Beautiful Mechanical: An Interview with Nadia Sirota of yMusic

This interview was originally conducted over the phone in September 2011 (shortly before the release of yMusic’s debut album Beautiful Mechanical) for an article appearing in the Fall 2011 issue of the Risk and Consequence zine. You should definitely check out Risk and Consequence, by the way. They’re good people.

The Indie Handbook: Alright, can you hear me?

Nadia Sirota: I can.

TIH: Great! There we go. Finally, it works…Hi. How’s it going?

NS: It’s going good. I’m in Cambridge, MA at a Hyatt trying to fulfill a Kickstarter reward. It’s kinda fun.

TIH: So, you’ve got this new album coming out.

NS: Mmhmm…

TIH: But…when did you guys even find time to record something, because you are everywhere that I go?…

NS: Yeah…It’s one of the cool things about this group, that everyone is doing a million things. It’s also the biggest challenge of the group, because we all have so many different projects that we’re working on, so we basically just carved out two weeks this past (I wanna say) May (or March or something like that…one of the M months) when we were gonna be in town and we recorded our record and then recorded Shara Worden’s record and we just, like—bang, bang—sorta made it a priority. And it’s been really amazing to work on both of these records and play—I mean, we try to play with each other as often as we can, but again everyone’s in a bunch of different groups and doing a bunch of different stuff, so it gets complicated. But I think that’s part of what makes the group kind of awesome.

TIH: Well, yeah. I mean, I’ve seen you guys play—well, I saw the strings half of you—I saw you guys up in Minneapolis at String Theory…

NS: Oh yeah!

TIH: …And then again down at MusicNOW. And I tried to go see you other times, but those shows got canceled and whatever.

NS: Yeah, right.

TIH: But I’ve been really impressed this whole time. I mean, I’ve been hearing about you for a long time online and things, but it’s been amazing to actually see it for myself.

NS: It’s cool because, again, the reason the group started to begin with had something to do with the fact that we’re all kind of curious musicians. We’re not really interested in just going to Julliard and then getting an orchestra job and taking that kind of a road. But we were all kind of doing it by ourselves. Sort of, like, finding different interesting artists to work with and composers and songwriters. And probably, like, four years after we graduated, we just started running into each other all the time at these various gigs, and it was like: ‘you know what, let us try to raise the quality of this work to the same quality as—you know—the Emerson String Quartet or whatever’. We just want to bring the highest level of musicianship to all of these really exciting collaborators and exciting types of music. And there was a way in which sort of non-classical music was — ghettoized by classical musicians (which is probably a terrible word for it since more people listen to music that’s not classical than the other way around).

TIH: Right.

NS: But there was a way that classical musicians were like, ‘Oh, it’s just weird string parts’ blah, blah, blah…and, as a result, a lot of the people that were performing in that context were just not as polished as the musicians you heard performing Bach and Brahms. So we’re trying to bring that level of polish and commitment and performance, which obviously the singers and songwriters and band members that we’re working with are bringing. We want the other parts of the chamber musick-y arrangement things to be as kickass as actual chamber music. And Shara’s record is a really beautiful example of that, where I feel like you’re listening to six people play virtuosic chamber music in the context of these amazing songs. It’s really really cool.

So that’s the way we kind of formed the group. And then, the neat thing about this new record is that, in addition to sort of working behind bands and being an ensemble-for-hire or being arrangers-for-hire or something like that, we really took the next step and said ‘hey, you guys are all writing us pieces’. So what’s kinda cool about this record is that there are straight-up composers who went to conservatories for composition, there are straight up kind of singer-songwriter types of people that we made write concert music without any words whatsoever, and then there’s people who are kind of in the middle of those particular two things, and they’re all on pretty equal footing on this record. In other words, it’s just a record of seven pieces of chamber music made by these incredible creative minds that we just tried to be as good as possible at. And I think it really actually holds together. We’re really proud of it.

TIH: Now, the way you picked the pieces to go on the record, did you get those specifically for the purpose of this record, or were they existing pieces that had already been done for you?

NS: It’s a little bit confusing. They’re all written for us. Every single piece on that record was written for yMusic and these specific players. A couple of the pieces were commissioned through different outlets. Annie Clark wrote “Proven Badlands” for the MusicNOW festival, like three years ago.

TIH: Ok, I’d wondered about that.

