In many ways, Williamsburg’s newest venue couldn’t be more different from the (mostly) defunct DIY show spaces (bar/art-galleries and dingy old warehouses) that once lined the waterfront area. (Cameo, at least, is still here — for another month and a half, anyway). That’s because National Sawdust is a refined concert hall, a serious non-profit institution with powerful and moneyed supporters plus a leadership of established talent tapped directly from the music and art worlds.
But like the small, indie venues of yore, National Sawdust’s focus is lesser-known artists– though these are not the punk bands or even indie rock acts of their predecessors. Instead, these fabulous acoustics are reserved for a certain caliber of performer, one that attracts patrons as opposed to fans. By the look of things, when National Sawdust opens tonight, it will bring to Williamsburg an undeniably uptown approach to music.
Paola Prestini, a successful composer and curator who now serves as the artistic and executive director at National Sawdust, showed us around the brand new venue and arts institution earlier this week. The place was filled with workers doing sound checks and putting the finishing touches on the building. Now National Sawdust is finally ready, backed by $16 million and perfected after seven years of polishing.
Last month, founder Kevin Dolan, 63, a successful tax attorney and amateur composer, was profiled by New York magazine along with his plans for the space. Through fundraising and curator recruitment, National Sawdust (the non-profit was first known as Original Music Project) became much bigger than what he’d originally imagined for what was supposed to be his “post-retirement project.” Now, he told the mag, he envisions an institution that could be around “100 years from now.”
National Sawdust is the opposite of a traditional for-profit venue staying afloat by way of ticket sales and booze income, or the barely breathing DIY spaces that could shutter at any minute. The non-profit goes above and beyond simply providing a stage and sound system for musicians and relying on a booker to do the legwork. Instead, they’ve selected a massive team of 24 curators to draw up the calendar. “We have way too many curators this year,” Prestini admitted. “I thought it was going to be difficult to fill up the space, but we basically filled it in a second.”
The curators, Prestini said, are people she “really, really admires.” Their ranks include successful musicians (Jeffrey Zeigler of Kronos Quartet), artists working in other mediums (Reggie “Regg Rock” Gray, a dancer), and as a nod to the Brooklyn music scene and the music bizz side of things, Billy Jones, co-owner of Baby’s All Right and Elvis Guesthouse.
They’re all here to help carry out National Sawdust’s mission by selecting artists, some emerging and some established, for a full year of shows. “That’s how we’ll discover new talent, and our own discoveries can then feed into other channels of curation,” Prestini explained of the in-house curation process, which will work hand-in-hand with the individual curators.
In addition to providing a performance venue, NS is dedicated to providing advanced services for musicians hoping to move into the professional realm, including career development workshops and an artist in residency program. “When I think about what we’re doing here as an institution, the thing I’m most excited about is what we can offer young artists to help them bridge into professional life,” Prestini explained. “I think about when I was in my 20s living in New York, and that’s how we’re designing our program.”
For 2015, NS has already selected 12 groups and individuals as artists in residence from all different backgrounds. “They come from all around the world,” Prestini said, and then started listing them off. “We have Netsayi from Zimbabe, who I’m really excited about, she’s a really fresh voice and a tremendous artist; Brooklyn Rider, a great young string quartet; Hessismore, a fun Danish band.” East Village Radio fixtures Chances With Wolves are listed on the website as another resident.
The residents will have access to the cutting-edge space, the opportunity to curate concerts, and record their music. “Commissions range from $2,500 to $15,000,” Prestini said proudly.
All these resources and fancy digs might sound scary if you’re used to paying DIY Williamsburg prices ($5, $8, maybe $10) for a show. But Prestini assured me tickets for most shows will cost between $15 and $25. “I wish we could be less than $25, but the reality is we’re non-profit, and ticket sales are one of the ways we can pay artists. Some of the bigger shows are more expensive, maybe $60, but we’ll never do more than one or two shows like that.”
A non-profit that treats musicians and audiences well? What’s not to love? The more I learned, the more I realized Dolan’s 100-year projection might not be that far-fetched. And in a neighborhood where nothing seems permanent anymore (not even the artists who made Williamsburg worthy of commodifying or the bored trust-fund kids who tried to buy what the artists had lived), that’s saying a lot. Kevin Dolan, the tax master that he is, was able to come up with a clever incentive for the five property owners (the deed indicates they are Dan Kyle Realty V, LLC), to hand the building over to National Sawdust, eventually.
“The founder had the genius idea of doing something called ‘philanthropic investment,’ where essentially the group of building owners agree to donate the property after five years,” Prestini explained as we were walking down the stairs, toward the extensive basement filled with a recording studio, video editing room, offices, and space for the artists in residence. “They’ll see an appreciation on the donation along with the property value’s increase, so essentially they’ll triple their [tax deductible] donation with the worth of the property. It’s a pretty interesting and clever plan, and it also serves as an insurance policy– if I fail miserably, they own a great piece of property forever.”
But, Prestini clarified, “I don’t intend to fail.”
National Sawdust seems to be striking a careful balance between super-duper ambitious and realistic. Capacity at the venue is 350 standing, 200 sitting– much smaller than nearby behemoth, the Music Hall of Williamsburg (550). Even Aviv can hold about 300 people, if Stuart Solomon guessed right when he gave me that number last year, days before the Greenpoint DIY venue opened.
