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Communal Digging

img  Tobias Fischer

Can you love music, but only listen to pieces from the past? Nadia Sirota certainly can't. To her, the notion of modernism has nothing to do with the typical polarities of academicism versus popular music, of serious art versus entertainment, of new music versus classical music, of uptown, downtown, conservative or left field. Simply, it is about living, feeling and creating in the here and now, of channelling an urgent artistic expression into its most relevant form. And so, although she hosts as monthly podcast of interviews with leading composers in a bid of working out their ideas and insights, the best form of education has always been to commission exciting new work, to pick up her violin and treat audiences to an experience that will have them gasping for air. After a ravingly received debut and successful tours with ensemble yMusic, Sirota is now back with her second solo full-length, Baroque, which may well present her aesthetics more clearly than ever. The album sees her performing six pieces written exclusively for her by composers of her own generation, including, among others, friend and long-time collaborators Nico Muhly and Missy Mazzoli. Released in March of last year, the release has already made it to several end-of-year-lists and firmly established Sirota's position. As much as it's entrenched in the present, meanwhile, the title harks back to another fascinating time in musical history, one which Sirota could never live without. As much as she gets turned on by the present, she could never feel content herself with excluding the incredible canon of pieces from the past from her listening diet.

You already mentioned that the title of the album wasn't related to the Baroque era as such. Do you have some kind of connection to it nonetheless?
Sure thing! I love Baroque music; I've been practicing Bach every day for years now. He's brilliant and satisfying -- the best. In fact, most classically-trained musicians spend as much or more time learning and performing the music of that era as any other, so its influence seeps out around everything. But the record title, as you have gathered, is more a reflection of the ornate process of creating a layered album.

How does recording such a layered album compare to the live experience?
Both performing and recording are extremely important to me, but they are wildly different animals. In some ways, the goals of each of these things are the same: to engage a listener in a visceral way, to communicate musical ideas legibly, and to present complete thoughts. How you go about realizing those goals, though, is very different, because the tools are so very different. Live performance, for the most part is weirdly temporal; it's there one minute and gone the next. Your job is making a piece comprehensible and also enjoyable in REAL TIME. You have your instrument and presence to make these things happen. It's exhilarating.

Recordings are there in a more permanent-ish way, so in some respect the burden of real-time comprehension's a bit lighter, but the added complication comes when you try to establish PRESENCE. Part of the way I experience music as a listener is by watching the musician-performer react to it, it's like tensing your muscles while watching a clutch moment in sports. We humans love to empathize. When we're solely listening, some of that mirror neuron stuff can be lost, so the tools of the studio become so so important. I adore the alchemy of trying to create recorded presence from timbre, resonance, space, and whatever else we can manipulate in the studio. It's a weird, wonderful process.

In a previous interview, you mentioned you wanted to do more them-y stuff with yMusic. In how far is Baroque, with it conceptual title, also a them-y solo album?
Baroque is not really that theme-y, except that I went about recording all those pieces with some concrete and uniform production goals. When you are generating a body of repertoire that you yourself are not composing, you kind of get what you get when you get it. I did record several more pieces that never made it on to the record -- I sort of saw what I had and then sculpted out an album from that material. I am very interested in trying out other ways of working, though. My next project is going to be a big thing by one person. After that, we'll see.

You have long-term personal relations to many of the composers on the album. In which way, do you feel, does friendship or at least a personal connection lead to better results?
The composers on this record are quite simply some of the voices I find most creative and compelling. They come from a variety of backgrounds, but each has offered me a way of thinking about music that is new to me. Being friends with a composer is a huge cheat with regards to understanding his music. If I'm a little confused about a figure I just kind of picture the composer making that noise and that usually does the trick. It also helps that if I really care for someone, I will really take care with their work to make it as good as possible. When I'm preparing work by a stranger, it's a little bit less attractive to work on, I guess? Which is not to say I don't put in the same amount of time and attention, it's just slightly less interesting, I suppose! I also love when people write music specifically to my playing; it makes the whole process even more delicious.

