Paola Prestini: Following Her Vision

Paola Prestini combines wild imagination and controlled practicality on an almost molecular level—it’s as if both are fused together in her DNA. Whether she’s talking about her own multimedia operas or VisionIntoArt, the interdisciplinary arts production company she co-founded 15 years ago, she tends to think big but she always manages to make it happen.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

A conversation in Prestini’s Brooklyn home
September 8, 2014—2:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Paola Prestini combines wild imagination and controlled practicality on an almost molecular level—it’s as if both are fused together in her DNA. Whether she’s talking about her own multimedia operas or VisionIntoArt, the interdisciplinary arts production company she co-founded 15 years ago, she tends to think big but she always manages to make it happen.
Paola Prestini combines wild imagination and controlled practicality on an almost molecular level—it’s as if both are fused together in her DNA. The first time I met her, back when she was a composition at Juilliard, she was already talking about creating genre-blurring discipline-blurring audience experiences and, together with her then-classmate Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, had formed a non-profit organization in order to make these experiences happen.

“We wanted something that, when shortened, would sound like a woman’s name—so VIA,” she explained when I talked with her last month in her Crown Heights apartment. “Then we liked the fact that ‘via’ was a street, a way to go. And we knew that it was to be a multimedia company; we wanted to really integrate new music with other forms, other structures, other disciplines. And so VisionIntoArt became a very perfect word for the kind of art that we wanted to help create and that we wanted to create ourselves.”

That was 15 years ago. Since then, VisionIntoArt has collaborated with Lincoln Center, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as with a number of international festivals. One of the composers associated with VIA early on, Nico Muhly, became a phenomenon. Nora moved to Los Angeles and Paola became VIA’s sole director. Two years ago, VIA had a staff for the very first time. And after a decade of functioning as a presenter and a performing ensemble, VIA morphed into being predominantly a production company.
But that doesn’t mean there’s any less work for Prestini. VIA just launched a record label. And, in addition to running VIA, she is also the creative director for Original Music Workshop, a new performance venue that is scheduled to open early next year in downtown Brooklyn. And on top of that, of course, she’s a composer and is usually in the middle of several different projects at any time.
“We generally don’t have weekends,” she acknowledged. “I have certain days where I just write, a day where it’s just VisionIntoArt and meetings, and other days where there just are meetings for Original Music Workshop or my own compositions, etc. I balance it that way. It’s definitely not a hundred percent fixed, but it seems to be working for now.”

In terms of her compositional projects, she tends to think big. Her Oceanic Verses, which was showcased during New York City Opera’s VOX readings in 2010, blurs the distinction between opera and oratorio as well as various world music traditions. Aging Magician, which was presented as part of the 2013 PROTOTYPE Festival, is a cross between a music theatre piece and an art installation. Her latest opera, created in collaboration with Cerise Jacobs, is a modern retelling of the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.

But she plans to get back to writing more chamber music, which is what she was principally doing back when we first met each other. “I see myself taking some time off from the large-scale works and doing smaller-scale works,” she predicted. “Going back out and having that kind of inner play allows you to clear your mind and refocus and then want to embark on the large collaborations again.”

Paola Prestini has an uncanny ability to realize her goals, so no doubt she’ll find a way to make time for everything.


Profile of Paola Prestini
Frank J. Oteri: This seemed a perfect time to talk with you because this is the 15th anniversary season of VisionIntoArt and later this month you’re launching a record label, plus the Original Music Workshop, at which you’re the creative director, opens next year. So there’s a lot of stuff going on and I want to talk to you about each of them, and what you do in all of these different contexts, but before I go there, I’m so curious to find out how you balance all of that with writing your own music.
Paola Prestini: Well, it’s something that I’ve been working on for a while, to find the balance between all of those different activities. I found that the more regimented I am, the better I am at being able to achieve a sense of balance. So I have certain days where I just write, a day where it’s just VisionIntoArt and meetings, and other days where there just are meetings for Original Music Workshop or my own compositions, etc. I’d say that I have about four days a week of writing and the rest of the days are meeting days. I balance it that way. It’s definitely not a hundred percent fixed, but it seems to be working for now.
