Nadia Sirota, Classical Queen

The violist uses her “Meet the Composer” podcast and collaboration with indie giants to challenge classical music’s stagnant place in history.

By Grace Birnstengel
Photo Credit to Shore Fire Media

The impression that classical music is dead and gone has been around far longer than 34-year-old New York-based Nadia Sirota, yet the violist’s lifelong mission is to bring classical music into the eyes and hearts of fresh and grander audiences.

Sirota, a Julliard graduate and daughter of a composer, has recorded and performed viola—both solo and with the chamber sextet yMusic—with handfuls of indie rock legends from Grizzly Bear and The National to Dirty Projectors, Sufjan Stevens and Jónsi of Sigur Rós.

On her New Yorker-deemed “brilliant” podcast, WQXR’s Meet the Composer, Sirota interviews leading composers in the current classical music landscape, like Libby Larsen, the first woman to serve as a resident composer with a major orchestra in 1983 and Pauline Oliveros, a key person in developing experimental and post-war electronic art music. The trendy podcast format combined with Sirota’s zeal for bringing out the relatability of the modern composer makes the show an easy entry point for any classical music newbie.

Sirota chatted with me about performing with John Legend on The Late Show, the women killing it in today’s classical music scene, and why the genre is “so fucking good.”

Grace Birnstengel: You’ve talked a lot about how the common narrative around classical music is that it’s dying or dead. At what point did you decide you could really do something to change that narrative?

Nadia Sirota: I have been proselytizing for this genre and trying to figure out ways to build audiences for it forever. Because here’s the thing: It’s so fucking good. There’s nothing wrong with the product—it’s incredible. It’s just that the access points are really confusing right now. It’s not been part of the narrative of popular culture for decades and decades and decades.

So really my entire life I’ve been trying to figure out ways in—access points and entry points. One of them that I just started experiencing in my life is that a lot of the composers that are my age are brilliant, totally charismatic, writing insanely awesome shit and writing the type of music that’s happening right now. It’s more accessible to a first time listener than stuff has been in decades.

I really wanted the rest of the world to meet these incredibly exciting, really charismatic, brilliant people. In every other form of music, the personality of the musician is a huge part of what we love about them. If you think about Adele, we know a ton about Adele’s personal life. Or even somebody we don’t know a ton about, like Sia. The fact that we don’t know anything about Sia is a huge part of Sia’s story, whereas in classical music, we tend to think of these composers as these invisible, dead geniuses. I set out a way to have people meet these amazing composers. Meet the Composer sort of does what it says in the title.

GB: Part of the aim of Meet the Composer is to present the composer as a “real person.” Do you feel that composers are often not presented as such? How do you go about framing your guests as “real people”?

NS: It’s not so much that I think they’re misrepresented so much as that I think they’re just not represented at all. Like, how many living composers can you name? There are a lot of film composers that get traction, but there’s a group of brilliant musicians out there that aren’t getting a lot of purchase in the modern landscape. I want to show people them.

In terms of how we present them as real people, it’s giving them a microphone and having them talk. They do that themselves. I hope to have good conversations with them about stuff that is not just the esoteric ins and outs of how to construct a piece of music. There are steps in the creative process that translate to all sorts of different areas. If you’re feeling like you’re dealing with crippling self doubt, talking to a composer about the way they got around crippling self doubt and are able to create a piece of art—that’s an interesting conversation whether or not it’s about music. I like to have conversations about the creative process, failure and feeling uncomfortable releasing something that’s not perfect. I think that the music is incredible, but the way composers go about producing their music is also fascinating and also has a lot of resonances in areas other than music.

GB: One of your goals is to open up classical music to a broader audience and introduce it to new groups of people. What are the main factors keeping classical music from being fully accessible?

NS: Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, classical music was far more part of the fabric of popular culture than it was when I was a kid. Exposure is one element. But when I play concerts to people who haven’t heard classical music before, a lot of what I get is, “Wow, it felt like I was watching a movie.” I think that impulse is because that’s really one of the only places where people hear orchestral instruments, is in film scores. It’s not that they have no access point whatsoever; it’s just that it tends to be in film and TV.

