Jonah Sirota's 'Strong Sad': the Viola as an Instrument of Sadness

June 13, 2018, 9:19 AM · The viola has often been cast as an instrument of sadness -- the violist can't help but notice a disproportionate number of elegies written for the instrument.

Violist Jonah Sirota, formerly of the Chiara String Quartet, has decided to simply embrace his instrument's mournful nature and even celebrate it in his new album, Strong Sad, which will be officially released on June 22.

"I made this album not because I am particularly obsessed with the emotion of sadness, but because I believe in the humanity of every feeling," Sirota said. "We can’t have joy without sadness. We can’t be whole without knowing our brokenness. Each of the composers on this record has offered their own beautiful, vulnerable response to a sadness. Let us learn to mourn every day a little. To help heal ourselves, each other, and this world."

On Tuesday Sirota played selections from the album in a release-party concert that took place after sunset on a warm late-spring evening in Los Angeles, for a gathering that included violists who had come to town for the Primrose Competition and American Viola Society Festival and had made their way to the concert at a nearby art gallery called ArtShare-LA -- a few of them still wearing their lanyards. The program included new works by Sirota himself as well as works by other living composers: Paola Prestini, Rodney Lister, Valgeir Sigurdsson, Eve Beglarian and A.J. McCaffrey.

Beyond highlighting sadness and the work of contemporary composers, the concert also showed how well technology can reflect an artist's vision. Sirota has clearly made good friends with the loop pedal, electronics, pre-recorded material and videos, which only made this live concert feel even more alive.

Jonah Sirota
Jonah Sirota works the technology at his album-release concert Tuesday.

For example, in the piece by Paola Prestini called "Vento e sole (un lamento fortepiano for Jonah)" Sirota's precision work with the loop pedal reached well beyond the simple tricks of a fun technological toy. With an electrical cord running down the side of his body and loop pedal at his feet, Sirota played a pluck, a tremolo, a burst of bariolage, and a series of chords somewhat reminiscent of Ysaye's harmonies. He put down one layer, which played itself over a second, then a third. There's not a lot of room for rhythmic or tonal error when you're looping live. While still playing, he kicked the cord out of the way, pressed a different pedal and then layered something new: musical figures with complex rhythms and far-ranging notes and string crossings. For another loop he tapped on the wood of the viola. What an engaging and entertaining way to create live music.

One of the most intense pieces of the evening was "Remnant," by the Icelandic composer Sigurdsson. Sirota explained that, during the composition of the piece, Sigurdsson gave Sirota a piece of music that he had written electronically, then asked Sirota to improvise over it about a dozen times. After that, Sigurdsson took away his original electronic part and worked only with Sirota's improvisations -- Sirota compared the process to taking away the balloon in the middle of a piñata. For this piece, Sirota wore headphones and had an accompanying video by Anthony Holly that was played on a screen overhead. Both sounds and sights were ominous, a chorus of anxiety against grainy and grey images of a long and unsettling car ride across a desolate landscape of fields, roads and power poles -- perhaps a driver crossing Nebraska while suffering an ocular migraine.

After this came a piece by Eve Beglarian called "Testy Pony" a lighter but still poignant piece named after and inspired by a poem by Zachary Schomburg. Sirota played against the backdrop of electronic music and a recording of the poem being read aloud, with a video screening behind him with images of a yellow-green field of horses, their tails switching, then a little toy pony. The simple tale was a metaphor for trust, ending a little darker and sadder than it began. The mix of sight, sound, poetry and meaning blended in a way that never made any one part of it emerge as more conspicuous than another.

As a string player I especially enjoyed Sirota's own composition, called "Flutter Fingers," which used an astonishing range of harmonic effects -- things I had not seen before. Sirota did indeed flutter his fingers up and down, then sometimes sideways, producing all kinds of overtones and double-stop effects. These were high-precision moves, and Sirota displayed exquisite control in executing them. With so many unusual sounds coming from the instrument, this fully-acoustic solo viola piece actually sounded a little bit like an electronic one!

For the final piece, pianist Kathryn Eames joined Sirota in a performance of a work called "Here Come the Waterworks" by A.J. McCaffrey.

A.J. McCaffrey, Jonah Sirota, Kathryn Eames
Violist Jonah Sirota (center) with composer A.J. McCaffrey and pianist Kathryn Eames.

The composer, who was in the audience, came to the stage to explain his inspiration: a line from a Jonathan Franzen book called The Corrections. Processing grief, McCaffrey said, involves more than the gnashing of teeth; it can also involve things like humor and reinvention. "In this case, the viola represents a character who is learning to speak or to sing again."

Beginning with the viola muted, the music opened with dissonant double stops and quarter tones, moving in and out of consonance -- in the beginning, mostly out. This eventually became a musical cascade and then settled into something tender and ethereal. By the end it became more melodic and less dissonant, though the dissonance never fully left. It ended in a captivating way, in repeating figures that sounded like a scale trying to go up but always falling back down, fading and distorting somewhat until it dissolved into nothing.

* * *

Click here for more information about Jonah Sirota's new album, Strong Sad.

Laurie Niles and Jonah Sirota
Violinist.com Editor Laurie Niles and violist Jonah Sirota.

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