Picture a composer.

What you’ve probably brought to mind is an image of a tortured soul, locked away in a dim attic, quill in trembling hand, trying desperately to scratch out the last bars of a monumental symphony before he (and of course it is a he you are picturing) keels over and romantically dies of tuberculosis, or syphilis, or both, at the age of thirty-two, mourned only by his dog and his creditors.  This image, of the composer as a lone tragic genius, has so saturated our sensibilities for the better part of four centuries that we can’t easily conceive of how a composer might exist otherwise to the point that, when somebody comes along who breaks that pattern, it is difficult for our brains to fully recognize them as a real composer.

It is a failure of our collective imagination, which has kept the classical public from recognizing and celebrating a new generation of composers who are doing some of the most exciting things to hit the musical world since Schoenberg dispensed with the tonic.  The model of the tormented genius operating on the unapproachable extremes of society’s comprehension has been replaced and overcome as of late, and cooperative artistic endeavor across multiple media and cultural phyla has risen as the new order of the day, and few people embody the new spirit of music like modern day American composer Paola Prestini.

In close combination with some of our time’s most gifted poets, visual artists, scientists, and performers, Paola Prestini produces music which seamlessly mixes genres in support of the telling of stories that classical music has not traditionally given voice to.

Her music is proof against anyone who says that classical music has nowhere left to go, nothing left to say, and nobody left to engage.  In close combination with some of our time’s most gifted poets, visual artists, scientists, and performers, she produces music which seamlessly (except for those moments when the exposure of the seam is the whole point) mixes genres in support of the telling of stories that classical music has not traditionally given voice to.

Prestini has been professionally composing for two decades now, and in that time has produced a body of work of dizzying scope, in genre, in style, and in subject matter, that defies most attempts at broad categorization and which makes Prestini concerts particularly exciting events.  One never quite knows what is going to happen – will you be treated to a grand cello opera, like her upcoming opera Old Man and the Sea?  Will it be a mixture of scientific spoken word with choral interludes that combine the best instincts of 16th century composer Palestrina with those of 20th century minimalist composer Philip Glass, as with her almost frighteningly large-scaled but also deliciously nerdy Hubble Cantata?  Will it be a song cycle telling the stories of a new generation to old ears, as with her Yoani Cycle which employs the blog of a revolutionary Cuban writer for its core?

The fact is, you just don’t know, and that’s the excitement of it.  Prestini can’t be readily summed up in an elevator pitch of the  “It’s like Shostakovich, but with more marimbas” mode.  She finds those things that interest her, or they find her, and then she seeks emerging artists to work with to bring those things to as full of a realization as possible, and what end product will emerge from those collaborations is anybody’s guess.  I was curious about the mechanics involved in producing pieces that employ such different musical vocabularies and subject matters, so I asked her how she decides what elements to employ in each piece and she gave me this fascinated insight into the depths of her process:

I approach each piece as an opportunity for study, and so each journey I take on in some way expands my vocabulary. For example, I am writing a new work for choir with Maria Popova that celebrates the planting of a 40 fruit apple tree (40 different varieties of apples will grow on one tree). For this we’ve collected tree data and I will create a vocabulary translating the data to music, borrowing from the history and the botany of trees (imagine the L system) to make a language built on my own voice and algorithmic relationships. In essence, I’ll try set theory for the first time, but will make it my own. For another piece Sensorium Ex (for Atlanta Opera and Beth Morrison Projects), I’m diving into technology to understand how to portray nonverbal communication. The study is both hard and soft science…once this study is done, the elements you speak of are shades of me, meaning I am not conscious of these as artificial choices, but rather, organic aspects of my tool box.

She had me at set theory.

It’s natural to ask at this point where such an elastic mind could possibly come from, one as adaptable to the methods of abstract mathematics as it is to those of the composition of a concerto.  Prestini was born in Italy but was raised on the Arizona-Mexico border where she imbibed a mix of her mother’s love of Italian opera and the local Mexican folk song scene, and with so much music in the air it is hardly surprising that she began composing her own songs at the age of nine, and sought to incorporate those different soundscapes into her early compositions at Julliard while deepening her interest in the sciences and electronics.