FJO: That means you don’t get a weekend.
PP: Yeah, we generally don’t have weekends.
FJO: You can schedule meetings to have on different days, but if you’re in the thick of writing a piece of music, sometimes an idea might come when you least expect it. If it comes on one of the non-designated composing days, what do you do?
PP: I found that when I’m on a deadline, I tend to focus much more on writing, and so I’ll assemble my schedule so that it’s much more about writing. But I’ve also become aware that I’m really flexible in terms of writing ideas down and then getting back to them. So it never feels like a do or die situation. I can pretty confidently get back into a state of flow. I’m also finding that I can balance one or two pieces at the same time, because the vocabularies are very different or they’re very different collaborations. It’s taken a long time to find this kind of flow for my flow, but it feels like it’s working out.
Prestini's workspace
FJO: Once upon a time, the common wisdom was that in order to devote yourself to composing or performing, you had to clear other things away from your mind so that you could be pure in the pursuit of your artistry. But there really has been a seismic shift that has happened in our lifetimes where composers have become extremely entrepreneurial. There are loads of debates about whether artists should be entrepreneurs; we had a whole series of articles in NewMusicBox about that this summer which sparked a ton of commentary.
PP: Yeah. I followed them.
FJO: From the first day I met you, about 15 years ago, I got the sense that you were extremely entrepreneurial. For you, it doesn’t seem like there’s a separation between your compositional and entrepreneurial aspirations.
PP: I think that every composer draws their inspiration from many different places. And every composer most likely either teaches or mentors, or directs an ensemble, or conducts. You see this pretty regularly amongst all our peers. For me, the idea of producing and mentoring feels like a very natural extension of who I am. It never felt like I needed to explain that or hide it, or shy away from it, because these were natural properties that I wanted to develop and it felt really natural to mix them into my life as an artist. I like to say that in order to be a 21st century artist, of course you have to have talent, but you also have to have some kind of a mix of entrepreneurship and activism, and a desire to educate. More and more I think that you don’t have to have all these properties, because everybody’s different, but you do have to have some sense of consciousness in terms of your musical ecology, your peers, and what you can do to help affect your surroundings.
FJO: This seems to largely be a generational thing and also a very American thing which grew out of the way the arts are supported—or rather, not as adequately supported as we need them to be—in this country. But you weren’t born here.
PP: No, I was born in Italy and raised on the Mexican border, first in Nogales and then Tucson. But for all intents and purposes, I am American. I was raised by a single mother who raised me very much with American principles. I had an example of what it meant to reinvent yourself, to have a blank slate and create the world that you want to be in. I feel like those are very American principles, so I think that— because I grew up on a border and speaking different languages—what I had is a desire to constantly interact with different cultures and find ways to bring that into the musical world and the artistic world that I inhabited. So that kind of—if you want to say—openness, or desire to interact with other cultures, definitely comes, I think, from immigrating to this country at a young age and being a new American.
Traditional puppets on Prestini's wall
FJO: Before we begin talking about how various world musics have played such a key role in a lot of your recent music, it seems somewhat unusual, given your background and subsequent career, that you have a degree in composition from Juilliard, which offers a very different model for how to shape a life as a creative artist or certainly did at the time you were there.
PP: Well, I think the most important thing for me at the beginning of my compositional career was to secure what I felt at that moment was the best training I could possibly get. And I definitely felt that the teachers I studied with and the classes that I took prepared me for the compositional life that I wanted to have in terms of technique and the exposure to great performers, and just by nature of it being in New York. It felt like the perfect place while I was there. However, it was there that I started the non-profit that I still direct to this day. I co-founded it in 1999 while I was a student because I was acutely aware that it would be very difficult for me as a composer when I graduated. Those years in between when you graduate and when you’re considered an established composer—those emerging years which can really be 10 to 20 years—are extraordinarily difficult. So I wanted to be able to create some kind of next steps, some kind of organizational process that would help me bridge those years and do it with some kind of grace.
FJO: I still remember having lunch with you and Nora [Kroll-Rosenbaum] talking about your having just founded VisionIntoArt.
PP: Yes, I remember that.
