Judd Greenstein.

Golden Calf - 3/28/11

On the Deaths of the Old and the Young - 1/25/11

Microcommission - 11/18/10

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Golden Calf - 3/28/11

It's been really difficult to congeal my thoughts, about this recent piece in New York magazine about me and my friends and the music we're making, into a coherent response. I had assumed that my mental block was coming from the voice inside, telling me "don't respond to critics!" — a wise admonition, but not the relevant one in this case, because my response isn't really about the criticism, but about the deeper issues that this article raises. I do think there's a trivial response that I could have: that the author doesn't truly understand this music ("boo hoo"), that saying that Missy and Valgeir sound the same is a frank betrayal of this fact — because yes, they do, in the same way that Mozart and Haydn, Brahms and Schumann, Palestrina and Victoria, Babbitt and Carter, the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, Biggie and Tupac each sound the same, and if you think that any of these pairings are ludicrous, welcome to how I felt when I saw Davidson's assertion about my friends — but Justin Davidson is a very good writer, and even if he doesn't get the music, I think he gets at things about music that are more interesting than the specifics of the particular concerts he heard and what he thought of them.

Matthew begins to get to the heart of what's most interesting here in his exceedingly thoughtful response to the article. I think he nails the crucial point when he says (emphasis his): "what's the conflict [these composers are] rendering moot? I think you could make a plausible case that it's the very idea that aesthetic conflict is a necessary flag for generations to rally around." Yes. But where did that very idea come from, in the first place? Who is invested in composers-as-historical figures? Certainly not most audiences; except the practitioners and former practitioners (often -turned-critics or -turned-bloggers) in the audience, and except for venues where the audiences consist of nearly all (current and former) practitioners, most audience members are interested in an aesthetic experience that has nothing to do with history beyond their personal history with the music itself. Classical Music reflexively tilts toward the historical, time and time again, rendering itself less and less relevant to audiences who are divorced from, ignorant of, and do not care about, that history. I have Schumann on as I write this but am deeply sympathetic to this ahistorical position and believe that, like it or not, it is the position in which our audiences are situated. These are our audiences and if you want to reach History you must go through the Present.

This isn't new. Audiences for any music have always been invested in that music primarily for its emotional, spiritual, and social qualities, not its position in some historical trajectory. Audiences have real uses for music that are far from abstract. On the other hand, the people who are most invested in the historical, usually teleological narrative of Western Art Music are the people who have built careers around it, be they composers, performers, historians, writers, or administrators. Historians and composers, alike, have always had good reasons to produce teleological explanations of music history for the same reason that Ezra and Jeremiah may have in the old, Bible-writing days; we all want a history that points to our own time and activity as a necessary outgrowth of the past, a collection of rivers that gathers force and carries our boat down to the glorious sea. But sometimes those rivers lead us far afield and sometimes there is no sea, in the end.

More on that narrative and its emphasis on "aesthetic conflict". It is undeniably true that the Eroica, the Rite of Spring, and In C (to choose three obvious examples) are revolutionary works, in that they changed the musical paradigm of Western art music, moving forward, and influenced the way that countless artists saw the possibilities inherent in their craft. But they are not successful because they are revolutionary. They are successful because they are great. "Aesthetic conflict" or "revolution" is ancillary to this greatness. I was on a panel recently with the composer Paul Moravec, who said that the Eroica had the power to seem strange and new each time he listened to it. That's not it being revolutionary, that's it being successful, a work that inhabits its own artistic space, purely and completely, creating its own terms and fulfilling its promise totally and utterly. The state of music before and after the Eroica is interesting to cultural historians and relevant to the course of music history but should not be taken as a guide to understanding the power of the work itself. Likewise, the fact that it was written in 1800 is not irrelevant to its reception, and no one would write it now or in 1600, but its position in time is a clue to the possibility of its existence but not the possibility of its greatness. Is the Johannes-Passion "revolutionary"? Are the Brahms Opus 117-119 piano pieces? The Ravel Piano Trio? Lutoslawski's Third Symphony? These are, to my mind, masterpieces of the same order as the works I mentioned earlier, but they sit outside the paradigm of revolutionary change and "aesthetic conflict" that is so tempting as a description of musical history but so dangerous when applied to what composers should actually do.

