We start our conversation with an assessment of how far Sirota has come in her career as performing artist, journalist-commentator, and curator. And she gets quickly to something journalists understand: the mixed blessing and curse of being someone who interprets (or reports) other people’s work for a living. And authors will understand the kind of discovery moment she mentions: “What I was actually doing was writing.”
Nadia Sirota:I’ve felt a string of grateful feelings about all this. Intermingled with incredible terror at what I’ve wrought upon myself. It’s all very, very cool.
As a musician, you spend so much time working on other people’s projects. And I love working on other people’s projects. I love figuring out how to realize what other people have going on in their brains. That’s why I love working with composers, and it’s something I’m very good at.
But all of a sudden, right now, I’m working on a whole bunch of personal projects in a row, and I’m grateful I can do that.
There’s something to be said for both types of things. On some level, I can throw myself into somebody else’s brilliancethat’s a role I feel very comfortable with. All of these projects have come up because of this, and it’s really very gratifying.
TC: Gratifying, sure, but this is a lot of work, this residency in which you’re putting together all these artist who work with and around youfour evenings of music in a single week.
Sirota: It is a lot of work, but what’s interesting is that this residency is the kind of work I’ve actually trained for on some level. It’s something I know how to do.
By contrast, the funny thing about the radio show [on Q2 Music] is that it took me a really long time to realize that what I was actually doing was writing. I’d been in complete denial aboutthe writing element of that.
In fact, even the way I draft the show: I’ll just make a little note on my phone and I’ll read it off of my notes app. It’s only later when I’m redoing all the voice-overs that I’ll realize that I’ve written about 16 pages. Which is a complete funny thing for me. There’s always a moment in my head when I’m, like, “This is not what I do,” even though it’s something that I do.
So what’s cool about this residency is that it what I do, it’s the kernel of what I’m passionate about. Obviously, it’s tiring and complicated with a lot of moving parts. But I like those parts.
TC: And when I look at the residency, what I see is you programming a festival. That takes the mind of an impresario.
Sirota: I think that’s probably true. The way I went at it is, “What is the music I’d like to see? And who are the people I’d like to have in the room?” There’s a community aspect here.
One of the coolest things about being a traveling musician is that you have this sort of nomadic tribe of people you keepencountering in the strangest places. It’s all these different festival environments, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, you!” We’re friends but not like friends who are connected to a specific city or place.
And one of the loveliest things about this residency is I’m bringing people from Iceland, from England, from Canada. People I really love and can rely on and am inspired by. I’m bringing them here to New York, to my home turf.
TC: What’s the funding behind the residency at Symphony Space? I know that the residency falls under the aegis of the Composers Now Festival, and there’s support for the Dennehy evening from the Isaiah Sheffer Fund for New Initiatives, right?
Sirota: Right, and Symphony Space has this fantastic artistic director, Andrew Byrne. He has an interesting and exciting vision for how that space can serve the community. The fact that he let me do this speaks very highly to his taste. [She laughs.]
It’s interesting that in the United States of America, this is how it works [in terms of private fundraising with comparatively little public subsidy]. But it also points to how there’s an incredible amount that you can do if you can find someone to believe in it.
TC: And did you use your usual approach to commissioning to get Donnacha Dennehy to write for you?
Sirota: Donnacha I met when he was doing a residency with Alarm Will Sound three or four summers ago. I heard him for the first time, and thought, “Well, this is my favorite music ever.” And I promptly did my thing, which is later at the bar, I commission people when they’re at their most vulnerable and then follow up. [Laughs.] He was immediately excited about this idea of doing something with the viols da gamba. [Bass viols with a similar range to that of the cello.]
So now that piece, is the centerpiece of the whole residency, And we recorded it before we had any idea how to play it, which is an interesting process. It ended up being scored for 11 bass viols and four violas. So we recorded that all with multi-tracking between me and Liam Byrne. The bass viol is a good bit lower than the viola, but the quality of sound on it, on the viol da gamba is so bright. It’s got thisincredible bright weirdness of texture and color. So the lowest instruments in the piece are so bright. And the highest pieces, the violas, are so dark and mellow. I’ve just never hear color like that before.
The other thing he has in this piece, which is very typical of Donnacha is slipping back and forth between just intonation and equal temperament. You get the idea you’re looking through this kaleidoscope and all of a sudden everything seems clear and then it twists. It makes sense and it’s logical, but it’s not quite the same thing.
TC: And yet he never loses you. That’s what I love about Dennehy’s music. Like Nico [Muhly], he remembers the listener and brings us along. They leave us enough for us to hang onto.
Sirota:And you know that it’s hard to play but it’s worth it, and you know why you really have to make it work.
TC: And speaking of what you have to do to make it work, I have to remind you before I let you go of my favorite tweet. It’s from 2010, the Fourth of July, and you were playing an outdoor concert. The , no doubt. Here’s your tweet:
//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Events In The Sirota Residency At Symphony Space
Tonight, Monday, 7:30 p.m. Eastern
Sirota is joined by Liam Byrne on viol and a four-viol consortDoug Balliett, Gabriel Cabezas, Loren Ludwig, and Zoe Wiesswith Alarm Will Sound’s Chris Thompson on percussion and a vocal trio: Jamie Jordan, Kirsten Sollek, and the inimitable Mellissa Hughes. The program will delve into the Renaissance music that has influenced both Sirota and her close friend, the composer Nico Muhly, featuring music of Alexander Agricola, William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, and more:
by David Lang (a world premiere commissioned by Symphony Space)
for three singers, viola, cello, and percussion by Lang (the US premiere)
Tuesday (2 February), 7:30 p.m. Eastern
Sirota welcomes her collaborators
yMusic, one of the New York scene’s best-known contemporary ensembles, in a program to be announced from the stage and includingworks specially written for this eclectic sextet by:
Thursday (3 February), 7:30 p.m. Eastern
Richard Reed Parry joins Sirota onstage for some of his and Bryce Dessner’s ( #MusicForWriters interview) most compelling work, including:
Parry’s for viola (a New York premeire)
and other selections from Parry’s
Dessner’s for viola
Friday (4 February), 8 p.m. Eastern
A world premiere of Irish composer
Donnacha Dennehy’s is the centerpiece of this special evening that also features Muhly, Byrne, Balliett, Byrne, Ludwig, Weiss, and others onstage with Sirota for:
A selection of music from the Icelandic collective
Bedroom Community (the recording seat of Sirota, Muhly, and many more of the most acclaimed artists working today in contemporary classical) Dennehy’s (world premiere, the work is co-commissioned by Symphony Space and the Irish Arts Center;
#MusicForWriters on Dennehy)