Judd Greenstein: A World of Difference
As a co-founder of the New Amsterdam record label and the NOW Ensemble, composer Judd Greenstein thinks deeply about the changes he wants to see in the field and dedicates his time and talents to putting them into action. He is by turns idealistic and pragmatic, motivated by a desire to challenge artists and audiences, but also to keep pace with economic and social developments. “The world that we as composers and performers were operating in expanded exponentially,” Greenstein explains. “Now the conversation is with everyone.”
He has also been an active player in the game, thinking deeply about the changes he wants to see in the field and dedicating his time and talents to putting them into action. Greenstein is by turns idealistic and pragmatic, motivated by a desire to challenge artists and audiences, but also to keep pace with economic and social developments. The latest example of these parallel drives put into performance practice is the Ecstatic Music Festival he has curated in New York City, which kicks off with a seven-hour marathon concert on January 17 from 2-9 p.m. at Merkin Concert Hall. By the time the 14-concert event wraps on March 28, 150 composers and performers will have contributed their creative voices to the effort through a series of collaborative performances that he hopes will have inspired all involved.
The changes Greenstein has witnessed in the field mirror wider global trends. “The world that we as composers and performers were operating in expanded exponentially,” Greenstein explains. “Now the conversation is with everyone and the possibilities are multidirectional. That does so many different things at once that it’s sort of hard for me to talk about. I don’t have an elevator pitch for this one.” And with so much on the table, it didn’t seem productive to distill our discussion down to a sound bite.
Judd Greenstein: My piano teacher at that time encouraged me, but I really didn’t get into it fully until I started writing hip-hop beats with my friend David when I was eleven or twelve. I would cobble together beats using an old Casio, sample the piano using a really crude recorder, and just make as many sounds as possible and overlay them. Then I got a 4-track, I got a professional synthesizer, and I really started writing hip-hop beats—I would say more earnestly than I was writing classical music. But I suddenly realized, “Oh, I can take the creative space that I associate with writing hip-hop beats and combine it with the space of piano lessons and turn that into something else.” And so I started writing classical music along the lines of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, things I was playing at the time.
When I was fifteen or sixteen, I really started making the transition into writing scores at the piano and my piano teacher, Mary Jo Pagano, I remember she pulled me aside and said, “Do you want to actually be a composer?” I thought, “Yeah, I do.” She said, “Okay, you have to start working really hard.” [laughs] So I went to the library and took out scores and recordings and started studying all the late 20th-century masters—Stravinsky and Bartók to Carter and Boulez. George Perle, for some reason, was a big person for me at that time. Then that music started permeating my own, and I really felt like I was going to become a composer. But certainly the earliest, really strong creative pull came from outside of anything that would be considered the classical world, and eventually there came a point where I realized that I had maybe gone a little bit too far in one direction for my comfort zone—it was like my thirteen-year-old self was sort of saying, “Hey! What happened to me?”
MS: Why go that direction at all? At the time you were making these decisions, it wasn’t as if you needed to be a “classical” composer in order to be a professional, so what ultimately pulled you towards the kind of music that you wrote during that period and that you write now?
JG: As you get older, you start to realize that some of the things you thought you might do, you’re not going to do. For some people that’s “Be an astronaut!” or “Be a tennis pro!”, but for me, being a hip-hop producer was always something that seemed very on the table, even into my 20s. I still was writing beats; I still saw that as part of my identity. But eventually you realize what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, and the more you become good at something, the more—at least for me—it overtakes your creative space. The better I became at writing music, or at least the more experienced, I realize how inexperienced I was in other fields. But you’re right, in 1994 if I had had different friends who were more plugged into the Queensbridge scene, who knows? I could have been on Stillmatic. That’s pure fantasy, but I definitely would have said yes! [laughs]
I found out a lot of the decisions that I’ve seen people make come from a really pragmatic point, and then later on they justify it artistically. We don’t see these choices all the time; for me it’s pretty stark: I decided to go into classical music and not to go into hip-hop, but I think it could have broken a different way and, you know, we would be having a very different conversation right now.
