“I always describe the viola as something that is kind of the wrong size for its body. It sounds like a man singing very high or a woman singing very low. And there’s something about that in-between-ness that is very attractive to me and the challenge of overcoming the fact that, physics-wise, it’s actually proportioned incorrectly, in other words, for a viola to be the right size for the length of its strings to play very easily, it would be something like the size of a small cello…There’s something about reaching in and having to get around that imperfection that really appeals to me, honestly.”
Those are Nadia Sirota’s thoughts on her instrument, the viola, the same instrument through which her wonderful gifts as an artist are brought forth and richly interpreted in such a passionate and thoughtful way. Nadia, who is the daughter of Robert Sirota (composer and conductor), Victoria Sirota (minister and organist) and sister to Jonah Sirota (another violist and a member of the Chiara Quartet) is very busy these days taking on work the likes of which Hercules would faint at the sight of. Nadia works and collaborates with various composers like Nico Muhly and Missy Mazzoli; she has a solo album titled First Things First; she can be seen in various ensembles such as American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME for short), Wordless Music, and yMusic, which is appearing this Sunday at Rockwood Music Hall in NYC for a launch party for their CD Beautiful Mechanical (btw, both ACME and yMusic also feature cellist Clarice Jensen). You can also catch her hosting each weekday afternoon streaming live (and in podcast form) on Q2, the internet’s best place for new classical music. And believe it or not, she also is an instructor at Manhattan School of Music (part of the Master’s Program in contemporary performance). Nadia had a little time to stop and talk to us via Skype.
CM: There’s the issue about the way that you breathe when you play. I remember when we first met you said that people have tried to get you to correct it. It seems that there are many musicians that are known for idiosyncratic habits during their performances–Glenn Gould being the most classic example, but yours is not so distracting, at least not for me.
NS: All along the way, I’ve heard that it can be a distraction, I get that. However, to me it’s more distracting not to do that, and it gets in the way of my music thinking more to try to sort of prevent that. I actually was just talking to a wonderful choreographer that I have incredible respect for who was saying that’s his least favorite thing about classical music ever that he bought an entire recording of all the Haydn String Quartets and literally couldn’t listen to it because he was so distracted by the breathing of the string quartet players, so I totally get that point of view, but for me, it’s just not something I can divorce myself from. I do feel like it helps me embody maybe exactly where I am in performance. It helps my brain be in the same place as my physical body.
CM: What’s also interesting is when you were playing with ACME [at the Sequenza 21 Joe’s Pub concert], there was a lot of seat-of-your-pants kind of intensity during some of those pieces–It looked like there was a lot of dependence on one another’s queues because these pieces are so new.
NS: Sure, sure!
CM: And it was really interesting to see because I was like “Wow! It could unravel any second if somebody blows a note!” [both laughing]
NS: Hopefully that gave it some good energy, not stressful energy. I do find that the main job of an interpreter is to take the composer’s intent and try to just translate that to the audience as much as possible and that’s the entire point. Basically we’re kind of taking the listener by the hand and saying “This is where this piece is going, this is where we are right now, this is the architecture”, and you know the thing about music is that it exists in time, you have one shot. You can’t go back and re-read something, or go back and look at the upper-left corner of a painting again, you have to sort of figure it out in time and follow it in time. So, with any hope, these are things that help translate that kind of architecture to a listener.
CM: What is the story with yMusic? It is both a wonderful stand-alone group as well as a group that plays chamber arrangements with indie bands like The National, Grizzly Bear and My Brightest Diamond.
NS: yMusic sort of evolved from the fact that a lot of us–I mean, we have very catholic, and I mean “catholic” in the broad sense–a lot of us have very catholic taste, and like a lot of different types of music, and I have been discovering that I don’t really care where people come from, if the music’s awesome I want to support it, I want to get involved in it, and there were several of us that went to school together that found ourselves in these gigs backing different indie rock acts over and over again, and the quality of players in these gigs would vary immensely. You’d have the best violin player ever and then a really crappy violinist next to him ’cause that was just the way that the non-classical people finding their players. We discovered that we really wanted to be making this music on a level just as high as the classical and new music performances that we were involved in. So we very quickly sort of decided hey, what if we just kind of bound together and said “These are the excellent players that are interested in a lot of this stuff that you should totally hire for your classical gig”, and that’s what yMusic did. It was just like “If you’re gonna hire people, hire these people, here we are”. And then we soon discovered that not only are we lovely at this, but this is one of the most wonderful assemblages of performers that I can think of. Not only did we ask Judd Greenstein, Sarah Snider, people that are really comfortable [composing] classical concert music, but we figured we are already working with these unbelievably talented songwriters who are basically composers in and of themselves. What would happen if we gave them the task of writing concert music? And the result was something that was pretty shocking in that the quality is so high. You expect composers to need more of the 6-10 years of conservatory training in order to understand how to write for a chamber ensemble, and yet we had people that had been writing for decades anyway, just not for our particular [kind of] group. So the level at which we worked with often varied from composer to composer–Some people we were really, really involved with, and some just handed us a finished score and we performed it, but, we were really excited to continue to do this and work with all the different creators on the creation of music, whether it be songs or concert music. So that’s where that group evolved from, out of a sort of a concert-y necessity, and now it’s become sort of a fun project for us.