Some performers, when commissioning a piece, like to be involved in the writing process in some form; others prefer to stay out of it. What is your  ideal of collaboration when working with a composer? 
I really like working in both of these ways, and Baroque represents both and everything in between. Nico's étude was all totally written to begin with, but I had a lot of say and play in curating the electronic sounds in the piece. Same with Missy and Shara. Daníel's piece was pretty much play what I see, but we talked a lot about how electronic elements should exist on it, though he did all of that work without me. Paul Corley made a frame that I improvised a bunch on and then he took all of my tracks and cut and pasted something totally new. Judd pretty much handed me a score and I played it.

The beautiful thing about being an interpreter is that you get to dig deep and then communicate to an audience how YOU personally have made sense of the thing – how the composer's intent has crystallized for you. It's deeply communal and deeply personal and my favorite thing in the world.

You once said that "there are straight-up composers who went to conservatories for composition, there are straight up kind of singer-songwriter types of people that we made write concert music without any words whatsoever, and then there’s people who are kind of in the middle of those particular two things". Do you feel as though these aspects still make a difference in terms of the results?
This is an interesting question. I think probably the most tangible difference in between these two paradigms is in the process of constructing a piece. Most often, conservatory kids show up with a mostly finished score that we sort of polish up together. Most often, non-conservatory kids will come to me with a lot of materiel that we'll sort of mold and play with together. It's sort of the band model versus the orchestra model, or whatever. But these things are far from rigid! I tend to work with people who constantly play with their process. In terms of the result? I'm not sure I am objective enough to see if there's a marked difference between music made by these two types of people.

What, generally speaking, are some of the musical areas you currently find exciting and challenging?
First off, there have always been brilliant people making wonderful music! However, the cultural climate in New Classical Music in the 1960's-1980's was pretty aggressively and antagonistically fractured along stylistic lines. To over-simplify things: there were people making modernist, mostly atonal things in academic institutions and people making tonal and minimalist things elsewhere. The division between these camps was absolute and there was a lot of name-calling involved; the one camp thought the other heartless and the latter thought the formal infantile. Of course there were exceptions to this, but in reality things were pretty mean-spirited. One of the things I'm most impressed with now is this sort of rabid cross-pollinating of ideas and influences. I think people on a whole are respectful of brilliance wherever they find it; genres are less inflexible.

The album suggests there may be common threads and shared themes in the confusing plurality of these times. What's your own take of what these threads and themes could be?
Maybe this is cheesy, but he common thread on this album is probably some kind of emotional envelope; what these people have in common is they make music that resonates with me, if that's fair. So if I can see myself somewhere inside of their idea, I can speak it to others with some type of authority .

What's your own take on curation and concert programming - and what have been some of the most successful approaches so far in your opinion? How much space is there for truly taking risks in concert programs today, would you say?
There's tons of space to take risks in programming if you contextualize things in a way that allows the listener to really absorb the risky thing. Curation and programming are subtle, weird arts that require a lot of practice. I think that assembling tons of radio shows was actually a great crash course in organizing a listening experience that puts things in enough relief to really be heard. It's like planning a meal. Probably the best time to consume a subtle beef dish is not in between two other beef courses, but set off by any variety of salads and palette-cleansers.

You once asked your Facebook followers "what piece(s) of music do you consider most important/astonishing/taste-defining for you as a grown-up art person". What's your own response to that?
There are so many amazing things that changed my life when I first heard them. Too many to name, but here are some highlights.

Astonishing 20th century classical pieces: Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony, Berio's Sinfonia, Boulez's Repons, Harry Partch's The Wayward, Ives' Three Quarter-tone Pieces, Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms

Biggest viola performance influences: Brahms Viola Sonatas (check out Kim Kashkashian's performance),  Antony Hegarty, close-mic'ed production of Valgeir Sigurdsson

First pieces I ever fell hard for: Beethoven string quartets. Op. 95. Op. 131, Op 59 #1.

Nadia Sirota interview by Tobias Fischer
Image by Samantha West

Homepage: Nadia Sirota
Homepage: New Amsterdam Recordings