MS: It’s obviously still very much a part of your world. Even your bio very neatly comes full circle from your early interest in hip-hop to writing your PhD thesis on the genre. But does that feed into the music you do write now or is this actually just a non-related musical interest?
JG: There’s no way that hip-hop is apart from my music because it’s something that I deeply care about and still listen to all the time. I wouldn’t for a long time have suggested that there was anything in my music that was about hip-hop and certainly there’s nothing on the surface that resembles the textures or techniques that you hear in hip-hop music. That said, there are a few things that I’ve realized over time are ways that I find success in my own music that are the same ways that I would find success when I was writing a beat. For example, I distinctly remember it being two in the morning in 1992 and I’m sitting there with, like, god knows what headphones on, waiting for that moment when I would think, “I could listen to this forever.” And I find myself doing that a lot—tweaking some pattern, some texture, whatever it may be in my music. Not the moments that are clearly discrete, clearly short term, but something that’s going to go on for a while, something that’s going to be with us and part of the rhetoric of the piece. The way I determine success in that has a lot to do with the way that I thought about hip-hop when I was growing up, even though the music sounds totally different. I’m sure there are other things like that as well, I just can’t really pick them apart from what I just generally think is good in music.
MS: What else shapes the music that you write, taking this beyond the hip-hop discussion. There are so many decisions a composer makes while working on a piece that the outside world has no knowledge of, so I’m curious about what shapes that work for you.
JG: My music is often very repetitive in certain ways and things not only come back but they stick around for a while once they’re in play. So I think somebody who listens to my music might be surprised to hear me say, “The thing that I’m trying to avoid most is something like boredom or any feeling of disinterest or a moment of something being used only as a rhetorical device or only in the service of something else that’s more important.” When I write, I’m constantly going back and thinking about the moment I’m working on in the context of everything that’s come before. I usually write from beginning to end, and afterwards I’ll see if there are places that need additional support, but I can’t think of a piece outside of the general conception that I have of it as an arc from beginning to end. I can’t think of a particular moment except in the context of what has happened and, when I make this decision right now, is it engaging me enough that I’m continuing my mental thread and I want to be doing this instead of hitting the “next” button on the CD or starting to daydream in the concert hall.
The greatest challenge I have as a composer is to remove the process that I’m in when writing the piece from the experience that I know I’m going to have listening to it. That’s something that I think I’ve gotten better at as I’ve written more music, but it still is absolutely the number one challenge because you know all the things that you didn’t do, all the tricks you didn’t pull, and all the things that you brought in and then decided to take away. It can be really tempting to allow yourself to remember the whole world of ideas that you surrounded the actual piece with when most of that actually ended up on the cutting room floor. If you do something three times, in your head you’ve actually probably done it a hundred times, and most of those different ways that you tried to work out the rhythm or the harmony never made it in, but, god, do we really have to do this a third time because haven’t we done this enough already? Well, no. In the context of the actual piece, we haven’t, but in your brain you’ve done it way more than enough and so that’s a challenge.
I need to want things to stay in play longer than they actually do. I want to be disappointed anytime something stops happening. If something changes, I want to make sure that the thing that happens is even more engaging, for whatever reason, than the thing that has just left. It’s an escalation up from silence. For me, the threshold of accepting a piece as worth making and even a moment as worth making has to be, “Is it worth changing from what was there before?” and I found that to be a pretty high bar.
MS: You work so closely with colleagues on projects like the record label New Amsterdam and the ensemble NOW, so does that then impact the actual composition of your music? I’m curious if that has bled into your conception of the work you’re creating and how that rubs up against that single author/brilliant mind/Great Man theory that we have historically held so dear when it comes to composers.