Let me draw a distinction, here, between the "aesthetic conflict" of a given work, and the concept of "aesthetic conflict" as motivator of an artistic movement. The former can certainly be positive, though here I would refer to Alex's excellent unpacking of the conflict-is-paramount suggestion that feels crucial to Davidson's description. Still, what I meant when I replied that "I don't completely disagree with this" on Twitter is that, to the extent that Davidson, or anyone, is arguing for a richer, deeper, broader pool of influences and a more complex network of interconnectivities in the compositions that are coming out of this post-genre world of notated composition, I agree. That's a self-critique as much as anything; I don't think I have said everything I need to say and I am looking forward to exploring more and different musical combinations as new opportunities to do so come along. Also, frankly, I could use a bit more time to practice my craft, to work on counterpoint and to improvise and to do things that are not goal-oriented and directed toward fulfilling specific commissions but which simply improve my skill as a composer. Hopefully, those opportunities will come with time. I know that my colleagues all feel the same. I hope this is obvious and it hardly needs saying.

What excites me, here, is that as I grow as a composer, I will be doing so in the direction of audiences who have an authentic emotional investment in my music, and who bring themselves as new listeners, detached from any historical baggage, to my work. Davidson writes, "these composers in their thirties worry less about categories, narrative, and originality than about atmosphere, energy, and sound," and assuming he means "historical-musical narrative" (because obviously we care about "narrative"; how else to explain my evening-length work about King Solomon, Missy's opera about Isabelle Eberhardt, etc.), I'd agree, adding only that we also care about craft and all the usual concerns therein, such as harmony, counterpoint, voiceleading, and instrumentation. We "worry", in other words, not about what the music says to other music or to other musicians, but rather, about how the music sounds, and feels, and what it does to other human beings when they encounter it. That feels like the beginning and the end of what should concern a composer and I am excited to be at a point, yes, in history, where it seems we can cut away the nonsense and get down to the exceedingly difficult matter of creating meaningful art, unhinged from history or genre, and building relationships between audiences and that art.

Building, not destroying. We may live in a Herzog-ian world of chaos and disorder but what many of us seek in music is a realm apart from that condition, a refuge that mirrors our own capacity to cope with the very conditions of existence. As composers, the shape that this building takes will be different from person to person, personal history to personal history, and constructing any overarching narrative to describe our activity must account for the overall state of perpetual flux that we will face from here on out. The teleological narrative was always wrong, or we have reached its end. There was never any sea, or this is it.

Finally, perhaps because it's nearly Passover, my mind takes me to the Exodus story, a potent metaphor for the condition that I feel we are in. There's a great book by Michael Walzer called Exodus and Revolution where he examines the Exodus story in relation to its history of use by social movements throughout Western history. He concludes that the power of the myth is that we are always "in Egypt" and always striving to make our way through the "wilderness" to the "land of milk and honey", and that only by collective action can we bring ourselves forward — not to reach a destination, but progressing hopefully into the unknown future. The alternative is to go back to Egypt, or more specifically, to build a Golden Calf.:

That moment in the Bible (and in the movie) is so powerful because it comes just after the victory has been won — the Jews are free! — and immediately they backslide into the power structure of that which they defeated. But couldn't Moses have seen that this would happen? When he goes up to the mountain, leaving his people behind, they are left not only with no object to worship, but also nothing to measure themselves against, no Egyptian idols to deny, to (if you will) "rage" against. And so they build an idol, and worship it as they will so many times in the later stories, sliding away from the difficult task of believing in a God who cannot be seen, who exists in no fixed place, and instead choose to lean on the crutch of idolatry. It is a perpetual challenge to live in the world as it is. This is the deep message that one finds in many Talmudic interpretations and commentary on the ancient stories. Finding meaning in the world requires constant vigilance and the past can certainly be a guide, to a point, in dialogue with the present but never coalescing into an idol to be worshipped, or even to be smashed. Like Walzer, I believe that we must be vigilant in working together, not against each other, to find our way, perpetually, through the wilderness. And for composers, I believe that there are, thankfully, no commandments, save one: write good music. The rest, as they say, is noise.

I am in the process of updating my website, but we're not there yet, so I unfortunately can't post comments, but feel free to email me or find me on twitter, if you like.