FJO: I thought it was pretty remarkable because at the time this wasn’t something common. Now every student starts their own ensemble. And while you weren’t the first students to do it, it seemed weird coming out of Juilliard of all places. I don’t mean to rag on Juilliard in any way, but that’s a conservatory that historically epitomized the notion that to be an artist, you try to tune out the outside world and that’s how you become the best at what you’re doing, whether it’s writing music, playing an instrument, acting, or dancing ballet.
PP: That’s absolutely right.
FJO: That’s why it’s so peculiar that you were planning for what was going to happen after you left. I would image that those kinds of thoughts haven’t usually occurred to students there.
PP: No. Now they’re very active with a mentoring program and with an entrepreneurship program. But when I was there, those words were not uttered. In fact, there was very little cross-disciplinary work being investigated. Yet at the same time, we were living in this incredible, fertile time in New York City where we could have access to the best visual artists and film makers of our time. So it felt crazy to Nora and I to not embark on creating our moment. Why wait until after school? In a way, I would say that school is the perfect time to launch any idea because you have some kind of safety net that allows you to test things before you really launch. A big point for me was receiving the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans, because at that time, at Juilliard, it didn’t seem so natural to embark on creating a non-profit. We had no money. It seemed crazy. But once I received that fellowship, I had access to unbelievable minds that were doing huge things. They were affecting their communities in profound ways in medicine, in law, in business, and all of a sudden it felt crazy to not be doing my own thing. I was very fortunate to have that, and at the same time, that also opened our world to tons of contacts. Nora and I took meetings with hundreds of people, and that’s how it all began, with the energy of 20-year-olds.
FJO: You’re both composers, so why did you call it VisionIntoArt?
PP: We wanted something that, when shortened, would sound like a woman’s name. So VIA, and then we liked the fact that “via” was a street, a way to go. And we knew that it was to be a multimedia company; we wanted to really integrate new music with other forms, other structures, other disciplines. And so VisionIntoArt became a very perfect word for the kind of art that we wanted to help create and that we wanted to create ourselves.
FJO: But to play devil’s advocate with you a little bit, to the general public the word art means visual art. She’s an artist? Oh, she must be painter or a sculptor. They don’t automatically think: Oh, she’s a composer or she’s a poet. Those kinds of associations are not quite as immediate. On the other hand, it’s also the thing that the music community is lacking: the world we live in is so visually oriented and we’re the one group of people who create work that is not necessarily visually based.
PP: Right. The way we present ourselves obviously isn’t—for the most part—visual. And yet the way we market our works is entirely visual. When we came up with the name, we were in our early 20s, so it just seemed like a fun name. And the visual arts have always played a huge role in my music, visual arts and literature. So that didn’t feel strange to me. But as you’re saying this, it absolutely seems like a natural connection because we present our worlds visually, and we live in a hyper visual world. So, it makes sense.
FJO: The problem with the concert going experience is that it is often not terribly compelling from a visual point of view. You might hear something that’s completely transformative, but there’s really nothing to look at. They’re just seeing a group of folks wearing tuxedos or funeral black or jeans and t-shirts—I’m not sure which of these outfits is the least interesting. But from the beginning, you wanted to offer a multimedia experience to audiences.
PP: I think there are two ways to look at it. When I think about curating music, I think about how to incorporate the technology we have, and the kind of tech elements we have to create a seamless performance with a visual flow so that what the audience is concentrating on is really just the art. But when I’m creating deep collaborative process works, I’m looking to really transcend certain boundaries. I’m looking to learn from an astrophysicist or a conservationist, or to work deeply with a visual artist and understand how to communicate across discipline. There are many ways to create multimedia settings; it can be from a very simple angle of curation to a deep process of collaboration.

Prestini score overlayed with butterflies

A score by Prestini that has been transformed into a work of art.

FJO: VisionIntoArt has been an important outlet for many composers. The first real public awareness of the music of Nico Muhly happened through VisionIntoArt.
PP: Yeah. It’s exciting.
FJO: It’s also been a wonderful launching pad for your own work as well. You say it’s exciting to be a mentor to others and to provide a platform, and that presenting has always been an integral part of your way of thinking about things. So in terms of carving up a season, where is that balance between focusing on your own work and advocating for other composers?
