Nadia Sirota On Making Music Accessible (Even When It's Weird)

Oct 2, 2016
Originally published on October 2, 2016 10:07 am

If the viola is your instrument, it can be difficult to find repertoire to showcase your talent. But violist Nadia Sirota has plenty to play. She champions new composers to write music for her and forms ensembles to play it. Sirota's longtime collaborator Nico Muhly recently released an album called Keep in Touch, featuring two pieces written specifically for her.

"My attraction to the viola — and, I suspect, some of his attraction to the viola as well — also comes from this sort of weird quality that the instrument has," Sirota tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "It sounds like a woman singing very low, or a man singing very high — and to me, that is just an absolutely gorgeous quality."

Sirota has also forged a parallel career as a host on Q2, the online station from New York Public Radio, and of the Peabody Award-winning podcast Meet the Composer. For each show, she interviews a composer and scores the entire segment with their work. It gives listeners a chance to get to know the composer and their sound simultaneously.

One purpose of the podcast, Sirota says, is to dispel the myth that classical composers are all dead. "I want people to understand that these are human people who are alive and fallible and occasionally brilliant," she says. "And they have moments of genius and moments of total dorkdom."

Sirota says she's eager to give her listeners an entry point into classical music. "For me, this world has always been so incredibly vibrant and alive and exciting. There's no chance it'll disappoint a new listener, but people do need a way in."

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Classically trained viola players have a hard time finding music that is made just for them. Violist Nadia Sirota has an advantage because she spends a lot of time with composers. She hosts a podcast called "Meet The Composer," and one of her closest friends is a guy named Nico Muhly, an acclaimed composer who has released an album called "Keep In Touch" featuring music he wrote just for Nadia Sirota. It's a musical collaboration that began when they were back in college.

NADIA SIROTA: If you can imagine, like, as a classical musician you've been trained since you were, like, 4 or something like that and then a composer who maybe started on piano or clarinet or whatever but who's trained on one instrument is all of a sudden meant to have intimate idiomatic knowledge of all of the instruments of the orchestra and beyond. So the best thing you can do is as a little composer is just find your people and keep on trying stuff out on them.

So I think to some extent his attraction to the viola just has to do with the fact that we're friends and we like each other. But my attraction to the viola, and I suspect some of his attraction to the viola as well, also comes from this sort of weird quality that the instrument has. Like, it sounds like a woman singing very low or a man singing very high. And to me, that is just an absolutely gorgeous quality. I think all the time of people like, you know, Nina Simone or Anohni or people like that who have just these really interesting voices.


MARTIN: That's beautiful...

SIROTA: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...And haunting, and I think I can hear you breathing.

SIROTA: Yeah (laughter) that's kind of a thing. Like, you know, when you're in school, you're trying to learn performance practice, which is this thing that's been passed down hundreds of years. And when I was in school, I got a lot of flack for my breathing for that being something that you could hear. However, the sort of further away I've gotten from that the more that I've realized the reason I like to work with certain musicians or I like to listen to certain musicians is because of the stuff that they do that's different from other people.

You know, like when you think about a singer like Bjork, I'm not obsessed with her voice because it sounds like a perfect female voice. I'm obsessed with it because it sounds really weird and specific, and she does cool things with it. So one of the cooler things about kind of becoming a grown-up and being farther away from school is you have the ability or the opportunity to kind of get into some of the stuff that you do that's a little different.


SIROTA: And also that that sort of speaks to the way things are recorded now, which is a little bit different than the way things were recorded, you know, even 15 years ago, especially in a classical music world because there used to be this idea that a classical record is meant to sound like you're sitting in a chair in Carnegie Hall. And so there's this sort of distance between you and the performer or the orchestra.

And none of pop music is recorded in that way. And a lot of what we're used to hearing these days in the non-classical realm is so dynamic and so present and so great. So I think a cool trend in recording, or at least one that I'm trying to pursue, is getting more of that sort of immediacy and presence and having a recording being something that's different from a performance, a totally different object.

MARTIN: Well, and that's why I pointed it out, not to make you feel self-conscious but because it draws you in as the listener. And all of a sudden, I'm not just listening to a beautiful piece of music, but I'm in a moment with you. There's an intimacy and an authenticity to that experience that feels exciting.

SIROTA: I agree. It's kind of like the radio.

MARTIN: Kind of.


MARTIN: Let's talk about your podcast. It's called "Meet The Composer," and you get to have a lot of these kinds of conversations. You interview a composer and then you pretty much score the whole interview with their work, which introduces audiences to their story of course but then also to their music simultaneously. How do you do that? How do you marry those two things, the biography of this person and the interview with their sounds?

SIROTA: Basically, we're looking for certain things. We're looking for kind of universal ideas about the creative process and how people get past obstacles, and then we're sort of looking for composers to be human beings. I think classical music can seem unapproachable because everyone's dead or everyone's supposed to be dead.


SIROTA: But there are so many wonderful living, breathing, exciting artist people. So I want people to understand that these are human people who are alive and fallible and occasionally brilliant, and they're - have moments of genius and moments of total dorkdom (ph) and all of that stuff. And then I'm trying to just literally share the stuff that I totally love and why I love it like a little bit of an insight into what I'm thinking about as a performer playing the piece or a listener who has a little bit more information than somebody coming completely naked to the score.

MARTIN: You grew up in this world. Your dad is a composer. Are the conversations in your podcast to some degree an outgrowth of talks you had with him growing up?

SIROTA: Oh, sure, definitely. I'm in the family business kind of to an absurd extent. My dad is a composer. My big brother is also a violist. And both of my parents have taught music history and music theory and all of that stuff. So for me, this world has always been so incredibly vibrant and alive and exciting.


SIROTA: There's no chance it'll disappoint a new listener. But people do need a way in, and I think so often when somebody is a little bit curious about classical music, what they hear is to start at the beginning. Like, they'll go to Bach and we're all of a sudden listening to a piece from, like, you know, 1722 and that's a strange place to start for somebody living in 2016. My perspective is if you've never listened to a ton of classical music before or even if you have and you've never heard any new music before, starting with stuff that's being written by, you know, essentially your peers who are people that you might sort of have something in common with, you watch the same television shows or whatever, starting with that stuff and then working back through their influences and their likes makes way, way, way more sense. And I think my goal with the show is just try to show people a little bit of this world that I so, so love.


MARTIN: Nadia Sirota - she performs on the new release from composer Nico Muhly. "Keep In Touch" and "Viola Concerto" are the pieces on that recording. She also hosts a podcast on New York Public Radio called "Meet The Composer." Nadia, thanks so much for talking with us.

SIROTA: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.