Composers Paola Prestini and Philip Glass Talk Collaboration, Opera, and Kickstarter

Paola Prestini is on the search for the next Philip Glass. The composer has been hailed among the “Top 100 Composers Under 40” by NPR and is responsible for two artistic incubators. After graduating from Juilliard, Prestini found herself struggling to get commissions and find funding. She eventually found her way and began writing for some of the most prestigious names in music, like the Kronos Quartet, Sydney Opera, and the New York Philharmonic, with her works having been performed at venues such as the Park Avenue Armory and the Barbican Centre in London. She realized there was a need for a non-profit that helped musicians fundraise and create projects. To return the generosity that so many gave to her, she founded VisionIntoArt, an organization that commissions artists from various disciplines to collaborate on projects. Then came National Sawdust, which serves as a performance venue for curious artists and intrigued listeners in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Prestini first crossed paths with the iconic American composer Glass when he spoke to her class at Juilliard. Glass has collaborated with everybody from Paul Simon to David Bowie. The driving force behind operas like Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, as well as the scores for Academy Award-winning films like The Hours and Kundun, Glass’s minimalist compositions have even earned his music a place in fashion show soundtracks for Louis Vuitton and Céline. Glass and Prestini talk about the struggles of being a rising musician, collaboration, and how Prestini hopes that her programs will one day yield the next Glass.

Blake Abbie—How did you both meet?

Philip Glass—It was in San Francisco I believe.

Paola Prestini—Yes, I was with my husband Jeff [Zeigler, the cellist], who was at that time part of the Kronos Quartet. You were working with them.

Philip—You know, Jeff is playing with me in May. We have some concerts coming up. It’s a benefit and we haven’t even announced it yet actually—it’s a piece about Snowden. I don’t think I knew at that time you were going to New York. I always thought you were going to be West Coast people. But then before I knew it, you moved and were starting to organize National Sawdust. That was a couple of years ago?

Paola—Yeah, several years. Then you came and you played for our gala, which was a lot of fun. When I was at Juilliard studying composition, you came in and spoke to our class.

Philip—I remember.

Paola—I had been in love with your work from the early days when you were doing work with Foday [Musa Suso, the Gambian musician] all the way to the operas you were writing. To have you as a kind of mentor, though I didn’t study with you—there is definitely a real connection. One of the things that impressed me so greatly was how you created your own career. It was outside of the box and it was working with visual artists.

Philip—That’s always the best way.

Paola—You’re essentially blurring boundaries. You were also creating a community around you. I was very impressed once by something you said: “I have to keep working because I am supporting an entire community of people who depend on me.” But it’s both, right? You are creating this world and also being responsible. I loved that thought.

Philip—There is another angle to this too, which is the kind of independence from academia, or from the money that’s supposed to be supporting new music. It is really given out in ways that discourages independence. In a funny way, independence sounds like we’re all working alone, but the fact that we’re independent means we’re free to work together. I think that’s a very important part. I don’t know if I mentioned it at the time, but going forward with your work, you really have come to show how that can happen and make a place yourself, like the one you’ve started, National Sawdust. When we come into the music world, it looks like a restaurant filled with people, all the tables are filled, and there’s no room for anybody. So what do you do? You have to build a new table.

Paola—You have to build a new table! Once Paul Soros [the businessman and philanthropist] said to me, “When you see a piece of pie, if there’s only one pie left, don’t divide it, make more.” That is very much the spirit of what you just said.

Philip—Your work and the work that you’re doing along with the people of your generation is really inspiring. The new ideas, the young performers who are involved collectively with live music and performing music that’s been written today, in a language for today. It’s inspiring to the older generations too. You don’t always hear it, but it is.

Paola—Thank you, Philip. That’s huge.

Philip—You guys are inspiring me!

Paola—I don’t know about that.

Blake—That’s fantastic. I wanted to ask you both about your process. How do you compose?

Paola—Honestly, it’s two things: either a specific person or collaborator inspires me. For [my music-theatre work] Aging Magician it was Rinde Eckert, the downtown performance artist and writer, and Julian Crouch, the director. Also, the theme—I was interested in looking at aging from a child’s perspective. The combination of the theme and muse are generally the ways I begin my own pieces. When I get excited I can move mountains. There’s a long gestation and deep process, sometimes because funding doesn’t come together and sometimes because the work needs that kind of process. But it’s also fun to see a project like the Hubble Cantata, which has just exploded. It really hit a nerve: timely in terms of opera and the theme of virtual reality. Whereas with the Aging Magician it was a long process.

Philip—In terms of what I’m doing, I’m still working with new ideas. I’m still looking at the language of music as a growing and ongoing thing for me—as ways of hearing different harmonies and different kinds of rhythms going together. I have the good luck to have plenty of work behind me, so I can play pieces from the 70s and 80s. I was down in Tennessee at Big Ears Festival. They performed Music in Similar Motion, which I wrote in 1969. I sat down and played with them!

