Ten years ago, composer and pianist Sugar Vendil asked herself why concert black was still the standard dress for classical musicians. With her ensemble the Nouveau Classical Project, she began working with visual artists and clothing designers to transform the classical music concert into a multisensory experience. 

The NCP's latest show, Currents, comes to the David Rubenstein Atrium on December 6. We caught up with Sugar and designer Jenny Lai at Flying Solo in Soho to find out how they make music, performance, and fashion work together in a way that respects the nuances of each element.


Amanda MacBlane: Where did the concept of the Nouveau Classical Project come from?

Sugar Vendil: I've always seen fashion as a form self-expression, and I wanted to figure out a way to bring more of it into the concert experience. We're told to wear concert black, but I think the performer needs to have more prerogative over how they want to express themselves in a performance—it's an all-encompassing experience. That's where the idea came from and then it grew from there.

AMB: And Jenny, as a designer, you've often spoken about the "experience of dressing." What does that mean to you?

Jenny Lai: I have a classical music background and for half my life I was focusing on classical music and all kinds of performance. It's a very big part of my life. So, when I started designing clothing, I really loved how it was a kind of performance, but also something very personal and intuitive. It has this dual nature, both very private and very public. Whenever I'm designing clothing, I think a lot about that. The performance of dressing—the actual physical process of getting in and out of clothes and how that can be playful and inspiring and fun even though it's an everyday thing that we have to do. How can that be something that brings us joy? 

AMB: How has your collaboration worked for Currents?

SV: The concept started out with me and my group wanting to do electro-acoustic pieces for Pierrot ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano) and there wasn't much out there. We did a call for scores, but we didn't get many submissions. So, we decided to commission this ourselves. So, it's four pieces for Pierrot ensemble and electronics that we commissioned in 2017. 

AMB: Jenny, were you a part of this from the beginning or brought in after? 

JL: After. There are different ways that we work together. One is doing something custom from the beginning, and that's a much longer, involved process versus styling pieces that work with the program, which was the situation with this. When it was first performed, we worked a lot with Flying Solo and selected styles from different brands from the store that worked. And this second time that they're doing the performance, I'm styling most of the pieces in my brand

AMB: Do you work with other musicians?

JL: Yes, mostly solo musicians. 

SV: She's the go-to!

JL: I work a lot with Leila Josefowicz, I actually design everything that she wears on stage. How it usually happens is that I talk to the artist about the program and the repertoire, and I listen to everything. I research all the pieces and the composers, so I really understand what their performance is about. And when it's an ensemble, I look at a lot of videos and get to know the performers, seeing the way that they perform, their personalities, what they like to wear, what they feel comfortable in. That's a really important part. And then I start piecing the ideas together. The fitting of the musicians is a big part of it because I really want to see what they feel confident in and what suits them. So, I'll have the initial proposal, but things will change as we do the fitting. With an ensemble versus a solo artist, I really think about the clothing as similar to a palette of sounds. There's a certain amount of individuality but also cohesion in the whole look. 

AMB: Do you feel that classical musicians are dressing better these days? 

JL: Yes, I think that there is a revolution in classical musicians' thinking about how they're dressing. Especially ones that are doing more contemporary music, they're thinking a lot more about how their own personality can come through and how their own brand of performance can be stronger in the eyes and memories of the viewer through the way that they express themselves in their clothing choices. 

SV: I started the Nouveau Classical Project ten years ago and it was a very different time. I had to make a case for it and I don't feel like I have to anymore because everyone's doing it. And I'm not going to touch upon this too much, but if you think about it, fashion is a "woman's interest." If you're a woman doing fashion, immediately there's this binary way of categorizing you as "someone who cares more about her looks and therefore not caring about the music." But if you're a guy doing it, it's like, "you're so cool and eclectic." That's what we were dealing with ten years ago, but it's a very different time now. 


Amanda MacBlane is Associate Director of Communications at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.