CM: How excited are you that you worked with Arcade Fire and you appeared on the album that won them the Grammy for Album of The Year?
NS: That’s great! Another thing about the music world is that it is based so much on relationships and wonderful people that you meet that you want to hang out with, and the Arcade Fire thing is such a good example. I got involved with them through Owen Pallett, whom I met through Nico–All of these relationships are very much friend relationships where you’re like, if you like this person, they’re a good musician, then you’re probably going to have something to say to each other artistically, which is pretty cool.
CM: And then there’s Wordless Music, another great group.
NS: That’s Ronin Givony’s brainchild. I am involved with several of their projects. A lot of these–We can treat this as the antecedent to sort of the current cultural climate, or one of the instigators of the current cultural climate. The nice thing about Ronin was that he came to New York as a non-musician, non-classical musician with no real knowledge of classical music, and he started working for Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and was like “Hi! Chamber music! That’s what I like!”, except he was applying that term to a lot of non-classical works, and I think one of the reasons his series took off so beautifully was he was able to develop an excitement for classical music from a non-insider-y viewpoint, which is so translatable to those people who don’t exist within the classical elite already, and that is I think the biggest issue for classical music for the past 40 years or so, which is that those on the inside tend to have very specific tastes and the entire classical community tends to cater exclusively to them or at least try to, whereas millions and millions of people who’ve never experienced this stuff before should know it’s an awesome product and we get it to them. So I think he was one the people to really first successfully export classical music to audiences of very sophisticated ambient music or indie rock or whatever, and he was able to present it to them in a way that really resounded and made sense, and in a lot of ways I feel like he’s precipitated a lot of what’s happening in New York right now in terms of expanding audiences.
CM: It’s hard to get people who are in their 50’s perhaps who have probably not heard anything by Nico Muhly to suddenly hear his music or any music from his generation when they’re so used to “Ride of the Valkyries” or something. I think there’s probably some new music that speaks to that taste.
NS: Here’s the thing–I was raised in a very modernist-friendly way. I grew up completely idolizing Berg and Webern and all of those wonderful composers. However, for the uninitiated, that music can be stressful or difficult to understand. There’s a lot of music that’s being written right now which I feel has a surface appeal in the same way that a lot of older romantic music does, as does a lot of contemporary popular music. I feel like it really also stands up to academic debate and further looks, but at first blush, a lot of what’s going on right now in classical music is far more appealing for the uninitiated than a lot of modernist music from the 1950s through 1970s was. And in that way, it’s sort of a more accessible moment for the uninitiated than it has been in America especially in the past 40 years or so. A lot of the people I hear say “I don’t like modern music”, it’s kind of like them saying “I don’t like modern architecture” or “I don’t like modern art”–In other words, they’re responding to a movement, which is maybe done. What’s happening now, Post-modernist music doesn’t sound like that. What’s happening now in art is not necessarily the same thing as in [music] or in architecture, or whatever. So say what you want about that movement, now that’s an historical movement and we’re in a different place.
CM: Okay, so, you play the viola, and besides solo and session projects you are active in so many groups, plus you teach at Manhattan School of Music, and you are a radio host on Q2! How many seconds of sleep do you manage to get?
NS: I enjoy sleep, man! I don’t get it all the time, but when I can, I go for it! I don’t know! It’s really complicated, and I feel like a lot of people in my position which is to say people trying to make it as musicians have to stitch together these really weird careers, and right now, I feel like, I’m 28, I can do it physically, I can run around and do all this stuff trying to do as much as humanly possible right now because it’s not going to be possible forever. And eventually, maybe, I’ll have freedom to breathe a little bit but right now it’s all about 5th gear, just go go go go go, as much as possible!
The thing that I have sort of figured out at this point in the game is that ALL the projects that I do really do have to do with this goal that I have which is getting new music out to new audiences. Every single thing sort of fits into that particular brick, which is not always true. I did weddings for a long time and stuff like that, and now I’m sort of lucky to not have to do that!
CM: As long as you’ve mentioned that, what was the cheesiest thing you’ve ever had to play at a wedding?
NS: Oh man! Cheesy things at weddings? A string quartet arrangement of The Bittersweet Symphony, the same wedding where we had to play a quartet arrangment of “Heart-Shaped Box”, which is the same wedding where the bride said to the groom that she would have him “for richer or for richer”, which is the worst thing I have heard in my life! I think that’s actually the last wedding I played, I just decided that I had enough of that entire genre! [both laughing] Weddings are a time for cheese!