within 15 minutes.
West: No! I wouldn’t do that.

Muhly: How do you find that experience of shopping for sounds not generated by your own body or own hand?
West: Well I dictated what Peter played.

Muhly: If you dictated what he played, why did it have to be another human being? Couldn’t you just get a cello and growl around? Did you find the back and forth necessary?
West: I just wanted to have an acoustic instrument that had a timbre, which, in my head, blended nicely with the synth sound itself. It didn’t matter what instrument it was. The musicianship wasn’t at the forefront, really. It’s more the sound itself.

Muhly: Right. That’s why I say it’s shopping. It’s buying groceries. It’s the turnip itself rather than what you’ve done to it. You’re going for the essence of the thing as it relates to your process.
West: Yeah, it’s very discreet. Obviously many people wouldn’t notice it’s on the actual track.

Muhly: And I think that’s the fun of it too. It’s buried treasure. Are there other acoustic instruments buried in this album?
West: Yeah, there’s some acoustic classical guitar. There’s also a lot of genuine drums which I’ve recorded. Various things. But not in an over the top, over produced way. Tiny little moments that support the overall structure.

Muhly: In the most vulgar way, talk me through your process. Is it fast? Is it slow one? Is there a lot of hand-wringing? Let’s talk about “Morning Vox” in that regard. I’m interested in how you put this together.
West: The synth in that song is actually my voice, again. I just like how basic it is, but it still manages to express something that’s quite genuine to me.

Muhly: The processed voice is always genuine, isn’t it? You can do anything to it and it still feels like the origin is human.
West: Hardly no effort was put into a simple chord progression which to me felt like it had its own sort of momentum. Obviously when you make music it’s nice when you come across things that seem like they have their own momentum rather than over laboring or injecting interest or energy into things. This is just born out of these two simple phrases, with one of them shifted up an octave. I’m a big fan of songs where you have a very casual melody that repeats for a long time. It’s almost irritating, and then it will shift up an octave, and for some reason that’s a massive resolve.

Muhly: Well it is. It feels like something on the ground has become effervescent. It’s a sense of ‘Oh, it has a spring in it that I didn’t realize.’ I’m thinking about this area in the middle [plays clip] There’s this breakdown. All of a sudden we have these eruptions. What’s interesting to me about this track, it seems to obey a song written structure that’s quite traditional, where you have things that repeat, and then you have a middle eight and a breakdown. I’m wondering if you agree or disagree.
West: Yeah, completely. A lot of my writing is just exploring traditional values in music.

Muhly: What would be the extremely patient version of this song? You say it’s that balance, where something has become almost annoying when you’ve repeated it enough. Is there a version of this that’s 20 minutes long? You could envision expanding it into a more patient structure? If so, how?
West: There’s where I’m heading now. Let’s see what happens when you take the ideas that exist in something like that and really stretch them out and really allow them to develop. My problem is that I grew up listening to British pop music, which is super dense. It’s taken me so long to slowly step out of those waters. I’m on the path to stretch things out and really allow things to develop at their own pace. But it’s a massive learning curve. That’s what I’m going to be doing next, I think.

Muhly: Longer structures?
West: Yeah, much longer structures. I feel like it might actually compliment my writing style.

Muhly: I think the material is interesting and good enough to deserve a longer roll out. The fun thing about a pop song is that you can’t and shouldn’t expand it. For me, the epitome of a thing being the right length is the Dolly Parton song “Jolene.” You couldn’t take a second away from it; you couldn’t add a second to it. It’s as long as it needs to be. When you say dense, that’s sort of what I mean. What you’re up to, it’s less about a density and more about being coiled. And something being dense in the way that pastry is. It’s like that horrible thing that they say, where the human body has something like 87 jillion miles of intestine in it. What’s that gross shit they’re always saying? If you lined up all your veins you could be in China. That to me is interesting about this. Then again, there are other pieces like “Walls.” “Walls” to me feels like it obeys the Dolly Parton-esque thing where the bass comes in in a way I’m satisfied in, specifically where in time it happens.
West: I like that Dolly Parton comes to mind while listening to one of the tracks on the album. It’s good.

