Meet Sugar Vendil the pianist and co-artistic director of The Nouveau Classical Project; the all-women contemporary classical music ensemble that fuses music with art, fashion and dance to create multidisciplinary performances. She talks with us about and her creative process, her favorite collaborations and the overlap of fashion and music.
Tell us about yourself?
I’m a pianist and multidisciplinary artist. I’m the founder and co-artistic director of the music ensemble called The Nouveau Classical Project, an all-women contemporary classical music group that fosters multidisciplinary collaboration. My work outside of NCP is also multidisciplinary: I compose pieces that involve both music performance and physicality. I’m currently working on a piece that revolves around questions I have about the tension between one’s various identities and its relationship to both colonialism and assimilation.
Who would you say were some of your greatest musical and creative influences?
Major creative influences include Bach; Olivier Messiaen; Meredith Monk for her multidisciplinary work and music; Robert Wilson and his amazing sets; choreographers Lucinda Childs and Anna Theresa De Keersmaeker; and both Rei Kawakubo and Viktor & Rolf for their wildly imaginative concepts.
You started The Nouveau Classical Project (NCP) a few years ago, how did that come about? When you started it what were you hoping to achieve?
It actually started almost ten years ago! It started off as a concert series. As I gained more confidence and had more fun performing and working with other musicians, NCP became an ensemble.
I really just needed to do something creative, and I had always been toying with the idea of somehow bringing fashion and classical music together. My goals were to create a concert that would speak to audiences who weren’t typical classical music fans, and to bridge my own interests and create a concert I would actually enjoy playing in. I had a lot of performance anxiety at the time: I’d say I was at about 40% when I’d play in an academic context (which was my primary performance opportunity at the time) because I would often get really nervous and my fingers would quiver uncontrollably.Our goals keep changing (it’s “our” because NCP is no longer just mine) and at the moment they are a little more basic than they used to be: tour more and record an album.
Classical music has a reputation for being quite conservative, the work that you do is decidedly un-stuffy and fresh. How has trying to change people’s preconceptions about the classical world been for you?
I think when I started my goal was to change preconceptions, but over time I realized that anyone interested in art or culture would likely be interested in classical music. I also started becoming more interested in contemporary classical music. Now our work isn’t just about drawing an unexpected audience, but also promoting composers who are making innovative music today, not just a bunch of dead white guys who have had a monopoly on it for centuries.
With incorporating fashion, I think that people outside of the classical world have been receptive. There’s more skepticism within it. People who do not see the artistic side of fashion often question its value and immediately equate it with superficiality, mass production, and short skirts; in other words, commercialism and sex. And more specifically, women trying to be sexy. But those of use who really know fashion understand that’s not always what it’s about: it can be inspiring, visionary, even ethical...and in my case, look like you’re wearing a shapeless bag because that’s my preferred silhouette! Fashion can be misunderstood as only one thing by those unfamiliar with the industry.
Much of the work that you do with NCP fuses music with fashion, what do you see as the overlap between the two fields?
They’re both nonverbal ways of communicating. Also, we typically wear clothes when we perform, so whether one likes it or not, style or fashion—call it what you will—is an object that often already exists on the stage. Amazing how acknowledging it can cause such a ruckus.
When you collaborate with creative people in different fields what’s that process like?
I’ve primarily collaborated with choreographers. It is like being a dancer, where we are in a studio for 4 hours workshopping material. I’m about to start a whole new collaboration with someone who works with textiles and I can’t say much about it right now, but I’m sure it will be nothing like I’ve ever done before.
With NCP, we send the concept and the music to the artists and provide direction. We really have to know what we want and often describe things in non-musical terms. It also helps to work with artists we know personally or are referred to us. Friends or not: always have written agreements to avoid conflict!
What’s your favorite collaboration to date?
I have two: our most recent concert: 1) Currents, where we worked with design collective Flying Solo and amazing composers: Olga Bell, David Bird, Gabi Herbst, and Isaac Schankler; and 2) Sweet Lost Pierrot, which featured Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and music by Trevor Gureckis and David Lang. I also got to work with my friends Zon Chu, who styled looks with pieces by Gemma Khang, and Caroline Pham on art direction.
You seem to gravitate a lot to the performative aspects of music, is that what gives you the most satisfaction?
Yes. I love the energy of a packed house and having to be absolutely mentally, physically, and emotionally present.
Your working on your first solo album, tell us about the process of building an album for the first time.
It’s a long process. I’m commissioning pieces and not all of them are done (probably won’t be till early 2018), and I have to then record them. Making a recording itself takes a while. Hopefully the album will get reviewed. Then I will likely have to book concerts to play the pieces to promote the album.
Some of your newest work has been an exploration of racial identity and lost and found culture, can you tell us a little bit about what led you to focus on this a this point in time, and what you discovered in the process of exploring these issues?
To make a long story short, I had tried to do a project that in my mind was more universal and less directly focused on race. During the beginning of the process—at which point the project was still new and nothing had been formed, thankfully!—I came to the realization that what I needed to address was actually not universal and way more personal and complex. I thought that in order to make my project speak to an audience, I needed to make some watered down version of my experience, although at the time I did not see that it was that. I think my producer mind was speaking more than my artist mind; becoming a generative artist is a recent development for me. In the producer respect, my first instinct was to see my piece from a distance. Now my instinct just keeps telling me to make the piece I want to make and for the first time, I don’t care how well it does at the box office. I just feel like it’s something I have to do.
Check out Sugar Vendil's Playlist:
Interview: Emily Saunders - @thesaunder
Photography: Allie Sarachene - @alliesarachene