Music For Writers: The Tidal Grace In Paola Prestini’s ‘Oceanic Verses’


Mapping Her Internal Geography

This idea of disparate energies colliding is very much a part of everything I do. I’m interested in energies and styles that don’t necessarily go together and weaving them into a tapestry that to me makes sense.

You can hear the singular beauty of Paola Prestini’s weave — and waves — in the newly released recording of her Oceanic Verses.

The work was brought to our attention thanks to New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music, which made Oceanic Verses an Album of the Week entry.

“How do we connect?” Prestini asks during our interview. “How do we find our roots?”

This is the search for a personal worldview that fascinates Prestini, the lifelong expedition from place to place and person to person and event to event, each shaping and changing and contouring a personality, a group, a culture, a nation. To synthesize these things is the challenge — on the micro-level of a single citizen’s understanding and on the macro level of a “fading civilization’s” influence as it evaporates like a mist on the Mediterranean.

“There are parts of the theme I’m interested in, in each of these characters” in Oceanic Verses,” she tells me, talking of her work’s four main characters: an archeological scholar (sung by Helga Davis); a sailor (Claudio Prima); a soldier (Christopher Burchett); a peasant (Hila Plitmann).

Onstage — and the work has been on its feet in four different incarnations over the years — the composition is wrapped in a triptych film by Ali Hossaini, and the VIA Records release of the work comes with a DVD so you can see the luminous pitch of his visuals behind the company.

A large-cast work when the chorus and instrumental forces are factored in — in this recording, the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the orchestra Decoda under Julian Wachner’s direction (he’s one of Q2 Music’s “Trailblazing Aritsts of 2014”) — Oceanic Verses has an unmistakable scale, a scope of intent that gets a muscular arm around your imagination as soon as the vocalists enter in the opening sequence, “Oceanic Verses 1.”

Do you know Bedřich Smetana’s The Moldau that evokes the great river of Prague? You’ll hear something wonderfully like its opening here, as Prestini mingles rivulets of woodwind song together, rushing toward the widening sea of choral cadences that open the work. And even her chorus is a collective character here: she describes her choir as “the Mediterranean and all that float upon it.”

When Languages Die

What they’re singing to you about — in such languages as you may never hear again — is the darkening side of our digitally connected world. Connected, yes, and this seems good. But gradually homogenized, too, its voices and minds mingled like those fluted spring-rushes into these deepening seas of “community” that wash over both ancient and new lands today. As Andrew Keen warns us in his forthcoming The Internet Is Not The Answer (January 6, Grove Atlantic), it’s possible to make this much too small, small a world, after all, after all, and Prestini is brilliantly and actively concerned about what’s happening in the vast digital flattening of whole cultures.

“Many of the languages I was interested in — and the dialects I was interested in — were nearly gone” when she got to them, she tells me. You can hear some of them in Donna Di Novelli’s libretto.

“One of the main themes of the piece is found in a section sung in Griko,” the Italiot Greek dialect spoken in southeastern Italy. “There are only about 400 people left who speak it. And that led me to a deep look what this loss of a language means. And also how this land could be used as a metaphor for fading civilizations globally.”

She has come to know these archetypes and their endangered status from time spent in her native Italy. Although she was born in the North of the country, she was raised near the border of Arizona and Mexico — frontiers and their exposure to many influences have factored into a lot of her experience. While spending time in Salento’s town of Lecce, she began to understand herself as Italian, she says, and particularly in the sense of “this hybrid land,” as she calls it, a part of Europe particularly vulnerable to those “energies colliding” as politics and commerce has buffeted the peninsula.

In fact, the modern Italy we know today wasn’t founded until 1861 — ironically, just as the US was closest to tearing itself apart in the Civil War. To this day, there are uneasy and unfriendly alliances represented by the Italian nation-state, an amalgam of once-feudal and tribal peoples.

If anything, this will resonate with authors who are struggling with once bright-lined genres in their works. As eager as they may be to “cross genre” and find publication for work that matches no standard definition, they also understand the queasy disorientation that can beset a story when it no longer “fits” into commercial or even aesthetic categories.

One of the characters in Oceanic Verses, played by the profoundly talented Hila Plitmann, Prestini says, “today is becoming invisible.”

This is the peasant in her piece. “And that kind of socio-economic invisibility should not be an option. And yet it is, it is the reality for so many people today. The role of the peasant extends also to femininity and in terms of what it means to be a woman today,” potentially invisible to a world of commerce and currency.

