National Sawdust: An Artistic Incubator Page 2

"It's like a little artistic ecosystem," Prestini said. "If you had to go from zero to the production of something, what would you need? You'd need mentoring, money, the presentation, the ability to tour a project, a record label, an audience."

"And you need a room," Zeigler added—"a place to try things out."

While National Sawdust is that room—what Prestini calls an "incubator"—the other prong of this sprawling artistic venture is a record label, National Sawdust Tracks, launched five years ago as part of Prestini's production company. Its catalog now numbers 17 titles, many of which were recorded in National Sawdust itself. I enjoyed listening to several NS releases, including Labyrinth, a pair of violin and cello concertos by Prestini, and Angel's Bone, a recording done at NS featuring Du Yun's 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera.

"The mission of the space is broad," Zeigler said, "and so the label has broadened its scope and vision to put more focus on experimentation, collaboration, redefining genre."

Technical director and chief audio engineer Garth MacAleavey studied classical music and jazz drumming at UC Santa Cruz and, after moving to New York, worked at another musically adventurous multipurpose space, the (for-profit) Poisson Rouge, in Greenwich Village.


"I specialize in amplifying classical music, orchestral music, chamber orchestras; I do a lot of new music and opera amplification, MacAleavey said in a recent interview in his office downstairs in NS. "Some of it is written to be amplified. And there are things where it's intended to be unamplified, but with a little bit of help, a little bit of love and art with the amplification, you can get a really great sound without it feeling like, okay, the strings are really too loud, and I can hear the PA system.

"As a nonprofit, we're here to support artists, and we do as much as we can to give them a fair door split and try to get a great deal for them—but then we try to make a little bit of money back when we can, with tech services like a camera shoot, a multitrack recording, or just a stereo archival recording.

"We record every show as a stereo archival recording. We do multitracks if it's requested or we think it's an important, cool show. We have a noncommercial agreement in our contracts that artists can use recordings for promotion or put up a video, but they can't sell it unless there's some kind of renegotiation."

MacAleavey gave me a tour of his sound booth; it's clear that National Sawdust does have good gear—like a standard definition (SD), 48-channel Sound Devices 970 multitrack recorder with multichannel audio digital interface (MADI). And in this "box within a box" venue, the lobby, too, is decoupled from the main space by a heavy, 2'-thick Clark door that can be lowered when a performance is being recorded. MacAleavey admits that the one thing the space is not set up to do is make a recording with each musician in an isolation booth.


"If you're ready to record with some bleed and get some vibe, then I think the room is great. If you're in a classical ensemble where everybody is playing in the same room together, you're in great shape.

"I do end up engineering recordings that come out of here. Sometimes there's a very quick turnaround time, and I don't have time to pull out all the stems, or multitracks. So the first thing I'll do is take an archival recording and put a little compression on it and see how natural I can make it sound. I'll ask myself, Can I hear this compression? Can audio engineers hear this?

"I look at compression as a very important tool, but it has to be done right—and in the arena of 'louder is better,' it sucks. I am happier to listen to a record that's got space and dynamics in it and turn it up."


National Sawdust has been in business two years now, and the building, its human team, and the organization's overall ethos are clearly gaining momentum. From what I saw, the space itself is becoming a scene—it draws a crowd no matter what or who is onstage. Developing the recording studio is a harder slog. Even further in the future is the live-streaming partnership with Devialet, though I did receive a statement from Quentin Sannié, cofounder and CEO of Devialet, which read, in part: "At Devialet, we believe that the purpose of technology in audio is to deliver all the details of the intentions created by artists. We have been thrilled to discover a similarly unique approach to excellence and innovation at National Sawdust. National Sawdust is a place for social progress, and we at Devialet look forward to being a part of the creative and technological advancements that such an environment fosters."

As corny and wide-eyed as it sounds, being a force for artistic progress and social engagement is clearly part of Prestini and Zeigler's mission at National Sawdust. That, and an obvious commitment to audio fidelity, make the entire project a refreshing change from the raw capitalism of the music business, and one finicky enough to please even the crustiest audiophile.

While the future is not without perils—the more pieces to the puzzle, the more potential for calamity—Prestini and Zeigler are cautiously optimistic and remain, above all, committed.

"The beginning was really hard," Prestini says with a sigh, "but Sawdust is such an opportunity because it can be a game changer for so many people. You better believe that, three-and-a-half years ago, if the toilets were dirty, I was going to go and do something. Neither of us are precious, but at the same time, there's certainly an activism behind this. You don't do this for money."


grantray's picture

I've been hearing about Sawdust from friends still in the neighborhood and it sounds like a fantastic space. YBCA is the closest we've got here in SF, but it's not the same flavor of contemporary modernism. Not by a long shot. Sawdust is the kind of space that makes me miss Brooklyn something fierce.