‘Indie classical’ goes uptown: Judd Greenstein on new music

Judd Greenstein. ()
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Hanging above the couch in the spacious, sunny Cobble Hill townhouse that Judd Greenstein shares with several of his friends and fellow composers are two neatly framed sheets of music by the early 20th century French composer Maurice Ravel.

After generations of being liked by audiences but underappreciated by his fellow composers, Ravel, it turns out, is now widely idolized by artists in their 20s and 30s.

“There’s no sense of rhetorical gestures that aren’t captivating and interesting and beautiful,” the 30-year-old Greenstein, who’s bearded but boyish and was wearing a sweater with the old logo for Moog synthesizers on the breast pocket, said of Ravel the other day. “There’s a sense of opulence being acceptable. He’s not a structurally-oriented composer. The works are very complex and very rich but very parse-able.”

Greenstein tends to pause for a few seconds before answering a question, but the answer then comes out in a long, passionate flow. Speaking about Ravel, he could have been describing the music written by himself and his colleagues, who, not unlike the French master, are creating work that is complex but accessible, rigorous but unintimidating.

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Theirs is the first generation for whom it’s natural, rather than transgressive, to make music that could be classified as both “pop” and “classical,” whose albums are reviewed by both Gramophone and Pitchfork. The members of this scene—which in New York has often been called (since there has to be a name) “indie classical” or “postclassical”—has started record labels (Greenstein co-founded New Amsterdam Records, one of the most prominent), gotten fans and good reviews, and produced memorable concerts at downtown and Brooklyn venues like (Le) Poisson Rouge and Issue Project Room.

What they’ve lacked is a dependable uptown home, until now. A little over a year ago, Merkin Concert Hall, the slightly dowdy but scrappy venue a few blocks north of Lincoln Center, contacted Greenstein and some others in the new music community to ask what they might do if they were given a broad swath of concerts to program.

Merkin has always had strong programming—including an excellent Tuesday afternoon series focusing on young classical artists—but little sense of individual identity or strong curatorial vision. It gets the little old ladies who shop at Zabar’s, but its administration has been itching to make it a citywide destination, with more of the sheen (and buy-in from uptown's deep pocketed patrons and institutional funders) that ought to go with the address.

Ecstatic Music Festival from Kaufman Center on Vimeo.

“They knew they wanted to do a festival,” he said, “and I think they wanted something that would define them, that would be the centerpiece of their programming. The music I know best brings together composers from the classical side with people reaching out in sophisticated directions from the pop side. It’s the kind of music underrepresented in the kind of hall that Merkin is. There hasn’t been a lot of music that pushes against traditional boundaries in venues like Merkin Concert Hall. I didn’t think I was being interviewed for a job, so I was just talking openly and honestly about what I loved.”

They were impressed enough with Greenstein’s suggestions to ask him to curate the series, which was eventually titled the Ecstatic Music Festival. It opens this afternoon with a free seven-hour marathon (Merkin had a very successful piano marathon two years ago to celebrate their post-renovation reopening) and continues with fourteen concerts over the next three months featuring “classical” artists like Nico Muhly, So Percussion, and Nadia Sirota on programs with “pop” artists like Valgeir Sigurðsson, Dan Deacon, and Owen Pallett (who’s recorded as Final Fantasy). The emphasis is on collaboration, with programs set up to juxtapose artists who might come from different places on the pop/classical spectrum but whose work makes sense together: Sirota, a violist who specializes in new music and is adored for her adventurousness by classical composers, will, for instance, be joined by Pallett, a violinist with a strong following in the indie pop world. These creative but sensible pairings are the main selling point in the marketing of a new festival to an overextended New York cultural audience, a difficult task made even more challenging by the sprawling nature of the scheduling, which was necessitated by Merkin’s previous commitments but is unusual in a city whose music festivals generally occur in discrete packages over a couple of weeks.

It doesn’t help that these artists are by definition on the fringes of the standard scenes in both pop and classical music, nor that they’re in general still young and building their audiences. The organizers are counting on frontloading the festival with bigger names—Muhly, Deacon—to build momentum towards the later concerts. And, as the festival’s name shows, the goal is to market the enthusiasm and energy of the artists.

“I don’t have the financial ability or the capacity to make somebody interested in doing this if they’re not already interested in doing it,” Greenstein said. “When you’re asked to do something in the world of music, it’s rarely phrased as openly as ‘What interests you?’ It’s always phrased as ‘Are you interested in what I’m interested in,’ an economic calculation. I’m hiring you to perform this service, and this could be writing a string quartet or doing a piano recital. The terms are clearly laid out. But here, the discussions that gave birth to the terms were open-ended.”

These open-ended discussions can be easier when working with your close associates, and Greenstein freely admits that he’s programmed not only himself but his friends, performers on his New Amsterdam label, and the ensemble he helps run. There can sometimes be a sense that New York’s indie classical community is an insular one, in which friends and colleagues perform primarily for their friends and colleagues.

“The insularity comes from an attraction to the work we’re all doing,” he said. “It’s a ‘scene’ because people are doing things that are musically kin to one another, and that’s why it’s coalesced around certain organizations, certain festivals. But every single person would want it to be less that way. To the extent that we are unusual, we are insular. But that’s not our fault.”

The problem is the difficulty, circa 2011, of finding an audience for new music in either the pop or classical worlds. It’s certainly not these artists’ fault that their circle isn’t wider. Their music—intelligent and accessible, like Ravel’s—aims plainly to please. The indie classical artists are working in the tradition of the influential Bang on a Can composers—Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe—who twenty and twenty-five years ago began to write spiky amalgams of classical and rock music, rejecting the whole notion of distinctions between genres of music. But this older generation was interested in being bracing, in intimidating, boring, and frightening its audience as part of entertaining and challenging it. Even though the annual, eclectic Bang on a Can marathons—the natural counterpart to the Ecstatic marathon, and what Greenstein says is the closest thing to what he wants his festival to feel like—are lovable, they’re not always easy.

There’s little interest in difficulty in the indie classical scene. Speaking about the way that you gain an audience for new music, Greenstein said, “You don’t do it by shocking people. You do it by adding spice to their food gradually, by introducing new flavors, by broadening their palette in a way that feels simultaneously comfortable and exciting because it’s both new and familiar.”

Their music can be deeply pleasurable, but rebellious and challenging they’re not. The effect is similar to that of Vampire Weekend in the “standard” pop world: music that intelligently and satisfyingly reflects the status quo. Yet in the classical world, even music this accessible can’t find a wide audience. Greenstein expressed frustration with Times critic Anthony Tommasini’s ongoing project to identify the top ten classical music composers. “He is operating in a framework,” Greenstein said, “in which critics pay most attention to all these dead people and the recreation of works by all these dead people. You can’t operate a cultural edifice out of fear, and I think that classical music does that too often.”

The only antidote, he said over and over, was trust: the slow building-up of faith in his programming abilities, the artists he’s engaged, the festival he’s planned. And he’s getting the time to do it: he’s already at work on next year’s festival. It seems like indie classical has found a haven, this one right in Lincoln Center’s shadow.