"Call my music ‘minimalish,’ ” quips Nashville-based composer Cristina Spinei, good-humoredly discouraging a too-simplistic association with the minimalist movement that influences her compositions. The Connecticut-born Spinei, a Juilliard School graduate with a master’s degree in composition, creates naturally category-resistant music with an eye toward breaking down preconceptions about contemporary concert music. It’s a tough row to hoe.
“If one is embraced by the nonclassical music world, there’s a tendency for the classical music world to look skeptically upon that,” Spinei explains. “Conversely, people in the nonclassical world can view new concert music as inaccessible. It’s tricky.”
Nonetheless, Spinei is making strides. Her boundary-bending works have been commissioned by numerous American dance companies, performed and recorded internationally, and staged locally by adventurous new-music ensembles such as Intersection, conceived and directed by former Nashville Symphony conductor Kelly Corcoran. “Cristina is a great example of the awesome talent that exists amongst composers today,” Corcoran says. “Her music is colorful and full of vibrancy, an extension of her warm personality.”
Corcoran’s affirmations typify the supportive responses Spinei has received from Nashville’s classical community since moving here from New York City three years ago. In addition to an accepting and open-minded climate quite unlike the one Spinei experienced back east, she says she’s found a refreshing freedom in Nashville. “It’s just a lot easier to create art here, and find space for it.”
Spinei’s commissioned piece for Corcoran’s ensemble, titled Forma, curiously blends classically derived ideas with Mariachi folk elements. Such novel fusions are the norm for Spinei; her similarly conceived If Beethoven Danced Merengue draws from its famed namesake while adding subtle syncopation that, along with the piece’s title, hints at her longtime passion for Latin and Brazilian music. This in turn points to the integral role of rhythmic content in nearly all her work. Her short, looping rhythmic figures, which are nearly always the first to emerge when she composes a new piece, are her music’s closest link to minimalism’s repetitive, hypnotic structures. But for Spinei, the goal is more to evoke dance than trance. “I think I’m always conscious of movement,” she explains, “like, ‘Does this piece of music move people in some way?’ The worst concert experience for me is when I’m sitting in the audience and everybody is still, like it’s an audience of mannequins. I always want there to be some kind of … movement through the music, whether you’re tapping your foot, or nodding your head, or swaying — something.
“When I’m composing, I get away from the piano and dance around [to an idea in progress] and go back to the piano. I can’t sit still,” Spinei says with a winning laugh. It was in fact her work writing for choreographers that led her to explore minimalist music, a style favored by contemporary dance companies. The nutshell version of Spinei’s artistic journey also includes an adolescence obsessed with opera and, later, exposure to nonclassical influences as an undergrad researching early American folk and fiddle tunes for mentor Wynton Marsalis. The experience led her to recognize connections between fiddle music and jazz rhythms, and to begin the experimentation that continues to characterize her work.
Recently, her inventive bent led her to find inspiration on an unfamiliar instrument. Encountering an obstacle while composing Superstitions, which the Nashville Ballet premiered this past June, she walked to the portion of her music room occupied by her boyfriend’s guitars. Picking up the bass, she “stumbled onto some ideas” that provided a breakthrough. “You’re just finding your way, and everything is brand new,” she says. “So I see myself doing a lot more of that.”
An expanded version of Superstitions, which couples a classical-styled ensemble with electric guitar and bass, is being prepared as the centerpiece for Spinei’s as-yet-unscheduled second album. Meanwhile, her first “Sonatagram,” a miniature sonata in three individual, minute-long movements, recently went up on her Instagram page, with more to follow. She also seeks to collaborate with a singer-songwriter from outside her classically informed home base. Her love of pulsing, recurring rhythmic figures may continue to evoke a “minimalish” effect, but given Spinei’s adventuresome imagination, her unfolding body of work isn’t likely to repeat itself.