Paola Prestini

Paola Prestini on Opera, Entrepreneurship and Music Journalism

Is there any one person who’s doing more to reshape contemporary classical music in America than Paola Prestini?

From the very beginning of her career, Prestini has been guided by an ethos that marries her own artistic drive as a composer with a value for interdisciplinary exchange, large-scale works and community-wide artistic support. She co-founded and ran multimedia production company VisionIntoArt, or VIA, for well over a decade before teaming up with Kevin Dolan to establish the current iteration of National Sawdust, bringing VIA into the fold. As of 2015, this Brooklyn-based laboratory – at once a performance venue and artistic incubator, with its own record label and music journal – has welcomed hundreds of performers to its stage. At the same time it has cultivated something of a mainstream audience for experimental work. 

Prestini’s music is also laboratory, but for her own wide-ranging curiosity. Here you’ll find stories of magic, technology, the natural world, space. Recently, I caught up with Prestini to discuss her creative approach, current projects like the Minnesota Opera’s adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” and why music journalism matters today.

Elizabeth Nonemaker: In another interview you said that had you known ahead of time how much work setting up National Sawdust would be, you may not have done it.

Paola Prestini: [Laughs.] 

Nonemaker: You’re not the first person to have said something like that!

Prestini: I know! 

Nonemaker: It’s interesting because here at 21CM, and elsewhere in the music world, we’re pushing this model of entrepreneurship as a viable alternative career path. You’re such a model for that kind of career. So I’m wondering, how can we better support it? What would have made it easier for you?

Prestini: I think what would have made it less challenging for me was to realize from the get-go that I couldn’t be all things. Because I wanted this dream [of National Sawdust] so badly, I was using a lot of my creative energy towards stuff that I wasn’t equipped to do. 

In some of the models that I’ve seen, you’re trying to get one person who does everything. That seems really difficult – you’re priming people for failure because nobody can do everything. It’s really about trying to find the right teams of people. You need excellence in [both] artistic thought and administration.

Nonemaker: There’s the aspect of separating National Sawdust from your composing life, but then your composing projects are themselves remarkably diverse. You have something like 10 different projects going on right now. How do you manage them and how do you keep these projects stylistically distinct?

a couple kisses

A scene from Carlos Reygadas’ 2007 film “Stellet Licht”, which served as a basis for Prestini’s opera of the same name.

Prestini: I have really specific times that I do things. Right now, I’m on a break from “[The Miraculous Journey of] Edward Tulane,” [after which] I’ll start orchestrating. Within that break I wanted to give myself a month or two, and I’m writing a piece for BANFF, “Stellet Licht”. They’re radically different pieces. In each one, I’m trying to learn something different about myself as a composer. 

Nonemaker: So, you focus on one aspect of a project at a time, exclusively.

Prestini: Totally. There are overlaps because there are different moments of the process. For me, orchestration is like painting – it’s not the same as creating an infrastructure, which is so difficult. That’s the painful beginning process of a piece. Then I write at the piano, so when I’m doing that it’s a different kind of work than when I’m translating what I’ve written to the computer. 

Once you know how you work, you can time it out. You have to be aware that there are going to be surprises: moments where something really good comes out, or moments when you’re disappointed in yourself. You work it all out. But it’s definitely tightly timed on my calendar. 

Nonemaker: I wanted to talk about “Edward Tulane” because I was so thrilled when I saw this project announced. I love that book, which is funny, because I read it when I was 19 or 20. 

Prestini: It’s such a good book! It’s so beautiful. Like when you read Jacqueline Woodson, it’s for young adults, but there’s nothing “young” about it. The quality, the depth – it’s all there.

Nonemaker: Exactly. But you’ve done so much work with text and extra-musical material. Do you think there is a kind of story that really lends itself to music? What is it about “Edward Tulane” that you think makes for an opera? 

Aging Musician

A performance of “Aging Musician” at the 2013 PROTOTYPE Festival

Prestini: There are all types of operas. If you take a piece like “Aging Magician,” it was about creating something from scratch, and there was a set team of collaborators. For each different project, I ask myself, “What is the family that’s being born out of this collaboration?” “Edward Tulane” has been very different. The workshop process has been incredible – to have this solid-bone structure of an opera company [behind it]. That’s really positive. Where it’s been different for me is [that] I’ve always been involved in almost a dramaturgical role. 

What unlocked the creativity for me was getting these words [from librettist Mark Campbell] and trying to find the places where I could break the form. Where can the choir suddenly turn into fish? What do crows sound like, their dissonance and their meanness? So finding these moments of abstraction and moments of deep color where I was able to really play. It sounds weird, but for me to just be the composer – that’s weird! I’m usually involved in everything! 

A human-like robot

Sensorium Ex,” is an opera based on [artificial intelligence] and disability.

At the same time, this other work I’m doing, “Sensorium Ex,” is an opera based on [artificial intelligence] and disability. There’s a huge research process. I love that because that’s part of my school-beyond-school, which is why I was so interested in National Sawdust: How do I create an environment for myself where I continue to learn? 

It’s nice to balance these different things because they provide different growth benchmarks in your career. And I want to be an operatic composer, so this is exactly what I want to be doing. 

Nonemaker: I want to pivot to the topic of music journalism. National Sawdust has its own publication in National Sawdust Log, but you’ve also noted in interviews that it can be difficult for artists to read criticism – especially about their own work – because it has the potential to stop the creative process. What do you think the value of music journalism is in today’s musical landscape? Do you think that it has changed – or that it should change – from what it has been in the past?

Prestini: Well, I had a very different perspective when I was younger, in that I was coming at it from a really personal place. 

Nonemaker: Sure. I should say that I question the value of “good/bad” music journalism myself, where a critic doesn’t dig into the story behind a work. 

Prestini: Exactly. At the beginning, [reading bad reviews] was just stinging. Because you’re trying to make it. Especially as a woman entering this field from where I did at Juilliard, which was so not friendly to women. It’s like – you’re going to try to kill my career so early on? That’s how it feels, right? 

Then there’s the question of, “What is that review for?” If there is a really well constructed account of the history behind the work that helps illuminate the process, that gives the audience something from reading it – besides a laugh at the expense of somebody else’s career – then that’s what I want to read. 

Some of the work done today to help equalize the field and uproot systemic problems we have in terms of abuse – that’s invaluable work happening from music journalism. But I’ve also seen a real decline in discovery. Very few papers, because of all the cutbacks, are able to send people out to discover. [Editor of National Sawdust Log] Steve Smith just love[s] discovering things. Even when he doesn’t like something, he finds a way to talk about the work in an intelligent way. I admire that. And because National Sawdust is supposed to be an artist-led organization that’s about the discovery of other artists, it’s important to me that young artists be able to benefit from him going out and being able to discover things outside of our venue, [and for them to] have access to someone who genuinely cares about the written word and the future of the form. 

Nonemaker: Thank you so much for your time.

Prestini: Thank you!

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

Elizabeth Nonemaker

Elizabeth Nonemaker is a composer, writer and managing editor for She writes about classical music for The Baltimore Sun and has worked for Children’s Radio Foundation and KPCC’s “The Frame.” As a composer, …more 

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