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Nico Muhly composes music without limits

Eighth blackbird will perform Nico Muhly’s “Doublespeak” piece he wrote honor his former boss Philip Glass. | Kipling Swehla

Eighth blackbird will perform Nico Muhly’s “Doublespeak,” a piece he wrote in honor of his former boss, Philip Glass. | Kipling Swehla

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When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago

Tickets: $28

Info: (312) 397-4010;

Updated: May 29, 2013 6:22AM

Whether writing a new work for the Metropolitan Opera or performing an indie-rock band like Antony and the Johnsons, Nico Muhly is at home in a wide range of musical settings.

Indeed, the 31-year-old Brooklyn composer and keyboardist is among the best known of a new iPod generation of classically trained musicians who jump from one genre to another without giving much thought to musical boundaries.

“The minute I stopped worrying about genre,” Muhly said, “was the minute that I realized that people my age, we’re all making music, we’re all trying different things, and there’s really no sense in saying this is one thing and this is another thing.”

He and another similarly multifaceted composer-performer, Bryce Dessner, will join eighth blackbird for a program that will be repeated Tuesday and Wednesday in the 300-seat Edlis Neeson Theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

The ensemble, whose six members have made their home in Chicago since moving to the city in 2000 for graduate studies at Northwestern University, has built a national following for its imaginative, committed performances of music by today’s best composers.

Something of a local favorite, the group is in residence at the University of Chicago and appears regularly as part of the school’s Contempo series. But for the third consecutive season, it is also performing this set of what it calls “hometown concerts” on its own at the MCA.

“We like to program ourselves and host our own series,” said Lisa Kaplan, eighth blackbird’s pianist. “When we first started this, we did it for three years at the Harris Theater, and it was just too big, and then it worked out to move to the MCA.”

Although the ensemble’s diverse instrumental make-up allows it to perform a broad range of music, teaming up with Muhly and Dessner (an electric guitarist) gives it the chance to stretch even further and take on works such as David Lang’s “How to Pray” (2002). The composer created a specially augmented version for these concerts, adding electric organ and electric guitar.

“Part of our concerts at the MCA,” Kaplan said, “have been inspired by wanting to bring in guest artists and collaborate with them simply because that is very invigorating and inspiring to us.”

Eighth blackbird has premiered two works by Muhly, including “Doublespeak,” which will be featured on this program. The ensemble first performed it last year at MusicNOW, a contemporary music festival in Cincinnati founded in 2006 by Dessner.

Muhly, who worked as an assistant to Philip Glass for six years, wrote the 10-minute, minimalist-tinged work in honor of the composer’s 75th birthday. It contains what Muhly calls “memories” of Glass’ music from the 1970s, including a few quotations from his “Music in Twelve Parts” (1971-74).

In addition to the works by Lang and Muhly, the line-up will consist of Glass’ “Two Pages” (1968); Tristan Perich’s “qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq” (2009), a work for three toy pianos and electronics, and pieces by Kaplan, Dessner and Steve Mackey.

Muhly believes the ease that he and some of his versatile contemporaries have in pivoting from one style of music to another comes from being part of the first generation that could easily download music of all kinds on the Internet.

“You could move very quickly,” he said, “from a passing interest in something to actually possessing many hours of it. What that meant was that even if your background was in choral music, you could very quickly find yourself listening to percussion from Java.”

That said, Muhly has no interest in being associated with “indie-classical,” a category that some people within the music industry have coined for this new kind of fusion of classical music with indie-rock and jazz.

“I hate that term the most,” he said. “It’s kind of a journalistic shorthand for something very unuseful. I find it particularly vexing when it’s applied to me, because I’m such a traditionalist in most regards. I have an opera at the Met. It does not get any less indie than that.”

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.

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