With a robust career full of commissions, performances and collaborations, Judd Greenstein is a very busy composer. His work expands far beyond the compositional realm, however; he also devotes time to projects that create opportunities for his colleagues. “I’m somebody who likes to start organizations to meet needs I perceive in the world of music, and it’s never just me by myself. It’s me working with other people who are doing great things.”
Written for violin, viola and cello, Greenstein’s Grosse Tugenden reflects that collaborative spirit. Trio Calico, which consists of CSO musicians Youming Chen, Gina DiBello and Gary Stucka, will perform the work in a free All-Access Chamber Music concert April 2 at the Kenwood Academy. “You have to let the piece guide you, and sometimes it makes decisions and you can either push against them,” Greenstein said. “Or you can go with them, and that’s what happened here. I was thinking of it as an ensemble piece. This is a piece that could be played by any string trio [Greenstein wrote it for violin, viola and cello]. I’m really excited that this group of incredible musicians is going to take it on.”
Greenstein drew on a quotation from Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” as the inspiration for Grosse Tugenden (in English, Great Virtues). “The quote is about false virtues, and Grosse Tugenden is about what looks like virtue, what looks like an effort towards justice, in some way revealing itself to be something else,” he said. “But there’s a quiet voice in the piece and a quiet place that the piece gets to where the real virtue resides.”
In 2004, while he was still a student at Yale University, Greenstein founded the NOW Ensemble, a chamber music group comprised of both performers and composers. “The NOW Ensemble was formed as a response to our feeling that there weren’t enough interactions between composers and performers, so we decided to start a group that mixed both within it. There are three composers in the group as well as the performing quintet, and we’ve each written hours of music for the ensemble, but we’ve also commissioned or had composers write for us — we’ve had over 80 pieces written for the NOW Ensemble.
“So it’s a mix of music from within and without, but all of it benefits from the fact that the musicians are in chamber ensembles who have an indigenous relationship with composers because of our presence within the ensemble itself.”
Greenstein also curates the Ecstatic Music Festival, an annual New York festival featuring more than 80 artists collaborating across musical genres; it has been called “a feather in the cap of the avant-classical scene” by the New Yorker magazine. In addition to creating performance opportunities for musicians and composers, Greenstein also co-directs New Amsterdam, an artists’ service organization and record label. (Chicago’s contemporary music collective Ensemble Dal Niente released a record on New Amsterdam in 2016.)
Like the NOW Ensemble, New Amsterdam was born from a perceived need within the contemporary music community: “In 2007, our ensemble was looking for a place to release our first record, and we found that there weren’t many contemporary music labels that had the kind of open-mindedness to the world of music that lays beyond perceived musical walls that aren’t really there,” he said. “It turned into something that was really useful for a lot of people and galvanized a community of like-minded musicians … not around a sound, but around a shared world view that music should be open to whatever influences composers and performers want to bring to the table. The world of contemporary music shouldn’t be written only for people involved in that scene. We all grew up listening to all kinds of music and our music reflects that. Instead of thinking of our music as written for a dialogue enclosed within the world of classical music, we’re writing it to be in dialogue with whatever music listeners are out there.”
Greenstein believes the diversity of music reflects the diversity of human beings. “We all have our own backgrounds as listeners and in life, and those two things have to be treated as fluid,” he said. “We celebrate uniqueness and individuality in artistic voices. We also have this label to try to encourage people to write projects that are their dream projects, and to build recordings around that and create performance opportunities that flow from the recordings or work in conjunction with them.
“As composers, we exist on the basis of commissions, and so we’re basically tethered to an infrastructure of classical music, but it’s healthy for composers to be able to do what Beethoven and Handel and other composers used to do: to ask themselves, ‘What do I want to write for?’ Sometimes it’s a large project that hasn’t been conceived of before, and some of our most successful projects have been the result of a composer deciding to write something that exists on recording first and then went out into the world.”
Greenstein isn’t the only composer who’s passionate about the synergy that exists among his fellow colleagues: “I remember hearing [New Yorker music critic] Alex Ross talk about the [new music] scene. He said that one of the things he liked most about the community of young composers is that it really is not competitive. I’ve found that to be true. Composing is my favorite artistic thing to do, but a very close second is creating opportunities for other artists that I admire. Usually, it involves approaching an artist and musician that I love and asking, ‘What have you not had the opportunity to do in your career that you want to do, and is there a way that I can help to support that?’”
Written in 2003, Grosse Tugenden reflects Greenstein’s ever-evolving compositional voice and provides commentary on the world’s tumultuous nature. “It was one of the biggest works that I wrote while I was a grad student. It was a big step forward. I felt like I was entering into a musical language that was new to me and felt really important. What inspired [Grosse Tugenden], unfortunately, was what was going on in the world at the time.”
Greenstein encourages all audience members to listen to music with their own individual creative minds: “With modern music, it’s easy to assume that there’s a way one is supposed to listen. I try to write in a way that guides you as a listener, and I’m totally happy if people bring their own meaning to it. If somebody hears something in a piece that’s meaningful to them at this moment, that’s what’s important. Just take from it whatever you can and bring yourself to it, too. Have it be a dialogue with your own life and let it mean whatever it means to you.”