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A former sawdust factory in Brooklyn has been transformed into a nonprofit music venue with a $4 million annual budget. It spends nearly a quarter of that to commission new works, to record and release albums and support young artists. It's called National Sawdust. Rick Karr reports.
RICK KARR, BYLINE: Vocalist Helga Davis says National Sawdust is aiming to be the kind of institution that can do what the Metropolitan Opera or New York Philharmonic do for mainstream artists.
HELGA DAVIS: We need a space for the next generation of composers and performers who don't actually fit into any of the existing spaces, who don't actually have homes in which to experiment, to build their muscles, to build their vocabularies, to build their audiences.
KARR: Davis is 1 of 12 current artists in residence at National Sawdust; so is composer and performer Abraham Brody. He's the kind of difficult-to-categorize artist Davis is talking about. Sometimes he almost sounds like a singer-songwriter.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OBERON")
ABRAHAM BRODY: (Singing) Oberon, Oberon, you change the wind. You fuel my storm. You make the moon pale in her anger.
KARR: And sometimes he dives deep into Baltic and Slavic folk music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TREP TREPO, MARTELA")
BRODY: (Chanting in foreign language).
KARR: That's why Brody says he feels right at home at National Sawdust.
BRODY: It's not just for contemporary classical music. It's not just for experimental music. It's not just for world music. It's everything together. I just find this openness here is really unusual.
KARR: Brody says it's also an unusually generous residency. The nonprofit brought him to New York from his base in Vilnius, Lithuania, found him spaces to live and work for five months and flew in his collaborators for performances in Brooklyn and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. National Sawdust provides its artists with close to a million dollars a year in support, according to its co-founder and artistic director, composer Paola Prestini.
PAOLA PRESTINI: The hope is to educate a new audience to constantly be listening differently but also for artists to be educated in terms of how to be able to create a sustainable career; and then in terms of us and how we're leading the space, how to create a sustainable business in a world that's constantly changing.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "ANGEL'S BONE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You'll never believe - never believe what I tripped over in the car.
KARR: For starters, National Sawdust was able to raise funds to buy its building. So there's no worry that it'll be displaced by rising rents in a gentrifying neighborhood. It generates about 40 percent of its revenue at the box office through venue rentals and food and drink sales. The remaining 60 percent comes from philanthropists, many of whom are supporting music for the first time, Prestini says.
National Sawdust is also a recording studio. Each artist in residence gets 20 hours of free recording time, which is enough for some to complete an album.
The winner of last year's Pulitzer Prize for music was recorded at the venue - the opera "Angel's Bone" by composer Du Yun.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "ANGEL'S BONE")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Angels. Angels fallen in the brambles.
KARR: National Sawdust also has a record label. Former Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Zeigler runs it. He's also married to Paola Prestini. He says in this age of almost unlimited online musical choice, he wants the label to recreate the kind of curated random encounter listeners experience while flipping through CD and LP bins in record stores.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What have you found?
JEFFREY ZEIGLER: I kind of liked the fact that like maybe there's a band that I like and that it happens to be near this other bin, or something is misfiled, or, like, oh, that's kind of a cool record cover. And you just kind of - you're curious about it. And that's something that I think that is missing for a lot of fans of music these days.
(SOUNDBITE OF GYAN RILEY'S "SPRIG")
KARR: Later this year, National Sawdust's reach will extend the West Coast. It will begin booking shows at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts in Beverly Hills in addition to the ones it already books at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and its permanent home in Brooklyn.
For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler's last name was misspelled as Ziegler.]
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