Meet the Composers of STRONG SAD: Nico Muhly by Jonah Sirota

Nico Muhly (photo: Ana Cuba)

Nico Muhly (photo: Ana Cuba)

Nadia Sirota (photo: Shervin Lainez)

Nadia Sirota (photo: Shervin Lainez)

(Note: Today's entry is part 4 in a series on the composers of the STRONG SAD project, for more information about the project:

I first became aware of Nico Muhly’s music at a Juilliard graduate recital by my sister, violist Nadia Sirota (yes, two violists in one family!). She played a new piece by Nico called Keep in Touch that featured a produced audio track including the voice of the fabulously original singer Anohni. As this piece built up a head of steam, it revealed itself to be a chaconne: a series of increasingly florid virtuosic riffs on the viola over a heavy, almost gothic, electronic bass line that kept circling back to the beginning and building in complexity. I was especially impressed with how Keep In Touch seemed to be both existing in a space that sounded a bit like pop music and as a piece of “serious” music, a goal I had long thought was possible but hadn’t heard executed all that well. Not long after that recital, my quartet played a piece of Nico’s for choir, organ, percussion, and string quartet called Expecting the Main Things From You, which was a different texture entirely, and owed a great deal to both the Anglican choral tradition and the music of Philip Glass, with whom Nico had mentored. The seemingly disparate threads of Nico’s music fit beautifully together.

Fast-forward to 2011, and the Chiara Quartet commissioned Nico to write us a new quartet, and to curate a program of music to go with it. We premiered his piece Diacritical Marks at the first season of the Ecstatic Music Festival in New York, and he introduced us, in that program, to the music of Valgeir Siggur∂sson as well (also a composer on the STRONG SAD project, and producer on Keep in Touch).

For this album, I wanted to commission Nico to write a duet for me and Nadia. Her Nico commissions over the years (which include a fiendishly difficult series of etudes for viola and tape, as well as an absolutely stunning viola concerto, co-commissioned by the Detroit Symphony) have added tremendous work to the viola repertoire. I wanted to pay homage to both Nico and Nadia, whose realization of one another’s work has been so inspiring to me. 

The resulting piece, called Lean, is barely more than three minutes long, and is so beautiful and haunting that I chose to end the album with it. I haven’t asked Nico about the title. In my mind, it is about the ways that my sister and I, both violists, have leaned on one another for musical and extra-musical inspiration over the years. I am excited to see where our collaboration goes as we continue to evolve as artists and people. Thank you, Nico, for this stunning work!

For more about Nico Muhly:

And about Nadia Sirota:

To preorder and support the STRONG SAD project:


Meet the Composers of STRONG SAD: Kurt Knecht by Jonah Sirota

I first met composer and organist Kurt Knecht when he was a DMA student in composition at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (where my string quartet has been in residence for over a decade.) After working on his Missa Prolationem, a piece which won UNL’s Folsom Prize for best doctoral dissertation, I started to collaborate with him on liturgical music for the church where he was organist, St. Marks on the Campus Episcopal Church. My own relationship with religion has been a complex one, but Kurt and I shared an interest in the monastic traditions of plainchant, and together we worked on a contemplative service called “Space,” which featured medieval chant and contemporary improvised compositions written and improvised by Kurt and myself. This collaboration grew into the performing duo Mondegreen. We are now in different cities, but still look for opportunities to collaborate whenever we can.


What is special about working with Kurt is that when we get together to make music, there is a tremendous freedom about how our process might go. Each piece of music we have made together has started from a slightly different place: sometimes one of us brings a chord progression or chart to improvise over, sometimes a rhythmic motive. Kurt has written us through-composed music, and at times we have free-improvised using nothing more than sound and instinct, or as an auditory response to a text.  Whatever our starting point, we document our process and let each piece evolve until it is finds its own inner logic. It's a truly collaborative compositional process. Kurt is such an amazingly creative player, it inspires me every time. The track CURRENTly on the upcoming STRONG SAD album features Mondegreen in a piece that was written by both Kurt and myself. Kurt invented the organ “hook” and original harmonic framework for the piece, and I contributed structural ideas, and improvised the entire viola line. I am so immensely thankful for Kurt and how generously he shares his music and his creativity.


To hear the track CURRENTly:

To learn more about Kurt Knecht:

To preorder or support the STRONG SAD project:





Meet the Composers of STRONG SAD: A.J. McCaffrey by Jonah Sirota

Meet the Composers of STRONG SAD is an 8-part series looking at the artists who have contributed to my upcoming album. For more info about the project, and to pre-order the record:

STRONG SAD on Kickstarter


My friendship with A.J. McCaffrey started in college when we were roommates at Rice University.  Together, we D.J.-ed a radio show of classical new music on the Rice radio station, KTRU, at 7 AM on Saturday mornings (commitment!). A.J. became a close friend and someone with whom I could discuss all aspects of music. For my senior recital, I commissioned him and two other composers to write me new viola works. A.J.’s wonderful piece was called “Incorrect Memory” (or it might have been “Imperfect Memory,” I can’t quite recall…)

I am so excited to receive new music from him again, a full 20 years later. His viola and piano piece for the STRONG SAD project, “Here Come The Waterworks,” uses microtones--the sounds in between the notes on a piano—to express feelings about loss and healing that are hard to say with words. In his telling: “I came away wanting to write a piece that reflected some of my recent thoughts on the act of processing trauma. That is, I was not interested in depicting a traumatic or tragic event, but rather the rituals and gestures that one enacts in order to go through stressful or difficult emotions. I ended up thinking of the viola as a character that was trying to ‘re-learn’ speech or song.”

