Nick Zinner's 41 Strings Symphony
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist discusses the lauded symphony, which he’ll perform and conduct at Rockefeller Center alongside a star-studded list of NY-based musicians.
In 2011, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ guitarist Nick Zinner responded to a commission from Loomstate to create a work in honor of the 41st Anniversary of Earth Day. Zinner recruited collaborators Hisham Bharoocha (Black Dice, Lightning Bolt) and Ben Vida (Soft Circle) to compose 41 Strings, an orchestral piece consisting of four movements dedicated to each season. With ecological turmoil increasing exponentially ever since, the virtuosity and impact of 41 Strings has commanded repeat performances on some of the world’s most prestigious stages. This Saturday at 7pm, the Plaza at Rockefeller Center will host its first US performance since the debut, with an orchestra consisting of some of contemporary rock music’s hardest hitters. Zinner discussed with GrandLife the process behind the monumental work, its concept and origins, and what audiences can expect from Saturday’s one-night performance.
41 Strings is a great evolution in your work as a composer, both in scale and style. Can you elaborate on your classical training, and some of the inspiration for working within it?
Nick Zinner: Thank you. Aside from learning the violin when I was a kid, I don’t have that much classical training, if any. I listen to a lot of modern minimalist composers and am a big fan of repetition. I had done some writing with strings for soundtracks and collaborative projects, but I wanted to really expand on that. Because I don’t really know what the rules are, it was quite liberating to work with new instruments and sounds. When I was writing 41 Strings, I was imagining it being played live and not recorded, so I wanted a large degree of immediacy and power through repetition and building upon simple phrases.
What was the impetus for composing a piece in honor of Earth Day?
NZ: I was asked to write this in 2011 by Berrin Noorata for an Earth Day event she was producing in NYC, which was part of an existing yearly series. The year before she had commissioned Hisham Bharoocha to do a performance called 40 Drummers for the 40th Earth Day anniversary, so we all decided that for the 41st anniversary, strings would be the theme. Hisham helped with the initial framework, co-wrote one of the pieces with me, and has been one of the three drummers for every performance we’ve done since.
There’s a lot of rich emotion in the movements. Do you see the cycle of the seasons as encompassing the range of human experience?
NZ: I feel like when you live in New York, you really feel each season and are affected in so many specific ways by each one. Each one has its social and natural pattern. Now I live half the time in LA where it’s 75 degrees for most of the year, and I find it to be weird and confusing that way. But every time the seasons turn in NYC, I have this immediate sensory sentimentality for all my previous experiences from that season. They mark the passing of time. I think those cycles bring about pretty strong emotions and reactive associations in me and probably everyone who lives here.
Since we are in the midst of a catastrophic heatwave, can you share some of the sentiments you sought to convey for the theme of summer?
NZ: I’ll tell you, if I was writing this in 2019 as opposed to 2011, the Summer piece would be a lot more grim and oppressive, It must have been a mild summer before, because it’s probably the most optimistic and hopeful piece of music I’ve ever written and will probably ever write.
Is it correct to say that this is the third performance of the piece with the first taking place in NYC and the second at London Meltdown Festival?
NZ: It will actually be the fourth. For the second one, we were invited to Sydney to perform it at the Opera House as part of the Sydney Festival. The last time we did it was for the Meltdown Festival that was curated by James Lavelle in 2014.
Is there anything about this latest iteration that you’re particularly excited about? Any new collaborators participating for the first time?
NZ: One of my favorite parts about doing this is choosing the guitarists for it. I try to use the same three drummers and a few other key players from the original performance each time, including Gillian Rivers, the violinist who also arranged this piece and oversees the orchestra. We try to always use students and youth orchestra players. There are also seven other guitarists besides myself in the piece and we really tried to get a wide range of New York-centric players. For this one we’ve got Lenny Kaye from Patti Smith’s band, Paul Banks from Interpol, Angel Deradoorian who is a solo artist but also was in Dirty Projectors and is the singer in a Black Sabbath Cover Band, super producer and songwriter Andrew Wyatt from Miike Snow, Sarah Lipstate who is one of the most forward-thinking guitarists I know and who records as Noveller, Aku Orraca-Tetteh who is now playing in Florence & the Machine but also performed in the first 41 Strings, and Ava Mendoza from Unnatural Ways and who may possibly be the best guitar player in New York. Also for this show, Nancy Whang from LCD Soundsystem and Jaleel Bunton from TV on the Radio will be joining us. Basically, a dream lineup.
WORDS Micki Pellerano
PHOTOGRAPHY Jason Williamson