Paola Prestini and Magos Herrera create music, community in isolation

Paola Prestini and Magos Herrera create music, community in isolation

The Dec. 13 live “Con Alma” experience will be presented by ALL ARTS, National Sawdust, the Mexican Ministry of Culture, TV Canal 22 and WQXR. You can catch the broadcast on the ALL ARTS channel and website at 7 p.m.

When friends Paola Prestini and Magos Herrera came together to create the album “Con Alma,” the two composers closed the geographical gap between them by drawing on their 15-year-long friendship. Billed as an “operatic tableau on isolation,” the resulting endeavor muses on communion, stories inspired by women (Rachel Carson is on the list, as is Mary Magdalene), nature and spirituality — among other themes — and was recorded remotely with over 30 musicians across three continents.

On Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. Eastern, ALL ARTS will join a host of presenters in the United States and Mexico to present a multi-layered experience of the album. Directed by Ashley Tata, the event will weave the pre-recorded album with live elements, including a storytelling, live drawing and a social media campaign that draws together submissions from audience members in response to the “the sound of isolation.”

Ahead of the live broadcast, we corresponded with Prestini and Herrera about what to expect, the international component of the album and what community looks like to them during this period of isolation.

With so many elements coming together to work in one piece, can you explain a little bit about what an audience member can expect?

Paola Prestini: The Con Alma Live experience on Dec. 13 will bring together all the music we created for the album with pre-recorded videos, live performances by Magos, live interviews with performers from Con Alma from around the world, live painting by Kevork Mourad, and a thread of social media as social impact and community building, all directed by Ashley Tata with live projection design by Eamonn Farrell.

I am super excited that the larger public has participated in the making of this experience through our sound of isolation campaign on social media, where people shared their sounds during the pandemic, and through our Cucurrucucú Paloma campaign (which people can still participate in), with children to 80-year-olds singing the refrain for our final international choral segment during the live experience, helping illustrate that though we are alone, we are together, connected through sound and shared experience.

Can you talk about the international aspect of the piece? How did you draw together this cohort of over 30 musicians?

PP: The seed of the collaboration began with us being separated in Mexico and Arizona at the beginning of the pandemic. We shared our struggles as friends: the fear of what was happening to our world, our community … then, having to relearn how to listen, and finally, how to make music together. The beautiful thing is that once we had the ideas for the pieces, it was easy to involve the musicians, as they are our community! Magos gathered her collaborators from Spain to Brazil, Mexico to Syria and NYC, and I created choral pillars with voices from around the world — from Sjaella, a sextet based in Leipzig; Marisa Michelson and the Constellation Chor in Brooklyn; and the Young People’s Chorus of NYC. We wanted the expression to be a gathering of our closest collaborators, and an expression that was, in fact, international, interdisciplinary, multi-generational and poly-stylistic.

How did your friendship influence this collaboration?

Magos Herrera: Before we started this musical journey, we exchanged our impressions and inner contemplations on the current moment — as friends, as women, as artists — and from that deep connection, this narrative was born. This is not a “new release,” but the need to express our humanity and its collective response to the present moment, to create a common experience of healing and transformation. Creating this album has been difficult because of its nature: creating and recording remotely, putting together all the pieces during a pandemic while Paola made sure to keep the magic alive, the conversation open and the poetry intact. Without love and trust, as sisters do, this couldn’t be possible.

What was your favorite moment creating this work?

PP: My favorite moment has to be a listing of a few — it’s been so amazing! From getting to know Magos in an even deeper way, to collaborating with her motivic elements in my compositions, to seeing Kevork’s world come to life, and finally, to hearing people’s sounds from around the world and hearing the refrain to Cucurrucucú Paloma come through on social media — it’s been, simply put, a joy.

MH: After more than 15 years while living in New York — in normal life, off COVID-19 — always on the road, recording, etc., Paola and I never had enough time to meet and hang as much as we wanted. This project has given me the opportunity to understand Paola in a deeper level manifested through the creating process: her childhood memories that take shape in her love for Mexico, her sincere connection to those she loves, her inner strength. I also felt deeply grateful throughout the whole process for having an international musical family that, even under the current circumstances, we were able to dream and create together.

What has community looked like for you over these past few months? Are there aspects of this changed orientation that you’d like to carry forward into the next “normal”?

PP: Community has felt in a way easier to access because we were relegated to only communicating virtually, and so there were no barriers, in a way, in terms of rehearsals and idea sharing. People also crave connection, and so more effort is being made. I think using digital formats and connections to creating cross-national work will remain. It is more democratic, better for the environment and more inclusive. I’ve also learned so much in terms of reaching and involving the public voice in Con Alma, and it is something I want to continue to do for all my work.

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MH: Community for me over the last few months has looked like solidarity, compassion, initiatives all over the world from the artistic community to share, creating closeness and empathy. It also looked like silence, loss and uncertainty.

I think this moment showed us our vulnerability. Many existential questions were raised, and we were forced to prioritize on that which is essential. I really hope that we can find a way to continue in this spirit of awareness to rebuild the aftermath of this pandemic. It also reminded us of the resilience, creativity and strength that can be found from any crisis, and how we can transform our realities in a positive transformative way.

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

More information about how to watch the live “Con Alma” event can be found here.