What I love about this piece (an excerpt of which is featured at the beginning of the Kickstarter project video for STRONG SAD), is that the microtones are used in exactly the place where they are needed, to recreate the feeling of being about to cry.  It is a stunning piece, and I feel honored to have recorded it for this record. Thank you, A.J.!

Here is an excerpt from A.J. McCaffrey’s orchestra piece “Motormouth,” played by the American Composer’s Orchestra at its Carnegie Hall premiere:

And for more about A.J.:



A joyous end and a new beginning by Jonah Sirota

Chiara Quartet performing from memory in Seoul, South Korea.

Chiara Quartet performing from memory in Seoul, South Korea.

This morning, the Chiara String Quartet, the ensemble that has represented my life in music for all of my professional career, made a momentous announcement concerning our future. After what will have been 18 years of playing together, we have decided to bring our full-time quartet career to a close at the end of the 2017-2018 season. We have made this decision in a spirit of immense gratitude and love for the group, and for one another as individuals. Playing in the Chiara Quartet has been a dream job. Working with this group of incredible, well-matched, fiercely democratic, and amazingly creative musicians brought me so many wonderful experiences and creative highs. I feel so lucky to have been given the opportunity to play with Rebecca, Hyeyung, and Greg, to perform for audiences of all kinds, in every kind of place we could imagine (from the MET museum to bars to soup kitchens), to memorize Bartok quartet cycles and play late Beethoven (for a living!), to commission and premiere music by some of the most incredible composers alive today, and to teach and coach incredible students through quartet residencies at UNL and Harvard, and in guest residencies around the world. The quartet's run has been a miracle, and I will hold it dear to me for the rest of my life.

Why end? Why now, when we are on a real career high? The answer came surprisingly and suddenly to me in April. As a part of our group work together, we had started a planning process for the next phase of our career. We started by working individually on our own personal values and priorities, and then started working to connect them, to see how we could use our own strengths to support one another in growing as individuals and as a group. This process was meaningful and rich and not easy. As a part of the process I had to let go of misunderstandings and grudges that can develop in any long-term relationship, something I found myself resisting with quite a bit of force. Why? What was I gaining by staying stuck? As I delved deeper, I came to realize that I was actually more scared of what would emerge when I let go of these surface concerns. Scared because hidden just under the surface was something I had know for some time but hadn't allowed myself to admit: I am a composer as well as a performer and I am made to create new things, not only to perform them.

As soon as I realized this, it was clear that I needed to begin Act II of my life as soon as possible, but I was scared to bring this realization to the group. I didn't know how they would respond, and I felt worried that I was making a mistake, even though I knew deep down that this was the right thing to do. When I finally worked up the courage to share with the group my wish to move on, I was overwhelmed by the support and love that my fellow colleagues showed me. They took a few days to process the news and decide how they wanted to proceed, and I was honored and inspired when the other three brought me back in, and shared with me that they all felt similarly called to move into new personal work, and that they wanted me to continue to be an equal member of the group in how we would create and send off our final year of performing together.  I felt gratitude beyond measure for this, and was humbled to discover that my initial impulse, so scary to share, had actually been the impetus for my colleagues to share their own dreams and visions for the future. This was a better, more whole outcome than I could have dared to expect.

And so now, I am jumping off the precipice! I am taking a running leap, trusting my newly unfurled wings to carry me, even though I've never done this before. Last year I began recording music for a solo album, STRONG SAD, which I will be releasing next spring. The album will feature newly commissioned viola pieces by Nico Muhly, Paola Prestini, Valgeir Sigur∂sson, Robert Sirota, A.J. McCaffrey and Rodney Lister. Also, it will have two works written by me, When You Lose You Win, and CURRENTly (a collaboration with Kurt Knecht, my partner in the improv duo Mondegreen, a group that we founded nearly five years ago and which was the beginning of my itch to compose). I also finished and premiered a solo viola sonata, called FlutterFingers, at the Greenwood Music Camp (where I teach) this summer, and I have begun work on writing soundtracks for two documentary films. 

I don't yet know where this new journey will take me. I plan to continue performing, some old music, but more new music than I have been. I plan to play more solo recitals and concertos, and collaborate with a wider range of musicians and other artists, as well as working with my quartet colleagues in new and unexpected capacities. I will spend more of my time writing music than I have been able to, and find time and space to keep developing my compositional voice. And I plan to keep teaching violists and chamber musicians, and to share my journey in realtime with my students and those who may be inspired by my story. 

Whatever brings you to this page, I want to thank you for your interest and support. You are a part of my life too, and I cannot make this change without you! Thank you and keep in touch.