On the Deaths of the Old and the Young - 1/25/11

A composer friend of mine and I were sharing a room at a wedding in outer Nashville, some years ago, and we were staying in a hotel that was on the highway - with no car. We went to find something to eat, and walked along the highway until we came to a strip mall. In the strip mall, there was no restaurant, but there was an alluring sign - "Louvin Brothers Country Music Hall of Fame". The name "Louvin" rang a bell but I couldn't quite place it. We found a restaurant and afterward went to check out this Hall of Fame, which proved to be a converted diner of sorts, with a soda fountain (still selling hot dogs and cokes) along one end of the store, and the rest of the place filled with merchandise - a Hall of Fame for sale. It was largely memorabilia from the Grand Ole Opry days, signed photos, and recordings, but a few items stuck out, like a "George Wallace for Governor" sign (Mr. Louvin worked in Tennessee but drove each day from and back to Alabama). What stuck out most of all was a small (tiny) raised area in the back, just large enough to fit one ancient-looking man and two much younger colleagues, each holding a guitar, all facing each other. It took a long while for them to pay us any mind, and after browsing the contents of the store, we sat at the counter and focused on listening (though we'd been listening the whole time). The three singer/guitarists (two men and one woman) were teaching and reviewing songs, and having little debates in the middle, some seemingly for our benefit. I don't remember the songs or the content of the debates, except that Kris Kristofferson came out well (the first time I thought of him as a singer more than an actor). Eventually, we all greeted each other and we learned a little bit about who Charlie Louvin was, and where we were. It turned out to be an important experience for me; I'd never been much into country music until that point, but I bought (at Mr. Louvin's extremely strong urging) a 2 CD SET of the Louvin Brothers' greatest hits, as well as a tribute CD that contemporary artists had done of their songs. Perhaps it was meeting the man himself, and having a sense of the context for the songs, or perhaps it was their simple greatness, but that set is an absolute favorite of mine, and inspired many further delvings into country music - and recognizing Louvin Brothers songs nearly everywhere. I got to see Mr. Louvin one more time, at Rodeo Bar in Manhattan, a strange show where the first half was quite tight and the second half featured a drunk octogenarian Louvin Brother purging his demons (a few of them) in front of a crowd that mostly seemed to understand who he was, and therefore was willing to give him a wide berth. I recently requested a Louvin Brothers song from a pickup jug band in Moonshine on Columbia Street (during a Darcy-organized party, of course).

A death like that of Mr. Charlie Louvin is sad, but it's also happy; it provides an opportunity to remember the good things about someone's life. Charlie's brother Ira died suddenly in a car crash, during the height of their career, in the early 1960s. They were an inseperable duo; they were literally two halves of an instrument, and of a composer. It's hard to imagine how Charlie Louvin's life changed when his brother died. And now I can safely say that I'll keep the Louvin Brothers song requests coming, happy to know that the instrument is whole again, wherever that may be, and that Charlie is finally harmonizing with Ira once again, even if only in the sense that the things of the world harmonize with each other. Perhaps it was only the awareness of what had been lost that kept that harmonizing from happening in the years since Ira's death.

I have reason to be thinking of such things at this time. Last week, my friend and colleague, Steve Bodner, died suddenly of complications related to a treatable but tragically untreated disease. He was a few years older than me, generally in good health, with insurance and a stable job that he rendered unstable by bringing to it a workaholic sensibility beyond any I've ever seen. Steve loved music, but it went beyond that; his life was defined, as few lives are, by his passion to know more scores, to know them better, to hear new things, to explore new sounds, and above all, to bring all this knowledge and this music to as many new ears as possible. He transformed the sleepiest Symphonic Wind band you could possibly imagine, at Williams College, a 2000-student liberal arts school with no music scholarships, no arts focus, and no particular interest in the wind repertoire, he took that group and turned it into one of the most exciting new music scenes in New England. I'm not exaggerating. Steve's programming was INSANE. Like, they performed De Materie (Steve was a huge Andriessen fan). Here's a Michel van der Aa American premiere. Here's another crazy program with some of Ted Hearne's music, among a million other things. Read these descriptions. I went to some of the shows because Steve championed my music. They played Get Up/Get Down, not an easy piece, and they played it well. They brought it to the Regional Symphonic Band Conference. With music of David Lang and David Kechley. They got booed. Steve loved it.

Steve came down to New York all the time, whenever he could, to hear shows. I saw him at LPR as much as anyone, which is amazing, since he lived 3 and half hours away. You probably saw him too. I know for sure that he would have been a frequent visitor to the Ecstatic Music Festival. He would have apologized to me for only making three out of the four shows last week. He would have told me that he didn't think much of something, loved something else, thought that this went on too long. He would have, at the marathon, heard at least one piece that he would have programmed in Williamstown on next year's season. He would have heard at least one composer, new to him, who he would have eventually commissioned. It would have been completely out of the blue for that composer ("William and Mary?"), but if you could step back and look at Steve's life, it made perfect sense.

Composers weren't the only ones to benefit from Steve's musical appetite. I have had the experience, four or five or six or more times, I can't really keep count, of having a person come up to me at a show, at LPR or Joe's Pub or Carnegie or whatever. They say "hi...are you Judd?" in that way that makes me think they're going to give me a demo for New Amsterdam, or tell me about their new wind trio that would be perfect for the Ecstatic Music Festival. But instead, they just want to say hey, they played third trombone in my piece at Williams College 5 years ago. With Steve. It was awesome. Anyway, good to see you.

