The Extraordinary Musician


The Extraordinary Musician

Judd Greenstein is the quintessential 21st Century Musician. Balancing a career as both a composer and the co-director of New Amsterdam Records, among other artistic pursuits, he is a tireless advocate for new music and the development of young artists. 21CM asked Greenstein how an aspiring musician can thrive artistically and build a career in today’s competitive landscape.

This year, 2015, is a fantastic time to be a composer and performer of contemporary classical music. We’ve moved past the years of an inward-looking avant-garde that made music mainly for themselves, past the self-conscious reactions to that movement and into an era that might be called post-historical in its openness to all styles, forms and approaches to music making. We’ve moved beyond a colonialist approach to “influence” in which the Western forms are privileged over the great music from around the world, and we’ve finally come to celebrate the reality that composers and performers draw inspiration from many different sources, including but not limited to the Western canon.

Structurally, it’s never been harder to land a steady job in classical music, but it’s also never been easier to start your own ensemble, record your own album or promote your work. Even as traditional institutions struggle to maintain the large audiences and donor bases that they once could count on, smaller organizations have taken on new importance in communities around the country, and these organizations are disproportionately favorable to or focused on new music. Whether via an ensemble or a venue or a concert series, this vigorous generation of new institutions is building audiences one by one, taking nothing for granted and bearing more resemblance to their grassroots peers outside the classical music world than to the philharmonics and operas that used to dominate the musical landscape. And what of those philharmonics and operas? Some of them are thriving, too, and – not coincidentally – it’s the forward-thinking, successful subset among that class where one generally finds the most commissions and new music performances.

This is the world of contemporary music in 2015: a world that is open to all styles and approaches to music making, with new work brought to the public’s attention by a wide variety of ensembles and presenters of all scopes and sizes. In this environment, one in which you can do anything and might be asked to do anything, how does one thrive?

To be extraordinary is to create work of exceptional quality that only you can make.

Like many people who work in the creative arts, I wear more than one hat: I’m a composer, a curator, a record label director and a concert organizer. In all of these roles, I’m constantly on the lookout for extraordinary musicians, people who are doing great work already and who have the ability to work well with me and with the organizations I represent. “Extraordinary” may seem a strange word to use in 2015, when it can feel like there is no longer an “ordinary” from which one might separate oneself. But to be extraordinary is not a superficial label, a matter of style or marketing or hype. It’s a very simple concept, one that can be applied to all the great artists of any era. To be extraordinary is to create work of exceptional quality that only you can make.

This process starts with attention to the craft that you bring to every note you play on your instrument or write in your composition. Whether it’s playing long tones on the French horn or patterns on the clawhammer banjo, writing counterpoint as a composer or moving through the modes and scales as a jazz pianist, your chops stay with you. Despite the incredible blurring and blending of genres and styles that are now thankfully taken for granted, you have to start somewhere as a musician, and the more time you spend mastering the fundamental skills of your craft, the better you’ll always be. Craft isn’t sexy, and it’s not something you can put in your bio. It’s simply a fact that all the best musicians I know have a deeply ingrained mastery of the craft of their trade and often continue to work on refining that craft throughout their career.

This deep sense of craft applies to many artists whose work seems to have strayed far from their origins. Ensembles like yMusic, which commissions work from both classical and indie rock composers, and Roomful of Teeth, which learns vocal techniques from around the world and commissions new work for those particular sound combinations, comprise virtuoso Western classical performers who have all built outward from that foundation into the new territory they occupy. Successful composers like Missy Mazzoli and Marcos Balter, two of the most distinctive voices in contemporary music, have spent years studying voice leading, orchestration and counterpoint, and continue to bring that detailed work to their newest scores, as close study will reveal. And an ensemble like Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, while updating the big band format to match Argue’s creative vision, is deeply indebted to the canonical groups that came before them and could only find success through deep knowledge of that repertoire.

Beyond honing your craft, the next step is to find out who you are and what defines you as a musician. For performers, what music do you love to play? For composers, which kinds of musicians do you want to perform your music? Many composers have found their voice by writing for their own ensembles or for performers with whom they can work again and again. And many performers have discovered who they are as a musician through the experience of getting to know specific composers’ work extremely well. My own musical relationships with artists such as NOW Ensemble and Nadia Sirota have been instrumental to me in learning who I am and what I want to do as a composer, and I believe that performing my music has likewise been significant in those musicians’ development of their own identities.

