Sound bites: Nico Muhly

'The Reader'

Given his age, Nico Muhly has developed quite an impressive repertoire. The 27-year-old Columbia U. graduate and Juilliard-trained composer cut his teeth working side by side with Philip Glass on “The Hours,” and his orchestral compositions have been showcased worldwide.

Now it’s his work on the “The Reader” — for which he was handpicked by producer Scott Rudin — that Muhly says represents a kind of maturation in his music education.

The film’s open-ended nature and moral ambiguity posed certain challenges for the composer.

“It’s a score that wants to remain morally ambiguous,” he says. “So I tried to use a sort of minimal amount of material.”

He wrote and fine-tuned the score in two months, working with helmer Stephen Daldry to help pin down the film’s complex moral issues and how to represent them through music.

Muhly says he avoided using period or regional instruments to help cohere the three-decade-spanning narrative, explaining that doing so would have given the film an overt “terrestrial” or “grounded” feeling. Instead, he relies on a repeating piano and string motif. This theme is most prominent in the beginning of the pic and at the end, providing “a sort of self-referrential sandwich,” as Muhly puts it. But the composer was careful not to intrude on the pic’s emotional payoff. “I almost never resolve a cue,” he says. “They all hang.

“There were such strong moral connotations to the music, the difference between one note and another note could have completely changed … the emotional impact,” Muhly says. “It really challenged me to not make decisions based on, ‘Oh, I like the way that sounds,’ but really try to think about what the consequences of having heard these notes and these rhythms in that order might be.”

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