Contemporary Art

Meet The Fearless Composer Redefining Classical Music

By Stephanie Sporn

Think opera is boring? Composer Paola Prestini, co-founder and artistic director of National Sawdust, a Brooklyn-based venue fostering emerging and established artists since it opened in 2015, wants to change your mind. A recent production, WinterIce, turned the National Sawdust venue into a skating rink to reimagine Shubert’s Winterreise. In another project, Prestini has joined forces with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Du Yun and others to develop an opera based on Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. “When you think things don’t belong with one another, and they come together and explode, that to me is the most exciting and can lead to new forms,” Prestini told Sotheby’s. In pursuit of discovery, the Juilliard-trained Prestini will introduce a site-specific performance at Sotheby’s on 11 May with four performers: award-winning violinist and composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, formerly with the Kronos Quartet, FLEXN dancer Reggie ‘Regg Roc’ Gray, free-form rapper LATASHA. In perfect synergy with our Fearless Now campaign, National Sawdust’s performance at Sotheby’s will celebrate collaboration, disruption and virtuosity. We spoke with Prestini about creative influences, her latest collaboration with Robert Wilson and more.


What is the greatest misconception about classical music?
That it sounds like music that was written a hundred years ago. Kendrick Lamar recently winning the Pulitzer tells us how people are pushing the boundaries of genre.

"With every piece I do, I’m determining the set of rules that I want to go by and then break."

How do you create music that is completely new?  
Whether it calls for electronic, operatic or theatrical styles, I’m always trying to discover something new within myself. The filter through which it comes from is informed by a complex set of principles that come from training, experience and influences throughout my life. Like visual art, music is highly personal, and it’s different for every artist. It’s not necessarily about listening to so many things. It’s more about how you listen and how it filters out through your own voice.


Can you give an example of how you use narrative to uniquely inform your compositions?
Right now I’m working with Robert Wilson and Royce Vavrek on an opera, The Old Man and the Sea, based on Hemingway's story. We are taking different cultural influences from Cuba, which will play a role in the creation of the music. We want to work with an electronic soundscape and untrained voices, so that will produce a very different sound. With every piece I do, I’m determining the set of rules that I want to go by and then break.  

How does National Sawdust identify new talent?
We have a group of trusted curators every year that bring in talent that they’ve discovered. Beyond their recommendations, we have several ways in which we try to identify new talent. We have an advisory board and something we call Summer Labs, which is by application. We give free time and funding in our Brooklyn space to help propel projects. LATASHA, who is performing at Sotheby’s, came through Summer Labs, and then we gave her a full residency.

How did you curate the four artists performing at Sotheby’s?
National Sawdust's 2018 Gala theme centers around how much we need disruption in the arts in order to produce social change, so it was really exciting to hear that Sotheby's is focusing on fearlessness for its May sales. When it came to choosing for this performance, I started with Daniel and Jeff. They’re both established, classically trained musicians but also improvisers. They encompass this scope in contemporary musicians that I really love, which is the ability to not just play in one style. Daniel is one of the most fearless composers I know. The New York Times recognized his opera, We Shall Not Be Moved, as one of the top performances of 2017. It’s an extraordinary meditation on race and identity.  

Reggie is one of my favorite dancers – during his residency at Sawdust, he was determined to commission composers so that FLEXN had a new type of music. And then LATASHA was the clear final choice. She’s young, but she has already become such a positive force in hip-hop. To have a female rapper with this kind of platform is everything Sawdust is about.

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