I also think that modernism showed up in all the art forms. What happened after World War II in the arts was really huge. World War II was a big fucking awful thing, and art needed to respond to it. The way that classical music responded to it was in large part getting rid of tonality. A lot of people felt alienated by modernism and classical music. I personally love a lot of modernist composers, so this is not me dissing that output, but just acknowledging the fact that it alienated a lot of audiences. A huge reason that I think classical music is having a resurgence right now in popularity is because the stuff being written right now is coming back to this sort of tunefulness that was lost a little in that century. People can be connected to the living art form more than be excited about what it used to be. I think that art needs to not just exist in museums and be something that existed in the past but be something that is very vital in this moment. That’s when people can connect to it.

GB: You performed this summer with yMusic at Eaux Claires in Wisconsin, and you’re playing other music festivals throughout the summer, too. How do you think the music that you play gets received in these unique settings?

NS: It’s been cool to be this ensemble [yMusic] that inhabits the popular music world and the classical music world. The thing that we really pride ourselves on is not playing down to our audiences in any way. So we will play these big outdoor music festivals, and we’ll play an eight-minute piece of contemporary chamber music to a standing, sweaty audience of festivalgoers. What we’ve found is that people respond to music. They don’t care that it’s supposed to be classical. We’re not stupid; we’re not going to play a piece that’s really, really quiet in the middle of an outdoor festival with multiple stages where you’re going to have bleed. There’s stuff that you have to be smart about, but we’ve found that people respond to music and they don’t care what genre it’s supposed to be if it moves them.

GB: You have a consistent history of collaborating with big indie rock names, but you’ve also performed with John Legend on The Late Show. Are there other types of genres—like pop, R&B or rap—that you’re interested in bringing more of your talents to?

NS: Music-making at a high level is always completely fascinating. One of the ways that I think you can kind of lose vitality is by relying on only doing stuff you’re good at or currently good at. It’s been really exciting to work with artists who work in a different way than I do. The John Legend thing was really exciting, and that was an arrangement done by Rob Moose who’s our violinist at yMusic. I’m happy to work with anybody who’s awesome and has something to say.

GB: For those of us that aren’t anchored so deeply in this world of contemporary classical music, who are some of the other women in this community that inspire you or that should be on peoples’ radars?

NS: I’m lucky to be in a field with insanely badass women. A lot of them I’ve profiled on Meet the Composer. Meredith Monk is, like… my mother. She’s this incredible, badass lady who is a musician, dancer, singer, composer, filmmaker and just a force of nature. There are a couple people my age who are super killer. One is Caroline Shaw, who was the youngest person to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for Music when she was 30 or something. Missy Mazzoli is a fabulous opera composer and also has a band called Victorie. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music this year is Du Yun, who is a Chinese-American composer who is super badass. I haven’t done a show on her, but I’ve done a show on Kaija Saariaho who is a Finnish composer.

The thing is: Classical music has a long history of being dominated by white guys, and right now is kind of this incredible, exciting moment for women in classical music. It’s been very frustrating for a very long time, but it really seems like there is this incredible, interesting groundswell of incredible artists. My friend Sarah Kirkland Snider, who is also a wonderful composer, recently wrote an article for New Music Box about being a female composer. It’s kind of a must-read. There are so many incredible female musicians and composers that are shaping the industry.


Barn Dances” composed by Libby Larsen, performed by Shannon Scott, Leonard Garrison and Jay Mauchley
River of Folk Dance” by Pauline Oliveros
Ellis Island” composed by Meredith Monk, performed by Nurit Tilles and Edmund Niemann
Partita for 8 Singers: No. 2. Sarabande” composed by Caroline Shaw and Brad Wells, performed by Roomful of Teeth”
Heartbreaker” composed by Missy Mazzoli, performed by Michael Mizrahi
When a Tiger Meets a Rosa Rugosa” composed by Du Yun, performed by Hilary Hahn and Cory Smythe
Du cristal” composed by Kaija Saariaho, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
The Currents” composed by Sarah Kirkland Snider, performed by Michael Mizrahi
Étude 3” composed by Nico Muhly, performed by Nadia Sirota and Nico Muhly

Grace Birnstengel is a writer living in Minneapolis. She studied journalism and gender, women and sexuality studies at the University of Minnesota. She’s an editorial assistant at The Riveter and writes the magazine’s “New Radio” music column. Aside from music, she’s into RuPaul’s Drag Race and loitering at coffee shops. Follow her on Twitter @grace___ and Instagram @gracebirnstengel.