Williamsburg’s Bright New Diamond National Sawdust Will Change the Way Modern Music is Made


In a new piece Terry Riley wrote for Grammy-winning experimental vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, eight voices rose and fell in polyphonic rounds of one repeated lyric: “You may not believe it, but it will happen.” Positioned amongst the angular paneled walls of National Sawdust, a brand-new Williamsburg venue wholly dedicated to contemporary classical music, the octet could have been singing the nascent space’s mantra. State of the art, but not-for-profit, National Sawdust is an ambitious undertaking, and its programs are curated and helmed by composers and musicians themselves. The idea is that it will serve as more of an incubator than simple concert hall, with the ultimate goal of ushering contemporary composers through the entire process of writing, performing, and recording specifically commissioned pieces all under one roof. Nothing quite like it exists in New York City, or anywhere else in the world, and it must be seen (and heard) to be believed indeed.

National Sawdust capped off its opening weekend with a festival honoring Riley, known for his pioneering minimalist synth works in the Sixties. Celebrating his eightieth birthday this year, Riley also composed many works for strings via his longtime association with Kronos Quartet, and his October 5 performance began with a tempestuous composition for eight cellos entitled “ArchAngels.” The three-day dedication to Riley’s varied career featured improvisations from the man himself, as well as appearances by his guitar-playing son Gyan, Matmos, John Zorn, and more across five unique performances – and a lecture. As an introduction to National Sawdust, the Terry Riley festival was certainly fitting, because no other venue would have dared to attempt such an undertaking, let alone been able to accommodate it. Now, it’s looking to give creative birth to a new generation of artists like Riley, while also celebrating other pioneers in the field.

In short: It’s a modernized version of an eighteenth century chamber hall where almost anything is possible so long as someone is creative enough to come up with a concept befitting the space.

After a recent tour, Gothamist said the interior of National Sawdust’s main performance room looked like a spaceship, but Creative Director Paola Prestini begs to differ. “Personally, I think it looks like a little diamond, the cuts of the light — that’s my perspective on it. It’s a little jewel,” she said proudly over the phone last Wednesday, just as construction crews were installing the final touches. Her description speaks more truly to its beauty and its rarity, as well as the process of change the space has undergone; as part of Williamsburg’s industrial waterfront at the turn of the century, it actually operated as a sawdust processing center, hence the name.

Redesigned by Bureau V Architects and Arup Theatrical Consultants, its acoustics are exquisite. iIts interior is fluid, a box-within-a-box suspended on springs, wired for amplification or unplugged events, the whole room projection-mapped for audiovisual performances. In other words, it’s a modernized version of an eighteenth century chamber hall where almost anything is possible so long as someone is creative enough to come up with a concept befitting the space. “[Artists] can imagine the room in different ways,” Prestini explains, growing excited. “The seating is completely loose – for example, one artist is using the entire lower space, and the audience can only sit in the balcony. [Anyone] can play around with all these configurations.”

Performance art, modern dance, hip-hop, jazz, experimental choirs, Norwegian youth orchestras performing live re-scores, “extreme guitar” ensembles, and indie darlings Majical Cloudz all figure into October’s decidedly eccentric programming. There are artists- and curators-in-residence, but also a regular house series of one-off shows called In Situ, which serve as a kind of test-run partnership. “They’re coming in, we’re hearing them in our house space, and then deciding, ‘You know, this is the perfect artist to come and develop an entire album here,’” Prestini elaborates. “What makes us unique in terms of a small organization is that we do give commissions from $2,500 to $15,000 to work with our artists in residence.”

If it seems lofty, that’s because it is, but these incredible goals are also very sincere. Prestini is also a composer, and she founded VisionIntoArt, an interdisciplinary music fostering program that has its own record label, in 1999. She has its logo tattooed on the nape of her neck; in many ways, VIA was a precursor to the work she’s doing now at National Sawdust, and likely what caught the attention of the project’s founding visionary and Vice President, Kevin Dolan. Prestini will also get the opportunity to develop her own works, and is presenting an “installation concerto” in February.

“Because my work tends to be long-process multimedia work, it’s going to be extraordinary to have a home,” she admits. “But one of the things that’s always been part of the way I think is that you really have to help create the context in which you’re living as an artist. The beauty of the space is that it can offer artists so much. We are open 24/7. There are two shows a night. There’s an entire year of programming, and it’s entirely artist-led, curating their discoveries. I can dream forward now in a way that I didn’t have the luxury [of doing in the past], but it also is an extension of everything I’ve been working for over the past fifteen years.”

‘They’re coming in, we’re hearing them in our house space, and then deciding, “You know, this is the perfect artist to come and develop an entire album here.”‘

She came to National Sawdust five years ago, before a location had been found, and was “tasked with the idea of how to build an institution” that would serve emerging artists and be composer-centric, while also spearheading fundraising efforts alongside Dolan. But now that National Sawdust is open, it’s the unique programming that will keep it afloat, and Prestini turned to her extensive network of talented, taste-making cohorts to help flesh out the calendar. “It was a group that I felt could showcase the mission, the depth, and the variety, but at the same time, that I had trust in, that would support the institution though this incredible opening,” she says. “As a practicing artist, you’re constantly listening, and that’s what I’m looking for in the curators – people who are listening and discovering.”

Prestini could also be describing the neighborhood in which National Sawdust now makes its home. Williamsburg’s demographic of hip, affluent, and culturally curious residents will hopefully welcome its presence at North 6th and Wythe (and buy tickets to its performances). Though National Sawdust forges new territory, Prestini says the founders were not without inspirational blueprints. “Le Poisson Rouge and Subculture really opened the door in terms of clubs with that kind of relaxed atmosphere, where classical music and contemporary music and indie and rock and jazz and improv can live side by side in a very fluid way. So this is very much an outcome of all of these successes that we’ve had in the city,” she notes. “The thing about New York is that it’s a city of impermanence, so what you have to do is just constantly catch up. As a composer and as someone who understands how hard it is to make a career, I feel poised to just keep my ear to the ground and keep evolving.” With so much ahead for National Sawdust, their vision could be game-changing, so when Roomful of Teeth sang Terry Riley’s new composition, it felt prophetic. Believe it. It is happening.