Nadia Sirota and Her Viola
March 9, 2011 | by Dawn Chan
“You are such a good drink, for a four o’clock drink,” Nadia Sirota tells her Campari and soda. Then, with a sort of resigned discipline, she also orders pizza so as not to turn up sloshed at her next gig in two hours. Sirota, a violist and radio host, has dark hair styled into sideways bangs, dark eyes, a tough-talking, trenchant sense of humor, and inked forearms. She explains that her tattoos—a stylized letter N and letter H, followed by brackets—are musical markings. Arnold Schoenberg used them in scores to denote what he called the Hauptstimme and Nebenstimme, or the primary voice and secondary voice in a composition.
Though she’s lately become an omnipresent figure in New York’s downtown music concerts, she’s probably less known than others in her circle (like her friend and frequent collaborator Nico Muhly). Perhaps it’s because creators tend to get more attention than interpreters. Or maybe it’s just because violists, to everyone’s detriment, tend to get no attention at all. Yet Sirota has collaborated with everyone from Meredith Monk to Grizzly Bear; she contributed to Arcade Fire’s recent Grammy-winning album, The Suburbs. This week alone, she goes from Webcasting a sold-out show at Le Poisson Rouge to moderating a discussion with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen at WNYC to playing a recital with friends at the Ecstatic Music Festival that is tonight at Merkin Concert Hall.
As with many violists, Sirota started by playing the violin as a child but soon grew frustrated with the repertoire. “The advanced-intermediate violin pieces are all these flashy stand-on-your-head études, which suck, musically. I mean, I just didn’t give a shit. And I didn’t want to put my time into learning how to do those kinds of tricks, when I didn’t feel like I was getting anything musical from it.” She adds, “I switched to viola around the same time I became an alto. Viola sounds like a man singing very high, or a woman singing very low. It has a sort of intermediate gender-weirdness thing which also I find very appealing.” She was a natural at the viola; as a Juilliard student in 2005, she won first place in the conservatory’s concerto competition.
With this sort of classical training, Sirota’s not averse to the old rituals that accompany old music. “For those who aren’t really used to going into a concert hall where people are in white tie and tails, and sitting there in their seats, smirking at other people who cough, clapping at the right time—that can be a real turn off, which isn’t to say I don’t love that shit,” she says. “I think part of the reason the Met Opera is so fun is that you can get dressed up and have Camparis and soda and sit out on the balcony, and then see an awesome spectacle.” And yet, for example, her recent Webcast of the Le Poisson Rouge show pushed the boundaries of traditional music listening to the point that I felt sure the ghost of a vengeful music teacher would turn up to massacre us all for our willful failure to sit in rapt silence: as the concert was streamed live, online, Sirota and her cohost proceeded to provide real-time commentary in a chat room, where everyone asked questions and took polls. When one of the featured musicians began to cover the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh, Sirota typed, “I had a friend who learned Lamaze to this piece.”
All of her projects seem to reflect a mission statement that she doesn’t hesitate to articulate: “Getting new music out to new audiences.” She’s built up a well-regarded program on WQXR’s Internet-only radio station, Q2, where she presents twenty hours of music a week. Taken together, the themes that unite each four-hour segment of her programs reveal the full omnivorousness of her mission. She devoted a whole evening recently to the saxophone, an instrument that makes so many music-lovers explode into hives. Another time, she featured pieces written in composers’ salad days. She created a third segment full of music inspired by light or darkness.
As a recent commenter wrote, “Nadia is the best thing to happen to New Music in New York City in a very long time.” On the other hand, purists of a certain stripe find that the music she programs, as well as the music she performs and commissions, skews too much toward the palatable and pop-inflected. And yet, Sirota says she grew up in Boston in a family of musicians listening to what she calls “hard-core midcentury modernist classical American music, like twelve-tone crazy-town stuff.” Her father is a composer. And as she puts it, “Every composer in my dad’s generation really had to fight for whatever stylistic choices they were making. It was a really really antagonistic period of time—the sixties, seventies, and eighties—in classical music, because people were basically saying, ‘You have to choose this or you’re stupid.’ Or ‘You have to choose this or you’re heartless.’”
It was only after high school that Sirota really seriously listened to Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and began considering a wider range of new music. At the Tanglewood Music Festival in 2004, she got to know composer Judd Greenstein (who programmed the Ecstatic Music program she’s appearing in this evening). Back then, she says, he was “a composer whose music I liked, who hated modernism, especially at the time. And I was like ‘How can you be a composer who hates modernism?’ Those things were the same to me.” She remembers hashing out her musical prejudices all summer, at the smoker’s table out in back of the dorms, “where everyone would just drink bourbon and smoke cigarettes all night, and where all these conversations about modernism took place—just even trying to figure out what the hell that meant.”
More recently, as Greenstein and Sirota discussed what sort of show she might do for the Ecstatic Music Festival, she realized she wanted it to be a joint recital with Thomas Bartlett, a pianist (and old friend of mine) with whom Sirota has collaborated on many projects. They first met at a party; Bartlett was in the middle of orchestrating a friend’s album. Drunkenly—and apparently successfully—Sirota “tried to convince him that viola was way more indie than cello.” Since then, the two have toured and played other people’s music together, although they’ve never before appeared, side by side, as the primary musicians on a project. “We’ve always said, ‘Oh, let’s do a Brahms sonata or something.’ This is sort of the closest thing.” Sirota and Bartlett will be joined by Owen Pallett, another songwriter and violinist with classical training; they will debut works by Pallett and Bartlett as well as Nico Muhly and Missy Mazzoli.
While their program today at Merkin is set, Sirota sees the event itself as somewhat improvisatory. “We’re going to kind of get into the space and figure out what’s going to happen, like, on the day of the show,” she says. She points out that every night of the festival features new work, which means, in a sense, that every show is an experiment. “Nobody really knows what to expect. It’s amazing to have that opportunity. But terrifying.”
Click here to listen to Sirota’s music. Dawn Chan writes about music for The Daily and is the assistant editor of Artforum.com.