When I first met with composer Paola Prestini just over three years ago to discuss her dreams, plans, and goals for the wide-ranging arts venue, incubator, and accelerator that would become National Sawdust, she expressed her conviction that journalism and criticism are fundamental parts of the artistic ecosystem. A few months ago, having overseen National Sawdust’s birth and its widely acclaimed initial season, she returned to thinking about how a journalistic venture might be implemented among National Sawdust’s programs – and our conversation resumed.
Recently, in anticipation of this new initiative making its public debut, Paola and I sat down together once again – this time in the National Sawdust performance space, for a discussion in which we’ve endeavored to lay bare the thinking behind this unconventional pursuit, what we hope to achieve, and what further initiatives we plan to pursue as time goes on.
STEVE SMITH: When we first spoke, you already knew that you were undertaking a huge project, offering much more just than a venue to the artistic community. And from near the start you knew that you wanted to incorporate journalism and criticism into the mix.
PAOLA PRESTINI: Yes. I often plant seeds of ideas, and then it takes a long, long time for them to develop. And I’m really comfortable with that, because I feel that then things happen at the right time. Certainly with this project of National Sawdust, I think I understood the enormity of it, but because it took so long to come to fruition – it took seven years of us thinking through the project, thinking through the mission, really doing everything right, and then trying to fundraise for it – when it finally did happen, I was prepared for it. And so similarly with the idea that we had together, for me, writing in all of its forms has always played a very central part to my own artistic process. As I grew up in New York as an artist, in my early 20s and in my 30s, there was always a fascination with and a fear of criticism. And so, like all things I’m afraid of, I really wanted to understand why, and understand what it is in me that doesn’t allow me to embrace it or understand its relevance or not be afraid of it.
Can you identify what that fear was based in?
I think it’s a very common fear that artists have, which is that the artistic process and creating work in today’s artistic ecology is so difficult. It’s rooted in a very basic fear of acceptance, which every artist has – that is certainly not unique. But I think that more profoundly, what I was reading, in reviews and in general, didn’t really contextualize the scene in a way I felt the reader would, one, want to listen to the music, which was the whole point, I think, of why you write about things: not only to give your perspective, but also to allow the field to thrive. I felt that many of the reviews I was reading, and then eventually I was getting, were kind of shallow, and weren’t really contextualizing work, and weren’t really meant to get audiences to come out and see things and make up their own minds about things, or to report on what was happening, or to have the artist’s voice in it, or to say, “This isn’t for me, but let me tell you a little bit about this artist and what they’re thinking about and what the context is and what’s going on in the scene.” I just didn’t feel like any of that was happening. So all of a sudden, it was like a fear of and a disdain for something that I always had respected, and that always, in its many different forms, had played such a central role to me as an artist.
So, fast-forward – I’m over-generalizing – you start to read certain reviewers who are fantastic, and who really write in a profound way. I started to realize it wasn’t that it didn’t exist, but that it was rare. I started to think, What if the community can be more united? What if the community can be more this place where it’s constructive, and where we work together? And it’s not about receiving “bad press,” because they say that all press is good press, and I certainly understand that now. It’s more about the field feeding itself, wanting to perpetuate, wanting to create a space where writers and musicians and creators can coexist and can feed each other.
I knew I couldn’t roll it out right away – when we first started, we had a staff of three, if you can imagine, to run 350 shows. So slowly, as I built the board and helped them to understand what we were really starting, which wasn’t going to be just a typical club or venue, then I began to get support for the different ideas – and finally got support to make this a reality.
As a newer journalist entering the New York scene, I became aware that I sometimes was characterized as being “the nice one.” It wasn’t that I was overly soft, or incapable of writing a negative review – though the first time I ever had to file a negative review of a high-profile performance, I made myself sick and missed a weekend trip to San Francisco. The upshot there was that certain people said that I’d written had needed to be said, and that I’d said it in a constructive manner: Here’s a situation that might have been approached differently to yield more positive results. I’m not an authority pontificating from on high, just an involved and informed observer whose training and experience allows me to, as you said, contextualize what I’m hearing and lay out the bigger picture: not just what happened, but how and why it might have happened, what might have been done differently, and what worked.
Right, and that’s a huge question for me. When you don’t like something as a reviewer, it’s interesting, because at times it actually touches on a nerve for an artist, which is that place where you’re most insecure – yes, I could have done that better. So in its best scenario, in terms of the relationship between the piece and the artist, it’s illuminating. There’s such an important place for the role of criticism, not just in the artistic process but also how that radiates out and how it includes the audience – which of course is incredibly important, because it’s the component of the field that allows us to sustain. So the question then becomes, if you’re writing something that’s purely for yourself and your opinion, why would somebody read it? Is it interesting? Is it fun to see somebody attacked? Probably not. So why not write something that is well-written and that educates both the artist and the audience? I’m not interested in creating a place that’s so safe that you can’t say what you want – that’s not interesting to me. And certainly some of the reviews that I’ve gotten have taught me great things about myself. It’s more just about care and professionalism. How do you create a field in which everyone coexists and supports the very thing that we love so much?
