Building a Musical Infrastructure: A TALK21 with Judd Greenstein

There are few people who have done more for today’s new music scene than Judd Greenstein. From co-founding NOW Ensemble – a pioneering, contemporary music-oriented chamber group – to co-launching New Amsterdam Records, he has consistently placed himself at the forefront of the effort to rethink the relationship between classical musicians and their communities.

At DePauw University’s 21CMposium, Greenstein made the point that those communities include institutions – that for classical music to move forward, places like traditional concert venues and schools must provide the support that artists need. According to Greenstein, this is all about the relationship between ideas, resources and infrastructure: “Popular ideas lead to resource allocation, which leads to an infrastructure” that supports that allocation. With that in mind, how can we motivate our local institutions to support forward-thinking ideas?


On forming your own ensemble… 

When you create your own performing group, it’s an extraordinarily empowering act. It gives you the power to bring your music to people directly. You’re saying, this is who I am as a musician; I stand behind this completely. The problem was, [when we founded NOW Ensemble] in 2004, nobody was really looking for this kind of group, and there was no clear path for us to take. Instead, we made our own way, building our own fan base and reputation. We were following a very common model, but it wasn’t common for a chamber music ensemble to do this. Because there was no infrastructure to support our music, we had to invent one, playing in an incredibly wide variety of venues, from museums and art galleries to libraries and coffee shops, elementary schools, high schools, clubs and pubs. 

On the vision for New Amsterdam Records…

The records we released had to succeed as records, as works of art that you could listen to on their own terms. We also wanted the records to be able to stand up to other kinds of music that were in people’s collections from all genres. This meant utilizing studio techniques in the recording process like compression, multiple microphones and various effects that most classical labels avoided. We weren’t trying to simulate [the live experience], but meet listeners where they were actually going to be hearing our music: in cars, in trains, walking down the street, working at their computer or sitting in front of their hi-fi Dolby system. And if they loved the experience they had with that music in any of those locations, they’d be more likely to come to the live concert hall. 

On the term “indie classical”…

New Amsterdam caught the attention of some significant critics and became synonymous with what was called the indie classical movement. That was a term we coined to try to capture the position we felt we were in, which is working outside of the main framework of classical music to build our careers. Unfortunately, that term wound up being misinterpreted as describing a particular sound, though nobody could ever quite decide what that sound was because our label was releasing things from off-beat indie songs to jazz big band, to solo viola, to chamber ensembles, to orchestral work, and everything under the sun. That was exactly the point. New Amsterdam exists as a platform for people who are making extremely personal music, reflecting their personal tastes. We’re not looking for a sound; we’re looking for an approach – to composition, to performance, to music-making.

On how institutions can open themselves up to change…

How do you open yourself to change while remaining true to yourself as an institution? I believe that collaboration provides as much of an answer here as it does for artists looking to explore new territory. The question is, how can your programming become a collaborative process? Who in your community can you ask about, or even empower, to make curatorial decisions? Organizations can take the lead on this kind of community engagement: listening first, and then figuring out what kind of collaboration would serve both the community and the institution. 

A flautist plays on a stylized subway car

The above excerpts have been edited for clarity and length.

Want more from Judd Greenstein and NOW Ensemble? Check out the group’s video for Greenstein’s piece, “Change,” in which director Joshua Frankel imagines parts of New York City relocating to Mars. 

Eum Porta, diuturna/accusare/censuram; Esse Avertat, funnii; Eaque Parata, quam wisi amet modi lius nescit modi dicta quia iure

Judd Greenstein

Judd Greenstein is a Brooklyn-based composer and founding member of NOW Ensemble. A passionate advocate for the independent new music community, he is also the co-director of New Amsterdam Records/New Amsterdam Presents and curator of the Ecstatic Music Festival in New York’s Merkin Hall. …more 

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