“When they first designed the space they knew they wanted it to be able to fit a 70-piece orchestra so we could do, for example, film scores,” Prestini said. “But they wanted to make sure it always feels intimate, and now even the upstairs balcony still has tremendously beautiful sound.”
Guests will have to wait a couple more months for a restaurant run by James Beard Award-winning chef Patrick Connolly (“his first restaurant in New York City”) but come this evening “everyone will be dancing,” Prestini told us. That’s because James Murphy won’t be at his wine bar down the way, he’ll be noodling around the DJ booth at National Sawdust performing with a lineup of other musicians “exploring the acoustics” on opening night.
On the more contemporary side, Stephen Gosling, a “virtuositic piano player,” will present a piece composed by Prestini, while Jeffrey Ziegler (one of the curators) will play another Prestini piece for the cello. And an acoustic mandolinist will try out the venue’s capacity for classical sounds.
The first performances are pretty indicative of what’s to come from the venue: contemporary classical, international, sophisticated, copacetic experimentalism, public radio-ready sounds created by virtuosos and bright, burning talents. The first regular performance happening on Friday, for example, is fronted by Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer. “It has that variety of more institutional-type things but it can also be that club where you can come and see what’s really fresh,” Prestini said.
This blend of classical, international, and bright young things brings to mind the programming at Le Poisson Rouge, which National Sawdust has already drawn many comparisons to. “I often get people asking, ‘How is this going to be better than LPR?'” Prestini told us. “In a city like New York, the health of the industry exists in options and we’re just one other option. What makes us different is that we are a non-profit so we do have that base of funding we can support artists with, as well as our recording opportunities.”
James Murphy isn’t a total flash in the pan; Prestini said there will be more DJ set and electronic acts. The big concern, however, “is making something that’s not about famous artists,” she said emphatically. “It’s not like, ‘Oh you’re going to come and hear Yo-Yo Ma’– no, you’re going to come and you’re going to hear someone who may not be the next Yo-Yo Ma, but who we think is killer.”
The space itself is nothing short of impressive. The director pointed to the boundary between the performance area and the bar. “The space is isolated acoustically,” she explained. “We have a two-ton door from London, it’s the only kind we could find that would provide the isolation we need.”
That massive door is just one example of all the custom fittings, fine tunings, and exceptional pieces of engineering and planning that went into National Sawdust’s physical space, but also how things are run. Acoustics were top priority in the remodeling process, so the organization hired an “acoustic consulting firm” to ensure sound quality would be nothing less than perfect.
Whether you can believe such a ridiculous thing or not, it’s true that the entire performance space is suspended on giant springs. “It’s so sound doesn’t travel through the air or the ground,” Prestini clarified. Oh, right.
The venue is named for the building’s original occupant, National Sawdust, which was exactly what it sounds like– a sawdust manufacturer. (The company’s name remains on the brick facade.) So clearly some major revamping had to be done to prevent the hollow din of an open warehouse, but the lengths to which the organization went are truly mind boggling. “Acoustic curtains that are hidden behind these acoustically transparent panels give musicians the opportunity to tune the room in a very facile way,” Prestini explained. “It could even be between sets.”
The stage is also malleable. It can disappear into the floor and rise up to a height of the performers’ choosing. “The idea was to create a space that would sonically be able to house the piano, that was the point of departure,” Prestini said. “They based the whole thing off the model of European chamber halls.” But National Sawdust has blown the old ways out of the water.
We continued to stream through the various rooms of the building, while Prestini soothingly presented to me the variety of amenities, luxuries, and technological feats that could very well define a new standard for concert halls. Somehow, I started to feel like I was a billionaire playboy gone yacht shopping. All these gadgets and fixtures are amazing, for sure, but does one really, really, truly need all of this? Does music really sound that much better in a place that’s this acoustically sensitive? (So sensitive, I noticed Prestini flinching as the workers banged and stomped, and blared “test-test-test-test” through the speakers, as if they would break the sense of stiff perfection that hung in the air.)
But National Sawdust is trying to do something that no one else in the music venue business has done in New York City, and that’s provide emerging classical and professional musicians with a hip spot to perform, play, practice, and record but also a mega-endowed set of resources and support, all inside Williamsburg.
And actually this emphasis on newness extends throughout the organization. Prestini– a composer, curator, and music bizz entrepreneur though she might be– has never run an institution this ambitious. When they were recruited, the architects had never worked on a building before. “It goes along with the whole ethos of the space,” Prestini said.
Save for the original painted signage on the brick facade out front, and a corner of the building with the old, un-muraled bricks encased in glass, everything has been remodeled, torn out, rethought and, above all– tightly, tightly curated to be just so. There’s no room for looseness or intuition. This is restricted airspace.
A requisite colorful street-art mural covers a large chunk of the building outside, seemingly there to bring the alien institution up to North Brooklyn Code. Other than the indecipherable mural, there’s little else here that looks like anything at all the music scene around these parts has ever seen. “What’s so exciting and nerve wracking, in a city where there’s so much for artists, there’s also so little,” Prestini said. “In a way, I feel a huge amount of responsibility, and hopefully I’m leading this the right way, because we’ve been given this dream space.”