Which leads to another point: There historically has been this feeling that journalists and critics and the people that they write about – in this case, artists – have to maintain this distance, a sort of artificial boundary. It’s as though a writer cannot write with any objectivity…
…if they know somebody.
I should not associate with you, not know anything about your life, not know anything about how the specifics of your life might feed and nurture and inform your work. But that’s always felt wrong to me. I understand that we don’t want to go back a time when the conductor and the critic might share a ride to the concert.
Yeah, you want some kind of separation.
Virgil Thomson is in the news again lately because Tim Page has been anthologizing his critical writing brilliantly for the Library of America. There was a highly visible example of someone who might use his newspaper position to further his artistic career and those of his friends and allies.
In a positive way.
Generally, but also in a negative way, with regard to composers whose work he disdained. Anyway, there are plenty of cautionary tales out there…
But what I liked about him, though, is that he very comfortably wore more than one hat. That kind of shows you how many things somebody can be. I mean, yes, there are positive and negative implications, but that’s a fascinating character.
Absolutely. And historically, a number of the great composers have also been significant and useful critics – and I say “useful” in the best sense of the term, not as a pejorative. Useful in that they illuminated things in a way that you could then partake of what they saw and heard. There have been so many times when I’ve read an especially good piece of writing about music and not only wanted to hear that music, but wanted to hear it through the sensibilities that specific writer brought to bear.
Honestly, when I say that a lot of the writing that I was reading was not so interesting, I’m excluding a few brilliant writers who I loved reading. And that’s always inspiring, because you then follow their perspective. That’s the best-case scenario.
They can become your trusted guides and advocates. You might say, I loved what Writer X said about this, so I’ll read what she has to say about something else.
Or I’ll go see it, because I’m super curious as to what she’s said.
Returning to my earlier thought, there are cautionary tales about what happens when the distance between journalists and the artists they cover becomes too close for comfort. But if you’ve got any sense of professional ethics – on both sides of the aisle – then that concern can be allayed. You acknowledge and disclose potential causes for concern. Transparency is important.
Transparency is important. But one thing that I found missing is that we live in a moment where stylistic diversity is really the trait of most composers, in the sense that first of all there are composers that write in many different styles, like John Zorn, which is amazing. And then, the field is populated by people who really fill the spectrum. And what I’ve found, in the last 15 years of being involved in this scene is that the major papers don’t reflect, or now don’t have the ability to reflect, on those tastes, because they don’t have them. And that, to me, is like a cardinal sin. If you’re just predisposed to not like a very specific type of writing, then how are you going to be able to write about it critically? It’s the same way that I find multimedia work, there’s not reviewers who specialize in cross-disciplinary work, when it’s been happening in New York for multiple decades. Forever and ever it’s been happening – how do we not have reviewers who are capable of commenting on a multimedia event? So it felt very much to me like – and I think it’s why papers are in crisis right now – they’re just not reflecting the work that’s being made, so they become less and less relevant.
When I was just making the transition from the youthful self-starter mentality of Time Out New York to The New York Times, I was keenly aware of the fact that I’d come up via a fairly unorthodox path, and I viewed myself, despite my college music-department grounding, as somewhat of an autodidact. People ask me about my purportedly weird range of tastes, and my response is that I never established any kind of boundaries and nobody had told me I was supposed to. I think it’s important, even if you do have an acknowledged area of specialty – you’re an opera person, or an early-music person – you cannot dismiss out of hand everything else that’s out there. You cannot say, This is right, and the rest is insignificant. I was self-conscious because I don’t have that musicology degree, I can’t name all of Schubert’s lieder, I can’t necessarily identify immediately from memory which recording of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony I’m listening to.
But you were able to reflect on all the new music being written in a way that was important and contextualized, because you listened to what’s going on outside of classical music, and outside of contemporary classical music.
The interesting thing that you and I now have to negotiate here is how to approach criticism in a way that acknowledges the fact that I work for this organization, National Sawdust. How do we find ways to accommodate critique of the things that happen here?
For the things that are happening here, you’re editing a perspective of the artists, so that you’re really giving a rich overview of what’s happening here. But then you’re also reviewing outside of the venue, and that’s kind of exciting, because it brings people to read about what’s happening in the venue because they follow you. We don’t tread the delicate water of, “well, he’s hired by them, so he can’t give a bad review” – which is not true, but I can see where people would say that. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and what I would say is that hopefully you’ll be able to collect young writers, and writers that you esteem, to critique what’s going on at Sawdust in ways that you value. What you value inevitably I value, because I trust you.
And then eventually we come to the next stage of my position here, which is the prospect of bringing in students and emerging writers for workshops and residencies, with an eye toward envisioning and defining new paths and opportunities. This was a real motivation. I left a substantial position at a nationally esteemed daily newspaper…
…to come work for a start-up! I take that very seriously. I could lose sleep on all of this. But I believe that we’re going to do something that’s revolutionary.