NS: So Bryce [Dessner] got that commissioned for us. And Shara [Worden] wrote those two little pieces for the context of her live show with us—her All Things Will Unwind show. So those actually have a location in the album in a weird way, but they’re not off her album. But Sarah [Kirkland Snider]’s piece, Judd [Greenstein]’s piece, what else is on the record?…

TIH: Umm…Gabriel Kahane.

NS: Yeah. Sarah’s piece and Judd’s piece were written specifically for the record. Gabriel’s piece was one of the first works that we ever commissioned—had written for us as yMusic. And it’s the second movement of this sort of pocket trumpet concerto that Gabe had written. We thought it was a kind of cool, melancholy, kind of quasi-bonus track for this particular record, which was cool. And then Ryan’s piece—the Son Lux piece—“Beautiful Mechanical”, the title track, was originally written for a dance company. Ryan’s married to a dancer and is very plugged into the modern dance world and this was something—I don’t remember the name of the dance company—but it was a big multi-movement work and this was the first sort of central piece for that. So, you know, in the commissioning game you’re kind of trying to look for money wherever you can find it and what you end up doing is using a lot of different contexts to get these pieces paid for, to get the composers remunerated. As much as there are different ways that they’ve all been commissioned, it’s all happened in a very short time and we were thinking about trying to build an album from the very beginning, ever since we came together. So the things that we got specifically for the record—Judd’s and Sarah’s pieces—I think we were thinking that would just tie this together really beautifully and make for a solid album. Of course, when pieces don’t exist yet, it’s really complicated to say ‘Oh, they’re gonna go great on a record’. I mean, they don’t exist. You’re asking people to write things that don’t exist.

TIH: Right, exactly.

NS: But, I think we did well. I think we kind of lucked out in a lot of ways. And this is obviously not the first version of this record that we’ve thought about, but I think we ended up with some amazing material and were able to sort of corral it into place to make sense with the album.

TIH: Well, I think it’s really cohesive and it all makes perfect sense together and in the order that they’ve been put there.

NS: Awesome.

TIH: Now, something I read talks about intentionally “reaching across the aisle”, so to speak, between pop and classical and more traditional New Music stuff versus pop songwriters. Was that really an issue? Was that really something thought about in the construction of the album?

NS: Well, again, I don’t think “reaching across the aisle” so much as we found ourselves—we’re all conservatory trained musicians. The word “conservative” is in “conservatory”, so we all had pretty conservative learning experiences and then we all found ourselves working with these really exciting, innovative musicians who were not classical composers. So that was sort of the pre-existing conditions. And then it was more like, how do we be as awesome as possible within this context. I don’t think it was a whole bunch of New Music players being like ‘hey man, let’s reach across the aisle and slum it in the indie world”.

TIH: Yeah, exactly.

yMusic play Ecstatic Music Festival. Pictured (from left to right): Rob Moose, Nadia Sirota, Clarice Jensen, Hideaki Aomori, CJ Camerieri. Hiding behind CJ is Andrew Rehrig. (Photo by David Andrako)

NS: That wasn’t the point. That wasn’t the way it came to be. It was that we found ourselves, in addition to totally fucking going apeshit over Brahms, we found ourselves totally going apeshit over Sufjan and and all these other people, Antony [Hegarty] and all these other people we were working with. So, it became obvious that there must be a way to contribute what we do on a high level in a way that made sense. And again, it’s kinda cool, because it has taken some years to sort of figure out who we were. We were like, we like each other, we sound good, we like doing projects together. What can this group be? And think this record is sort of the first time we were really, like “Hi. This is us”, in a way.

TIH: Right. I mean, it doesn’t really sound to me like you were intentionally reaching across, because you know when classical musicians try to do a crossover and intentionally “reach out to the indie rock crowd” it never…

NS: Right. You get Renée Fleming’s Dark Hope record…

TIH: Yes. Thank you. I didn’t want to bring it up by name, but yes, that is exactly what I’m thinking of. Yes.

NS: Yeah.

TIH: And it always sounds really condescending.

NS: Yeah, I know. And here’s the other thing that happens in classical music a lot of the time. You get a group like Alarm Will Sound (whom I love, so no worries here) and they’re like: ‘We think Aphex Twin or Richard James or whatever is a wonderful composer, so we’re gonna transcribe all of his music for our orchestral forces’. And that’s cool, and they made a cool record like that ten years ago, but, in a way, that’s treating Aphex Twin like Bach—like saying, this is this thing that exists and we’re going to perform it ourselves. And what was more interesting to us than treating these living composers and songwriters like old dead people is saying ‘we think you’re great, so why don’t you write us a piece.’ And I think that’s a little bit different from what people like Alarm Will Sound were doing and more fun for us because it’s more of a collaborative process.

