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The Viola And The Octopus: Nadia Sirota’s Two Loves

Nadia Sirota is a Juilliard-trained violist who hosts Meet The Composer, a podcast that aims to reinvigorate the conversation around classical music by featuring interviews with modern-day composers. She has also worked with artists ranging from Kesha to Paul Simon.

Sirota says being on tour led to a love of aquariums, so Nerdette brought in Shedd Aquarium’s senior curator of fishes to answer some of Sirota’s questions.

On the difference between new music and classical music

Nadia Sirota: Classical music is a weird term. On the one hand, it applies to music from the classical era, which is 18th-century music, music that was written around the time of the Revolutionary War. However, music for those instruments has been constantly written from the 14th century up through yesterday. Or actually, up through this morning.

It’s funny, because for every other genre, we’re used to hearing new music, the newest version. But in classical music, the standard is that we are going to listen to music that people know already — music that is by old, dead dudes, predominantly.

So new music is just music that is written by people who are alive at this time.

Then things get fuzzy. The bridge between new classical music and avant-garde pop music is really weird. It sort of has to do with training, maybe, but it gets iffy and confusing. But music that has been written recently for the viola, in general, I would consider to be new music.

On what attracted her to the viola 

Sirota: I started on the violin, and I come from a family of musicians, so I had this cocky childhood wherein I knew I was an amazing musician, but actually I was really, really bad at my instrument.

Then there’s that magical moment in middle school where you become self-conscious and self-aware, and realize where you actually stand in the grand scheme of things. It was around that time that I first became attracted to the viola. The viola’s repertoire tends to be soulful and throaty, and weird and tortured. I was 13, and it was so perfect for me.

I stuck a toe into the world of the viola, and it allowed me to recalibrate my cocky childhood self-assuredness, which was based on no actual fact or skill. I was able to wipe that away because I started a new instrument and went back to basics and learn technique.

I really found my voice when I switched to viola.

On her podcast, Meet the Composer 

Sirota: There are tons of classical musical fans who don’t know anything about new music. That’s definitely one audience I want to get to. But actually, sometimes those are harder sells than people who know nothing about classical music whatsoever.

You’ll find a lot of older classical musical fans who will say, “Oh, I don’t like modern music,” which is insane. They say that something they’ve never heard is their least favorite thing.

Meet the Composer is affiliated with a classical music radio station, but it’s also a podcast. What I think is great about that medium is that you’re catching people in intimate, private time. You get some one-on-one time with somebody to present a really amazing and beautiful thing.

On working on Kesha’s new album, Rainbow 

Sirota: I play in a group called yMusic, which is a sextet — flute, clarinet, trumpet, violin, viola, and cello. We found ourselves working with songwriters and bands all the time and wanted to form a group that could be a collaborative unit for these artists that would really take their work seriously.

Over the past couple of years, we did an album and big tour with Ben Folds. And Ben Folds ended up producing that song for Kesha. It all came together.

On her obsession with aquariums

Sirota: I always liked aquariums, but in the past three years, I found myself doing a lot of bus tours of the United States and the UK. Every day, the bus overnights you from the previous venue to the new venue, so you sleep on the bus while it travels to the new place. You wake up in the new place, and you have a strange amount of time in a new city prior to your 4 p.m sound check and then 8 p.m. show.

This weird amount of time between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. is the time you have to visit a city, and you want to do something that gives you a flavor of the city but isn’t too tiring and doesn’t wear you out for your show.

I realized that an aquarium is the perfect thing.They tend to be close to the city center, which tends to be where the venue is. So maybe it’ll be a mile or two walk, which is a nice walk. And then you’re indoors, so you’re not in the sun, and it’s vibey and the lighting is really great, and you look at fish.

It’s totally the best.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation. Candace Mittel produced and edited audio of this podcast. She and Bea Aldrich adapted it for the web.

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