Interview with Nico Muhly

It’s easy to think of the horrible toll that the costliest attack on American soil took on this country, let alone the devastation it wreaked across the sea for the payback we demanded. But while the more visceral imagery of crashing planes, rockets’ red glares and invading armies are more the stuff of cinema, the “quieter” work of settling accounts to those who lost their loved ones and businesses deprived of prized employees is far subtler, and arguably more challenging to depict and score. 

“Worth” on Filmtrax

Yet “Worth” is no less wrenchingly powerful, given the sensitivity of director Sara Colangelo (“The Kindergarten Teacher”) and the astutely written dialogue of Max Borenstein (“The Terror”) for this Netflix film that depicts the near-impossibly calculations of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. It’s head lawyer Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton) is voluntarily tasked with staving off the economy’s potential bankruptcy by the righteously aggrieved – but only if they’ll all agree to join a settlement where one calculation doesn’t fit all. With a looming deadline to collect thousands of signatures to join and all-or-nothing pact, Feinberg ultimately must look outside the numbers and into his soul to find the solution as his legal team face stories of anguish and anger on the path to some sort of financial justice.

Composer Nico Muhly (photo by Heidi Solander)

Given understandably big emotions, “Worth” works exceptionally well in terms of its intelligence, subtlety and ability to think outside of the box – qualities that befit the career and this particularly impactful score by Nico Muhly. Equally adept on the Avant garde musical stage, creating alt. rock rhythms and standing in front of a conductor’s podium, the Julliard-trained Muhly has numerous solo pieces to his credit while collaborating with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, The Metropolitan Opera and Glen Hansard. 

As the next-gen protégé of modern classical and film scoring icons John Corigliano and Philip Glass, Muhly has also crafted no end of inventive film scores that have often merged melody with offbeat orchestrations. He’s gave devilish birth to “Joshua’s” bad seed, rhythmically weaved sexual intoxication with historical sin in “The Reader,” abetted poetic murder in “Kill Your Darlings” and heard the height of elegance for a miniseries of “Howard’s End” miniseries. Muhly’s score for “Worth” is no less striking in taking an emotional road less travelled. Using a chamber-like approach, the composer creates a sorrowful, yet pensive main theme that says equally well with a few musical words what a larger orchestral requiem for the fallen might. Strings, eerie metallic effects and piano create an unbearable sense of intimacy with the wrenching stories the lawyers must hear day after day, while spare percussion counts down the months, and finally hours to a do-or-die settlement. It’s a deeply felt musical expression of personal tragedy uniting America’s modern day of infamy that shows Muhly’s impressively singular voice, here evocatively expressing a price beyond measure with an impressive subtlety that befits “Worth.”  

Composer Nico Muhly at the piano in a live performance at LPR on May 14, 2013 (credit NPR)

Do you think that having parents involved in dance and documentary filmmaking made you take a more alternative career as a musician as opposed to a composer who would have been influenced by more mainstream music or film scores?

Because my dad was a documentary filmmaker and my mother was a painter, our house was surrounded by people who made both mainstream art, and art that was not. In the 80s, I remember my dad watching a lot of weird art films by people like Peter Greenaway. It was an amazing time to come of age because there was this experimental streak in films.

You studied with John Corigliano and then developing your skills under Phillip Glass as a programmer and conductor. What was it like learning from these icons of modern classical music, and what do you think were the most interesting things that you discovered about their approach?

The great thing about studying with John Corigliano is that he’s a maniac for structure. So everything that he does is planned out really meticulously in terms of how the musical shapes work before any notes get involved. That was an amazing thing for me to learn, and something necessary for me as a young composer who had a million ideas but no real way to put them in a good order. Philip was a whole different thing because I never studied under him, but I was a sort of factotum type. In a lot of cases I was taking his manuscripts and sequencing them into the computer, which at that time was digital performer to make demos for him. So in that way I got to know his music incredibly intimately. Philip’s music is interesting because there’s very, very little to it. It’s not over complicated, but it has to be just right. Like if there are just three elements to a piece, then you can’t mess that up. You’ll hear echoes of that in “The Reader” where I try to do cues with just a piano and two lines of strings. So you have to be meticulous about what notes you choose if you’re not going to use a lot of them. 

Nico Muhly at the Singapore International Festival of the Arts (credit Popspoken)

Were there alternative composers or other scores that influenced you?

