Contemplations From National Sawdust

S1 E2 | FULL EPISODE

Beginnings

Take a deep dive into the beginnings of National Sawdust and the creative impulses that were on display during their October 2015 opening night. Featuring music from composer-performers Philip Glass, Nico Muhly, Chris Thile and more.

AIRED: July 04, 2021 | 1:07:02
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TRANSCRIPT

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Paola: Welcome to "Contemplations."

My name is Paola Prestini and I'll be your guide

to this episode, which is the very beginning.

The beginning of National Sawdust began,

in many ways, before we even opened our doors.

It began with a conversation between me and Kevin Dolan

on the aspirations for our home and what we could add

to the New York City musical ecosystem.

Kevin: Original notion was a small venue where an artist

could invent, get the first recording,

and have a performance platform.

It was a DNA built on giving opportunity

on incubation to dissemination

and on the power of great sound.

As a composer, the opportunity was too great

for me to pass, to be able to leave

a physical legacy to some of my dreams.

I love the inside and the outside of our space

and the ephemeral moments of music and connection

that are baked into these walls and me.

This outside mural by Assume Vivid Astro Focus

actually takes Helga Davis as a muse.

They were given free range to create.

I've never believed in telling artists what to do.

Just believe in them and help create the context.

The explosion of color and boldness

I think relates to what we were trying to do,

and we began concerts even before we had a roof.

we had so many delays in construction

that we needed to begin to invite the public in.

Paola: So, it's really meaningful to launch

our "Contemplations" series with All Arts with you,

our founder. Well, thank you.

And here we are near the Bosendorfer,

which, I think, was the model for the space,

and you really had this kernel of an idea,

and now it's real and it's out in the world

and it's become something.

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Do you remember the moment that you had the idea?

My original notion was a small venue

where an artist could invent, get the first recording,

and have a performance platform.

So I wanted to provide a home, a place for artists,

and it needed to be a physical space.

We now know that it's also important that it be

a virtual home and a virtual place.

You came at it from the perspective nurturing artists

to help them survive in the current environment.

Because I had struggled as an artist

in New York City, I knew that, you know,

that it was a mentorship, a bridge

that artists needed, right,

from emerging to established life,

and so in looking at that, we began to really think about,

well, what is a 21st century artist?

It can be an activist, an entrepreneur,

someone, you know, who could be an educator.

But really, it's a fluid understanding

that talent transcends genre and that this space

needed to be a home for many different communities

of new music across the aisle.

And so then we began to think, "How could we do this?"

It's been modular, it's been evolving,

which is, I think, the sign of a real --

you call it a mini institution. Is that what you call it?

Yeah, it's a mini institute, in a good sense.

In a good sense. In a good sense.

Yeah. We needed to institutionalize ourselves.

The world would understand we are here to stay.

And we're now, you know, five-plus years out,

and it is clear, absolutely clear,

that we are here to stay.

Now, what we look like from year to year,

it's gonna be different. Right.

But that's all part of the brand. Right.

We can change and evolve not only when we need to,

but just as a matter of necessity of reinvention.

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[ Cheers and applause ]

So, it is very exciting for me to bring these three people

in conversation with me --

Nico Muhly, Nadia Sirota, and Theo Bleckmann,

three people I admire hugely,

and I guess I'm gonna start with Nico

since I've known you the longest.

Having you here on opening night six years ago

was a total -- felt like, you know,

a beautiful full circle for me.

I guess that's the kind of theme of today,

is, you know, these friendships

which really help form the kind of musical community

that you then inhabit.

Can you talk a little bit about your approach to building

your career, your community, and let's start there?

I think one of the things that was so cool

about what you did at Juilliard was, at a certain point,

you said, "These pre-existing structures are fine.

These pre-existing structures aren't gonna go anywhere,

but I want a new structure that's based entirely

on community-based collaboration."

And you created almost what, in retrospect,

feels like a theater troupe where it's like

a group of people who always work together.

I wasn't necessarily gonna get work in the traditional, like,

the phone rings and it's the orchestra

asking to write a piece, so I started

writing pieces for friends such as Nadia.

Right. The idea is that if you write music for your friends

for as long as you can, eventually,

strangers will pay attention to it.

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Nadia, I'm curious, you know, with you,

you inhabit so many different roles, you know,

both as violist and as a curator and as a radio host

and so many other things.

When did all of those kind of congeal to form

where you are today?