The traditional mass media are in a state of transition and even siege, with esteemed newspapers everywhere deciding they can no longer pursue certain areas of coverage we’d long taken for granted. The smaller institutions that feed the living stream of culture now are among those whose coverage is being curtailed or eliminated. We all understand that the world is thoroughly bound together by the web now. But at the same time, something is being lost if local scenes and emerging artists are deemed no longer feasible or cost-effective to cover.
Which is really troubling, because the place that the media has in an artist’s career development is so huge. That is actually really scary. People outside New York, there’s very few who don’t read the Times and make their opinion about certain artists. That tells you the importance of reviews. But also, imagine what that means for artists when you’re creating outside the spectrum of what the Times supports. You’re crucified.
We’re told that small concert that happened on the outskirts of town, that maybe only 12 people attended, isn’t something a major newspaper can afford to be concerned with anymore. But that small concert might have been the start of a major career, or of a revolutionary new idea. From the smallest seeds, great things grow.
Do you remember when you came to the Chelsea Art Museum? It was a long time ago – it was like 10 years ago. If you hadn’t been there that night…that was the very first time I was written about. It was me, Nico [Muhly], and Milica [Paranosic]. Almost nobody came to that.
And these are the things from which much, much bigger things evolve.
Having said that, I was very surprised that the opening of Sawdust received the press it did last year. It was amazing. I thought very hard in terms of selecting those curators for the first year, because for me it was also about how do I bring attention to the space, and to the kind of work that needs to be supported? So again, I have immense esteem for criticism. I just want to find a place in which we can support a younger generation of writers, we can find a place where artists are fed by the reviews as well – and again, that doesn’t mean just positive reviews; it means informed criticism that reflects the scene and the life that we’re living as artists.
One of the things that I feel most strongly about is that as grassroots culture and emerging arts and experimental arts and risk-taking artists are squeezed out of the mainstream conversation, something has to arise to keep those voices out there in the public’s awareness. We’re not just writing promotional copy for Sawdust concerts.
We have a marketing department for that. [laughs] That needs to be made clear.
We’ve come into this with certain models that we esteem. We want to emphasize the voices of the artists themselves.
There’s a wealth of ways to bring people into criticism that is in fact putting the artist up front, but again, it’s under your curation. I see you as a curator of the writing that’s going to go into this – the editor, the curator, the mastermind behind it. Hopefully these pieces will be picked up, will be seen, will be placed in different journals…I think that’s really exciting.
I’m feeling very energized by the mystery and the potential of what it is that we can do. That includes the idea of multimedia, because you’ve got tremendous assets in place and so many of the artists who come here already think on multiple levels at once.
I never am of the opinion that we’re creating a solution, because I don’t believe in that – it’s too simplistic. It’s more about adding to the scene. Adding another perspective. I also think the ways in which we take large themes – this year, opera; next year, indigenous music – and explore them through all the pores of the non-profit, it could also be interesting for you to explore different themes each month. If you see trends emerging, to think of them globally across different writers and different artists, because I definitely think there are themes that permeate the scene, that people are thinking about and addressing.
We’ve talked about the “variations on a theme” idea, and it’s something we’re definitely pursuing. Right now I feel a bit like I’m running at more or less everything, and seeing what coalesces.
This is the moment where you’re throwing paint on the wall and seeing what happens. I think that when we meet this time next year, what we thought would happen will be very different from what did. And that is very much true of this venue. What’s happened this last year…I went into it not knowing how I would run a performing-arts venue. It’s a lot of learning, a lot of keeping your ears open, a lot of really keeping the needs of artists central to what the non-profit needs to be. And I think that once you find that truth, there’s a lot of flexibility and a lot of possibility.
That brings me back around to another of my major motivations in this undertaking. My job as a music journalist and critic has never been to serve as a cheerleader, standing on the sidelines shouting, “Look at what’s happening! Isn’t that keen?” But there is an animating principle behind everything that I’ve pursued: I’ve just heard this amazing thing and I have to tell you about it, so that you’ll have an opportunity to bring it into your life, too. Any time I’ve been in an editorial position, I’ve looked for the same kind of urge in the pitches that I field from other writers – I don’t want to know what you’re capable of writing about; I want to know what you need to write about. So it’s not about being a cheerleader, but it is about wanting very much to contribute to the health of the scene, nurturing the arts in a way that sustains them. My livelihood depends on artists, too.
All of our livelihoods depend on each other – the reality is that we coexist. One thing that I like about having this space is that I’ve always meant for it to be a playground for experimentation across each field. And for you, the body of writers that you’ll work with, and the artists you’ll work with, it’s also examining what is the role of criticism today? How do we get people to read about the work that’s being done? What works? What doesn’t work? If it doesn’t work, throw it out, try something new. We’re very lean, and when you’re very lean you can experiment in a way that big organizations can’t. That scrappiness, for now, is really important, and hopefully we’ll always maintain that spirit even as we grow in our support of artists and our ability to support ideas – that that mentality of experimentation and innovation and flexibility remains at the core of what we do.
Interview was condensed and edited. Steve Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.