JG: I think it depends where you’re looking from. I really like the notion that composers can step out from behind the screen and be known as public artistic figures. It’s made the notion of somebody whose work is primarily in their head interesting to people. And that’s obviously been true elsewhere, but it’s not something that people thought about in terms of music more popularly. That’s just because the people who are most well known all stand on stage in front of you, but since that’s become less true even in the popular realm, I think the mental space of musical art has become more prominent in the public discussion. And that to me is a really wonderful thing.
What isn’t as wonderful is when composers treat themselves as merely producers of scores. That’s not very interesting to me. Someone once said a mathematician is a machine that turns coffee into equations, and since what I do mostly is turn coffee into notes and dots and lines on the page, it’s tempting to call composers that, but I don’t think that’s where the composer should end. I remember Charles Wuorinen being interviewed by this publication and he said—well, he said a lot of things I disagreed with—but the thing I disagreed with the most by far was when he said, “I don’t believe that a composer has any obligation to the world whatsoever,” and there’s a million ways I could critique that. First of all, people have obligations to the world, so, aren’t you a person? And insofar as being a composer is what you’re doing in the world, isn’t being a composer something that actually does have an obligation to the world? But there’s been this kind of myth in the 20th century, or at least an ethos, that the best way to be a composer is to forget that and to just write, apart from any constructs or constraint or context that you might find yourself in. But that’s never been true. Being Conlon Nancarrow in Mexico is a type of social constraint and so he’s not divorced from the world any more than I am, even though I’m enmeshed in an obvious series of networks. He is too, it’s just that they’re not as obvious and the way that they play out is perhaps less clear. He’s sort of ceding control over that in a certain way but he’s also claiming different kinds of control over the narrative that surrounds his work.
It’s a funny question, the notion of, “What is a composer’s responsibility?” and “What is a composer?” in terms of “Where does our role begin and end?” and “How much can we claim authorship as our own?”. Those questions all seem really connected to one another. Does it make sense for me to talk about my viola work Escape as mine when Nadia [Sirota] is the one who has brought it to the world and is literally the only person who’s ever played it? I never would’ve written it if I weren’t imagining Nadia actually playing it out in the world, so it wouldn’t exist. That may not be true for everyone. At the same time, there’s something that drives them to write, and it can’t simply be this mythical notion of composition as an end unto itself because there’s really no there there. Outside of making music for other people to listen to, I don’t think we really have any function at all, and so that’s the end of the story for me. Insofar as we’re enmeshed in a world with other people because that’s what gives us relevance, we have to start moving from where those people are going to be back to our own brains, and once you do that you’ve created a thread that I think dismantles the notion that we can ever be really alone as artists. Not that I would want to be anyway.
MS: And if it was a pop radio tune, most people would think of it as Nadia’s anyway.
JG: Right! Sarah Kirkland Snider has a record that has three different entities on it: it has her, it has Shara Worden, and it has Signal. Most people listening to it don’t really care. They hear Shara’s voice and it’s awesome, they hear this orchestra and they play great, and then something happened to make this music come into being. It doesn’t really matter to most people but none of the participants in that project I think would say that they could’ve done it without everybody else, Sarah included. And that has to be true. There is no score that could lead to the result that is the record of Penelope or any live performance involving Shara or Signal, so I just don’t really understand how composers can see themselves as a world unto themselves, but that’s also maybe just me.
MS: In the past decade, the biggest shift—or at least the most loudly talked about—to come out of the new music scene is the rise of indie-classical, and you’ve been at the heart of it. I’ve watched this as a journalist, but what does it look like from the inside, from an artist’s vantage point?
JG: The thing that has really changed, I think, is that the focus of the world that we as composers and performers were operating in expanded exponentially. It’s wide in terms of the conversations about music in different communities; it’s wide in terms of the spectrum of music that is being drawn from; and it’s wide in terms of the possibilities of what music might be placed in juxtaposition to it. So if you’re thinking about your album, or maybe more pointedly your composition, as only being in dialogue with the world of new classical music, then you’re really making music that has a very limited frame. The decisions you make are about conversations—that’s why you go to music school and learn about more and more music so that you can have a conversation with Schumann or Ligeti or Martin Bresnick, with whom I could have a literal conversation in our lessons but I’m also having a conversation with his music. Now the conversation is with everyone and the possibilities are multidirectional. That does so many different things at once that it’s sort of hard for me to talk about. I don’t have an elevator pitch for this one.