And lo, a composer was born, and the last twenty years have gifted us a steady stream of challenging works that have deployed the rich machinery of the classical tradition to evoke and relate entirely new experiences.  My personal favorite, From the Bones to the Fossils, is a representation of the hurricane seasons of 1950s Cuba that combined the insights of climatologist Andrew Kruczkiewicz with melody lines associated with local Lucumi folk songs to create a grand ethno-technological fusion that achieves that rare feat of elevating its multiple source materials in a piece more than the sum of its parts.

Bones gives a small glimmer of the often collaborative nature of Prestini’s body of work which has become such a hallmark of her New Way Forward in classical music, and which is particularly evident in a work like 2016’s The Colorado, which explores the natural history of the Colorado River Basin.  Prestini describes it as, “A type of eco-cantata that has a multi platform mode of dissemination, you see what a world it takes to bring a work of that scale to life. You have 5 different composers, a filmmaker, a conservationist, a narrator, an educator, a river guide, and more….it tells a history of The Colorado through time, using music to advocate for the environment and the river in a deep and emotionally impactful way.”

This is an approach to creation that we are not yet used to in the classical world.  We tend to think of a Wagner ramming his vision down the throats of performers and craftsmen whose job it is to do what they are told, or of a Karajan carefully cultivating every aspect of the work he puts forth to the public, and have been taught from those examples to regard cooperation as creative weakness, an invitation to an artistic kitchen ruined by too many cooks.  What a work like The Colorado, or the equally collaborative opera The Aging Magician, shows us is the vast potential available when artists genuinely listen to each other, generously share credit, and earnestly employ their craft to enhance each other’s vision.

If the story of Prestini’s new approach to music were to end here, it would be sufficient for our deep gratitude as lovers of the art, but there is an entire other aspect to her work that needs recognition, and that is her battle to provide performance opportunities for young composers and performers, and to stimulate more equity in the creation, promotion, and remuneration involved in producing a new work.  She created VisionIntoArt in 1999 while at Julliard as an interdisciplinary workshop that would guide new composers and other creative talents in the production of new works which VIA would then help promote and perform globally.  Then in 2015 Prestini co-founded National Sawdust, which provides a space for the production of challenging works from multiple cultural and creative perspectives, including the Hildegard Competition which offers women, trans, and non-binary composers a platform for the performance of their works and a chance for mentorship with seasoned composers and creators.

I suspect it will take us some time to relinquish our hold on what a classical composer must be – tragic lone misanthropes make for better movies than humble and empathetic collaborative artists, at least in the current cinematic landscape.  But relinquish it we shall – there is so much inequity in that vision, and there are so many left out of the credit that ought to be theirs, that I don’t think our sense of fairness will allow it to stand for many more decades.  And when we have at last let it go, it will be because there are artists like Prestini out there, who have greased the wheels of change by showing what music can be when it honestly harnesses the creative instincts of multiple, mutually strengthening talents.  From forty years ago, when the word on the street was that classical music was finished as a living discipline, we now sit at the edge of a new cosmos of sound and vision, and if Prestini’s work is any indication, some of our best days are yet to come.

FURTHER LISTENING: Here is From the Bones to the Fossils, that I mentioned above, featuring Prestini’s husband and frequent collaborator Jeffrey Zeigler on cello:

This is probably the best sampler plate of Prestini’s work, a full concert hosted by the composer herself that takes us through many of her compositions and the stories behind them:

Here is a preview of Prestini’s VR experiment, The Hubble Cantata, which tours nothing less than the span of the cosmos itself and which I am entirely there for:

This is my favorite piece from Oceanic Verses, a 2009 song cycle bringing to life vanished Mediterranean (and particularly Italian) folklore.

And finally, I put Prestini on the spot and asked her to name one piece that she would use to convince an aggressively skeptical teenager about the value and relevance of modern classical music, and this piece, from Ellen Reid’s Prism!, was her response.  It is chilling and powerful and wonderful and very much proof that classical music still has legs to it.  Check it out:

Lead image: Courtesy of Paola Prestini.

Get to know more trailblazing Women In Music in Dale’s column.