He is a queer icon who has worked with Björk and Philip Glass. Now, he has just created the music for the most romantic series of the year

Nico Muhly, composer of the exquisite music for the “Pachinko” series, based on the best-selling book of the same name (Apple TV press)

In “Pachiko”, by Min Jin Leeuna, one of the most acclaimed novels of recent years in the United States, several generations of a Korean family are torn between tradition and modernity, the familiar and the foreign, in a story that is half family saga and half romantic melodrama, taking place in different historical moments, ranging from the Japanese occupation of the peninsula between 1910 to 1945 and the economic boom of the island in the 80s.

In the new series adaptation of the book, released by Apple TV +, one of its most sumptuous and emotional components is the original music, by the American Nico Muhly, a renowned queer composer and arranger who, in the same way, has built his career with one foot in the classical tradition (operas, orchestral, chamber music) and the other in the present, working with Bjork, The National, Grizzly Bear and even Philipp Glass, of whom he apprenticed during his years as a student at Julliard and with whom he has since continued to work as a collaborator.

Muhly is the only member of the main creative team of the series -which includes the showrunner Soo Hugh and the filmmaker Kogonada- who does not descend from a Southeast Asian family, something that, he tells Infobae from London via Zoom, was something that took into account when debating whether to accept the proposal to participate in the adaptation of “Pachinko”.

“I had read the book, I think everyone in America read it when it came out. And I loved it, although I knew very little about it, it’s a period of history that Americans don’t teach us much about [en referencia a la ocupación de Corea por parte de Japón] in the schools. And when Son Hugh called me up and said if I wanted to be part of the team, I had to think about it, but the fact that they came over because they liked my previous music made me feel confident that it was something I knew how to do.” bill.

The trailer for the Pachinko series, from Apple TV

However, Muhly confesses that he imposed some rules on himself to sensitively approach a culture that is not his own, such as Korea, especially considering the usual accusations about “cultural appropriation” that are launched in the United States against artists of all kinds before the less flirtation with genres that are outside their traditional spheres.

“The first thing I decided, before accepting the offer, was that if I did, I couldn’t use the instruments of that time and those places, because it would be inappropriate as a white person, and as one of the few people who are not from East Asia of the project, it seemed to me that it did not correspond. I don’t think there is a rule in this type of situation, I don’t believe in dogmas, but I think it’s important to understand the subtleties and participate in these debates, especially since this was something so culturally and historically accurate, that I didn’t want to make a mistake and screw it up.. And it is that it is full of examples, and you do not have to go as far as the song of the Siamese in The Lady and the Trampto see how callously this has been approached over the years, and I also wouldn’t want to think that I’m taking a job away from someone who deserves it more,” says Muhly.

For this reason, he explains, he decided to resort to instruments such as the oboe instead of more traditional ones such as the shakuhachi (a type of Japanese flute) to compose the music of Pachinko, whose locations range from Korea to Tokyo and Osaka, following the dramatic life of the protagonists through the different decades.

“If for artistic reasons I had needed to make music with the shakuhachi, I would have composed it with someone else, with a local person, because otherwise I would have felt like those white people who appropriate ethnic foods and start selling a taco for 9 dollars… I would not like to be part of that universe”.

Once the proposal was accepted, Muhly, who is one of the most sought-after young composers in the world of classical music, had to face other types of dilemmas, such as how to musicalize the scenes between the protagonist Sunja and her suitor Koh Hansu. , a powerful man who could be the heroine’s salvation, or perhaps her undoing.

A scene from "Pachinko" (Apple TV Press)
A scene from “Pachinko” (Apple TV press)

“I knew I had to make a decision about him, musically speaking. Whether he was a freak or a romantic hunk. That was a bit difficult, but I already had some experience with that ambiguity from having made the music for the film. Thereader. Is Kate Winslet’s character in that story a war criminal? Is she a woman in love? You have to understand what they are telling, ”she says.

Muhly also says that the process had the particularity of being carried out mostly during the months of confinement imposed by the Covid pandemic, so almost everything was done remotely. “With the showrunner we must have spoken about 400 times, but we only met in person when we were doing the final mix. Luckily, she had sent me an incredibly detailed document of everything that happened in the series and everything that she wanted musically, so she had in my mind very well mapped everything that she was looking to achieve”.

Muhly also gave details about the “intense” work that he demanded, having to compose 4 and a half hours of music for the series. “Towards the end, we were finishing recording the music for chapter 7, I took 10 minutes, and I was going to finish writing the music for the next one. But when we went to do the mixing and saw the finished product, it was very moving, because the series is fantastic. It made me very happy and proud to be part of this project.”

One of the musical pieces of the series, the romantic “Hansu Sees Sunja”, composed by Nico Muhly

The musical pieces composed by Muhly, which possess the same classic and melancholic elegance that the series itself exudes, are also available to listen to on all platforms. Are you interested in people being able to enjoy your music separately from what was originally intended, or do you think it only makes sense as part of an audiovisual whole?

“I actually try not to think about how people listen to my music, because I don’t have any control over that. Recently [el director italiano] Paolo Sorrentino put a violin piece of mine in one of his recent works and I thought it was incredible, I would never have thought of putting it there, and later many people have also told me that they study with my music in the background. Obviously I would never do it, but it seems good to me that they give it the use they want. I like being able to be useful to people.”

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He is a queer icon who has worked with Björk and Philip Glass. Now, he has just created the music for the most romantic series of the year