It’s challenging because you’ve taken off the safety that actually protects the world of classical music from everything else and it goes both ways. There’s this insulated world where if you write a piece and it’s performed on a new music concert, there is nothing safer in the entire world than that performance context. Anything can happen—we’ve seen it all. If it’s really good, great! If it’s really bad, well, we’ve all been to concerts, we all know that most of it is really bad, so whatever, who really cares? Practically no one is going to hear it. And the way that it’s going to be discussed is in the really wonderfully safe, broad context of your entire career. This piece is not the beginning and it’s not the end: this is your third string quartet or this is your work for oboe and harp. And that’s fine! Maybe you wrote a bad work for oboe and harp. That doesn’t mean people are never going to program your music again. In the real world of music, there are huge consequences to everything that you do and there’s a real possibility for people to actually hate it, say they hate it, say mean things about you, and put you in the bargain bin at the CD stores if you’re lucky.
It’s not like there was ever a moment when anybody said, “We accept the challenge of going out into the broader world of music.” It was more like a lot of us recognized that we wanted to be part of that larger conversation. We didn’t get into music in the first place because we were really attracted to the isolated world of contemporary classical music. We got into music because we had something that we wanted to say and then, upon becoming relatively good at staying it, we wanted that to be part of the broader conversation that included music from outside the classical tradition. Then you start getting into the economics of that and it gets really weird because you have multiple models coexisting at once. You have the “classical commission, rent a venue, plan three years ahead of time” kind of model, and then you have the “rock club, why don’t we put together a show, let’s go on tour and figure out what we’re going to do as we’re planning it” kind of model. The financial incentives are all in different directions and you have the really disproportionate support that classical music has relative to other types of music from public and private sources of philanthropy. So as you move closer to that place where you’re trying not to draw distinctions between different kinds of music because you don’t want people to draw distinctions about your own music, questions come up about why certain things should be supported or other things shouldn’t. And it’s the messiest possible thing in the world. Everybody’s kind of making it up as they go along.
MS: Speaking of frames, I want to talk about your curation of the upcoming Ecstatic Music Festival in New York. Reading through the line-up, it sounds like you made the city a very public mix tape. What were your guiding philosophies as you crafted it?
Supposedly there’s this big audience for adventurous programming or challenging ideas. I want to say, okay, if you really want to see where challenging ideas come from, it’s when people step outside of their comfort zones and are able to do the things that maybe they wanted to try but their artistic world didn’t allow them to. I can say from personal experience that when you’re actually asked what do you want to do, and you think about what you haven’t had a chance do, you start exploring areas that are really unfamiliar—unfamiliar in ways that I haven’t really felt since I was starting to be a composer. I’m asking myself different kinds of questions and I’m exploring areas where maybe I’m not as good and I have to become good in the process of doing it. I think there’s a lot of that on the festival.
I think that the notion of challenging art has really been cheapened. When people go to a show and they’re expecting something edgy and they get something edgy, that’s not actually a challenge. What’s challenging is when you go to a show and you don’t know what you’re going to hear; maybe the artists didn’t even know what they were going to make based on their prior work and they’re challenging themselves. You as an audience are closing your nose and covering your eyes and jumping into the pool because you believe that, based on just the artistic minds and personalities in play, something really interesting is likely to result.
The best composers, I think, are the people who constantly approach their scores with as much of that as possible. They think, “Okay, how can I really challenge myself perpetually to make something new.” And when we look at musical history, of course the people that we point to are the ones who kept reinventing themselves. All of my artistic heroes are the people who kept churning out new versions of themselves in the interest of constantly wondering what else to try on. And that could be Beethoven, but that’s also Bob Dylan or Neil Young. But there’s not usually the infrastructure for that to happen. There aren’t a lot of places that I’ve seen that allow artists to actually behave with that kind of freedom, so given the opportunity to curate something, I wanted to create an opportunity that artists would find compelling in the service of making work that hopefully audiences will treat the same way.