Muhly: I think so. We’ve all got to listen to something. Do you agree with that? I feel like some of the things want to be extended, but I think others happen in these lengths, in these comfortable three or four-minute compartments. What’s your relationship to length?
West: I usually do have a sense when I’m making music that I gravitate towards the three-to-four-minute mark. I’m trying to condition myself out of this. But it takes a lot of time.

Muhly: What are you listening to that helps you with that process? Is there someone living or dead or in between that’s exploring length in a way that you like?
West: There are too many composers to name. But if you want one, Thomas Tallis. The English composer. The piece that’s constantly meandering between major and minor.

Muhly: What’s interesting about him is that he wrote before we had a sense of romantic structure in classical music. Before you had a theme and a development and a climax, then everyone goes home. This existed in a much more spiral, ecclesial way.
West: The best example ever is that John Cage piece that’s 369 years long.

Muhly: Right. He’s the ultimate of patience.
West: In electronic music in the club people tend to massively stretch things out anyway. Probably unlike any other genre of music. That’s something that influences me. Even if I don’t like the track, when I’m in the club I really value this formulaic patient structure that’s present in all the pieces. It’s pretty bizarre.

Muhly: I agree. It’s something that you don’t value if you’re listening to it in your car.
West: Yeah, it’s like you started off the interview. The context of the space dictates a lot. I don’t know—if you were to write a big ensemble piece would this attitude kick in?

Muhly: It’s an interesting question. In a lot of cases, especially classical music, it’s always programmed. For instance, you go to the concert and your piece is second out of four. Your sense of how time is perceived during that is very challenged. People need to go to the bathroom. They’re annoyed. It’s too long. The thing before it was the wrong length. There’s always these things and you can’t control the context. This is why the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s was so interesting. Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Many of their pieces were self-contained environments. The whole evening would be Music For Eighteen Musicians. You can control people’s expectations. The same way if you go to the club. You’re completely in someone else’s hands. Which is a nice feeling. When you go to a restaurant you don’t have to order anything. Okay, good. We’ll just be fed. I think that’s an interesting thing in your journey towards patience—which sounds like the worst lesbian band ever—maybe to look at this music and lean back into them. With your music, sometimes it feels composed how I understand them, and other times it feels like it could be happening for a day before you turn it on and it could continue to happen for a day after you turn it off. The same material. I think that’s what’s so successful about this album of yours.
West: Obviously when you make music you have this ridiculous relationship with it. I don’t know if you get this, but as soon as I release something, I become acutely aware of ever single weakness and problem in it.

Muhly: I’m aware of it the whole time. I’ve gotten so used to the taste of self-doubt and loathing. It’s that thing that you put on your nails to keep from biting them, and somehow you become addicted to that. You start putting it on chips or whatever. Do you already feel a distance form this material?
West: Obviously you can always make things better. I get to the point where there has to be a genuine urgency behind the decision-making. People, especially in electronic music, gravitate towards finessing things and making them better just from a sonic point of view rather than from a thoughtful compositional point of view.

Muhly: If there’s one thing to take away from all this, it’s exactly that. You’re thinking both sonically and compositionally in active ways. I agree. I think a lot of cases you get into a situation where the sonic stuff is the active thought and the compositional thought is passive. It’s an accident rather than a plan.
West: Yeah.

Muhly: That’s really all I had to ask. I think what’s exciting about this is we’ve talked about the album, but we’ve sort of made a plan for you for the next one.
West: The next one I want to be more mature about making compositional decisions. It’s as simple as that.

Muhly: That’s true of all of us, right? The minute you finish one thing it’s like, “My God! Was I 18 years old? How could I be so stupid?” Well I’m going to let you go back to your toils. But congratulations on this, it sounds really great.