5 Questions to Paola Prestini (Co-Founder and Artistic Director, National Sawdust)

Though Google Maps currently marks Brooklyn’s National Sawdust venue as closed, this fertile ground for artistic exploration is anything but in hibernation. Opened in 2015 thanks to the efforts of attorney and organist Kevin Dolan and composer Paola Prestini, the former sawdust-factory-turned-contemporary-music-haven has just announced its Winter/Spring 2021 season, featuring a cornucopia of creative work from a stylistically rich cohort of composers, choreographers, poets, instrumentalists, dancers, and filmmakers.

Furthering its mission as an incubator for young artists’ careers, a new partnership with New York University’s Center for Ballet and the Arts and the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation joins National Sawdust’s stellar lineup of fellowship programs, including the Hildegard Commission and the BluePrint Fellowship; and Beth Morrison Projects returns this season with Liederabend Op. World Wide, commissioning international composers to reinterpret the nineteenth-century tradition of Germanic art song for piano.

When co-founder Kevin Dolan approached you to build National Sawdust with him, was there a moment where that vision became exceedingly clear in your mind, and did that initial idea differ greatly from what National Sawdust is now?

The vision at the beginning was very much about a home for emerging artists across styles. We connected immediately on that and have not wavered. From the beginning, I knew I wanted to focus on incubation to dissemination of ideas, with different angles of our industry interrogated by programs such as The Log, the Hildegard Commission, the BluePrint Fellowship, and having our own label and producing arm. Because of my own struggles in the classical music industry, I wanted to make sure our commissioning focused on people not traditionally represented in the canon, but to do so without tokenizing; we’re still discussing how to frame opportunities around identity in a deeper way. I still think those opportunities have a place because there is not industry-wide equity. These directions were more tailored to my passions, but for the most part, I did not meet resistance.

Paola Prestini--Photo by Andreas Lazlo Konrath

Paola Prestini–Photo by Andreas Lazlo Konrath

In a necessary attempt to look on the bright side of things, can you tell us a way or two in which this upcoming season been positively influenced by the challenges of the last year?

Absolutely. The losses due to COVID can’t go unmentioned. However, the digital arm of National Sawdust would not have happened so quickly if we had not needed to communicate differently. The ability to pivot as a micro-institution is easier, so we were able to immediately commission artists through our digital stage beginning in May, when many other organizations were still (understandably) figuring things out. Helga Davis and I led masterclasses which we liked to think of as masterclasses in life; how were artists we admired coping with the changes? How did it affect their art? Some of the words of Tania León, Lawrence Brownlee, and Jennifer Walshe are still with me. This fall, the New Works Commission brought 20 pieces of some of the freshest music I’ve heard, with brilliant masterclasses by JACK Quartet, Marcos Balter, and Karen Wong among others.

And finally this season—because we’re still producing in digital formats, we’ve thought of how to capture the ephemerality of live performance in digital form. Season Six is called BODY/SPACE and there is a large emphasis on new music and dance. We hired a filmmaker and producer to direct the second Digital Discovery Festival, and a programming member with a journalism degree to help create our knowledge hub where our past masterclasses, our podcast Active Hope (a partnership between Sawdust, The Apollo, and the Kennedy Center that I’m creating with Kamilah Forbes and Marc Bamuthi Joseph), and commissioned articles (through our partnership with the Rubin Foundation) will live. So in a way, we’re focusing on: what can an artist-led micro-institution bring in this challenging time? Malleability, the commissioning of new work, and a place for thought and all types of writing to help guide us and chronicle this challenging time.

How does National Sawdust’s Toulmin Fellows and Toulmin Creators program for women and gender-variant choreographers and composers replace/augment the former fellowship program, the CBA Virginia B. Toulmin Fellowship for Women Leaders in Dance?

It actually augments our other programs, and focuses on new music for dance and new choreography. The Center for Ballet Arts is a new partner, and they bring a deep scholarly space on dance to the table. We’ll continue our masterclasses with thinkers such as Yuval Sharon, Raven Chacon, Lonnie Landon, and an amazing impact lab based in Copenhagen (Enactlab) that bridges the sciences and disability, and more. There are four main commissions and 44 Toulmin fellows. This program builds on our tradition of commissioning voices that need to be heard.

Paola Prestini--Photo by Caroline Tompkins

Paola Prestini–Photo by Caroline Tompkins

What has the impact of the Hildegard Competition—your mentorship initiative highlighting outstanding trans, female, and nonbinary composers in the early stages of their career—been on the contemporary classical arts world in its short but significant life?

At a minimum, it’s brought to light nine outstanding commissions and hopefully helped composers by providing a great recording, plus mentorship with esteemed composers such as Angélica Negrón, Du Yun, Tania León, Gavilán Rayna Russom, and musicians such as Jeffrey Zeigler, Allison Loggins-Hull, and Miranda Cuckson (from the National Sawdust ensemble). We’re actually changing the name to the Hildegard Commission, as I hate competitions. I’ve also loved the performances of the runner-up composers, so in all, it’s bringing a catalogue of new music to life that I hope other people and gatekeepers will take note of and further support. If Sawdust can continue to help create community, while evolving and remaining a feeder to the industry, it’s done part of its job right.

In April, National Sawdust Tracks will release your album ZODIAC, which is packed with different forms of artistry: music and poetry and recitation and a companion film by Murat Eyuboglu with bhutto dancer Dai Matsuoka and New York City Ballet’s Georgina Pazcoguin. Can you give us some hints as to the personality of this album/give us a sneak peak into a few of its moments?

It’s my first full solo album with my husband, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler. Side A is solo cello works from different times in my career, all inspired by poetry. The poets read their own and others’ works on the album, from Natasha Trethewey to Brenda Shaughnessy to Maria Popova reading Anaïs Nin, underscored by a score brought to life by my family of musicians: Tanya Tagaq, Nels Cline, David Cossin, and Cornelius Dufallo, plus me on piano and Jeff on cello. This score then appears in its entirety on side B of the LP.

The digital performance falls in line with my pandemic explorations, the first being Con Alma, which I put out in December in collaboration with vocalist Magos Herrera, the Mexican government, and theater director Ashley Tata. Con Alma focused on finding communion in times of isolation by collaborating with artists from three continents, and examining the role of social media in this time, and how it can relate to social impact and audience healing. ZODIAC is more of an exploration of the body, movement, and finding new modes of expression while collaborating across distances between two of Jeff’s and my favorite dancers: Tokyo-based Butoh master Dai Matsuoka and NYCB ballerina Georgina Pazcoguin. We’ll be filming with our longtime collaborator and friend Murat Eyuboglu (we did The Colorado together) up at MASS MoCA and with Dai in Japan later this month! The work will have multiple modes of dissemination, as a digital album, an LP, a museum work, a digital experience, and finally one day, a live performance. We call it our family album!


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