First Contact: The Greenstein Interview
25 Mar 2011
Inside the Classics

Way back at the beginning of this month, when I was kicking around New York for a few days following the orchestra’s annual Carnegie Hall concert, our MicroCommission composer Judd Greenstein was kind enough to invite me to his Brooklyn apartment for an extended interview on music, the music world, and his increasingly visible place in it. I’m holding back a few bits and pieces for later use, but most of our talk is in the five video clips below. Judd is an incredibly engaging guy with a fascinating take on how concert music will adapt and evolve in the 21st century, so if you’ve taken even a passing interest in our MicroCommission Project, you’ll want to check these clips out.

As I was setting up the camera, I asked Judd about the fact that the 1970s seem to have a particular hold on him, musically speaking. His response was that the ’70s represented what he sees as a unique and wonderful coming together of musicians, from avant garde composers to Herbie Hancock to Motown and soul. With the camera now running, I confessed that this was news to me, and asked for a deeper explanation…

In addition to Judd’s work as a composer and performer, he is the co-founder of New Amsterdam Records, a boutique label that has quickly become a major force in New York’s ever-changing new music scene. To Judd, New Amsterdam isn’t just a way for emerging musicians to be heard by a wider audience, it’s a vehicle designed to drive music fans to live performance at a time when many fear precipitous declines in arts attendance.

I’m mildly obsessed with a particular moment in recent musical history, the moment in 1958 when High Fidelity magazine published an infamous screed by composer Milton Babbitt entitled, “Who Cares If You Listen?” in which he argued that composers needed to free themselves from the demands of a concert-going public that had little to no interest in avant-garde ideas like atonalism and serialism. To me, the article stands as a milepost – the place where garden-variety music lovers and musical intellectuals bowed politely to each other and then decamped for almost entirely segregated futures. Judd has a more nuanced view, though…

The larger question that comes out of the Babbitt discussion is one that the New York scene has been having for decades: whether composers should embrace thorny academic musical ideas or edgy, alternative, even pop-influenced concepts. (Some refer to this debate as Uptown vs. Downtown – others avoid the labels.) Here, Judd talks about composers who write for other composers rather than for audiences, and what it means when musical institutions choose to value those composers over others who care more about making connections with listeners.

Finally, you may have noticed that I didn’t ask Judd anything about “our” piece, the one you’re helping us commission. (You are helping, right?) That’s because, at the time of our conversation, he was finishing up another major project, and had barely begun to think about the specific ideas for the piece we’ll be performing a year from now. But I did ask him to talk briefly about his actual process for creating a new piece of music.

This is probably a good time to mention that Judd, as well as a host of other New Amsterdam composers and performers, will be here in the Twin Cities in just a couple of weeks for the Southern Theater’s wildly ambitious String Theory festival. (By the way, if you still think of the Southern as exclusively a dance venue, you’re missing out big time. The dance is still there, and still great, but they’ve added an incredibly wide-ranging and creative concert series, curated by Kate Nordstrum.) String Theory events will be held at venues across the Cities, and Judd will be featured in a New Amsterdam showcase on Saturday afternoon, April 16th, at MPR’s UBS Forum in downtown St. Paul. Tickets are ridiculously affordable

<February 2020>

Become a Fan

Become a fan of Sarah Hicks to hear about new music, videos, event info & special offers.