The beating heart of radical modern classical music
Nadia Sirota plays viola. Apparently, classical musicians are kind of snobby about the viola, considering violin and cello fancier and more expressive. On the evidence here, this is hogwash of the highest order.
Nadia Sirota doesn’t just play viola. She attacks the viola, torques it, reduces it to smoldering ashes. Most of the works here feature her multitracking her viola lines, creating an entire ensemble from the sound of one instrument dubbed many many times. There is nothing wimpy or middle-of-the-road about the viola here. Sirota, to quote something going around a lot lately, leans in.
She has recorded mostly as part of the Icelandic neo-classical collective called Bedroom Community. Founded seven years ago by Valgeir Sigurðsson, this group includes fascinating composers and musicians such as Nico Muhly, Ben Frost, Daniel Bjarnson, and more. Baroque, her second album as a leader, contains no baroque music whatsoever; the six compositions are all modern, by Muhly and Bjarnson and others on the cutting edge of modern classical music.
None of the pieces sound anything like Bach or Vivaldi, really. But if one listens closely, one can hear that each conforms, to one extent or another, to the basic template set up by the concerto form: the individual against the ensemble.
This is true even when Sirota plays both roles. She overdubs seven different viola lines in the opening piece, “In Teaching Others We Teach Ourselves” by Judd Greenstein, from beautiful solo passages to pizzicato backing. These lines were then combined, assembled and re-assembled for months by Sigurðsson, co-producer Paul Evans, and Sirota. The result is a complex piece veering from Philip Glass/Steve Reich-style pulse passages to sections that are as Romantic as anything out of Beethoven or Dvořák. It’s incredibly technical playing, but it also aches with the beauty of being alive…and it all comes straight out of the poor, despised viola.
Just about every other piece is even more radical. Missy Mazzoli’s “Tooth and Nail” incorporates production treatments to give the ten-minute piece a beating electronic heart; here, Sirota develops a tenaciously-bowed main voice that floats and grinds on top of synthesizer beds. “Tristan de Cunha,” by Paul Corley, is a drone-based tone poem backed by both Bach-derived organ lines and twiddly things that resemble both birdsongs and Godzilla noises. Here, Sirota starts scraping her viola(s), creating tense scars of sound across the aural scape.
The shortest piece here, “From the Invisible to the Visible” by Shara Worden, incorporates more organ work from James McMinnie. At first, this resembles “Switched-On Bach,” but morphs into something much more meaty and fugue-like over the course of its four minutes. This is probably the least realized piece on the album.
The longest is “Sleep Variations,” a 14-minute jam by Daníel Bjarnason, and represents a new level of complexity. Here, Sirota plays 11 different viola lines, all of which flow in and around and on top of each other, jumping up and settling down, never really letting the listener develop a sense of where the piece will go next. The middle section, where everything drops out except for a high small voice, is melancholy made musical; the crashing noises that follow are impending doom, or a thunderstorm, or something new upon each listen. I’m not sure that this piece works any better than Worden’s, really, but it is technical and beautiful music of a higher order than anything else you will hear this year.