Prestini is working with Plitmann, in fact, on another work, the soprano playing Madame White Snake in a Gilgamesh setting for 2016 in Boston. The two women — and Plitmann’s husband, the composer Eric Whitacre — have been friends since Juilliard days. And she makes an insightful comment on the Plitmann’s astonishing, Grammy-winning range:

Hila has such a unique voice. And the fact that she has that stratospheric range was really interesting to me, in that when you think of peasants, you think of extreme emotion — but not necessarily extreme range. So what I loved was the fact that the peasant in Oceanic Verses would be able to express herself and her identity through this extraordinary high range.

Prestini goes on to point out that in the piece called “Fading Civilizations,” you hear vocalist (and Q2 Music/WQXR stalwart) Helga Davis “riffing off all around her,” as Prestini says, in her strong contralto, but handing right off to the soaring soprano top of the chorale with Plitmann.

The archeologist [Davis] is able to riff off of all the things around her, all the things she’s learning. The choir is singing the news of an ancient land, now fading, you have the peasant telling her truths, and you have the improviser taking those truths and understanding them through improvisation.

There are interesting parallels here with Christopher Cerrone’s Invisible Cities, covered here in #MusicForWriters last week.

For one thing, both composers began work on their pieces around 2009 and found the journey to completion long and filled with personal development. (We’ll have more soon in an interview with Cerrone.) Both relate to an Italianate intelligence, Cerrone’s work being founded on Italo Calvino’s writings and Prestini’s on her experience of the southeastern Italian region of Salento. Both also have produced strikingly individualized works that classify as “opera” but represent for many of us something closer to the music-theater genre.

Prescient Prestini

VisionIntoArt, the company behind VIA Records (which has produced two other #MusicForWriters artists this fall, Anna Clyne and Prestini’s husband, the cellist Jeffrey Zeigler), was co-founded by Prestini, herself, in 1999. That long ago, and while still at Juilliard, this “composer-impresario,”as she’s been called, was able to understand that the type of work she wanted to do — multi-disciplinary, complex statements explored and iterated over years, if necessary — would need structured support. Today, usually in co-production with the indie-opera and new-music enabling Beth Morrison Projects, that support is in place.

And more than once, VisionIntoArt has used Kickstarter campaigns to raise funds when commissions weren’t covering everything. This album, in fact, comes with a proud list of Kickstarter backers, as the violinist Marina Kifferstein points out in her writeup at Q2 Music.

Moving from staging to staging for Verses (the Kennedy Center, River to River Festival, the Barbican, etc.), Prestini is bolstered by the multimedia production support she put into place at VIA — and there’s a parallel there, in a question of whether she could even accomplish this sort of work without, and in what she says about her experience as an Italian American. I’m putting two elements of our conversation together here — look how each of them supports Prestini’s early comments about her joy in the colliding natures of disparate influences.

At VIA, I have a great team and board, and a great group of artists. And I get to work with some of them more than once. There’s a wonderful sense that we’re not just creating pieces but that we’re refining collaboration, and refining each other’s styles. These are relationships you want to keep.


It’s hard, having lived in America and now New York for so long, to go to a place where everyone is white and feel like that’s a reality I can identify with. Having the experience I have here, which has been so rich and beautiful and freeing, to look now at Italy and feel Italian. Because as hard as it’s been to be a composer here, I think it would be even harder to be a composer there — I don’t think I’d be able to.

This is the sort of confluence of impact — immediately both personal and universal — that informs Prestini’s work. She is receptive to the arts of others. In nurturing them, she nourishes herself. Good artists, as she reminds me, know about this. They “take risks” on each other, she says.

And you hear such powerful currents of engagement in her themes and in her sharp care for her collaborators and vision in every section of Oceanic Verses, capped by the chiming, reassuring, loving — even heartbreaking — anthem that concludes her work: the Gosos Cagliadebos Creaturas is as bracing as a Mediterranean morning’s breeze off Malta…and gone as fast as a darting squid’s shadow at Hydra.

Much is being lost today, to our modern achievements, yes, but also to our lack of understanding for each other when we and our worlds collide. Prestini is one of the artists whose compositional power can remind us both of who we are and who so many “others” are — and were — all at once.

Her Oceanic Verses next needs to be seen on the beaches lapped by the waters of their intelligence. Let’s hope for a staging in Italy, I tell her. Easy for me to say, of course. But while a daunting prospect, Prestini warms quickly to the idea. Gian Carlo Menotti’s world-famous festival has popped so easily into her mind, you see.

“There’s Spoleto,” she muses.

Yes there is. And you can almost hear the gleam in her voice.