Award-winning violist Nadia Sirota has been many things: the host of NPR’s Meet the Composer, a member of yMusic and Alarm Will Sound, a spokesperson for modern composition. With Tessellatum, she becomes something else: fun. One look at the video for “Letter O”, with its fractals, split screens and geometric shapes, and a smile leaps to the lips. Whether intentional or not, an association with Sesame Street is also formed, solidified as letter-based videos enter the YouTube queue.
Sirota’s life ambition is to introduce classical music to larger audiences, and Steven Merten’s 38-minute film is bound to have that effect. The seeming simplicity of the images disguises the complexity of the compositions ~ written by Donnacha Dennehy, arranged by Sirota for 11 bass viols and 5 violas, her own playing accompanied by that of Liam Byrne on viola de gamba. That’s a lot of layers, but even the music tends to disguise them. When single lines travel between speakers, one is tempted to hear them as melody, but when groups converge, the effect is harmonic, bordering on drone. The contrast between low and high, extended and truncated, finds its visual reflection in the images of “ocean and geometry”. The listener drifts not on an open sea, but on a sea of shapes.
With only fragments of a second between tracks, it’s easy to hear the album as a suite. Despite the fact that some sounds are tuned and others not, Tesselatum (which means mosaic) contains no sharp edges or sudden shifts. The tiles are welded together with invisible precision. Each piece is a mosaic, while the album as a whole is a larger mosaic. Draw back even further, and one may be able to appreciate Sirota’s wider intentions. This isn’t an album for the NPR crowd, or even the classical crowd: it’s an expression of joy, a puzzle completed, a celebration of the viola’s expressiveness. In its current form, the composition is multi-tracked, but we suspect an orchestral version is not far away ~ one that might place Tesselatum in the company of Bartók and Shostakovich. But we believe that Sirota would be just as happy to hear her music embraced by younger generations, and if children grow entranced by the dancing visuals, learning letters and music simultaneously, all the better. (Richard Allen)