5 Questions to Sugar Vendil (Nouveau Classical Project)

Filipino-American pianist & founder of the new music collective Nouveau Classical Project (NCP) Sugar Vendil merges the visual with the sonic in her multidisciplinary art, which ranges from synthetic art & sound installations to a series of interactive Terry Riley-inspired “In & Around C” performances, conceived by Mad Mohre. NCP collaborates with visual artists, choreographers, dancers, and fashion designers to create experiences that are as visually striking as they are musically innovative. Her work is not only multimedia but interdisciplinary, focusing not only on music but on political issues, especially race and gender.

On Thursday, May 25, 2017, NCP will present “Currents,” a program of new electro-acoustic works, at National Sawdust. We asked Sugar five questions about their upcoming performance, political activism, and the artistic goals of NCP.

Tell us about the works premiering at the upcoming concert at National Sawdust.

We were interested in playing pieces with electronics, and it was a struggle to find anything we were excited about. There just wasn’t that much rep out there for our ensemble with electronics, or what we liked included percussion (in large part thanks to our idol, eighth blackbird, commissioning so many amazing works!). So in true NCP fashion, we decided to make it happen ourselves. We reached out to Olga Bell and Gabrielle Herbst, and both David Bird and Isaac Schankler were selected composers from our 2016 Call for Scores because we couldn’t decide between the two.


Issues like race and gender are important to your work; can you talk a bit about ways in which you see art’s potential to overlap with (or become) activism?

It depends on what kind of art you make. As a multidisciplinary artist, my work outside of NCP revolves around identity and race and it is “activism” within the world it operates in (I suppose we can say avant-garde performance) because the number of Filipino artists in it are few and far between. And it is important, even to show within that world that we exist and have something to say. But I don’t know if my weird piece on colonialism with 20 types of keyboards is going to speak to the larger population about Asian racial issues. I think I do more when I yell at the top of my lungs at a racist heckler who’s a foot taller than me on the street. I guess that’s performance art? Maybe being a performer helps because it is sort of a performance. Also this happens so often that I plan my response, so I often “rehearse” this performance in my head! I think a lot of women do the same.

I’m skeptical about the degree to which art, particularly the kind I make, can be effective as activism. It may make us feel good and it may feel cathartic, but are we really reaching the ones who need to listen? Oftentimes we’re preaching to the choir.

Maybe not quitting in this largely white, sexist, male-dominated field does something. I’m not sure I’d call it activism, but it’s something.

I think visual art, particularly graphic design, does so much. Like how the equal sign demonstrates support for gay marriage; the posters at the Women’s March (“Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again”); the Black Power fist.

There are also organizations such as the Laundromat Project that really build community and guide artists in engaging with various communities. I think it is worth talking to people who are experts in facilitating relationships with artists and communities to see how one can do more with art.

With these issues in mind, as well as the political backdrop of NYC, how have the artistic goals and projects of NCP evolved over the years?

From the start we’ve been all about gender equality. Our ensemble is comprised of all women. We hadn’t talked about much publicly in the past because we just wanted to do the work and do it well, but now we’re realizing we really need to also actively advocate for women and unite. Also, we incorporate fashion, something I’ve always lived with as a form of self-expression. Through fashion, you can express something without even opening your mouth, for better or for worse. I had shied away from fashion for a while because of some shitty grant feedback we got about our concept. Then last fall, Teen VOGUE writer Lauren Duca had written an amazing article about how Trump is gaslighting America and was invited to be a guest on Tucker Carlson’s show.

She explained all of her points with 1000x the intelligence of Carlson, and he just kept arguing that because she wrote about fashion and Ariana Grande’s thigh-high boots she did not have the insight to write about serious issues. Duca then explained that these things aren’t mutually exclusive: that you can care about fashion and pop culture and politics all at the same time. He got the last word in by saying: “Just stick to thigh-high boots.”

It occurred to me that fashion is belittled as superficial or dumb because it is a women’s interest. Anyway, I thought, FUCK THAT. NCP is going full force with this shit! We’re going to be unapologetically female (which can mean different things to different people, of course) and for us that meant no more trying to downplay the fashion. We can have an aesthetic point of view on what we put on our bodies and play the hell out of our instruments, and of course, care about politics, like Duca says!

We also realized how empowering young women is more important than ever, and we’re excited to be working with the Lower East Side Girls Club for an event in June. It’s only one event, but it’s a start, and we hope to do more work with them in the future.

Like so many other arts organizations, this election has made us re-evaluate how our values of diversity, inclusivity, feminism, etc. play out in our work. I still don’t know how we can best incorporate more activism in our artistic goals. We have really appreciated the dialogue happening in the new music community about these issues and want to hear everyone’s ideas!

Nouveau Classical Project--Photo by Julia Comita

Nouveau Classical Project–Photo by Julia Comita

A practical question: what sorts of time management do you have to engage in to keep up with all of your different ongoing projects?

I make sure to not have that many projects going on, maybe 2 or 3 at a time, tops, and of varying sizes. I also like to concentrate on things in large chunks, say, one week just to work on one project (like a composition or performance piece), then leave it alone. I find it’s better to work in concentrated periods on one thing rather than switch tasks often. Also, not everything needs to be touched everyday. Writing everything down is essential.

What do you see as some of the short-term obstacles (and possible solutions) facing women and people of color in the contemporary music scene?

Women and people of color do not have the same issues necessarily. As my right hand/company manager Arden says, a one-size-fits-all strategy never fits all when it comes to these issues. Also, there are issues even across communities of color; not everyone feels an automatic bond with other people of color, which is a shame. As an Asian-American, I’m labeled as part of the “model minority,” despite that we are not white nor is our experience the same. Although we’re stereotyped as smart, we’re viewed as weak and submissive and we need to put an end to that bullshit together. In my experience, I have found that Asians in general need to unite more. We’ve tried so hard to somehow transcend our race through hard work. but that hasn’t worked.

Across the board with minorities in general, tokenism can be a problem. What I find personally difficult is being aware of the sexism and racism but also not wanting those issues to be a crutch for my shortcomings. Things are slowly improving though. We need more women and people of color in the contemporary music scene in general. For example, there is such a low number of women who have applied for our Call for Scores in comparison with the men who applied last year.

With women, I think we need to unite. We’ve got to all get nasty and get angry when we witness sexism. We share articles, and that’s a great start. We should start sitting in at concerts together, particularly those of historical institutions who have not strived towards equality. At NCP, we are commissioning more women and recognize a woman every year who has made an impact in any creative field with the NCP Visionary Award. We’ve got to work together and be outspoken together while still recognizing that each individual faces unique challenges.

Currents Teaser from The Nouveau Classical Project on Vimeo.