Introducing Paola Prestini

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Paola Prestini

Starting Monday, August 30, Q2 turns over the Internet airwaves to the vibrant young composer Paola Prestini in the next in our series of Composer Introductions. Listen at the top of every hour on Monday as Prestini introduces her own work, and throughout the week for a sustained focus on her music. We're also pleased to offer a limited-time free download of the recent Stone live performance of Labyrinth for violin and electronics performed by Cornelius Dufalo.

Paola Prestini was born in Italy and raised in America. She now makes her home in both San Francisco and New York. She writes music for acoustic instruments and electronics, and is happy onstage as well as behind the scenes. Amidst all of this activity, her music remains beautifully cohesive.

Paola Prestini on Paola Prestini

I couldn't live without music. When I write, after an initial process of often puzzling mechanical work (finding the language I want to use and the outside sources that will be incorporated), I am in a state of flow. I often cannot remember the details of writing. It is as if all the years of experience come together to transport me through the process of expressing the culmination of inspirational sources into the musical concept at hand. These moments pay for all the hard work! They are the best moments of my musical life, and even though each musical project has a different entry point, that moment of flow occurs in each experience.

I am a composer, a producer and a teacher. I have dedicated the past 10 years to collaborating, and I have learned that collaboration can be an arduous process. Collaboration requires the balance of other people's ideas with your own, which means you must decide which ideas to let go and which ones you cannot. Collaboration is an art in and of itself that can only be learned by doing it, by making the necessary mistakes. My role in the process is bringing disparate voices together to see what emerges from the synergy. I continue to evolve because I see how different people ingest these new experiences -- their rawness to the experience often highlights parts of the collaborative process that were not clear to me before. Each artist’s passion for their ideas reminds me that redefining the boundaries of collaboration is a lifelong process and is absolutely connected to the project at hand. Even in the hardest collaborative processes, one's identity is not lost, but rediscovered and reaffirmed.

Literature has played a huge role in my writing and it has always been my first collaborator; I love painting music on literary canvases; ideas on the page invite me to play and to think. It began with Neruda at a very young age, and now I am reading the blogs of Yoani Sanchez, the biographies of Tina Modotti, Bomb magazine, and I'm just discovering Stacey Richter. Musically, my influences range from John Zorn (his music, his life) and Philip Glass to Beethoven, Palestrina and folk music.

I believe the roles of a composer in the 21st century are those of creator, educator, performer and entrepreneur, and VisionIntoArt (VIA) fulfills all of these for me. I co-founded VIA in 1999 and it has gone through different incarnations to this day. I've discovered that I thrive as a collaborative artist. I learn and grow from the techniques and worlds of musicians, filmmakers, dancers, poets, historians and educators.

Today's composer/artist needs to be thinking about the impact he or she has on the community, both locally and globally. It has always been my ambition to nurture community and advocacy through performance. When I was young, I dreamed of creating a collective in which artists of all disciplines and different training would explore interdisciplinary ideas with music at its core -- a school that would continue beyond school. I knew that being a part of a larger whole would help me learn techniques across disciplines, pushing the boundaries of what was possible within a safe playground. Through VIA, I have just begun doing this.

The works I have commissioned for VIA have different points of inspiration -- we explore themes as varied as Kandinsky's total theater to the critical distinctions between leadership and terrorism in Chechen politics. Having a platform to express and explore my interests is manna for me, and giving this opportunity to others is what I consider my duty. I believe that as more artists take this approach, we will quickly begin to chip away at the notion that art is not a necessary part of society. This notion is stagnant and it puts us artists in a place where we are marginalized, making it harder and harder to exist. We must take matters into our own hands.

As an immigrant, I often feel like I'm flying without grounded roots. I am proud to be a U.S. citizen, yet musically I identify with Mexican influences as well as my Italian roots. I left home when I was 16, and I’d say for the first 10 years after, I explored all the memories of my most recent past: What did it mean to live on the American/ Mexican border? What did borders do to one’s sense of identity? All of this was filtered through Mexican songs that painted my childhood and early adulthood.

Lately, I have become more drawn in by my Italian roots. My most recent work, Oceanic Verses (commissioned by Carnegie Hall in a concert curated by Osvaldo Golijov and Dawn Upshaw), is a chamber opera that paints a picture of Italy as it once was, depicting a cross section of cultures through song. This multilingual work combines fragments of folk traditions that date as far back as 3,000 B.C. I incorporated field samples from my research in the Salento region with my original music. Oceanic Voices explores facets of a woman's psyche; the  passionate women in the opera intertwine throughout the work while the ocean surrounds and binds their tales. The ocean serves as a metaphor for the expanse that both separates cultures while simultaneously connecting them. In this way, the ocean becomes a sonic and visual narrator, guiding listeners through a personal journey into the culture I left at a young age. Oceanic Verses is a reclaiming of roots that I have long wanted to discover.

My recent and distant memories combined with the experiences I have traveling are all a part of my identity. I am the child of a strong, single mother who fought very hard to give me every possible opportunity. This shaped me, and instilled a strong sense of duty. Her travels inspired my strong sense of curiosity. Our lack of family once we left Italy gave me a need for community, and so, in New York, I found what I needed -- a global community of artists who were looking for a home away from home.

This year, my travels will take me to Sardegna and Cuba. The sonic adventures from these destinations will inform the integration of the Mamoiada rituals from Sardegna into Oceanic Verses and the creation of a vocal/chamber work based on the life of Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez. I am currently writing a new work for piano, voice and electronics for Gabriel Kahane, to be premiered at the MATA Festival, and a multimedia installation work for Rinde Eckert based on Jonathan Safran Foer's work A Convergence of Birds, which will be premiered at The Kitchen in April 2011.

Body Maps by Paola Prestini, film by Erika Harrsch.