This is where things change. It's at a small liberal arts college, filled with students chosen for their interest in learning and capacity to be open-minded, students who, thanks to the fucked up system of caste and class in our society, will exercise a disproportionate influence on what the future looks like, in this country and beyond. My friends from Williams do some serious shit. They are people you read about, or don't read about, making policy decisions, tackling big problems, living their lives with an active fervor that, for those of us who have a sense of our privilege and the context of our access to the better things, comes as naturally as breathing. We had ability and we had the pole position, and being around each other at Williams made us push each other to do that much more. It's what happens at places like Williams, for better or for worse - and none of the things that I've done in my life would have happened the way they did without having gone through that set of experiences. But what is that set? Of what does it consist? It certainly doesn't have to include a maniacal force of nature conductor and pedagogue who believes it is his duty in the world to bring the Best New Music There Is to As Many People As Possible, and who has found a perfect platform of impressionable young minds to sculpt into Acolytes of the Good in Music. It certainly will not, in all likelihood, include one of those people. But for hundreds of students at Williams College, their experience for four years was colored, sometimes deeply so, by their encounter with, and particularly by their participation in, Steve's band. This is where things change. In college, you do things that you don't realize are remarkable. I'm just picking up Foucault again, and boy would it be great to spend six hours a week discussing this with some other smart people. In college, it seems like the norm, because it is the norm. Steve made the New the Norm. He wasn't alone - that department is a little miracle unto itself, and I could go on about that, and this is about Steve - but he brought more to the position than anyone could have expected. He made the position permanent. Until he died.

And that's what I have to say about that, for now. We are all irreplaceable in the world, but some live their lives seeming to know this, and choose paths that answer to no one, never imagining what another might do in their stead. Steve was one of these people and it's impossible to come to terms with his absence, as so much of how I saw our relationship was in terms of a future that will never be, pieces of mine he'll never premiere or perform, students he'll never have who will never come up to me to tell me their lives were changed by him, without telling me in so many words. But what a gift, to live one's life in such a way as to conjure worlds, in the minds of others, that your absence renders impossible. Steve - thank you.

I'll be thinking of Steve throughout the Festival, and my participation in it is, without question and quite literally, in his memory.


Microcommission - 11/18/10

Hello! And welcome especially to everyone who's coming from the Minnesota Orchestra's MicroCommission page. I'm incredibly excited to have this opportunity to write a new work for the Minnesota Orchestra, and to participate in this unique approach to connecting commissioning with audience engagement. In the spirit of engagement, I thought my first order of business would be to reveal (above) the entire photo from which the picture on the Minnesota Orchestra site was taken. As you can see, all my publicity photos feature animals with laser beam eyes - this one just happens to have eagles.

This page that you're currently viewing was, for about five years, a repository for my thoughts and ideas on any variety of topics. As my musical and entrepreneurial activities have expanded in scope, the time left for writing diminished, and almost exactly one year ago, I stopped updating this page, vowing (ok, that's a bit strong - "intending"? "promising"?) to someday get a new website with an easier interface and a clearer format. That website design is now in progress, and I'll launch it at some point in early 2011, but it seemed important to put up something current for all the new folks who were coming to this page out of an interest in the new addition to their orchestral community. I love community! I love breaking-down-barriers, I don't believe in sequestering artists away from the rest of society, I want to know my audience and my fans. There have been times in my life where I nearly stopped writing music - I've been a composer since I was 13 years old - but what's brought me back each time is the belief that art is the closest model we have for an ideal in human interaction, and that creating new work for welcoming communities is one of the few means we have of fostering a genuine sense of collective experience. This project feels like a perfect extension of all those ideals.

I'll be writing more about the MicroCommission on the Inside the Classics blog, but here's the quick summary: over the course of the next year and a half, the orchestra raises my $20,000 fee (this is the first time I've ever had a public fee, which is weird, since it's also the largest fee I've ever received) through a series of mostly-small donations from the community that will hear the work's premiere in 2012. It's similar to the Bang on a Can People's Commissioning Fund, but it's A) more specifically targeted, perhaps because it's a new program, and B) transplanted to the orchestral realm. Here's what the wonderful conductor and Inside the Classics co-director (with violist Sam Bergman), Sarah Hicks, says about the project:

If the idea of a microcommission has you scratching your heads, don't worry - yes, it's a word we made up, and no, it's not a really, really small commission! Rather, this is an initiative we're launching to allow anyone and everyone to be a part of the commissioning process, which has traditionally been in the domain of the major donor.

