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From Juilliard to Nashville this composer makes her Music City classical debut with the Nashville Composers Collective at Lipscomb University June 7

by Bob Doerschuk | Photography by Gina Binkley

“No way! I am NOT an East Nashville snob!” Cristina Spinei laughs at the very idea. Never mind that she lives near Five Points. And sure, she loves eating out at Margot and Marché. And even as she speaks, the clatter of cups and the buzz of caffeinated discourse fill the air around her at Ugly Mugs.

Still, she insists, she doesn’t fit in. Her hoop earrings are more East Coast than East Side. And with her preference for high heels, she’s more apt to drive than schlep to the neighborhood’s hipster hangouts.

What is beyond dispute is that Spinei has been an asset to the city’s cultural scene since arriving in October from New York City. Her flair for glamour and upbeat personality belie her renown as one of America’s most promising young composers. Cultural arbiters have honored her with grants. She has written for orchestra, solo performers, duos, trios, quartets, and other ensembles including electronic music.

Regardless of the instrumentation, Spinei aims for and achieves an ideal balance between accessibility and sophistication. Her harmonic textures are often dense. On works such as the string quartet Bootleg Sugar Lips they swirl like bees in a hive, though always with a clear or somewhat abstract melodic idea at the center. On Drunken Birds, for piano and string quartet, her rhythms are even more forceful, with all five instruments emphasizing their percussive characteristics in jagged dissonances reminiscent of Bartok and Stravinsky. (She pays an especially transparent homage to Stravinsky in the third of her Aqeul Momento songs for soprano and orchestra.)

Spinei admits to being an odd kid while growing up in Stamford, Connecticut. While her friends in school were clamoring over the Spice Girls, young Cristina was in love with distinctly non-adolescent types of music.

“That comes from being exposed to all types of music at home but also from having a background in dance. I’d studied ballet, and while I stopped eventually because I didn’t have the right body for it, I really loved the music in the ballet classes. So I started taking piano lessons at 9 and just kept going. By the time I was in middle school, I was listening only to opera and Latin music. I wasn’t into pop music until high school, when Enrique Iglesias became big—but that made me actually ahead of the trend,” she adds with a smile.

Spinei began writing music in fifth grade. Later, for two years in high school, she spent each Saturday in New York, studying in the Juilliard School’s pre-college program. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the prestigious institution and began work there on a doctorate. The experience was pivotal, but at a certain point it was time to move on.

“One of the great things about Juilliard is the people you’re in school with,” she says. “The musicians I knew in pre-college, when I was 15 or 16, I still collaborate with today. But you go to Juilliard to learn how to become a great composer, not how to become a businessperson. So I think it was the right idea for me to stop after my master’s because I want to compose. I don’t want to be in a university, teaching composition. I’m not a super-academic person. I want to be out, writing.”

Spinei got a great start in New York, where, among other things, she co-founded the Blind Ear Music collective, dedicated to improvisational composition through a combination of electronic technology and live performance. But after a while, she began to notice that the same folks kept showing up at each performance. Sensing it was time to expand her horizons, she made the same decision others in her situation had made before her—to check out Nashville. But not necessarily for the same reason.

“My sister and I had this vague Nashville awareness from reality TV shows and news,” she admits. “So we said, let’s go see what it’s all about. Why not?”

They began by heading down to Lower Broadway to check out the honky-tonks. “But the Mardi Gras Y’all Festival was happening, so we stayed outside and eventually we wound up at the Basement.” That visit proved fateful, as Spinei met Dean Jackson, the club’s manager. Eventually, they began their relationship, and he became one big factor in her decision to settle in Music City.

Since her arrival, Spinei has ventured into new territory by arranging “Cheek to Cheek,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” and three other songs for Caitlin Rose’s Valentine’s Day performance at the Cannery Ballroom. The Intersection ensemble has named her its “composer ambassador.” She will also play the piano accompaniment at the first local concert featuring her work, the song cycle Desde las cenizas, based on the poetry of Steve Clark, on June 7 at 3 p.m at Lipscomb University’s Ward Hall.

“I just love the city and the art scene,” she explains. “There are so many more chances to create here than in New York. I’ve written more here in six months than I did for a year when I was in New York. I feel that some unwritten restrictions have been lifted because I’m not in a huge, contemporary classical music scene. So there’s more artistic freedom here. I’m writing all the time, which is a composer’s dream.”

For more information about Cristina Spinei visit www.cristinaspinei.com.

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