Photograph by Samantha West.
“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.