PP: Well, now we have a staff. That’s something that just happened two years ago. So my life has become imminently more plausible; it’s doable now. We have an incubation series call Ferus that we just inaugurated. That’s really our place to discover the artists we want to work with. We put up money to record it, to take photographs, to help them then pitch to presenters, or pitch to other producers. Sometimes we take the work on ourselves. It’s once a year and there are about seven to eight slots. And the curation happens honestly in so many ways. We go listen to a million things, and we get a lot of submissions, and we really try to develop relationships and see who’s going to really benefit the most from the opportunity.
Then we have Liederabend, which is the festival that we co-produce with Beth Morrison, and that happens every two years. And there we have two to three nights of works that are specifically for the voice and multimedia. So that’s another platform where we can discover new voices, specifically composers who like to write for the voice. Then we have our new VIA records, which is specifically the dissemination angle of the company.
I like to say that in VIA we try to incubate, produce, and disseminate. The dissemination angle came from the fact that some of the works we were doing really don’t exist as powerfully without the visual component. They’re gorgeous musical works, but why have it without the visuals when that’s the way the composer conceived it? So we decided to have a company that specifically nurtures the multimedia canon of 21st-century works. Those are the three larger programs that we have. And then we have our production company, which has done many of my works and can only do one or two works a year. We’re really focusing on the sciences, on collaborations that really aren’t happening elsewhere.
FJO: And one of the first two releases on the new label will be your Oceanic Verses.
PP: Right. Our first two releases are Anna Clyne’s The Violin and Oceanic Verses of mine. Both of those will come out as a CD and a DVD in a specialty box. It’s a special release of 500 CDs and DVDs, plus a poster. When you’re buying the box, you’re getting an experience of what that piece is in its multimedia format.
FJO: It’s a strange time to start a new record label.
PP: I know. Why now? Because the health of the industry exists in options. And we are yet one more option. It’s not about stepping on toes; it’s about collaborating. It’s about adding to the pie instead of taking from it. And the reality is, it’s also for me. I haven’t had a tremendous amount of bites for recording my music, but I need to have my music recorded. I’ve always believed in commissioning myself in tandem and in context with other composers. So it will be that way also with our own record label.
FJO: So far, we’ve focused on how you balance your composing with the other hats you wear, but I want to go into the actual music itself and how your multifaceted life has shaped you as a composer. Going back to that meeting we had 15 years ago, I remember you passed along to me a score of a brass quintet and some other pieces you were working on. They were formidable pieces of music, but they’re light years away from the kinds of work that you’ve done in the last 15 years. In terms of what the outside world might be aware of, I think the only example of stuff that’s even remotely like it might be Nightsong, the five-octave marimba piece that’s on your first CD released on Tzadik or possibly your solo piano piece, Limpopo Songs, which is also on that disc. Both of those pieces, like that brass quintet, could exist very effectively on a typical contemporary music recital program. They’re contained units and clearly fall under the rubric of “contemporary classical music,” whatever that means. But everything else on that recording and the stuff you’ve been doing since then is way more open ended.
PP: I guess I would start by saying that the change occurred through the kind of artistic channel that I was taking. And that artistic channel included certain muses, and those muses definitely affected my music. Oceanic Verses came about because I really love folk music and I really love improvisation. So how do I really bring this into my language in an authentic way? That became a beautiful exploration of found sounds and my discovery of the southern part of Italy, deepening my own understanding of my cultural heritage. So the sound samples that I recorded while I was there mixed with the talents of these two muses that I had met recently: Helga Davis, in terms of improvisation, and Claudio Prima, who was a young folk singer from the southern part of Italy. That became an extraordinary exploration and it was out of my curiosity to discover their talents and to bring in what I found to be wonderful musical tools into my own writing. That doesn’t appear in all of my writing, although improvisation and structured improvisation has appeared more regularly.
Then I embarked on the installation concertos for Maya Beiser and Neil Dufallo. Those became really deep process works in terms of live electronics and electronic resonances. They’re concertos, and so there’s very virtuosic writing and structured improvisation for both. There was also the creation of a musical instrument, the LED cello for Maya Beiser. Those became deep explorations into visual worlds and live electronics with the K-Bow, which is a Bluetooth bow that Keith McMillan created and that Neil is one of the sponsors for. So each new work brought me into a journey that deepened my compositional language and that helped bring deeper levels of compositional technique into my music.