The other thing is that, somebody like Annie Clark, that piece existed as a bunch of audio files and a bunch of jumbled up notes and that arrangement sort of came through really hard work on the piece. There are a lot of situations in which that’s the case. But we’re kind of taking more of a creative lead in some of the arrangements of these pieces than I would if I were performing just sort of in a normal New Music ensemble where the score is the text and you must obey every single smudge and piece of fly shit on the paper, you know. These are more kind of living documents, and in that way, that might be sort of a more indie rock aesthetic if you want to call it that.

TIH: They’re a little more rock and roll in that sense.

NS: Yeah. The process is fun. And we’re valuing each other as creative, rather than solely recreative, which is an interesting thing.

TIH: Do you think that, especially in Annie’s and Shara’s pieces—I mean, you know Shara’s music really well now that she’s pretty much written an entire album for you—do you think that their particular styles in regard to their work with their respective bands…do you think that that comes through in the pieces they’ve written for this record?

NS: In varying degrees, you know what I mean? There are some things, for example Ryan’s piece and Annie’s piece, both take cells of stuff that they’ve also turned into songs or tracks in different ways. Shara’s music, I think, is pretty shocking in a way, because she kind of wrote these little studies or character pieces. She basically picks a mood and created that mood in these short little works pretty effectively, and I think her songwriting does that to a certain extent, except that then there’s this whole song form thing that’s happening with that. You know what I mean? So she’ll create a mood and then sing a song on top of that mood, whereas, this is just these evocative little concert works, which is kind of cool. You can definitely tell that they are made by the same person, but I’m not sure that, at first blush, that would be the most obvious thing.

TIH: Yeah. And those were originally written with Jessica Dessner doing the dance part in mind?

NS: Yes…They were written to be danced. Also there’s this really cool—I don’t know if you’ve seen Shara do these live—but she has this crazytown papier maché puppet mask

TIH: Yeah, she had those at MusicNOW when I saw you guys down there in Cincinnati

NS: So she’s playing a version of her older self, which is an interesting idea. Like she’s looking at herself 50 years in the future or something is how she describes it.

TIH: Alright. Because I didn’t know that. I was trying to figure out what was going on there, and I wasn’t entirely sure.

NS: Yeah, it’s old Shara looking back on young Shara or something like that.

TIH: Ok, yeah. I can see that…Now, I’m curious. When I interviewed Shara two years ago, we had talked about her having to make a choice between being a songwriter and being a classical musician. And now you guys, more or less as classical musicians—well, definitely classical musicians, conservatory trained and all those things and really working in that genre—when she and I talked about it, it really came down to that fact that there isn’t really a difference between the two: that people think there should be a difference, but there really isn’t. Do see that as having changed in the last couple of years? You’re much more in the center of this and going around the country and seeing how it’s changing than I am.

NS: Yeah. I think it’s changed a lot in the past few years. I think that your general audience for a show these days really not adverse to seeing—I don’t know if you remember, but when Matt Haimovitz first came on the scene his slogan was literally “Bach in a bar” and it was like, “Oh my God, somebody is playing Bach in a bar!” But that’s so not anything that would cause anyone to turn their head at this point. I’m in Boston right now with ACME and we just opened for Jeff Mangum from Neutral Milk Hotel and played a bunch of Satie and Gavin Bryars to open on Ronen Givony’s Wordless Music Series. I don’t think anybody in that audience thought “holy crap, there’s a string quartet on stage!” I think there are a lot of people that are going to a show that are happy to listen to something that would normally be considered classical or whatever. I don’t think people are as shocked by that anymore.

The thing that we’re trying to work out to that end—and I’m not sure if this exactly answers your question—it’s that people have sort of puzzled out this difference between a songwriter and a composer and I think—especially on this record—there really is none. We wanna put that out there. Every single person, be it a songwriter or a composer from whatever side of whatever has written us a piece of chamber music and there is absolutely no difference in this context.

TIH: Yeah, and I think that makes a lot of sense. And I think, in some sense, the more traditional—or the people on this record that I would view as the most decidedly classical composers—like Gabe’s piece for instance, sounds like the most songwriter-y thing on it.