Finding your voice as a composer or performer involves being open to influence from the music that you love, whether it’s Mahler or Marvin Gaye, and then learning how to incorporate that influence into your own music. There’s a lot of hard work involved in this process, and it’s often in the nonclassical influences where artists fail to go far enough. After all, we are taught in music school how to handle classical performance practice, whether it’s the distinction between dance forms in a Bach suite, the dotted rhythms in the classical versus romantic eras, or the meanings behind Brahms’s expression markings. We are taught as composers how to dissect different forms and orchestration devices from symphonic and chamber works. But our education rarely extends to the wider world of music.

The path to creating work of exceptional quality starts with some combination of deeply ingrained craft, an openness to new sounds and ideas, and a commitment to rigorously internalizing whatever sounds one chooses to incorporate.

Now that we have opened wide the doors to the world outside of classical music, those composers who choose to walk through, incorporating ideas from all of their influences, have a responsibility to pay the same attention to detail in other music as they would to music from within the classical canon. And for performers, if you want to play music by composers who bring that openness to their own work, you need to be prepared with a true understanding of how different kinds of music function. For example, if you want to be the kind of performer who can play music that uses groove and pocket, it’s not enough to simply like that music or to move your body with the beat. You have to actually understand how different pockets and grooves work, the distinctions between different kinds of beat-driven music and the ways in which your playing has to change to accommodate those differences. James Brown and Parliament both wrote “funk” music but have completely different pockets. If you are able to ask a composer which kind of funk he or she is referencing and can make changes to your playing that accurately reflect that distinction, that’s an exceptional quality! Likewise, if you’re a composer who writes funk-influenced music for chamber ensemble that gets deep into that kind of distinction between pockets, I’d be very interested in hearing your work.

The path to creating work of exceptional quality starts with some combination of deeply ingrained craft, an openness to new sounds and ideas, and a commitment to rigorously internalizing whatever sounds one chooses to incorporate. Significantly, this has nothing at all to do with the superficial shorthand descriptions that tend to accompany contemporary music. My co-artistic directors at New Amsterdam Records, composers William Brittelle and Sarah Kirkland Snider, each write music that reflects their deep love for rock music – a commonly heard descriptor – but their music sounds completely different from the other’s. Their work is extraordinary not because of the superficial descriptions one might apply to it but because they have found their own voices through taking their own versions of the same path.

Constantly asking questions of the world of music – How does it work? How can I make it work for me? – is the pathway to crafting a distinctive musical voice. Combining that approach with an attention to craft will yield work of great quality. An artist’s musical experience is as unique as his or her life experience; finding a way of capturing that unique set of experiences and using one’s skills to turn them into meaningful art is the path to being an extraordinary musician in the 21st century.

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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7 Responses

  1. Sierra Graves says:

    I really like the idea that,”To be extraordinary is to create work of exceptional quality that only you can make.” As a musicians we must really show our individuality through our music to create an audience and to be something they want to listen to. The idea of being extraordinary is the ideal of having something done well in the music world.

  2. Alec Barker says:

    I love the quote, “To be extraordinary is to create work of exceptional quality that only you can make.” This really embodies what it takes to become a successful artist. I appreciate how the article breaks this down into the attention you give to your craft and the time spent with the fundamentals. and then you must define yourself as a musician.

    • Kevin Salinas says:

      I agree with the quote, “To be extraordinary is to create work of exceptional quality that only you can make.” Being able to do something original is so hard especially when there was no direction provided.

  3. Megan says:

    I love the idea that a true 21st century musician is well connected to their fans, dedicated to their craft, and versatile in their function as a musician. The combination of all three of these thing is what makes the artists mentioned successful. You have to be talented and extremely hardworking, multifaceted as a player/composer/producer, and friendly and charismatic as a person. I think that missing even one of these elements could possibly make it hard to succeed.

  4. Tyler Schaefers says:

    The quote “The path to creating work of exceptional quality starts with some combination of deeply ingrained craft, an openness to new sounds and ideas, and a commitment to rigorously internalizing whatever sounds one chooses to incorporate.” relates to Mark Applebaum’s talk on compostion. If you ever have an idea, don’t be afraid to make it become a relaity.

    • Saige Trottman-Huiet says:

      I also kept thinking about Mark Applebaum’s talk throughout this article. A lot of being a 21st century musician has to do with making music and various endeavors that are personal to yourself. Since you are the only you, as cliche as that is, your musical creations that are true to yourself and your personal creativity, will be able to stand out in the world of music.

      • Isabel Lopez-Roldan says:

        I agree that this article really relates well with Mark Applebaum’s talk. Applebaum sets the example of how we shouldn’t be afraid to be adventurous when it comes to being a musician. He gives society of part of his very unique self, and that’s what makes him stand out from the crowd. Some of us may think we’ll never be as crazy and innovative as Applebaum, but we do all have something different and worthwhile to offer.

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