FJO: You had already worked with Helga Davis on As Sleep Befell.
PP: And on Sounds and Traveling Songs.
FJO: And for Body Maps, you worked with another really extraordinary vocalist.
PP: Hila Plitman.
FJO: All of those pieces are quite a bit more than just setting a text to music. They’re about treating the voice as an instrument in all its possibilities, and also using the possibility of language, what it means to put a language with music and what it does to the music. Music in and of itself has no specific, readily perceptible meaning, but as soon as you attach language to it, all of a sudden you’re referencing something. I think when a lot of people set text that they’re not always so conscious of that aspect of it.
PP: It’s interesting because now I’m writing more opera, but where I came into writing for the voice was using my own voice—not actually really setting text at all but making up languages, like I did in Body Maps, in As Sleep Befell, complete vocalize. That became an exploration of how to use the voice for timbre, how to use the voice in terms of virtuosity and leaps and skips and you know, that kind of writing that appears more in Body Maps. Then, slowly, I got more into word locution and really text setting and how to do that in operatic settings, which I’m really interested in now.
FJO: Oceanic Verses has gone through many permutations. I remember attending a performance of some excerpts from it at the New York City Opera’s VOX readings, but it’s evolved quite considerably since then. At one point, you called it an oratorio, at another a cantata. Now you’re describing it as an opera. Of course the wonderful thing about the word opera is that it really can mean anything you want it to, despite people immediately associating it with Puccini or Wagner.
PP: Oceanic Verses was my first foray into writing in an operatic form. It was definitely a hybrid piece, and it definitely doesn’t have a specific narrative. It follows four characters and their trajectories, but not in a linear form. The film plays a very important role to me in the performance, which we were finally able to include when we were at the Barbican with the BBC Symphony. I’m not one to say what is or is not opera. But I definitely played around a lot with what to call it because I found it really falling in between lines. The piece has been in a way my own learning about operatic form, learning how to write in some style that I was approaching, and so it’s been a piece that’s morphed with me for the past four years. Now I’m very happy to let it sail off and do its thing and move on because I don’t believe in staying on works for too long. I think it’s better sometimes to learn through new pieces. But that specific piece definitely had a long evolution.
FJO: Well, I don’t want you to let it go just yet. We’re not done talking about it! There’s a very loaded social message to this piece, which I think is one of its key ingredients. It’s about how to deal with traditions that are disappearing, how to deal with globalization, modernization, immigration, socio-economic changes, how a military presence alters a place—all these things than affect an environment.
PP: Yeah, extreme communication. Absolutely. [Oceanic Verses] touches on that. It started with a personal need to discover my own internal geography and the geography of this land, and the implications of this land as a place of immigration, of flux. And then by placing Helga Davis as the protagonist, I feel like it did a profound job of exploring not just archetypes, but the struggles that permeate that land as well as using that land as a metaphor for different borders and different places that are experiencing change. So the songs, I feel, can paint the picture of many different experiences, but it’s very much musically based in that region, and in that kind of lost language, lost Italian songs, and with all the influences that it has—from African influences to Byzantine influences to the Greco language that only 400 people speak now. It was a fascinating piece for me to discover my own roots, but to put my own kind of musical understanding of that experience into that kind of a package was also a beautiful experience.
FJO: Discussions nowadays about influences and tradition are very complicated. You spoke earlier about growing up on the US border and then having a very formal education at Juilliard based on the tradition that comes out of Western classical music, which is a very specific thing. In the 21st century, in terms of who we are and what our music is, all the world’s music is available to us, from all eras, from all over the place. Music from a certain place that is more than likely not related to the Western classical tradition might actually resonate more. The Western classical tradition is just as foreign to most 21st-century Americans as gamelan, or West African drumming. So to incorporate any other tradition into your own music is no more culturally appropriative than, say, writing a string quartet would be at this point.
