Frank Sinatra famously sang of New York that it's the city that never sleeps. The other night I was reminded of those nocturnal whirrings that prove Old Blue Eyes true. Walking the streets of a quiet Chinatown, Sunday nearing midnight, I noted a well-dressed family trailing strings of gold balloons; wooden packing crates broken down and stacked, the cooling asphalt releases scents of tar, fish, dirt. Across the street from Fire Department Engine Company 9, the oldest in New York and home of the Dragon Fighters, is Wing KEI Noodle Inc. Through doors open wide to the night I could see a world in miniature all in white: walls, uniforms, lights, ceiling, flour, floors, paper hats, thin rolled noodles.
I remembered that the composer Nico Muhly lives nearby; perhaps he buys Wing KEI noodles or maybe bobbins from the sewing store or fried chicken from Popeye's on the corner (whose signs are all in English and Chinese). I do know that he is merely 26 and composes pieces for quartets, orchestras, choirs. After reading this article, I know that Muhly draws on numerous and disparate sources for inspiration: medieval cosmologies, David Bowie, Egyptian archaeology, Italian Fascist architecture, the history of the novel, Balinese gamelan music – a frenetic, omnivorous taste.
On Easter Sunday last month, my family and I had the pleasure of attending services with my friend Gabrielle at Middle Church in the East Village. In addition to a pair of choirs (one of which showed in rocking form that "gospel" is a state of mind that can leapfrog matters of heritage), the services featured a jazz quintet, a "maverick organist," and a parade of children in silly hats. The musicians and the traditional choir premiered Muhly's Christ and the Whale. The soloist sang in a spirit from beyond the church, a clarion bell. And they rolled the rock away and there was... music? Light?
After prodding from the musical director and his mother seated beside him, Muhly stood briefly to accept our applause. He waved once, bent fractionally at the waist in partial bow, and sat. Sitting directly behind him, I had the chance to be the first to shake his hand. A unique, intoxicating experience – melting the late winter blues away among human nightingales, bald dynamo choir directors, rainbows and sermons on looking for love in all the wrong places, congratulating an avant-garde composer on the occasion of the world premiere of one of his works.
Muhly is one of les enfant terribles. Which also happens to be the name of a café around the corner from Wing KEI. Ah, New York.