Nadia: I think the thing for me has been

that I've always had a very clear thing in my sights

as to sort of what all these roles are serving.

Is there an audience out there full of people

who may not feel welcomed into a concert hall

that might still like this stuff

and how is that gonna resonate with them?

And actually, Nico, what you were just saying about

the sort of communities that were in place

and sort of building up and bubbling up in school,

I think those kind of formed, you know,

a little bit in response to the generations before,

this thought of, like, "Okay, well, what if

we all just, like, tried to band together

and make things work together and, like,

have friendship be sort of this integral part of

our artistry and our music making?"

Nico's compositional voice has as much influence

to my viola playing, as my weirdo viola tricks

have influenced his string writing. True, yeah.

And I think all of that, you know,

if nothing else, it creates a fun life,

and at best, it also creates some really, really great art.

Mm, I love that, and, you know,

thinking of the energy of that night,

I was looking on stage and I was thinking, you know,

"These are all humans that I greatly admire,"

and to me, that's so important.

Theo, I feel like, you know, you've brought so much good art.

I think one of my favorite concerts ever

at Sawdust was with Ryuichi Sakamoto.

And I just lost myself in that performance,

but I think about you, and I also think about community

and I think about how you've also traversed styles,

you know, and I think that's such an interesting thing

when it really comes to talking about jazz,

'cause people have such definite ideas of what jazz is,

and I'm curious, you know, how you entered the jazz sector,

how you view it, and how you view community.

Theo: Well, for me, I can't perform or collaborate

with people that I don't like, that I don't feel

a friendly vibe with, because what I do

is sometimes so weird and so difficult to convey

that it needs an open heart.

But for the most part, it's people that have

a kindred spirit in exploring something

that we don't even know what it is when we start.

I need people that trust and that are encouraging

and that are loving and into this process.

And also, it's a very practical thing.

If you're going on the road with a band or with a project,

you want to be with people that you like,

that you get along with.

And slowly, you know, we're all emerging

out of these boxes and starting to perform again,

and I'm curious, you know, for all of you, just how --

you know, what you're taking forward

into your practice after this year.

To know that no matter where you are in your career

that you could have your whole life incinerated,

you know, it's like you could be singing, like, Brunhilde

at the Met and you could be doing something

in some, you know, like, warehouse... Right.

...in Berlin or something, and it's the same degree of...

Of incineration. And the thing that we do

is so specific, and then us specifically,

the four of us specifically, it's, like,

such community-based -- Such community-based, yeah.

Seeing what parts of the performance

and the music-making process I had not acknowledged before

was an interesting thing, right?

Like, the energy fluctuations... -Yes.

...and, like, how incredibly present you are

when you're on stage performing for an audience

and, like, what that does just, like,

physically, chemically in your body.

To have done that twice a week, you know, forever at least,

for decades, and then to have that all of a sudden

taken away was an incredible, like, physical withdrawal.

Exactly what you said, Nadia. I did one early concert

at the Jazz Gallery that was streamed,

and it was just soul crushing

because there was nothing coming back.

And I came to the conclusion that I had before,

but I'd never felt it like this --

that we need each other.

The audience needs us and we need the audience

to exactly the same degree.

With that, I wish I could hug each of you.

I wonder if you can set up that night for us.

Nico and I had been working on these etudes

since I was an undergrad when I decided that

Nico's particular melodic language was really hard

on string instruments, and I tried to tell him

that he shouldn't write, you know, lots of fifths,

which is something that he likes a lot.

So, that was sort of -- Nico: That's true.

...his way of, like, forcing me to figure out

his melodic language, which was actually

a really, really joyful process.

And forcing me, also, to get more intimate with the viola.

A nice way to bring, you know, the best part of community

and pushing each other to be better into this new space.

Theo, do you want to talk a little bit about "Lascia"?

What I wanted to do is use some jazz harmony

in the piece elongated.

Talks about freedom and grief.

And there was something about that evening,

this energy of knowing that the three of you

and Philip and Chris Thile, like, all together,

just the greatest artists creating this energy

for this room.

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[ Cheers and applause ]

I think one of the things we've missed the most

was our physical home. Yeah.

You know, because it does ground you,

and it does ground you also in this ability to be together.

And so I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about

where we are right now.

Said, "I want you to design something

in that concept of a European music hall,

something that will not age."

And also, if someone your age walks in

and someone my age walks in, they'll both say, "Wow."

And that's what they did.

I imposed one constraint.

