The Big Jewcy: Judd Greenstein – Composer/New Amsterdam Records

Judd Greenstein’s involvement in modern music occurs through multiple avenues: he’s a composer, one of the people behind the fine independent record label New Amsterdam Records, and a deft essayist on topics of interest to the current state of new music. Read More

By / June 13, 2011
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Judd Greenstein’s involvement in modern music occurs through multiple avenues: he’s a composer, one of the people behind the fine independent record label New Amsterdam Records, and a deft essayist on topics of interest to the current state of new music. I talked to the Six Points fellow via email. Topic covered ranging from his current “micro-commissioning” project with the Minnesota Orchestra to the role of politics in modern composition.

What sort of response have you received about “Golden Calf,” your essay written in response to Justin Davidson’s New York article on young composers?

From composers, lots of very positive feedback, often in private — artists don’t like to publicly align themselves “against” critics, for understandable reasons. But two other composers, Alexandra Gardner and Matthew Guerrieri, wrote excellent essays in response to the same Davidson piece. And it was especially great to see Justin’s response — he was extremely gracious, and even emailed me personally to ask if we could move the discussion to the New York website, which didn’t really work out as we’d hoped, but was still an incredible gesture on his part.

As an artist, you’re traditionally supposed to shut up and let history validate either you or your detractors. It feels inappropriate, on its face, to say “you just don’t understand what we’re doing”, since all criticism could be met with that response. And yet, we’re in a cultural moment where the old lines, between different positions along the cultural chain that brings art to audiences, are blurring. Artists speak directly to their audiences, in emails, on websites, through social networking, and even in the songs themselves (what else is the Kanye phenomenon but a direct marketing campaign over killer beats?). The crumbling of the music industry has normally been framed as a burden for artists, since now we have to work not just as artists, but also as promoters, or in my case, as a record label manager, festival founder, and so on. Once you’ve gotten your hands dirty in aspects of the culture industry outside of art-making itself, it’s a lot harder to respect the old divides between roles when they seem increasingly irrelevant. So while it’s a real luxury to have someone as smart as Justin Davidson take the time to consider what our “scene” means in a historical context, if I think he’s missing a crucial element of how to frame the work, I have no hesitation in bringing my perspective directly to potential listeners. In fact, I believe that I (and we) have a responsibility to do so.

To what extent do you feel that your work addresses political themes? (I am thinking of “Free Speech Zone” and “Phantoms of Lost Liberty” as I write this.) And, on a related note, what do you see as the composer’s role in addressing political themes through their music?

My feelings about politics-in-music have changed over the years. Increasingly, I’ve moved away from the idea that the strongest Politics of music reside in the message of a specific piece — though that can sometimes be quite powerful. Instead, the strongest political change that I believe I can make with music comes from the underlying cultural change that the music, and the infrastructure that carries it, can effect in society. The deepest problems in our society are, I believe, cultural problems. When you have people going on WikiPedia to revise the history of Paul Revere, in order to make Sarah Palin look better, you’re talking about people who have no regard for the truth. That’s a problem of cultural norms. Yes, our distribution of resources is all out of whack, our political system is flawed, and there’s too much money in politics, corporate control, and the like, but if individual citizens were culturally inured against the messaging of powerful vested interests, we would be in a completely different place. That inoculation comes in the slow rebuilding of our cultural infrastructure, in the replacement of money-driven cultural products with human-driven ones, and in the resurrection of shared cultural norms that exist beyond the petty politics of individual taste and move into the realm of shared values, a shared citizenship, and a shared societal mission that still allows maximal room for individual freedom. That feels to me like the way forward, and it starts with art.

This doesn’t necessarily stand in opposition to other means of expressing politics in art; I would argue, though, that when composers put overt political messaging in their music, it transforms that music into something separate from non-representational work. That may provide a way in for some people, but it runs the risk of closing off what are, for me, the deepest doors, where our closest relationship to artistic output lies. In a piece like “Free Speech Zone”, the message is abstract enough that I don’t think an audience member is necessarily going to be distracted by the narrative of the outside story while they’re listening to the piece. “Grosse Tugenden” might be more risky in this regard.

The politics of my music, now, is really a politics of the music industry, the culture industry more broadly, and the relationship between artists and their audiences.

How did New Amsterdam Records originally come about?

New Amsterdam was a practical solution to a very real problem. When NOW Ensemble (my chamber group) was getting ready to record our first album, we looked around for labels that were appropriate and interested, and found none. We didn’t want our record to be a “document” of the work we’d been performing; we wanted it to be an album that our friends and fans put on in the car, on the subway, in their house, or wherever else, because they wanted to listen to good music. This sounds totally obvious to anyone who’s unfamiliar with the weird world of classical music, but very few New Music labels in 2007 approached their recording, marketing, packaging, and distribution with these basic ideas in mind. Short of Nonesuch or Cantaloupe, there really wasn’t anywhere that we even wanted to take our music, so I decided to start a new label. It soon became clear that there were other artists who had the same needs as we did, and New Amsterdam became a collective of outside-the-lines musicians who were making music that was tied to classical or jazz but also sought a broad appeal in the means of interface with its potential audience.

And how has it evolved over time? Are there things about it that you didn’t anticipate when you started it?

