Three Great Things: Nico Muhly

The brilliant musician and composer, who scored Apple Tv+'s new show Pachinko, on what brings him joy, both at home and on the road.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the release of the limited series Pachinko, an adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s bestselling novel which is currently streaming on Apple TV+, the show’s composer, the celebrated musician and songwriter Nico Muhly, shared some of the things that make his life better. — N.D.

Making Chicken Broth
Right now, I am at a friend’s house in London, and whenever I’m staying anywhere for longer than three or four days, what I love to do is make chicken broth. So, when I arrived, I bought a chicken and a bunch of onions, celery and carrots, and the chicken broth has been on the stove now for about four or five hours. Making my temporary dwelling smell like home is an essential ritual for me if I’m traveling a lot, which I used to do before COVID and I’m now starting to do again. If I’m somewhere that I don’t know well, going to buy all these fresh ingredients is an amazing way to get to know the place, whether it’s Vietnam, Cologne or St Louis. By doing that, you bypass the normal things a visitor is meant to do and see where people buy chicken at! It automatically opens up the city or town to you in a strange way, where you get a sense of how people there actually live.

I’ve been doing this ritual since I started taking longer trips for work, about 15 years ago. Part of it is also that if I’m cooking for myself and am sometimes getting off stage at 11 p.m., it’s so handy to always have something resembling a meal at home, no matter what happens. “Where are we going to eat? Well, I have a whole chicken at home!” It’s kind of like a magic trick.

Bringing home on the road: Nico Muhly makes chicken broth. (Photo courtesy Nico Muhly.)

My parents are both really good cooks and my mother, in particular, is a fervent maker of stock. If she makes a meal that involves bones of any kind, they always get chucked into a pan and turned into broth, so my broth-making habit is just one of the various afflictions I’ve inherited from my family! But it has an enormous power that feels almost occult in its ability to make me feel like I’m in a different space. For me, the smell of the broth is as important as actually eating the chicken, which I may not always get around to doing. But if I don’t, I’ll leave it in my friends’ freezer after I’ve had this magical olfactory moment.

Taking My iMac with Me on the Road
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who’s a photo editor told me that he travels everywhere with his huge iMac. I thought, “Really – how do you do that?” It turns out, they sell gigantic sarcophagi to carry them in, which are just at the limit of what you can check on a plane, and this thing completely changed my life. It used to be that travel was a constant impediment to the feeling I have in my studio in New York, where everything is perfect and things are how I want them to be. But now, wherever I go, I always have this major component of my studio with me, through my computer. Before this, I used to rent a screen and hook it up to my laptop, and inevitably it would make me feel very unwelcome in the place where I was, because gear hire is a shitshow anywhere you go. Literally, the only place in the world where I ever rented a piece of gear and it arrived at the correct time and was the right piece of gear was Phnom Penh. Everywhere else – Paris, London, etc. – is a complete fiasco.

Nico Muhly’s desk setup, including his traveling iMac. (Image via Instagram.)
Nico Muhly’s setup in Paris, where he scored Pachinko. (Photo courtesy Nico Muhly.)

Having my iMac means that the first thing I do when I arrive is unpack my studio, set it up, plug in the keyboard, open up whatever I’m working on and do one thing – like, write one note – just to remind myself that I know what I’m doing. For me, this is an incredibly visceral way to feel OK. And then after I’ve written that one note, maybe I’ll shower or go to rehearsal – and then the chicken broth happens! So by the end of the first day, I’ve got an environment that matches the one inside my head, which is so crucial.

Pieces of Music Timed to Specific Tasks
My last thing is music of specific durations assigned to tasks, pieces of music that I know really well that I use to measure how long it takes me to do something. I’ve found, for instance, that “Music for 18 Musicians” by Steve Reich, which is an hour long, is perfect for a major household task, like seriously cleaning the bathroom or obsessively rolling up T-shirts. “La Valse” by Ravel is 12 minutes and is really good for packing or unpacking. If I have a couple of serious emails to send, I put on “To Zion” by Lauryn Hill, which is just over six minutes long.

There are tons of pieces of music that, for me, occupy that particular space. It’s a way of organizing music that has nothing to do with genre. It’s specifically task-driven, hyper specific and also helps me think about my own sense of scale. It’s like when I don’t have a ruler, I can measure something because I know how wide my handspan is.

The pieces of music are like the broth and the iMac, in that they are things I take with me which are so much a part of my world. There’s a sense of constancy. I encourage Talkhouse readers to learn the measurements of some common pieces they know intimately, so they’ll never forget what 20 minutes feels like. It’s a way of marking time that is beautiful and poetic, as opposed to productivity methods where you set a timer for five minutes, which to me always feels like those scenes in movies where the timer on the bomb is ticking down and you have to work out if you’re going to cut the red wire or the blue wire. That stuff makes me completely insane!

The great thing about classical music is that you can have a single piece that’s an hour long, or you can have Das Rheingold or the Goldberg Variations, but you don’t have to make it so the only way you know what five minutes is is a piece by Bach. You could choose an Everything But the Girl song, if you think that would be the most helpful thing for what you have to do next. It sounds a little bit Rain Man-ish, but I promise you it’s the actual best thing. There’s a Steve Reich piece called “Music for a Large Ensemble” that I use. It’s exactly 15 minutes long and I can deal with my apartment in that time. I don’t mean clean everything, I just mean moving things around so it looks presentable enough in case someone comes over. God forbid.

Featured image of Nico Muhly by Richard Gilligan.

Nico Muhly is a New York-based composer and songwriter. He has collaborated with Björk, the National, Philip Glass, Usher, Antony and the Johnsons and Bonnie “Prince” Billy, among others. You can follow him on Twitter here and visit his website here.