We would not sacrifice the acoustics for design.

It should have aesthetics that are consistent with the art.

Right. With the musical art

that is occurring within it.

Theo: What I always find so thrilling about National Sawdust

is that you built the room around the sound.

Paola: Right. Not you built a room and then you figured out the sound.

The sound was first, and then you built the room

to match it.

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[ Cheers and applause ]

I'm super excited to have with me two great friends

and collaborators who helped bring the magic

on the opening night of National Sawdust --

writer Royce Vavrek and singer and producer

Eve Gigliotti.

Together, we did one song from the Yoani Cycle,

which Royce and I have been passionately writing

for many years.

And tell us a little bit about "Olivia."

So, "Olivia" is a song about a trans woman

named Olivia who represses her true self

in order to survive life in Cuba.

We get to watch as she escapes and gets to live

her whole free self.

And so these are songs that we developed from blog posts.

Yoani is a philologist and has an amazing blog

that really talks about life in Cuba,

and I remember the minute I got your words,

they were song, and Eve, you really brought them to life,

and I'm wondering if you can paint the picture

for this episode of what it felt like to sing in a space

where no one had ever sung before.

Eve: I will never forget the magic of that night,

and it was such an extreme honor to collaborate with you both.

This was my first introduction to your music.

I remember everything being electrified.

The energy in the room, the anticipation of the promise

of this space which has been realized 10 times over.

It was just one of those nights that you will never forget.

To me, it's also planting the seeds, I think,

for what Sawdust has become, which is really a space

that symbolizes a community and how this can kind of

come together to really bring, you know, audiences

and composers and makers together

to explore and to discover.

So, thank you both for being part of that first night.

♪ Miguel puts on his suit and tie ♪

♪ Brown jacket, string tie

♪ His hair feathered

♪ His beard longer

♪ Than it's been in

♪ 10 years

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♪ Miguel laughs at his reflection ♪

♪ In the mirrors

♪ In his spoon

♪ In the lenses of strangers' sunglasses ♪

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♪ Miguel laughs at his reflection ♪

♪ The absurd brown jacket

♪ The string tie

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Joke's on them.

[ Laughter ]

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♪ Joke's on them

♪ Miguel walks with his hands in his trousers ♪

♪ Training his fingers to reside there ♪

♪ And not in some telltale gesticulation ♪

♪ His effeminacy will not spoil his departure ♪

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♪ Miguel escapes to Ecuador

♪ An exit made possible by

♪ His marriage to some woman in Quito ♪

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♪ In the first stall

♪ In the first bathroom

♪ Miguel sheds the suit

♪ Like a serpent discarding

♪ His old skin

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♪ Miguel polishes his nails

♪ Combs through the wig

♪ Zips the back of the red cocktail ♪

♪ Dreeeeeess

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♪ Shaves the three-day growth

♪ From his face

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♪ Again looking at his reflection ♪

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♪ Miguel reunites

♪ With Olivia

♪ A feminine smile appears at him ♪

♪ Olivia

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♪ Ohhhh

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♪ Olivia

♪ Ohhhh

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Miguel is banished to distant memories of Cuba.

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♪ As Olivia's

♪ Hands

♪ Daaaaance

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[ Cheers and applause ]

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[ Wailing ]

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[ Vocalizing lightly ]

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[ Cheers and applause ]

Paola: I think people look back at this model

at the kind of perseverance that you put into this,

the sacrifice that you put into it.

I'm gonna ask just a human question,

which is are there any regrets,

and then what is the vision for the next five years?

The answer is, at this point, no.

Along the way, I would've said yes.

Which is human. But what does it look like

over the next five years?

Who knows?

What do we do with all this wonderful content?

How do we put all this out there for the world to see

how wonderful this is and help those artists?

How do we help artists, you know,

that come in the door tomorrow, get themselves out more?

Not just in this space, but into the world.

What we know is the world has fundamentally changed.

But we don't know how yet.

This past year has forced us to really think about

ourselves without the space, right,

and the main thing that I took away from it

is that Sawdust is really about mentoring,

creating these, like, home performances, right?

Getting money into their hands.

Bringing this for free to audiences

who needed that kind of healing, right,

and needed to kind of feel connection,

and then finally, you know,

being able to really look at refining the digital medium

to try to capture in some way the ephemerality

that we've lost in terms of live performance.

We're doing exactly what we should do,

which is being responsive to the moment,

and that is Sawdust.

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