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Who I Am and What I Do
28 Jan 2011
Inside the Classics

A note from Sam & Sarah: This weekend, we’ll be introducing our Orchestra Hall audiences to the MicroCommission project we officially rolled out a couple of months back, and hopefully getting them as excited as we are about composer Judd Greenstein’s music. Judd’s taped a fun video greeting for the crowds in attendance at our ItC shows, and as of this moment, he also becomes a full-fledged co-author of this here blog! Over the next year and change leading up to the premiere of “our” piece, Judd will chime in here with his thoughts on composing, the music business, and whatever else he feels like. So without further ado, here’s Judd…

This week seemed like an appropriate time to introduce myself more fully to the Minnesota Orchestra and Inside the Classics communities. You all know — I hope (?) — that I’m a composer, and perhaps you’ve heard that I also am deeply involved with forming new events and organizations to present and promote contemporary music. For me, the job of a composer doesn’t end when the last bar in a score has been written. A piece of notated music may emerge from a single mind (in this case, mine), but that mind and that piece are pulled in directions that have everything to do with the thread that carries the dots and lines on the page into the actual ears of real, live human beings, in a concert hall or a club, on a CD or on the radio, on an internet stream or in a downloaded podcast. For the past 13 years, in addition to cultivating my skills as a composer, I’ve devoted a significant portion of my life and energy to building institutions that bridge that gap between the page and the audience. These include New Amsterdam Records, a record label and artists’ service organization that supports mixed-genre new music in New York and beyond (we’ll be participating in the String Theory Music Festival at the Southern Theater this April), and NOW Ensemble, a chamber ensemble devoted to performing works by emerging composers.

One of the newest of these institutions is called the Ecstatic Music Festival, and it takes place at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City over the next two months (I’m the Artistic Director and curator). It’s a festival of 14 concerts with a very specific agenda — to present collaborations between musicians from different musical ‘scenes’, classical and non-classical, all of whom are open-minded and eager to explore ideas that are new to them. Collaboration is a wonderful means of allowing artists to work outside of their comfort zones. As musicians, whether we’re performers or composers (or producers or songwriters, etc.), we are constantly being asked to do the thing that brought us to the public’s attention in the first place; it’s a reiterative cycle that can be difficult for an artist to break. If you’re a classical violinist who’s hired to play recitals of dead-composer music, or if you’re a touring rock band with a bevy of well-known singles, or if you’re a composer who has a developing reputation for writing orchestral music,  you operate in these worlds because you love them, but you’re also trapped by the economic reality in which doing the same thing again and again is how you survive, economically. You might want to go in a different direction, but your fans don’t want it (they want to hear the songs from your last album), or the string quartet that’s commissioning you doesn’t want it (they commissioned you because they liked the way your previous music sounded), or the cultural presenter doesn’t want it (they like your Bach, but don’t love your choice of new composers to promote). There are exceptions, and composers are particularly privileged in this regard (the Minnesota Orchestra, for example, has not given me any restriction on my piece, for which I am incredibly grateful), but even we have a hard time finding outlets for musical endeavors that exist on the edge of the world we’re supposed to inhabit.

So, back to collaboration. I believe that the introduction of a new element can spur a creative shift in our careers as artists, and it’s my hope that the collaborations that are featured on the Ecstatic Music Festival will not be limited in their impact to the shows on the festival, themselves, but will lead the participants to carry what they’ve experienced and learned through that collaboration into their musical lives, moving forward. My collaboration on the Festival is with a singer, songwriter, producer, and now composer (!) named Olga Bell. I met Olga at a Carnegie Hall workshop (with Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov) in 2009; she was working with the composer Jeremy Flower, and I had been commissioned to write a work for three singers and chamber ensemble. We became friends and hit it off, musically, and decided we should work together. Olga is a classical pianist with conservatory training who decided to take a detour away from the classical world, and instead start a band. Our collaboration for the Festival involves us both moving toward the world of the other: Olga is writing her first large-scale composition, and I’m forming my first band/ensemble dedicated to playing my own music. The Festival is giving us both an opportunity to try things that wouldn’t just “happen” in the course of our musical lives, but which are an outgrowth of who we are, musically.

My group is called The Yehudim, and features Olga as the lead singer (and keyboardist), along with two other keyboardists (I’m one of them), playing my collection of 1970s and 80s vintage synthesizers and a Fender Rhodes. We’ll also have electric guitar, electric bass, a percussion quartet, and three more amazing female singers. I’ve wanted to form my own ensemble for a long while; I’m deeply inspired by the freedom and openness of musical expression in the 1970s, when many musicians of many different stripes formed their own bands and ensembles, seemingly without regard to genre or expectation. This trend ranged across the musical landscape, from Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, Philip Glass, and Louis Andriessen, to Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, to Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, and Marvin Gaye, to Yes and Pink Floyd, to Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé, and beyond. I chose those examples from the many more that one could cite because these are all critical influences on my own music in The Yehudim, and in my life as a composer.

Besides the instrumentation and the “sound” of The Yehudim, the other key feature is that we’ll be telling bible stories in a non-traditional fashion. I was inspired last year by a performance of Bach’s towering Johannes-Passion at the Trinity Church in New York; I loved how the story was told from multiple perspectives, providing a doubly subjective account of the tale — both John and Bach make choices about what to include and how to frame the story. The result is a picture, not just of the Crucifixion and Resurrection themselves, but of the emotional meaning that these events have in the minds of John and Bach. I am Jewish, and we don’t have Passions, but we do have stories that deserve deeper exploration. I’m fascinated by the story of King Solomon, which includes not just his own life, but also the millennium of texts that were written in his name. The Proverbs, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), and numerous other books, some lost and some extant, were written with the author claiming the text to have in fact been written in Solomon’s divinely-wise hand. But Solomon’s wisdom, though given divinely, could not save him from leaving his directed path, breaking the rules, and ultimately condemning the Kingdom of Israel to a divided future. This is a fascinating story and I’ve enjoyed exploring it from a variety of angles. My piece, Sh’lomo, will look at the Solomon story through multiple lenses — through the story itself, as told in Kings and Chronicles, through the texts ascribed to Solomon, and by depicting certain characters from throughout the narrative, allowing them to tell their story, just as Bach did.

Writing a piece for your great orchestra does not require me to work to break down any barriers in our cultural infrastructure; all I have to do is be a composer. And that’s great. But I think that understanding my background will help give you a better understanding of the perspective that informs my composition. I’m sure I’ll be referring to some of these issues in future posts, but I’ll also get into the nitty-gritty of the compositional process, and what it looks like to write for the orchestra.

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