NS: Well, this is the whole joke with this entire situation right now. You have somebody who is like super duper classicaltown—the two pieces with electric guitar on this record are by Gabe Kahane and Sarah Snider, you know what I mean.

TIH: Right.

NS: And in some ways, I feel like Shara wrote the most traditionally New Music-sounding pieces on the record. I asked Owen Pallett to write me a piece for viola and he totally wrote me, essentially, a beautiful Romantic viola sonata. People are so aware of The Other right now, I feel like, oftentimes, when they’re asked to do something like this, you get exactly the opposite of what you would expect from them. And I wonder if that’s going to be true forever. But that’s definitely what’s happening right now. It’s funny. It’s the entire joke of the whole thing.

TIH: It’s almost like a “somebody finally wants to take me seriously as a composer and I finally have this opportunity to write this thing I can’t put on my own records” kind of a thing…

NS: Yeah. And it’s the same on both sides, you know?…It’s really interesting, this context of sort of mixing crap up into a big bowl and considering songwriters and composers at the same time, because everyone wants to be doing everything is, I think, the secret. And I think everyone can do everything. I think we’re really close to a situation where you don’t have to call yourself one thing or another.

TIH: Well, yeah. And that’s kind of what I was getting at with that last question, is do you see around the country—I know that in New York, you’ve sort of been able to do that kind of thing for a while—but you’re going around the country all the time now. Do you see that that’s becoming more widely accepted in other places?

NS: Absolutely. And a lot of these really inventive festivals like MusicNOW, like Big Ears, and obviously Ecstatic! and Wordless, these things are sort of being exported or this programming concept is being exported. Even Bonnaroo, actually, let’s talk about just SXSW and the number of classical ensembles that have participated in that has really risen. So there’s definitely some kind of trend of music being music. And that sort of has to do with the internet and everything just being available to everyone. That’s probably what’s changed in the past ten years. But yeah, music is more being considered as just music and I think the bigger difference, as opposed to the sort of genre difference that is weird and complicated to speak to, is timing. So things that are written recently are things that are written recently and things that were written a while ago are things that were written a while ago. You know? So I think that there’s a way in which a 28-year-old composer and a 28-year-old songwriter have way more in common than a 28-year-old composer and a composer from 1725, whereas that’s never been the story in conservatories, recently anyway.

TIH: Are you going to be touring this record?

NS: We are trying our asses off to try to put together a tour for this record. The other thing about yMusic that sucks—or actually, maybe the only thing about yMusic that sucks is that we’re expensive—we’re six people with a bunch of instruments. It becomes something, like, in a perfect world, we’d be on tour and everything would be awesome. But, you know, it’s a crap economy and we’re a lot of people. And the cello is basically, for all intents and purposes, another human being.

TIH: So, this interview, this article, is basically intended to give an introduction to yMusic and to the whole genre, if you can call it a “genre”…Is there anything you think I should definitely cover for those who are new to yMusic?

NS: Maybe one of the most important pieces of phraseology for that audience specifically is “chamber music”. That this is a chamber music record. It’s a chamber music record wherein we have commissioned works from songwriters and composers alike and where they have equal footing. We’ve basically stripped away any situation in which somebody would have an advantage over another group. Well, here’s the thing. We really believe in every single piece of music on this record. We wouldn’t have put it out if we didn’t love everything. This is what’s awesome about it. It’s seven excellent pieces of chamber music written by people on every side of the fence….I’m not exactly sure what else to say.

TIH: Well, I don’t really know how to ask that question anyway, so no worries there. Now, in the last century—and especially in the last 50 years—there’s been a real emphasis on chamber music, composers working more in a chamber context than in symphonic music.

NS: Sure.

TIH: Do you think that’s something that will change, specifically as concerns this whole indie classical idea? Like Jonny Greenwood’s Doghouse, for instance. Do you think that’s a thing that will happen more often?

NS: Sure. Listen. The same half century that you’re talking about has heard everyone and their mom talk about why “classical music is dying”, which is obviously tired and boring and has been said since before I was born and I don’t believe it’s true, but symptomatic of that particular thought is that there’s just not a lot of money there. So, if chamber music is more popular than symphonies, I think it’s probably because it’s cheaper.

TIH: Right.

