Music For Writers: Paola Prestini’s Songs From Another ‘Labyrinth’


‘You Can Free Yourself’

I wanted to write these two large-scale, deeply virtuosic pieces for these two muses, but I hadn’t had a chance to create a large-scale work like that yet.

That comment may surprise regular #MusicForWriters readers who remember our December article on the composer Paola Prestini and her Oceanic Verses. A complex work of music theater with chorus, soloists, movement, and digital production elements, Oceanic Verses has helped to define Prestini as the auteur she is, and yet her presence as such seems recent to us. While many in the contemporary classical music scene have understood her as a seriously gifted composer, suddenly, it seems, Prestini walks into every room glowing with multimedia grace and collaborative resources.

Neither view is wrong. In our interview for her new album Labyrinth, she tells me that its two half-hour works were created in 2013 and 2014. This is all so recent: we’re watching one of the most determined and patient artists in the field today gather the culminations of projects that have been many years in the making. VisionIntoArt, the company behind VIA Records (which has produced two other #MusicForWriters artists, Anna Clyne and Prestini’s husband, the cellist Jeffrey Zeigler), was co-founded by Prestini in 1999.

This week, thanks to New York Public Radio’s free 24-hour stream Q2 Music and its Album of the Week series, Prestini’s new Labyrinth has had a lot of well-deserved attention this month. There are many more Prestini projects in the works, including:

Part of what makes Prestini’s work so compelling is that, as large as it might be in its use of digital stage interpretation or its amplification by acoustic musical forces, it always starts in a small, intensely personal spot. The listener is embraced, even hugged, by a sound that’s richly crafted to remain resolutely personal.

To hear Prestini’s music is to feel as if you’ve shared a secret, just the two of you. And, of course, this is very close to the peculiar, bracing intimacy shared by a writer and his or her reader. Immersing yourself in fiction is, after all, a matter of spending time in another person’s head…or allowing that other person, the author, to live in your own consciousness. For a time, you relate to each other skin to skin, breathing in sync.

[vimeo 124326866 w=500 h=281]

Labyrinth: Installation Concertos (Trailer) from VisionIntoArt Presents on Vimeo.

‘The Music Always Comes First’

Before we turn to our conversation, I’ll just tell you that you need not feel required to “view” these pieces. Each is made as an “installation concerto,” a work for performance in a visually arresting black-box stage format shimmering with projection, maybe fabric, perhaps a moving framework. Prestini offers her collaborative visual artists a chance to interpret her work this way, and you can get a sense for how the two pieces look “installed” on stage in the video trailer I’m including above.

  • House Of Solitude, written for violinist Cornelius Dufallo, features not only massive projections by filmmaker Carmen Kordas but also the K-Bow, described as “a hand-crafted composite sensor bow” created by Keith McMillan to cue and control various sonic effects — live electronic performance based on acoustics — through the musician’s movements.
  • Room No. 35, written for the acclaimed cellist Maya Beiser, is performed amid highly sensual visual imagery from filmmaker Erika Harrsch and video designer Brad Peterson. This one has a literary basis, in fact, in Anaïs Nin’s The House Of Incest, and is played using an LED cello with what at times appears to be a life of its own.

Both works leverage such dramatic force and visual range in their staged evocations that as remarkable as these productions are to see, writers may feel more comfortable with the ruminations of their own responses to Prestini’s languid, lovely, melancholy musical lines and her use at times of soul-shaking bass effects. These “installation concertos” (the soloists perform with themselves through live electronic playback) are two voices of one woman: Prestini loves the interpretation of other artists onstage but needs no such panoply of effect to stop you in your tracks with her compositional genius. Dufallo and Beiser respond, as those “muses” of hers, with intensely giving, moody performances.

So agile and moving is this music, in fact, that what Prestini tells us now may give you a pause:

Why ‘Labyrinth’?  — Because She Was Immobile

Thought Catalog: Paola, can you talk about the personal story behind this work? Where in your life does the first piece, House Of Solitude, come from?

Paola Prestini: I had had a slight injury. I couldn’t move. I was trapped in my house for a couple of months. And so a lot of the sound you hear in the backing track [such as] the EKG, were all sounds that I had recorded during the time of this injury.

With most of my pieces, I create a visual timeline. And the timeline of House Of Solitude really dealt with this emergence out of this labyrinth. It became a trapped mindset. And by the end…it was really this kind of deeper idea that eventually the laws of the Earth break loose, eventually destiny takes over, eventually with will you can free yourself. We filmed over years [for Carmen Kordas’ visual production], in Africa, in several different locations.

TC: And the second piece on the album, Room No. 35?