PP: It’s absolutely true. And what I did in my 20s, after Juilliard, was really try to explore different traditions—different vocal techniques, from Inuit calls to south African choral music to actually going to Zimbabwe, collecting sound samples in southern Italy. It was very freeing. Now I feel like my music incorporates those things in a very subtle way, whereas there were certain pieces that I’ve written that were much more obvious. I wanted them to be obvious. Now I find that they’re deeply entrenched in my own language, and they come out in very different ways. So I feel like it was a journey that I definitely wanted and needed to go on to arrive at where I am now, which is just having all these different influences affect my music.
Piles of recordings in Prestini's home
FJO: To stay a bit longer on Oceanic Verses, is that that piece is probably the largest manifestation to date of where the world music influences have gone in your own work. And yet it was also about discovering your own roots. It’s both things at the same time.
PP: When I first started the piece for VOX, it was very personal and based more on my own experiences. Then as the piece evolved with the filmmaker, Ali Hossaini, and the librettist, Donna Di Novelli, we took it out of my hands and really made the main character an archeologist. That archeologist then goes on to discover the different traditions and to have her own epiphany, a personal epiphany that happens and manifests itself through the discovery of different songs and different experiences that allow her to uncover her own past. So it becomes a journey for one woman, meeting these different archetypes, uncovering this music, and then uncovering her own American identity.
FJO: One of the things that convinced me that we absolutely needed to talk to you this year, aside from the anniversary of VIA, was that when we ran into each other at ASCAP you were telling me about a project you’re working on based on The Epic of Gilgamesh—something with which I have long been fascinated.
PP: Yes. Well, it’s a piece that’s really driven by the librettist, Cerise Jacobs. Cerise and I met very briefly at VOX during Oceanic Verses, when her husband Charles was still alive. Cerise had been working at the time on the Ouroboros Trilogy, which my opera Gilgamesh is part of, and they were looking for a composer. Charles then passed away. When Cerise came together with Beth Morrison to try to assign that opera to someone, Cerise and I met again and it was a perfect match. I feel really lucky to be able to write something in memory of her late husband, and of course the topic was extremely exciting. It’s actually a trilogy with three different composers for the three different operas. And the three operas can be executed in any order. On the opening night, when it’s in Boston, it will be done with all three operas consecutively.
FJO: The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving epic poem, but it tells a story that’s strikingly contemporary about coming to terms with mortality.
PP: I’ve been reading about AI [artificial intelligence], and just today in the New Yorker, there was a fascinating article about the future of everlasting life and robotics. It’s a right-hand turn, but it’s definitely an extension of that.
FJO: The other really timely thing about Gilgamesh is that he was the King of Uruq. Uruq is in Iraq. I just checked the maps to see if it is anywhere near where the ISIS folks are. Luckily they’re not near where that is yet, since there have been such significant archeological finds that have taken place there and are still going on. It is the source of a lot of both Western and Eastern culture. The earliest board games and the earliest surviving musical instruments are from there, as well as the earliest documentation of a seven-note diatonic scale. Even the earliest known portrait of a woman was found there.
PP:  That’s fascinating.
FJO: And now this place is in everybody’s consciousness again, although for all the most horrible reasons. A lot of ruins are getting destroyed in other parts of Iraq. How much are you paying attention to the news that’s been coming out from there and how much of your approach to Gilgamesh is informed by what’s going on there now?
PP: I pay attention to it very much in my everyday life because I read and I have connections to Iraq that are personal, so I pay attention to it in that way. But musically it’s not something that, at the moment, is infiltrating the work. Every text when it has historical, deep connections psychologically draws from a different fountain of music within you. So I wouldn’t say that there’s no connection, but it’s not like Oceanic Verses, where I went and I studied and made sound samples. It’s not that kind of a work. The way that Cerise compiled the text has a very international bent to it. So it’s a reevaluation and a retelling of the Gilgamesh myth. So in that way, I really felt the freedom to musically tell a story that was very relevant to my musical voice right now. And because it’s also the first opportunity I have to really write in an extraordinary, extreme operatic form, I’m allowing myself to just think about acoustic instruments. The setting is—I wouldn’t say traditional, but—a little bit more conditioned by the opportunity I have.
FJO: So no electronics?
PP: No electronics.
FJO: Wow.
