Kiersten Cunningham, violinist and violist, is another musician of interest. Having decided to forgo the classical concert violinist career-path, she has forged a much more roots-y set of activities. Playing in and running local indie opera company Metropolis Opera Project, she’s also a member of the band Marigold Opera, has a string quartet for weddings and commercials called Anthology Strings, plays on occasion with indie rock act The Sleepy Rebels, has played music on the web series The Battery’s Down, and even has a daytime gig as a marketing coordinator for a global law-firm (EDITOR’S NOTE: On top of all this, she’s an incredible violinist).
A native of Long Island, Kiersten pursued music studies at three separate schools: Ithaca College, Mannes College and NYU. “I moved [to New York City] to pursue graduate studies at Mannes. I was there for a year,” Kiersten recalls as we chugged cold drinks at a local NY Starbucks. “After that I transferred to NYU after becoming interested in new music and wanted to be exposed to many various genres of music instead of being placed on the orchestral track or concerto soloist track…My teacher Ann Setzer, she really influenced me and encouraged me to start breaking out and doing my own thing, and she also encouraged me to transfer from Mannes to NYU so that I could do so”.
“At NYU, I started to hang out with some of the members of the jazz faculty, and I started playing backup strings for one of their jazz ensembles. We went on tour to South America, and that was a lot of fun. It was Afro-Peruvian jazz, actually, so, it was really interesting. And when I came back, through these various connections, started getting called for other things. Simultaneously, I had joined Anthology Strings, which mostly does weddings and special events now, and when I do recording work, it’s usually with them. They’re my main group of string players. Now it’s gotten so big that we actually hire other people to go play at the weddings for us because we can’t all be there all the time”.
Metropolis Opera was the first significant side project that became a much bigger priority for her after it had evolved from a stand-alone one-man show. “About 4 years ago, I got a phone call from a friend I had met in my undergrad who had actually moved here to pursue a career in opera and musical theater. He had this idea for a one-man show, but he wanted to flesh it out with violin parts and piano. He actually chose various songs to sing as a cycle together; The show is called Imbecile d’Amour. We’ve been all over the place with it”.
Imbecile d’Amour (Chapter 2; Zach James, vocals; live at Birdland, NY)
“We did the one-man show the first time in the fall of 2007 in NY…Zach [James] was in South Pacific at the time, and it went really well, we did it right around Halloween, so it was perfect timing for the macabre aspect. And after that, other people that came said “We’d love to do something with you! Let’s start something”…and then we formed the company the following Spring…and that’s what really piqued my interest towards new opera, and I would say that generally that’s my focus now; I’m the General Manager of the company…We’re a non-profit, all started by artists, funded by artists, so we needed someone who was in it from the beginning, and it was me, so that’s how that started. I perform, do the social media, and manage the projects and artists. It’s a lot, but it’s great”.
Kiersten’s other group is Marigold Opera, not another opera company, but “…an eclectic chamber ensemble for indie classical music. All of us sing, and it’s all electronic, so nothing stays acoustic…I’m really starting to branch out and experiment with my sound and toying with different aspects of sound…There are only 2 string players in the group, myself and a cellist, who I also play in a piano trio with”.
On her other side project The Sleepy Rebels: “They’re fun. They’re a fun group to play with, and coincidentally Jeremy Adelman, who is one of the guys in the band, is also a composer, and he is primarily the person who hires us for commercial work”.
The Sleepy Rebels: Magic Girl
There’s also a tour-de-force production coming up for Metropolis at the end of the year. “In December, we have our first electronic opera which I’ll be playing violin for. It’s for just electronic violin, cello, voices and multi-media.
Experimenting with sound [and using loops] have become really interesting for me”.
As for electric violins in general, “…I use a pickup. The only electric violin I played I really didn’t like. You need to use so many different pedals to even get it to sound good, to use an acoustic instrument with a pickup is better, but you have to have the right equipment…”.
“The way I look at things, especially being in New York, I will take any opportunity that is given to me. I’m a very busy person, but I thrive being that way. I have really high goals set for myself, and I want everything, and I know you can’t have it all, but…We all do because we love it”.
Whitacre: Five Hebrew Love Songs (Gus Paul Chrysson, tenor; Walter Aparicio, piano; Kiersten Cunningham, violin, 2011)
EDITORS NOTE: You all may know this gem from television (Kiersten’s the solo viola):