It’s tricky, because I think the things I like the most and what I write are different. I’m obsessed with those early Michael Nyman scores for Peter Greenaway’s films. I also love Michael’s score for “Gattaca.” I think it’s less about me loving scores so much as if the scores themselves are successful in the film – whether or not it’s “Lord of the Rings” which is genius, or “Rosemary’s Baby,” which has very little music in the film. I think I have a pretty oblique relationship to scores in that respect.

What was it like having your first studio film with “Joshua?”

It was a great experience, because it’s so rare that I get to use spooky sounds, so that was really fun. It was also a very difficult process because you have to maintain something nice about Joshua. You can’t go too dark with him too soon. It was a very finely calibrated score.

What was the challenge of scoring “The Reader” where it’s a sensual film involving a woman with an unimaginable past?

There were a bunch of challenges with “The Reader” logistically and artistically. But the main thing was if the score should know that she was a monster in some way. Like is the score floating above the relationship moment to moment, or is the score floating above her. What is the score’s moral sensibility? There’s an amount of foreshadowing that you can do to her that is totally inappropriate, and there is an amount of foreshadowing that you can do that is not enough, which makes it seem like it’s a love story gone wrong – which in some ways “The Reader” is. I think the score had to do a lot of heavy lifting but a lot of subtle work. That was something that took a very long time to calibrate with Stephen Daldry. I ended up making a bunch of different versions of the same cues, where one would express the young character discovering his budding sexuality, and the other would be like “She’s a spider! Get out of the room!” 

Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” has since become a cult film after the years it took to see his vision get released. What was that experience like of scoring a film with that kind of elongated process?

I don’t know what to say about “Margaret” because it was such a crazy process. All I know is that I have rarely dealt with someone as smart about music as Kenny. His sensibility is based on these very, very, very long cues. The magic of working on “Margaret” was that he’d have a six-minute-long helicopter shot, or these very, long intense conversations that he temped with Wagner. You think “How can I compete with that?” A lot of it was figuring out these gigantic structural shapes and hoping that you can sustain the energy as well as the overture to Lohengrin! 

Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and Nadia Sirota perform the closing track off ‘PLANETARIUM.’  
Annabel Edwards / NPR

How was it to maintain one foot in the composing world, and the other involved with alt. rock and concert works. Would you say one was more important than the other?

I try not to think of this idea of being a film composer, or a classical composer and the alt. rock and concert and this, that and the other thing. I think it’s all a function of time and place. If you were living in New York in the late 90’s, it was a very natural thing for me and my singer-songwriter friends at Julliard to get involved in rock music, so you write that kind of music. So I didn’t have any need to think that “this is one area and the other area.” The biggest “difference” for me is the time scale. Someone can commission me to write an opera three years in advance, where someone could call up and say “Hey! I need some arrangements for this song three weeks in advance.” So in some sense you need to have all of your classical muscles in really good shape for what will be the sprint of a film score. 

WORTH (2021) Michael Keaton as Ken Feinberg Cr: NETFLIX

How did you come to “Worth’s” attention?

I don’t know how they found me for “Worth.” Sarah called me up, I saw the film and it was beautiful. But it’s weird, because it’s hard to have a 9/11 movie which is about the law. But that’s what’s fascinating, because all of us who were there when 9/11 happened had an incredibly visceral experience. Not just during the day, but over time. I was a junior in college when it happened. There were so many different ways to react to 9/11, and so much information and noise. You could read every word in The New York Times and watch CNN. You could think about 9/11 totally politically or totally emotionally. There was so much going on. What “Worth” opened up for me was that there was this whole other layer of ramifications of that day. In a strange way, we were almost more aware because of the military response and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the hunting down of the culprits. That was easier to engage with then what turned into this very intense series of nested legal things. I love having the opportunity to focus on this one thread of it. What’s so beautiful about “Worth” is that it treats itself very seriously. It asks these larger questions about the value of human life. People’s jobs include this kind of work surrounding tragedy. It’s a real thing and it’s happening thirty blocks from where I’m sitting right now. 

What was your approach to the score?

I wasn’t going to write Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” for this. And it’s a bigger question of when you’re working with the combination of numbers and emotion, the music has to belong to both. So it can’t be only playing emotional content. I can’t be only playing ticker tape contents. You have to combine it. I tried to keep the score relatively simple and small, which I had to for obvious reasons.   

Michael Keaton, Director Sara Colangelo and Director of Photography Pepe Avila Del Pino. Cr: Monika Lek/NETFLIX

What did Sarah want the score to accomplish?

