Q&A With Judd Greenstein, Indie Classical Composer

Judd Greenstein

A certain level of creative stasis seems inherent in the term “classical music.” But composer, record label head and festival organizer Judd Greenstein is doing everything he can to shake up that world. He’s well aware that some people don’t like it when you mix their new classical music peanut butter with their indie rock chocolate, but to him, adventurous rock songwriters and outré vocal groups and string quartets are a natural pairing. 

Greenstein runs his own record label and artist service organization, New Amsterdam. But most of his time recently has been spent organizing the second edition of the the Ecstatic Music Festival, which kicks off its second year Saturday evening at the Kaufman Center. (Tickets are availble here.) 

Nonstop Sound: So how did putting this year’s festival together compare to last year?

Judd Greenstein: “Totally different. Last year, I was friends with a lot of people who were participating, so I knew what the immediate constellation looked like. And so it was a lot of going to people and saying ‘do you want to do an extension of this thing you’re already doing on this festival that I’m putting together.’ This year, it’s practically all people I didn’t have a relationship with before, or all people who are working with people they didn’t know at all. So it’s been a lot of figuring things out, playing matchmaker, listening to a lot of music that I didn’t know before, and trying to find matches that made sense.  It’s kind of like playing Memory, that game of cards, where you had to remember that this string quartet wanted to work with this kind of band, and this band wanted strings. So you make that connection.”

NS: Did you have to convince people, or do people know by this point what the festival does?

JG: “I don’t like to convince people, because my feeling is the whole purpose of it is to allow artists to do things that they want to do and they don’t normally have the opportunity to do. I like to go to artists and say ‘what would you like to do?,’ which is something I don’t think artists are usually asked. They’re usually asked to do the thing they already do. Which is fine, but in this case I only want to work with artists who have an itch they can’t scratch.”

NS: Where did the idea for the festival come from in the first place? 

JG: “I’m really interested in the idea of collaboration. I think whenever I’ve collaborated with other artists, its opened up sides of my musical personality that I didn’t really know were there, and it’s changed me afterwards. And I think it’s an area of the music world that’s underdeveloped right now. There’s lots and lots of juxtaposition, and there’s lots of assertion that one thing goes with something else, but there’s not a lot venues that will give artists the space to present new material that’s an outgrowth of their own collaborative work together. To me, that’s just the unexplored terrain.”

NS: Do you feel things are too closed off? Like, here’s modernist composition, here’s some noisy avant things, here’s adventurous indie rock. They’re similar enough but not really talking to each other.

JG: “Yeah, there’s lots of music from different worlds that would appeal to people who are fans of music in the other world. The problem is how do you convince people that they should take a chance on that other thing? I think when fans see that somebody that they like is working with somebody else — not just playing with them in a show together, but working with them and getting their hands dirty — it actually changes the relationship of trust, where they can see the bridge between what their favorite band is doing and what this other ensemble or band is doing.  And, I really like to allow artists not just to present their collaborative work at these shows but whenever possible to do their own thing. So that people can see the source of this collaboration introduced to the other artists in their native habitat, so to speak. So that way you leave not just being a fan of the new thing, the collaboration, but also perhaps the other side of the aisle, so to speak.”

NS: What was the reaction to this last year? Were you surprised by anything?

JG: “I was really happy with the reaction overall. I thought people were very positive, and the only thing was…the young composer narrative, I’m a little bit over that. Because there’s a lot of great older composers too, and they should be able to get involved with this behavior. For me what’s most interesting is when things start to bend towards each other and overlap and go in new directions. I’m hoping that’s the big narrative that people take away, because last year, the response was overwhelmingly positive, but a lot of it got caught up in the broader trends of young composers and what they’re doing. Which is fine, we’re happy to have that attention, but to me it’s not nearly as interesting.”

NS: You don’t want to be known as just a platform for a new wave of composers.

JG: “I think it’s really easy to fit young composers of any generation in to that narrative, that’s just the way that people tell a story in contemporary classical music. Something is always fighting something else or replacing something else, and that’s really not what this is. It’s about building a new infrastructure, and that’s not a story that people tend to tell very well. If we’re fighting anything, it’s this warped distinction that’s been built up between different areas of music.  It’s going to require a lot of work to replace the infrastructure that’s already in place, and it’s frankly going to threaten a lot of people, because people have made their whole careers about being limited in the way they think about music and only looking for certain things in certain places. But that’s the story. So if you want to tell the story, you’ve got to start with that.”

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