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A Conversation with Composer Paola Prestini

This Friday and Saturday, New York City Opera is running it’s annual VOX sequence, wherein ten American composers get their works read by the orchestra and singers of that amazing institution.  (I was fortunate enough to be part of it in 2004.) One of the pieces on Saturday is by Paola Prestini, who I think is one of the more singular and fascinating composers on the scene—nobody writes music like her, which is certainly meant as a high compliment.  I caught her amidst a seriously hectic schedule (she resides both in San Francsico and New York) and asked her a few questions.

Daniel Felsenfeld: Can you tell me a little bit about the piece you have coming up on New York City Opera’s VOX?

Paola Prestini: Oceanic Verses is a tableau of rituals that explores my Italian roots. Through an initial Carnegie Hall commission, I began compiling my favorite Italian poetry–from ancient Sardegnan texts to more contemporary texts from Ungaretti. What resulted is a patchwork libretto that tells a timeless story of the female psyche, looking specifically at woman as ruler, nurturer and martyr. Through the roles of a Queen, a mother, a sailor who serves as the works narrator, and a common man, these characters passionately interweave while the ocean binds their tales and serves as a sonic narrator.  

DF: This piece seemed, to me, a kind of different step for you.  Was that conscious?

PP: I feel that the beauty in getting older is the freedom to take certain risks, and to not fear their outcome, trusting that our artistic voices are the synthesis of all prior experience. Oceanic Verses continues a line that I have been working on for a long time. Though I don’t pretend to be a librettist, it was wonderful for me to create a libretto for this first phase of the work. Literature has always been my first collaborator, the words on the page are my blank canvas and they invite me to play and create. Being such a personal work, I wanted to not collaborate in this first creative phase. (However, I am a collaborator at heart and in fact the work is thus far a visual collaboration with the great artist and filmmaker Ali Hossaini.)

But to get back to your question.

 I feel that all my experiences the past 10 years with my nonprofit (Vision Into Art), and with all the productions I have created have prepared me for this giant step of creating an opera. It has always been my dream, and the experience has thus far blown me away. Opera feels like the perfect form for me–I enjoy thinking big! Sonically, the work continues my musical style and expands on it–the interweaving of my own language with traditional and contemporary music, and field samples I’ve collected with electronics.

DF: How do you feel about the word “opera” as applied to Oceanic Verses?

PP: The word opera is literally drama set to music. I feel that this is very much that. I wanted to employ everything that is very much part of my current artistic vocabulary: the music of the Mediterranean, poetry, my natural penchant for song, field recordings, and film. But also, I wanted to dramatically convey what I think is a very contemporary story: how women balance the internal and external arcs of our lives: my timeless queen begins with the simple lines from Colonna: “I live upon this wretched solitary cliff.”  She ends her arc in my story (in the scene called “Fading Civilizations”) with the Aleardi line: “I have lived unknown to my dear land.” She has been able to rule but has been unable to live a full emotional life. The Mother has lived fully but has felt “invisible” and powerless. I find this struggle contemporary and common, and it reaches beyond the feminine experience. Their roles in the opera are antagonistic but also need each other, they are part of a single reality.   

DF: Tell me a little about your CD Body Maps.  What’s the concept behind it, what does the title mean?

PP: Body Maps is the title track of my first album release on the Tzadik label. The album includes many of the artists who have helped me develop my voice over the past 10 years. The title work is a collaboration with the exquisite Mexican visual artist, Erika Harrsch (who I also commissioned to do the album cover). It musically and visually charts certain plural, feminine experiences. By taking the eye, hand, voice, and arm (that extends into a metaphoric wing) we tell a story of our cultural understandings of our body; on a personal level it represents an important step in my creative development in that body maps is the first piece I wrote employing my own voice  (I sing in the choir).  It represents my own musical liberation at the very end with a meditation on actual monarch butterfly wing audio samples from Mexico. The piece is structurally balanced by a choir of voices and a choir of cellos that accompany and comment on the  two soloists, hila plitmann and Jeffrey zeigler.

DF: Can serious music like yours “matter”?

PP: Yes! At best, contemporary music and art is the voice of the people: it represents current struggles, issues, and should bring people together in a common experience.

DF: What’s coming up for you next?

PP: I’m writing a violin and orchestra piece for Cornelius Duffallo that employs the KBOW, a new Keith McMillan invention. It is a Bluetooth sensored bow that can trigger audio and video. The work will include film my longtime collaborator Carmen Kordas, and will involve a new instrument I am creating. I am also creating a multimedia work from Jonathan Safran Foer’s piece about an aging clown in A Convergence of Birds, his Joseph Cornell dedication book. I am also producing FERUS, a series that presents artists I admire at Galapagos Art Space. And, working on 21c Liederabend with Beth Morrison Projects and Opera on Tap.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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