PP: Long story short. I love how you get to the point. I was trying to do a roundabout way of answering that. That’s great.
FJO: No samples?
PP: No samples.
FJO: Wow.
PP: Cerise was really intent on not having any microphones, not having any amplification, no extreme electronics, really focusing on the pure sound of the orchestra, the choir, the children’s choir, and the soloists.
FJO: When you say there are three operas by three different composers, I’m trying to wrap my brain around this.
PP: It’s very Wagnerian. That’s what she’s going for, a real epic.
FJO: But Wagner was all about controlling everything and all the music was his, whereas this project, by design, involves multiple compositional voices and composers who write very different music from one another.
PP: Scott Wheeler wrote the music for Naga and Zhou Long wrote the music for Madame Whitesnake which won the Pulitzer years back.
FJO: The idea that these operas could be done in any order is also not very Wagnerian. I mean, there’s no Gotterdämmerung!
PP: That’s the idea of Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail and the idea of the cycle of life. The cycle of these characters, their stories, and how they reappear can actually be told and understood in different directions.
FJO: In a weird kind of way, being involved with a project like this is about a lot more than just you. To spiral back to the beginning of our conversation, snake eating its own tail style, this project ties very neatly in with what you do in the rest of your life as a collaborator, sharing programs with others’ work, presenting others’ work. Though she came to you and it’s an outside project, it seems completely like everything else you do aesthetically.
PP: Totally, and I really have to credit Beth and Cerise for that, because their vision was to really create a community amongst the collaborators. It’s been the most magnificent process. Very, very fruitful, very supportive, and I think that that will seep into the interconnectivity of the works. Even in an abstract way.
FJO: So, to bring it back full circle to the Original Music Workshop, which will be up and running a year from now. Maybe these operas could be done there?
PP: Yeah. I do think that certain works can be done there. But lately the works I’ve been working on are quite extensive and large. The other work I have is at the Park Avenue Armory, Aging Magician, which is with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and will go on to several different venues. But my hopes are to eventually do smaller works and to have more fluidity with the compositional process. For OMW, what’s really exciting is that we’ll have different groups in residence; we’ll have different partnerships with ongoing organizations—Beth Morrison Productions, VisionIntoArt, and a few others that will develop festivals, and that will really help provide a breadth of programming.
The groups in residence will benefit from subsidized recording rates, free rehearsal space, and also connection with all the partnerships that we have, which are quite extensive. The space will operate like a club, in many ways, but it will also have a nonprofit side of things. So it’s both a club with a restaurant and an incredible recording venue. I think it’ll provide the community with a space for mentoring those next steps into professional life: a place where you can really easily get a recording and easily film your work. I wouldn’t say that it’s the place where you would do crazy multimedia or deep, long process, setting-type work, but I think you can absolutely do extraordinary film and music or deep electronics. I think it will really serve a large body of artists focusing on music in all different styles. OMW is really about the fluidity of music that composers and groups and artists and songwriters are writing today. It’s perfect for a single piano. In fact, the acoustics were designed to perfectly fit a solo piano show. And with acoustic treatment, it can perfectly accommodate the most complex electronic shows. So that space will really serve many different styles of music, and my hopes are it will really be a place where you want to go to discover things.
FJO: So in terms of the kinds of things that you might find yourself doing there, because I imagine that you will have a role there as an artist as well, might there be a sequel to Limpopo Songs?
PP: I think as I get to know more musicians and as they desire my work, it’s exciting to be doing these smaller collaborations. I have a piece that’s coming out on [my husband] Jeff Zeigler’s new album Something of Life. That’s a piece for him and Jason Treuting, and it’s called Listen Quiet. That was a fun collaboration, so yeah, absolutely. I see myself taking some time off from the large-scale works and doing smaller-scale works, going back out and having that kind of inner play allows you to clear your mind and refocus and then want to embark on the large collaborations again.
FJO: Dare I say, to further bite the tail of the snake, might working on some smaller projects instead of yet another large collaboration also allow you to have a weekend sometimes?
PP: That might be nice. As artists, we all really enjoy what we do and so oftentimes going to see a show, or doing things that might seem like work, aren’t really work. And I can include my family in it, and we find our times, but it’s definitely a compact time of life right now.