Contemporary classical violist Nadia Sirota describes her time as a student at the prestigious Julliard School as a period in which she tried to perfect everything and iron out all the kinks. In fact, the Park Slope-based musician was once told that she was breathing too loudly while she was performing on her viola in class, but she also came away with something from her Julliard experiences.
“The farther away I’ve gotten from actually being in school,” she tells me, “the more comfortable I have become with just the way that I hear music and trying to express that as clearly as possible to the audience. I feel it’s my job to take the listener on a journey through how I see the piece as being constructed and try to make that journey really, really clear. Again, when people are listening to a piece–if I perform it–there’s a really good chance they’re listening to it for the first time. So I just want to be as helpful as possible in showing them what the piece actually is and where the big road marks are and at least how I feel about the piece.”
Sirota has proven more than helpful in guiding listeners into unknown musical territory through her amazing viola playing and her interpretations of other musicians’ work. A performer who displays both intensity and grace, Sirota has accomplished so much in a young career: she is part of the musical collectives yMusic, Alarm Will Sound, and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble; a member of the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music; a radio host for Q2, classical music station WQXR’s online stream; and a guest performer on albums for indie rock bands sich as Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire, The National and Dirty Projectors.
Her new album, Baroque, is made up of works by several different composers–including Judd Greenstein (“In Teaching Others We Teach Ourselves”), Nico Muhly (“Etude 3”), Missy Mazzoli (“Tooth and Nail”) and Daniel Bjarnason (“Sleep Variations”–highlighted by her viola, of course, and a sound that is atmospheric and avant-garde. First Things First, Sirota’s 2009 album debut, consisted of entirely of projects she commissioned while she was still a student at Julliard.
“With this record [Baroque],” she says, “I sort of had the opportunity to set out and make a record explicitly. When I set out to construct this record, I really wanted to see what a viola player can do in a completely decked-out studio environment with not [being] super on-the-clock. I had the opportunity here to be a little bit more—I don’t want to say ‘experimental,’ but experimenting in the way that I put stuff together. So I had the time to multi-track everything and really try to find some rich crazy textures for the electronics and make everything as three-dimensional as possible.”
The new album was recorded at Greenhouse Studios in Iceland. Sirota describes the studio environment there as a bedroom community. “The way that studio works is all hands on deck or all in,” she says. “If somebody’s recording a record there, there’s a really good chance they’ll sort of pull me up into the studio to just play some viola stuff on it. So when I had the opportunity to maybe start doing some work on the record there, I was really excited to do so. Again, the amount of freedom I had in the studio was really exhilarating as well.”
Work on the album took about a year-and-a-half at a slow pace; Sirota says she knew that Mazzoli’s composition “Tooth and Nail,” was going to be the first track on the record, followed by Bjarnason’s “Sleep Variations.” “So we ended up banging that out in two days,” she says of the latter song, “in a way that just felt completely ridiculous and amazing and sort of listened back to what we had. We’re like, ‘Wow, this is pretty good.’ That was the beginning of this record–it was at that point that it sort of occurred to me that I might had something taking shape that it could be an album of some sort.”
Originally from Boston, Sirota, who grew up in a musical family, began playing violin first before switching to viola at age 13. “I started dabbling in viola and immediately realized I had a really good sound on the instrument. It sort of happened immediately. And I was just actually completely taken with the actual instrument, the way that it sounded and the physicalities of playing it. The moment I started playing viola, I started wanting to play all the time and figuring out how this instrument work.”
Sirota prefers performing works by other composers that were especially written for her, allowing her to approach a piece from her own viewpoint. “If you’re playing a piece that is 200 years old, there’s so much performance practice that has been put into that piece before,” she explains. “I love playing Bach, but it was very intimidating to me because there are so many people who say so many things about Bach. So I found that I actually freed up my brain about Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms and all those other people when I started playing a ton of music that have been written just for me. I still get most excited about taking something that didn’t exist before in the world and bringing it to the world and audiences. I think it’s such a cool job to be that translator.”
Sirota’s viola has also appeared on an impressive number of recent indie rock albums, including The National’s High Violet, Dirty Projectors’ Swing Lo Magellan, and Arcade Fire’s Grammy-winning work The Suburbs. Her involvement with those bands and others were mostly based on social relationships, she says. “All these people are cross-pollinating like crazy. So initially I started working with Grizzly Bear through Nico’s [Muhly] arranging for them. But then everybody drinks together, hangs out together–if you want strings on your record, wouldn’t you want the strings to be the people you have a nice time hanging out with, especially if everyone’s really into the project? I just find that all these creative musical minds and are really into each other and really want to work with each other.”
At the moment, Sirota is touring with Valgeir Sigurosson for his new record Architecture of Loss that included a recent stint in Europe; she is also working on gathering material for her sextet yMusic’s next album. For this upcoming gig at (Le) Poisson Rouge, a venue where she has played many times, she’ll be performing for Sigurosson’s set as well as music from her new record. “I’m just excited to promote this music and to play it for people,” says Sirota. “A lot of these pieces, like Daniel’s piece I recorded before I ever performed, so I’m now getting to perform that music and it’s such a really, really cool experience.”