NS: If people could get—I mean, orchestras are really cool. It’s a whole bunch of people playing the same music at the same time together in perfect synch. And it’s awesome. I think that if people get really into orchestras and there’s money for these kinds of projects, that’d be awesome, and that’ll become trendy again. But it’s sort of annoying to tie finances of the classical music community to trends in composition, but I think it probably is a pretty direct line.

TIH: Well, if it’s nearly impossible for you, as a sextet to tour, I can’t imagine trying to tour a symphonic piece.

NS: Exactly. But hopefully, you know, these are just growing pains. Again, we haven’t really existed for very long. And we’ve never really tried to put together a tour before. We tend to be other people’s band-for-hire. That’s the cool thing about this for us. And we love being other people’s bands-for-hire, you know. We love working with people and helping with arranging and, like, playing their awesome music and their awesome songs really, really well. But this is the first time we’ve been able to say “Hi. These are actually, not just the people you see behind some of your favorite artists. This is just us, ourselves. This is our product.”

TIH: Well, I was amazed, for instance, during String Theory, all the repertoire that especially you and Rob [Moose] covered over the course of those three days. I don’t think I ever really realized just how much work these so-called “background musicians” really do.

NS: That’s exactly right. That’s the thing. We’re constantly, like, digesting and performing music. And the interesting thing about being somebody in that particular role is that your entire goal is to look at what the composer is intending and try to communicate that to the audience. That’s the only thing you’re doing and you really have to sort of feel like you are being like a vessel—a really excellent vehicle for the composer or the songwriter, but that does mean that we’re digesting a lot of crap and learning a lot of notes. And we work our asses off. That’s the thing. We work really, really hard.

TIH: Well, I was going to say. That seemed pretty evident. And then you’ve all got your own things in addition to yMusic. You’ve got your radio stuff. And Rob plays on everything now.

NS: Yep. That’s true. Yeah, the other thing is, you’re trying to cobble together a career where there’s no real infrastructure. It’s not like “Oh, I have a wonderful agent who is good at getting me radio gigs, solo viola shows, commissions, work with string quartets, and blah”. You’re just trying to put everything together into a reasonable way to make a living. And we’re the fortunate ones. We’re the ones who are sort of making it go. It’s incredibly difficult. But it means that everything we get to do is really fun and really awesome. It’s music that is worthwhile. We, like, don’t have to play weddings anymore. It’s awesome, you know.

TIH: I think, as a classical musician, that’s how you know you’ve made it. Isn’t it? When you don’t have to take wedding gigs anymore.

NS: Exactly.

TIH: When you don’t have to play Pachelbel’s Canon a dozen times every summer.

NS: It’s shocking, Pachelbel. It makes me feel stabby.

TIH: Maybe you guys should do that one. Do an arrangement.

NS: Yeah, totes. That’s a great idea, man. That’s our second record, just seventeen variations on Pachelbel…And also, if we really wanted to sell a bunch of units, we would write the ultimate wedding album for string trio, trumpet, and clarinet. And we would make way more money than we are on this. This is what I’m saying. Part of the reason we work so hard and are so busy is we are trying to do things that we think are awesome, excellent musical things that need to get out there. And so, working—it’s tiring having so much integrity. Jesus Christ!

TIH: Yeah, I’ll bet it is. So, a next record? Have you thought about it yet?

NS: Yeah. Definitely. Absolutely. We’re trying to commission more stuff. I mean, this first record, in some ways, is kind of a sampler. And then, I think we’re gonna do more theme-y things in the future. But we have nothing in stone, so I can’t leak any awesome projects for the future. But yeah, we’re just gonna continue.

TIH: Well, technically, your first album’s not out yet, so, if you didn’t leak anything about your second yet, I don’t think anyone would object. I’ll tell you what I would love to see—and I know it’s not exactly my call to make…

NS: Let’s hear it.

TIH: That Richard Reed Perry piece that you played at MusicNOW.

NS: Oh, totally. That’s definitely gonna happen. We’re gonna work more with him. That piece was sort of just shockingly beautiful. It’s one of those pieces that, when you look at the page, it just doesn’t transmit what it’s going to sound like, especially because you’re following your heartbeat and all this weird, sort of slightly aleatory. You can’t just look at the page and understand what happens. We had been listening to a recording of that and we were like, “Holy crap! That’s an awesome piece”.

TIH: It was gorgeous and I would love to hear it again.

NS: Yeah, definitely.

TIH: Well, I will look for you guys somewhere, some time.

NS: We’ll be around.

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