Paola—Nice! [Laughs].

Philip—They got me a keyboard and the music. That piece is 40 years old, but it was a wonderful place to do that.

Paola—That’s such a great festival. Philip, where are you right now with writing opera? I’m curious because it’s my favorite thing to do right now.

Philip—The thing is there are more possibilities with doing it. Some of the old ones are still being done, like Akhnaten [at the English National Opera a month ago].

PaolaAkhnaten with Anthony [Roth Costanzo, who is a curator at National Sawdust, singing the lead role] was amazing.

Philip—The piece, which I did about Disney, The Perfect American, is finally coming to the United States, to the Chicago Opera Theatre.

Paola—Wonderful. Then you finished up Appomattox just recently, right?

PhilipAppomattox was just down at the Washington National Opera. I did another piece that was in London, [based on] The Trial by Kafka. So, I have several other ideas I’m still thinking about. I’m still tossing around between doing piano music and doing operas. There is a lot of interest in opera right now! I remember when I first started doing operas, it didn’t seem like many people were doing it, but now everybody is doing it!

Blake—What draws you both to write operas?

This space is not going to be about Philip Glass; it’s going to be about the next Philip Glass. The next person you haven’t heard, but you should have.

Philip—It’s the collaborative art form. You have text, image, movement. It’s where all the art forms come together. Traditionally, opera was the popular art form and it still is. The 20th-century form of film is the closest we have to opera in another form; it combines image, music, and text.

Paola—I find too that when you’re working with great directors or those who challenge you, it’s expanding your own form as a composer. It’s refining your skills. I love that; it’s one of the reasons I collaborate. It’s also why I love to do solo things, because then you redefine your boundaries. I’d love to do more film scores, just a spattering—doing it the way, Philip, you have : collaborating on a handful of beautiful high-end films. Right now in my life I know the pieces I’m working on—from the opera Two Oars with [theater director] Robert Wilson, which was commissioned for the 2018 Commonwealth Games and is loosely based on Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, to Aging Magician—very much reflect where I am in my life. Is that so with you for the pieces you choose or is it now just based on commission?

Philip—The trick about commissions is not just getting  one—it’s having an idea then getting someone to pay for it.

Paola—Totally. [Laughs].

Philip—It’s that way around; we have pieces we want to do, and then we have to get them financed. So getting the commissions, it’s not like we’re dozing away and waiting for someone to make the phone call—it doesn’t work that way. Somehow you have to find a way to make these pieces happen.

Paola—Totally. Most of my projects are a long process. A lot of it is to do with the funding structures of music being much slower than other art forms. Working on the Hubble Cantata that includes virtual reality, it’s much faster. I mean, that world is like [Paola snaps her finger] done! Our world is one that takes time; orchestras program two to three years in advance.

Blake—Do you prefer one or the other?

Paola—I love that it’s both. I love that some pieces just happen, and some I live with. When you live with a piece, you’re living with collaborators. They’re in your life in a very prominent way, which is a wonderful thing.

Blake—Do you need the time to reflect on the work?

Paola—I like working on long-process works, because I can go back to change, craft, and sculpt them. Also when you’re working on a collaboration, I respect that different artists also need time. A librettist needs time, then I write the music, we collaborate on that with the dramaturge; then he needs time. It’s something that might have taken two to three months to write, but now has taken two years following the arc of the collaboration.

I collaborate with visual artists as it’s the best way to manipulate and bend form. When I’m working with, for example, a puppeteer, I listen carefully to all of the decisions that he instinctually makes. Those instincts inform the way I choose to make stage decisions. You can’t learn that unless you’re in the process.

Philip—It’s very energizing. This is a moment right now where there is so much going on. In Brooklyn, of course, where you’ve chosen to base yourself, but also in other parts of the city as well and still in Manhattan.

Paola—The sound-art world is exciting. There are people doing radical things and doing it well. A lot of people talk about how difficult it is, and yes, it is difficult to survive as an artist. That was part of the impetus to start an institution—to give a home to emerging artists. The biggest difficulty is funding—how to bring these projects to life and think creatively about space and resources. And then to just exist in a city like New York? Sometimes it’s easy when you’re past that initial emerging phase, which I guess I have. But I don’t forget what it was like, because I see the struggles every day in National Sawdust. I’m in a place now where, if I have an idea, I know how to think about its funding. I know how to produce and make that vision a reality. I’m a “Glass-half-full” kind of girl [laughs].

Blake—How do you find support and funding?

Paola—It’s individual relationships. I have definitely been supported by art endowments. Those are huge support systems. The main thing is forming relationships with people and them getting excited about ideas. It goes back to the original idea of patrons. Patrons in the arts have moved mountains and have been the generating force of so many beautiful things.

