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Paola Prestini

On Collaboration, Community, and Technology


NOV 15, 2022 | ISSUE 8

Paola Prestini by Marco Valentin
Paola Prestini by Erika Harrsch

On top of her busy life as an in-demand composer, Paola Prestini is a committed collaborator and arts leader; in her capacities as Co-Founder and Artistic Director, she steers the trendy performing arts incubator National Sawdust in Brooklyn. During the uncertainty of the pandemic, she began work on Houses of Zodiac, an album of solo cello music performed by her husband, Jeffrey Zeigler. Inspired by collaborative instinct and an enviable roster of skilled colleagues, Prestini expanded the project into an interdisciplinary multi-platform work knitting together music, dance, poetry, and film. Joining smART Magazine from Rome, Prestini reflects on the value of interdisciplinary collaboration, the increasing artistic possibilities of technology, and the opportunities awaiting the performing arts in coming years.

sM | With the multimedia and multidisciplinary Houses of Zodiac in mind, why is interdisciplinarity important to you, and how does it play a role in 21st-century composition?

PP — As composers, we need to collaborate in order for our music to come to fruition. Not only is collaboration part of our art form, but when I emerged into the world as a practicing artist, I found that working with other artists and thinkers unlocked a new way for me to look at my process. For example, the work that I've done with scientists or the environment has been profoundly rewarding. Not only for what I’ve learned as an artist but also to learn more about the work that exists out in the world and the kinds of learning which that work brings to others.

Houses of Zodiac definitely became more than an album. I always think about projects as an arc from incubation to dissemination, and I also think a lot about multi-platform work. This work really started as just a kernel of an idea during the pandemic. My husband Jeffrey Zeigler is an amazing cellist and said he wanted to play more of my cello works. I’ve written a lot of cello music, and some of it was written for him, but most of it was for others. Now he jokes that what began as a solo album has become a massive collaboration!

But collaboration is just the way my mind works. I can't help it. I thought, “oh, but this is really a collaboration with poets, and these are living poets. So what if I just ask Natasha Trethewey, Maria Popova, and Brenda Shaughnessy to actually read?” Then to underscore that, I thought, “I have these amazing idea-stems with Tanya Tagaq and Nels Cline; why don’t we use those? And what about our friend Murat Eyuboglu—what would he do with this as a filmmaker?”  What began as a solo album became the ultimate family album for me. Here we were in the pandemic, unable to see anybody, and it came together organically as we tried to learn how to communicate in this particular moment. Houses of Zodiac is still an album, though, and I hope people experience it that way because it's quite profound. But now it's also going to the Broad Museum in LA in May 2022, and it's going to be a film installation that lives in the Oculus Theatre there.

The other importance of multi-platform dissemination for me is that different audiences access different works because of their personal preferences. So a poet might enter because of Natasha or Brenda or Maria and fall in love with music. Or maybe someone enters because they love our Butoh dancer Dai Matsuoka or our ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin. Or maybe they love film. I’ve always loved interdisciplinarity because, to me, it’s a key to audience building. That's not the sole reason why I do it, but I love creating different entry points for audiences.

sM | What artistic uses of technology are catching your attention right now?

PP — Technology and multimedia are some of my greatest passions right now! At the moment, one of the projects I'm working on is called Sensorium Ex. It's an opera, but it's also exploring multiple platforms of dissemination; it’s likewise a documentary and a community impact project. One of the main characters in the opera is a robot that’s essentially being built through an international research culture and technology project. Our aim is to democratize the development of inclusive voice recognition AI, placing this work at the intersection of disability and AI. One of our main goals is to build a data aggregation of atypical voice patterns. That will build my own part in the opera but will hopefully go forward as an open-source tech project that can help develop more democratized speech recognition software.

Although I’m super interested in technology, I’m personally not a technology expert. I think where my expertise lies is that I'm really good at thinking out of the box to connect, collaborate, and learn. You don't have to be an expert to begin something, but you gain expertise by going through the process, and I think that’s the beauty of what we do.

If I think about my earliest multimedia works compared to now, I think the biggest evolution has been my increasing focus on the community aspects of technology. Over the last five years, I’ve continued to refine and develop the community-building potentials of technology more and more.

sM | In the wake of the pandemic and social movements like #metoo and Black Lives Matter, do you feel like there's a new interest in contemporary over traditional music?

PP — Performers are very resilient, but the pandemic has had a huge effect on the arts community. There's been a great loss for people who couldn't afford to continue creating, either for emotional or socio-economic reasons. That’s something really hard, and it needs to be looked at with care. There’s also been the question of “what does it mean to create art no matter what?” A lot of people have looked really deep into why they're creating, how they're creating, who their audiences are, and how to learn new things immediately out of necessity. Those are skills that everyone has had to come to terms with during this time, and we’ll bring those ways of being forward with us.

Audiences, I think, are desperately hungry for human connection. I'll be really interested to see—not even in the next year, but in the next three to four years—how the virtual landscape coincides with the real landscape of face-to-face human interaction. I'm really curious about that, because right now I don't want to do another Zoom thing. I want to be in person, and I think everyone's feeling that way. But still, there are a lot of interesting and complex things that this way of communicating through technology has brought about. I’ll be curious to see how that all works together. At this moment, though, I think people are really excited to live and share space again.

As far as receptiveness to contemporary music goes, whether we're talking about something like European serialism or extraordinary jazz performances, I think that a lot of it has to do with storytelling and how people bring audiences into the story that they're telling. I often find that when people say they don't like something, it's just because they haven't been brought in. And that might be because they've never heard something before or because they associate it with something else.

I'm hopeful that people will be more open now. The arts have taken a massive hit over the last two years. My hopes are that there's compassion, empathy, and curiosity to see how the arts, in general, are coming out of this time. But a lot of it still comes down to asking: what is your story? What is your voice? And how can you be as confident as you can in what you have to give? When you're that confident, direct, and transparent in your communication, I think it connects in a more visceral way and people become more curious and more open to learning about your voice.