PP:  In Room No. 35, I knew that the labyrinth was something I wanted to explore, but [cellist] Maya Beiser brought in the idea of using Room No. 35, which is from this novella that Anaïs Nin wrote. It’s about the labyrinth of the self. In this short book, The House Of Incest, she has five different women within her. And so you begin to explore the labyrinth of the mind, the labyrinth of the heart, the labyrinth of the self.

And so the two pieces took different forms and explored different things. When you see the staging of Room No. 35, Maya is actually in the hotel room. And that hotel room is created by these scrims that eventually lift and free her. And so the staging goes very simple and very poignant. By the end of the piece, the electric cello comes onboard. And it looks as if she’s playing the visuals and she’s completely free in the electric world of free communication and complete freedom of the mind.

TC: So entrapment is a starting point for both these installation concertos.

PP: Exactly. It’s really interesting because both take a journey through the labyrinth of life but they approach very different themes. I was in a very different place each time in my life.

TC: It’s like “Coming Out Of The Dark,” right?

PP: It’s like “Coming Out Of The Dark,” and I think that what was also really helpful was to understand that music lives in any place. Sometimes you think, “Oh, I’m going to be so inspired if I go to Africa,” and at the end of the piece, when I was working on it, we were in Africa and it was inspiring. But also the room itself, and my experience, provided me with music which completely helped me come out of it. I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie with Bjork, Dancer in the Dark, the Lars von Trier movie, but she finds sound out of the drip of a faucet. In that sense, I think the beauty for all of us who experience art is that it can be found in everyday life, and it can transform you.

These pieces feel like journeys to me…I see them as very connected in the fabric that I created with them. I feel like they spin out — House Of Solitude spins out of that opening gesture. [She sings the first seven, hovering, questioning, lonely notes of the violin’s score.] Those notes are the binding thematic material throughout the piece. And in Room No. 35, when she’s submerged and coming out of her shell, those opening seconds transform themselves all the way throughout the piece.

TC: If someone comes to this work and hears only the music and doesn’t see the visuals, it sounds like it’s still a very complete experience.

PP: Well, like in Oceanic Verses, it’s like any opera, right? It’s staged in different ways, it can be played as a concert. The visuals to me are one other expression of the music, but the music has to stand on its own. And I wrote it to stand on its own. The music always comes first. And then someone else interprets it.

One day, somebody might create a ballet to it…It’s going to be done at the Gardner Museum next year in Boston and it will be done a different way. It’s sold as just a music CD, but you can also have the experience of seeing how two artists I really admire [filmmakers Kordas and Harrsch] interpret the world. And I enjoy working in those situations because I learn so much from my collaborators.

TC: You’re seeing different incarnations of your own work.

PP: And for example, I’m going to be working on this opera with Robert Wilson on The Old Man and the Sea, and Robert’s staging will definitely be one incarnation of my version of The Old Man and the Sea. But the music will always be the music, whether you have Robert’s staging or not. I see these as operatic works that lie between performance art and opera. And they can have the visuals or they can not. And many people choose only to listen to the music. I think that’s great.

I’m so glad you asked this question because I started my company [Vision Into Art] when I was in my 20s to work with other artists and thinkers and musicians, but in no way did I think all my training at Juilliard or all the work I’ve done musically would be impaired by the creation of another world. The music, itself, is always done first and it’s always done deeply. And then other artists I admire interpret it.

TC: You give your work more range this way, don’t you?

PP: Right. You can’t limit yourself. For example, the concertos [that make up Labyrinth] can be played just as music. Obviously it has electronics, so it needs the electronics. But it can be done fully staged or it can be done semi-staged. The idea is to share it with as wide a public as possible.

TC: And going back to that thing of pieces that seem new to us when they premiere but are really taking years to develop, you seem to work well this way. You have so many projects moving, each one at its own pace.

PP: I don’t know, Porter, it’s a good question. I would love for certain things to not take as long as they do, but then I wouldn’t be writing the kinds of pieces I’m writing. Who knows? I haven’t figured out that side of myself yet. It’s partly just investing and planting seeds and you don’t know when something is going to flower. Some pieces, people are ready for. And some pieces, people aren’t ready for. And a lot of time I’m producing with my company so it takes a while to fund-raise. It just feels like right now, all my pieces are starting to flower in the next year or two.

TC: At least then some of these projects will be in the can, in a sense.

PP: Exactly, and I need that. But you know, every career is different. I designed it the way I wanted it and it’s taken a little longer, but I have to say I’m really enjoying it. I’ve collaborated with people I’ve wanted to collaborate with — I’ve always dreamed of working with Robert Wilson and now it’s happening, so it’s exciting.

Some things happen sooner than others. The one thing I have is persistence.