MS: In the PR for the festival you talk about mixing classical and non-classical for “the right reasons” and we talk ad nauseam about the end of genre. But what lines are still there and what lines do we want to be sure we hold on to?
Something like genre is never going to disappear; we’re always going to have it. We go to a concert because we need something from it. We listen to a certain kind of music because we need something from it. And so to the extent that genre provides us a way to satisfy those needs by identifying which music contains the things that we need, it’s going to be useful and we’re going to need something to do that job for us if genre disappears. I just think that there’s a way of doing it that allows for maybe just a greater efficiency in finding the things that are more closely aligned with what your needs are as a listener.
MS: It seems like the evolution of tagging and how we organize things online represents a naturally evolving system that will support that.
JG: I hope that’s true. It’s not to any real corporate advantage yet for people to remove the notion of genre. It’s still pretty fixed, and all the old infrastructure is still there. We’re still driving on the Eisenhower highway system. So a lot of what we do in the world that I’m involved in is think about ways to push at the infrastructure that’s already there and make it, if not disappear, at least serve the needs of people who are not cleanly operating within it. But it’s still there; iTunes still has a classical section. You can put in as many tags as you want, but the bottom line is that people are going to go to the classical section or they’re not going to go to the classical section. And it’s hard to escape those deep pits. Even the smaller distinctions that exist within genres: those are pits unto themselves, and they still exert a lot of force against the kind of smoothing, more specific, tagging kind of model that we would like to see become coin of the realm.
MS: Do you think that the pushback against these kinds of developments might come out of a fear that it’s all going to get so muddled that we risk losing differences that we value, and so there’s a border guarding that some fans are attempting? Or do you see other anxieties in the letting go of genre, from that perspective?
JG: It’s funny because I’m a hip-hop fan from the ’90s. I like some things that are happening now, but I know that I’m super conservative. It was funny when I realized this, and I was like, “That’s not hip-ho…Oh, no! I can’t believe I’m doing this!” I am sympathetic to the notion that when you don’t get what you think you need from a genre, it’s tempting to say that what you’re actually hearing is not of that genre anymore. It actually comes from a place of finding value in certain features of music. Classical music has this fear that comes from a probably right perception of diminishing fandom and also this weird hoarding of resources. There’s a lot of stuff that has happened inside the pretty walls that would never have happened if the gates had always been open, and to the extent that that’s true, I’m sympathetic to this notion of protecting things that wouldn’t otherwise happen. The problem is that I don’t think that’s really true anymore. I don’t think that there’s work that’s being sheltered from the marketplace that really has to fear the marketplace.
I don’t think that composers are typically making those kinds of “bar the door” arguments. I think it’s more typically classical music listeners who aren’t really thinking about the world of music broadly and they’re just afraid that something is going to disappear. The truth is that things are always disappearing, though, and things are always changing. We can’t live in a conservative world; we have to live in a dynamic world. The question is always going to be: In a dynamic world, meaning one that is constantly open to the possibility of change, who is making decisions about what change happens? I came to a conclusion that if it wasn’t going to be me and it wasn’t going to be my friends, it was going to be people who I thought shouldn’t be trusted with those decisions. I think everyone would agree that it’s super true for any of us and massive, faceless corporate entities that couldn’t care less whether music is good by any description or bad by any description besides how much money it generates for them. So, I can’t really separate questions of conservativism versus dynamism in music listening from questions that ultimately are economic and ultimately are about who is going to be making decisions of where money is spent and what work is promoted and what work people actually hear. If we don’t accept that, then we’re just going to be barricaded until the last moment when we realize that we’ve all actually died on the inside of the walls, and that’s no fun either.