Dallas — Called “a one-woman contemporary-classical commissioning machine” by Pitchfork, violist Nadia Sirota is shaking up the new music world. She is in Dallas for a residency that came as part of her wining the 2013 Meadows Prize at Southern Methodist University's Meadows School of the Arts. On Thursday, in conjunction with SYZYGY, the Meadows new music ensemble, she will present the world premieres of six works that were commissioned from current music composition students and recent graduates.
Sirota's entire career has been dedicated to commissioning new music and bringing her usually disparaged instrument to the forefront. Indeed, the viola gets a bad rap. Viola jokes abound. Also, the instrument is sadly lacking in repertoire, something Sirota is singlehandedly correcting.
“The viola is harder to play than the violin,” Sirota says. “It is harder to make a decent sound on it and harder to play fast passages because of its increased size. Add to that the fact that it is usually recommended for less accomplished players because viola orchestral parts are usually easier than what is written for the violin. It is like the awkward kid in high school that everyone laughs at.”
No one is laughing now. Sirota and her viola are what is happening with new music.
As you would expect, she plays on a modern instrument. “My viola was made in 2002 by Gregg Alf, who works in Ann Arbor,” she says. “But it is based on the models that were perfected in Cremona [by Stradivarius and his contemporaries]. What is so exciting about a new instrument is that it grows every day as you play on it and it begins to meld with your own playing style. I am still looking for a good bow.”
But new music is her passion and, if she can help develop an expanded repertoire for her instrument along the way, so much the better.
“My father is a composer so the idea of music being fresh was always around me,” she says. “I took a composition class while I was in high school at the Peabody Conservatory’s preparatory division. I was part of a small group that would play everyone's pieces as part of the class. At the time, I had no idea that this would have a resonance with my future. At Juilliard, I immediately volunteered for all of the composer workshops.”
“Composers have so much to offer us, we have nothing without them, and it is up to us as performers to get it out there,” she says.
Contemporary composers these days have a much freer hand as far as musical language than in the past. There was a time, in the 1960's and '70's and even trickling into more recent years, there was a requirement that modernism and atonality was the only way to write. Anything else and you were considered hopelessly old fashioned or pandering to the public. Those who still wrote in tonality were looked down on—as if they were wearing musical knickers, as it were.
“My father faced this judgmental attitude with his own more traditional music,” Sirota says. “I call it an uptown/downtown argument with both sides being very combative. It was a huge argument at the time and was used as a measure to decide what does and does not constitute good music.”
Not so these days. The current generation of composers feels free to write in any style that seems to fit the effect they want to accomplish. We still see modernism and experimental compositions, but neo-romantisim, and even rock and hip-hop, sometimes all in the same piece. Widely influenced so-called “classical” compositions are valued and praised.
“Young composers sometimes see this argument [still happening] among their teachers, but in a weird way, it provides a circumstance where they are pushing this aside and saying 'I can write how I want,' “ she says.
Sirota adds that these kinds of style barriers have also been pushed aside by the universal access that the internet provides. It used to be that you were limited to what was in your closest library. Composers near a major university had an advantage. With the internet, you not only have access to the full range of classical music, but all genres that are popular today.
“You will hear this range in the compositions that will be on the program on Thursday,” she says. “More composers are more comfortable switching between musical worlds.”
But the composition is only the start for Sirota. Helping with compositional style and technique is important, but she is also teaching the students about getting their music performed and recorded. Composers careers used to be guided by publishers, but that world is fast disappearing. Composers now routinely self-publish, even the most prominent ones. For example, Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon self-publishes her music. With this comes the added burden of promotion. More and more, composers have to take responsibility for their own careers.
“When I was in college, we never learned anything about recording our music, what goes on in recording sessions and the like,” she says. “It is critical for composers these days. It is how to get their music to a wider audience than hear it in the concert hall.”
The composers on Thursday's program will face this new reality with a little help from Sirota. She has worked closely with them to prepare the concert and will continue to see them through the recording process. Before she returns to Dallas for this festival, she jetted off to Iceland for this.
Here is a list of the works to be preformed and the composers who wrote them:
- Mamihlapinatapai on Regionale 21479 by Guido Arcella (B.M. ’14)
- CelestiAlignment by Nathan Courtright (M.M. ’13)
- Metamorphose by Vincent Gover (B.M. ’14)
- Interruptions and Diversions by Jason Platt (M.M. ’14)
- Orca by Uriah Rinzel (M.M. ’14)
- Drifting by Michael van der Sloot (B.M. ’13)