She wanted the score to accomplish the same thing that she did with the movie itself. It was to show how Ken comes to grips with how he’s being too straightforward. So the music has to occupy two different spaces which is what the film does. It’s procedural with a sense of pulse and direction, and also something quite heartfelt, which we slowly get to. So it’s not too much too soon. It’s about the music tracing the transition from something procedural to something emotional. 

There’s a particularly eerie metallic effect that we hear in cues like “Pentagon in Flames” and “Charles Wolf” that convey the unimaginable impact of 9/11. How did you achieve a subtle effect to convey that kind of enormity?

I used scraped metal, odd, distant percussion and kind of “uncomfortable” things. It was a deliberate attempt to not make the music overly beautiful and not make it overly sentimental. So you have this scraped metal, a few little strings and piano. It feels like a desolate ensemble. 

WORTH (2021) Stanley Tucci as Charles Wolf. Cr: NETFLIX

“Worth” is a legal suspense film where there might not be a courtroom scene, but there is a looming deadline. How did you want to connote that struggle to the finish line?

I think that there does have to be a “ticking clock” sensibility. The thing that’s important in a movie that’s so beautifully shot is to never let it feel like a series of episodes, but to make it feel like we’re aiming for one kind of day. 

How did you want the music to get across the existential idea of how much one’s life is worth?

I don’t think that’s exactly the score’s job. And if it was the score’s job, I don’t know how I would react to it. If the score knew how much one’s life was worth than that would be very complicated to do! And I think more specifically, what you’re trying to do when Ken is visiting the widowers of victims is to let the music kind of hover above that situation to make it very human.   

Was “Worth” psychologically difficult to score?

I think at a certain point you have to watch it a million times and be psychologically affected by it, but also to treat it with a certain distance. At least for me that’s the only way I think I can do a good score, which is by constantly zooming out and looking at shape rather than looking at each individual emotionally intense moment, of which there are so, so many here. 

WORTH (2021) Michael Keaton as Ken Feinberg and Stanley Tucci as Charles Wolf. Cr: NETFLIX

There’s a funny bit in the film where Stanley Tucci’s character says, “I don’t understand music you have to struggle to listen to.”  

It was a treat for me to work on a movie where anyone talks about music with any degree of specificity! I think I’ll happily confess that I’m not a composer who can write a big romantic theme, or the kind of epic music that other composers are so good at, and whom I admire greatly for their ability to do so. For me scoring is about atmosphere and really subtle gradations of things that I wouldn’t say are cerebral but are occupying this sort the life of the mind and physical world in equal measure.

Do you think “Worth’s” score has a sense of optimism at the end?

Yes, there’s a sense of resolution, but there’s also a sense of uncertainty in this image of the house that Ken’s been building. It’s an image of reconstruction and an image of home that cannot be made to sound overly simple or overly resolved. So I tried to keep the music very vague, and I think that’s something that Sarah knew that she wanted from the very, very beginning of the score. She didn’t want the ending to be a kind of Wagnerian “triumph,” but it would be something much more subtle. 

Tell us about your upcoming score for writer-director Stephen Karem’s urban thriller “The Humans.”

I’ve known Steven for a million years, and this is his first time directing. It’s an unbelievably beautiful film and the score get right out of the way. It belongs to the setting of the film’s apartment. It’s a very intense and subtle thing and I’m really happy with it. There’s not much music, but it has a big impact. 

How has the covid situation inspired your creativity? 

Covid has been an absolute nightmare. Anyone who tells you that it’s been creatively great is lying. I think it’s a complete and avoidable disaster. I’m shocked that we’re still in it. 

(photo by Heidi Solander)

What kind of resonance do you think that “Worth” will have with 9/11’s 20thanniversary, especially as the entire world is now gripped in tragedy?

AS a New York, thinking and reading about 9/11as we come up on the 20th anniversary is intense, but it’s something that we’ve processed in our own ways and there’s no one way to specifically be devastated or not. I hope that everyone watches “Worth” with a mind towards these other narratives about 9/11 besides the bigger geo-political ones we know so well. “Worth” is a smaller story that’s unknown to a lot of people, but it sits very large and touches on many things. It’s about the heart-wrenching effect not just with the people who were directly involved with it, but the ripples that came from it that affected everyone. As always, I hope the music has been in some way part of telling that story by sometimes lifting the film, and at other times getting out of the way of it.  

Watch “Worth” on Netflix, with Nico Muhly’s soundtrack available on Atlantic Records HERE

Visit Nico Muhly’s website here