The microcommission idea arose from a desire to modify that traditional process (a few large donations) by opening it up to everyone who's interested in being a part of a huge creative endeavor (many small donations). The microfunding/microfinancing movement has been around for years, as have commissioning clubs, and those were certainly part of the inspiration. Then I stumbled upon Kickstarter, and the wheels started turning; wouldn't it be amazing to commission a major orchestral work by an exciting young composer, supported by what is essentially grassroots online fundraising?

For me, music is more meaningful when I have a personal relationship with it, and our hope is that the hundreds of co-commissioners who support this project will feel a tangible connection to the work they are helping create. And that very philosophy about the importance of the connection between music and listener was a big part of the reason that we're so excited to have Judd on board. Apart from being an up-and-coming composer whose creative output - inspired by everything from hip hop to Romantic era composers - is instantly compelling, Judd shares the strong belief that it is part of our responsibility as musicians, composers and conductors not simply to make music, but to influence and guide the experience that audiences have with that music. It's what Inside the Classics is all about.

This is so great. Inside the Classics is' a really cool program, a series-within-the-series at the Minnesota Orchestra (which is a consistent innovator and leader in the orchestral world, as well as one of the best ensembles of its kind, anywhere) that takes specific, large works (this year, it's Dvorak's 7th Symphony, The Rite of Spring and Daphnis et Chloé), contextualizes them in the first half of the program, then performs them in the second. This is so obviously a Good Idea that it's hardly necessary to explain why - except to say that it is an Even More Good Idea to do this with a new composition, and then The Best Idea Ever to not just drop the audience in at concert-time but to engage them in the entire process, bones and all, of making a new work come to life. So here we are, and I would be applauding Sarah and Sam and everyone else even if I were not the happy guinea pig composer to be chosen for this experiment, though happy to be the pig, I am.

I'll get into some of the many questions surrounding this process as we move forward in the coming months, perhaps on my new website (as alluded to, above), but certainly over on the Inside the Classics Blog. There will be cross-postings and twitter hashtags and all the things that you might expect. For now, though, I simply want to express my gratitude, as well as my excitement, and to help the process of introduction-to-Judd by throwing out this somewhat worn but still functional website as a means of so introducing myself. There's lots of music to be heard and links to some of the key things that I do, besides composing lots of music, but for the sake of efficiency, here's a summary:

I am the co-director, along with fellow composers William Brittelle and Sarah Kirkland Snider, of New Amsterdam Records, a record label and artists' service organization based in New York City. We put on shows and release albums by artists who are thinking about music not just in terms of "the classical tradition" but with the wide view, making "music without filters, made by musicians who bring the breadth of their listening experience and the love they have for many different kinds of music into their own playing, writing, and producing. It is music without walls, without an agenda, and without a central organizing principle. New Amsterdam strives to develop as quickly and as broadly as the music itself, opening doors for artists to enter, creating new spaces for them to fill, and touching the outer edges where musics meet." (I wrote that part of our mission statement so I feel ok quoting myself from the NewAm website!)

I am the managing director of NOW Ensemble, a chamber music quintet with a unique instrumentation (flute, clarinet, electric guitar, double bass, and piano) that also counts three composers among its members. We perform only new works by mainly young composers and our spirit is right in line with what I wrote about New Amsterdam, above. I'm in the process of producing our second album right now, with the fantastic engineer, Jesse Lewis; it will be out in May.

I am the curator of the Ecstatic Music Festival at Merkin Hall in New York, which is (again, I'll quote my own copy) "a 14-concert festival of collaborations that explore and showcase musical standouts from the fertile terrain between classical and vernacular traditions. The Ecstatic Music Festival is a festival both of and about the present musical moment, one in which composers and performers bring together the best aspects of all their influences, yielding viscerally engaging music of substantial depth and intimacy that serves emotional, not technical ends."

I imagine that the kind of thing that interests me is beginning to come into focus, at this point?

If you'd like to get a further sense of how I think about things, what I've done, and what interests me as a musician and a person in the world, please check out the archives (linked above). A word of warning: I don't self-censor, I'm a political person with strong views about the world, and I have no fear of disagreement and love a good argument. You'll probably disagree with some of the things I write. That's ok with me and I hope it's ok with you! If you'd like to ask about anything, just send along an e-mail and I will try to answer your question as best I can.

That seems like as good an introduction as I can give at this time. I'll look forward to moving forward with this project, to meeting many new people, and to writing my first major orchestral work. Thanks to everyone who supports the Minnesota Orchestra, not just in this but in all their endeavors, for creating a culture of experimentation where new ideas can take root and - hopefully - flourish. And thank you for welcoming me into your community.


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