Philip—A lot of people are getting involved with Kickstarter for raising money and are getting pieces together with it. You go on the internet and advertise what you’re doing, what it’s going to be, and how much you need—it’s a way of raising money.

Blake—You guys generated support with Kickstarter at National Sawdust, no?

Paola—Yes, we did! Actually, Philip, we’re doing a piece for the Met Museum called The Colorado, which is about the Colorado River. I wrote the music for it, and we raised money on Kickstarter!

Philip—That’s great. That’s Fantastic.

Paola—It’s my nod to your KoyaanisqatsiColorado started with the filmmaker Murat Eyuboglu, who had this passion for the Colorado. He wanted to create this equal parts documentary, live experience, and film. I fell in love with the concept. This is the first in a trilogy of rivers. We’re going next to the Amazon, then the Tigris. And we’ll include different composers and environmentalists. I’m so excited about the River Trilogy, and I wasn’t joking, it is our nod to your Koyaanisqatsi and Qatsi trilogy!  I choose projects based on the adventures I want to have in my life and the stories that need to be told. This was a beautiful combination of both!

Blake—Environmentalists, musicians, filmmakers, NGOs—you collaborate with so many different people. There is a type of hybrid role you play as musician and producer.

Paola—Our generation has to think on different levels—the brain gets used to it. If I was just writing music I would be curating or something. But I have a space, so it’s different. Robert has the Watermill Center, and Robert Wilson works. It’s not so different; it’s just that there aren’t many composers doing what I do. I think more theatre directors do it; in my field it’s not as common.

Philip—The thing that I liked about what you are doing was creating these places where people could come and play. With this kind of live music environment, it becomes possible to really push forward and into progressive ways of doing music. Especially with the young generation it’s one of the most exciting times I can remember in a while. I think it has partly to do with that fact that politically the country is in such confusion. This all happened 60 years ago, in the 50s and 60s, when there was a lot of confusion with McCarthyism. At that time people like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Ornette Coleman. That’s when the artists get going! It seems to be a time when a very positive and holistic way of thinking comes into play.

Paola—Philip, you started that. I think of everything holistically. If I’m curating at National Sawdust or talking to one of the board members—at the beginning the newer members didn’t understand how, as an artist, I could balance these things: “How can she be writing music for the LA Phil and directing our team?” It’s something I’ve grown over the past 20 years. What I was creating was a vision for how I felt artists should support other artists. If I could create the context I was living in, I’d ultimately be much more successful and leave a legacy. It was important to me that VisionIntoArt and National Sawdust have an open-arms approach to all the things I had learned. Now I’m learning from all artists coming in, the advisory board members, and curators. It’s creating an incubator that will hopefully serve many different artists for a long time.

Blake—It’s not just an incubator for the artists, but also for the community—for the audience members. What you’re establishing is really giving space for different projects.

Paola—And different experiences. It’s what drives me to work as hard as I do. Anything important is hard to do. National Sawdust was very hard to bring to life because it was about this not-super-famous composer—me—opening a space saying, “This space is not going to be about Philip Glass; it’s going to be about the next Philip Glass.” The next person you haven’t heard, but you should have. The experimentation and failure and success and all the things that naturally make up an artist’s career.

Philip—Yeah, the thing is, what is really important in a city like New York is to have places where people can come and play.

Paola—I find it comes from a personal satisfaction to learn more and to collaborate with people. I went to a conservatory, not a normal liberal arts environment; I was just learning composition. So for me, it’s school beyond school. It starts from there but extends into this question of, “How do we bring more of the public into the arts? How do we get more people involved and invested?” Then, of course, it’s a reflection on how hard it is to get things produced. I had to become a good fundraiser, but you know when I look at the artists after whom I’ve modeled my career—like you, Philip—you are magnetic personalities who know how to create communities around yourself and support for your world.

Blake—I think it’s something you have as well.

Paola—It’s something I hope I have! I’ve so far been somewhat successful at it. One thing I realized as well was that it was important to me that that support system be used for other artists.

Philip—We have wonderful players, and we have conductors and composers. There is a generation of young composers—men and women—who prove now there is no gender gap in the music world at this point. I just had a piece played in London, and Karen Kamensek, a young American, was the conductor.

Paola—I’m not sure I agree that gender gap is completely gone. It’s changed so much since you were younger, which is very positive. But being a woman composer, a lot of what I did was out of necessity. When I was at Juilliard, it was not the easiest time. A lot of the opportunities that one wished for just weren’t real. And so creating my own space—not just this physical space, but in the world as a composer and multimedia artist—was out of necessity. That’s why when you came to speak, it was so illuminating because it was like: “Oh, he created his own reality.”

The Colorado premiered in New York on May 18, 2016 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 5th Ave, New York, NY. Hubble Cantata premiered at Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY on August 6, 2016. The Perfect American runs April 22 and 30, 2017 at the Chicago Opera Theatre at the Harris Theatre, 205 E Randolph St, Chicago, IL.