critic, scholar, performer
(not necessarily in that order)
Sunday, April 11, 2010
Above is the recording from my debut as a bi-weekly correspondent on WNUR's show Being There, courtesy of Alex Lewis. I spoke briefly about Judd Greenstein's music, and played the first half of his delicate, sensual Folk Music. I'll be back on the program a week from Saturday, April 24, to discuss Music Marathon. In preparation for this piece, I delved into Greenstein's recorded output, much of which can be downloaded from his website.
I think that Greenstein will become a major American voice in the next ten years or so. He embodies a lot of the same compositional goals and ideals as his friend Nico Muhly, though he hasn't been quite as high-profile as Nico. But he captures what I really love about the new, young generation of American composers: a complete lack of stylistic dogma or any kind of musical angst. Greenstein is not afraid to make his music beautiful, unabashedly so, and this no-holds-barred attitude makes for a thrilling listening experience.
The two most striking pieces available on his website are At the End of a Really Good Day and What They Don't Like (for Chuck D). It's not easy for "classical" musicians to experiment with rap in any way: the better attempts sound like ethnic tourism, and worse ones like straight-up racism. But Greenstein pulls it off in What They Don't Like, building a growling, groovy clarinet and rock band around samples of Public Enemy's Chuck D and James Brown. His program notes for it are awesome as well, examining hip hop as a cultural and market phenomenon (he's writing a dissertation on hip hop at Princeton)--they pose the exact questions that a white classical composer experimenting with hip hop should ask before attempting a work like this.
At the end of a really great day, like Folk Music, is one of those pieces that falls under Kyle Gann's description of Greenstein as a composer of "happy music," (read that here). It's just so fantastically enjoyable to listen to, exactly what you want in your earbuds as you walk to campus on a warm spring day. We get short minimalist patterns set up in flute and strings but quickly broken by an intrusion of a clarinet, which then soars over the backbeat. The groove occasionally sputters to a stop, with gorgeous interjections from cello and violin, but it's always a very uplifting sound. Although written in memory of a friend who passed away, it celebrates her life, acknowledging that she died "at the end of a really great day." This positive spirit inhabits the whole work; even brief moments of melancholy cannot bring it down.
I also liked the Four on the Floor, a muscular, driving string quartet; Elastic Iridescencefor electric guitar, which takes Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint as a model but then creates a wonderful soundscape of colors; and the twitchy A Moment of Clarity, which reminded me of Muhly's music, in a good way.
Everyone should already own violist Nadia Sirota's debut album First Things First, which includes two of Greenstein's best works (as well as Muhly's bouncy little viola etudes and a couple solid pieces by Marcos Baltar). Sirota crafts an emotional arc out of the incessant, nerve-wracking solo Escape, fifteen minutes of raw minimalist viola. Each gesture builds on the last one, so that an unrelenting two-note phrase transforms into long-breathed, twisting melodies.
And then we have The Night Gatherers, one of the best pieces written in the past decade. This stunningly beautiful work for viola quintet drips with sentimentality, a postminimalist Verklarte Nacht. Greenstein has mastered the art of writing for strings, evident in the atmospheric opening which recalls early Schoenberg as well as the string quartets of Ravel and Debussy. Melodies cascade through a haze of strings before finally coalescing into a single strand, a winding viola vocalise worthy of Bellini. Greenstein wrote the work as a memorial for a friend's grandmother, using her paintings as a starting point for inspiration. It's powerfully evocative, programmatic as well as the most absolute of music, and filled to the brim with contemporary techniques which speak to contemporary life. Schubert composed his Death and the Maiden as a 26-year-old; Schoenberg finished Verklarte Nacht at age 25; and Greenstein wrote The Night Gatherers at 24. The comparison is apt.