The evolution of New Amsterdam Records has been a bit like that story where the guy is trying to kill a mouse and winds up bulldozing his entire house in the process. If you start from certain premises about what you want to achieve with the release of your record, those initial premises unfold into an entire universe of decisions that places you on the front lines of industry-wide changes. Since Sarah Kirkland Snider and William Brittelle joined me as co-directors in 2007, we’ve made a conscious decision to deeply engage with those challenges, which everyone in the music industry is facing. It’s been surprising to get caught up not just in “local” questions about how composers engage in the broader cultural dialogue, but also in the bigger questions about how music is disseminated, more generally.

Our big realization, fairly early on, was that we needed, as an organization, to break out of the small world of New Classical Music and into the broader cultural conversation about Music, in general. Classical music is like the guy on the block who builds an impregnable wall around his house and then wonders why no one ever comes over to hang out. Our basic operational premise was that we should build a door in that wall, and take a walk around the neighborhood to see how everyone else is living, maybe even make some friends. It’s totally bizarre to have one foot in this deeply conservative world of classical music, with its own premises about how cultural dissemination occurs, and to have our other foot in the Wild West of the broader music industry. Negotiating that balance — in which there’s much to like and much to hate in both worlds — is filled with constant surprises.

It’s also been surprising, and flattering, that we’ve come to be seen as a leadership organization, especially since we’ve been making it up as we go along, and the underlying principles and the strategies feel so basic and obvious to us. Most of our success just has to do with being willing to put in the effort! Of course, there’s also a lot of resistance, but it’s like a Thermodynamic Law, where you can’t have one without the other. It’s ultimately humbling — now that we’re engaged with the wide world of music, not merely the small world of classical music, we have to face the same realities and challenges that everyone else faces, in a world where cultural consumption is quite dysfunctional and the potential to support artists through commercial enterprises (of which a record label is one) is constantly threatened. If our goal is to make a significant cultural impact, then we still have a long way to go. But it’s great to feel like we’re on the right path.

How are things proceeding with the microcommissioning project with the Minnesota Orchestra? Between this and your work with New Amsterdam, do you see this model as having a more central role in the commissioning of new works in the years to come?

Stepping back into the orchestral realm has been utterly terrifying. When you’re a graduate student in composition, everything is all about the orchestra, its mechanics and its history. It’s like Museum Studies. At this point, I’ve been writing chamber music, solo music, weird band/ensemble projects, electronic music, now, for the past 7 years, and the orchestra — upon my return — feels like this strange, gargantuan beast. A wonderful beast, a magical beast, but huge and difficult to tame.

I do hope that other orchestras pick up on this crowdsourcing model. There are other orchestras around the country that are starting to understand that there’s a huge potential audience for what they offer, if they are willing to take the frightening step of building a new audience from the ground up. Orchestras are, like most large, established organizations, deeply risk-averse. But there are many great composers who can help an orchestra sell the appeal of what they’re doing, as artists, to the community. This is not a new idea but it requires destroying the old myth of the Isolated Genius, which never served anyone well, anyway.

I think that the crowdsourcing model, applied to commissioning, makes a lot of sense, but it’s not the only low-hanging fruit; I think the #1 place where more innovation in commissioning could take place is in collections of presenters around the country and the world. The current model is incredibly inefficient — you commission a work for your festival, and it’s played that one time, and only then do the artists start shopping it to festivals and presenters down the road. Classical Music moves slowly in every regard, but it has to become more nimble, because culture changes too quickly.

How much of your music is written with a group in mind with which you’ve already worked? When doing so, do you tend to write to that group’s strengths, or to challenge them in some way?

I write a lot for NOW Ensemble, and for my friends, but increasingly I’m taking commissions from outside groups as well. I don’t usually think about challenging performers, but to challenge myself, from piece to piece, and to not be too complacent, or fall back on things I know how to do too well. If you’re honest about writing the best music you can in each case, you’ll wind up challenging yourself and the performers, both, because you’ll adapt your style to match the new instrumentation, and you’ll force the performer to learn how to do what you ask, which will be idiosyncratic in the way that people are. That’s how I like to think about novelty in music, as a reflection of our human individuality, and I think the challenges of individuals learning to coexist are likewise reflected in the relationships that emerge between performers and composers. Forget “make it new”, I say “make it personal”, and that leads to newness.

Your website lists your work written for “conventional” chamber groups as well as “odd” ones. What’s been the most challenging instrument to write for?

The hardest piece for me was a solo viola work for Nadia Sirota. I hadn’t written many solo works at the time, and I wanted a piece that would take advantage of Nadia’s incredible musicianship. I learned a lot about counterpoint, form, and other musical fundamentals through the process of composing that work — which is now one of my favorites that I’ve ever written.

The other very difficult one was Sh’lomo, for completely different reasons. Once I really started getting into the deep parts of the composition, I realized that I needed to invent a new language for each of the instrument groups — especially the percussion, the synthesizers, and the voices — while writing and compiling texts that were new to me, and constructing a large-scale narrative of a kind I’d never attempted. The sheer amount of new-things-to-learn in that process was quite overwhelming, but again, like most challenges, you learn a lot and wind up stronger for the experience. When I get back to working on it, I’ll be a much better composer for that instrument, and hopefully in general.

(Photo by Joshua Frankel)