Bachtrack is asking the same six questions to many composers this month as part of its focus on contemporary music. Here’s what Jay Greenberg had to say.

Jay Greenberg © Bill Phelps
Jay Greenberg
© Bill Phelps

1. What influences are important to you and your music? Do you choose them, or do they choose you?

That’s a difficult question to answer, since when I’m composing I’m usually unaware of any influences – I only start noticing them after I’ve finished the piece and look back over it. As such, the stylistic and musical influences that act on my work aren’t really conscious but rather things that sort of creep in based on a lifetime’s listening and playing experience. That said, some influences that I am very much conscious of (and, in a sense, “choose”) are those of the people to whom I turn for advice, or “test” my pieces out on – family, friends, teachers. I’m aware that the reactions of others will change how I think about my own piece, and choose whom I share it with carefully.

2. What (if anything) do you want listeners to take away from your music?

Well, every listener is different, and it’s not always possible for me to predict how listeners will react to a given piece. Pieces I thought were too conservative or old-fashioned have been considered strange or challenging (and vice versa), and pieces I intended as joyful or life-affirming were heard as tragic and despairing (and vice versa). I suppose the most I ask for out of a listener is an open mind and the patience to listen through the entire piece at least once!

3. Is there a composition of yours which you are most satisfied with? What makes it successful?

Yes, there is a composition of mine I am fairly satisfied with, a solo viola piece called Bleu de ciel. I’m not sure it’s successful at all on its own merits – it should probably be a bit shorter, for one – but, while I would destroy all of my other compositions in a heartbeat if I had the power, I’d probably keep that one.

Performance by violist Marie Daniels

4. How important is new technology to you as a composer?

I try to embrace new technologies as much as possible, both in composition and in distribution, though I haven’t quite got my head around social media yet. I have an abiding although as-yet dilettante interest in electronic music (not that that’s been “new technology” for half a century now…), recording and digital audio editing, and await the singularity with impatience.

5. What music do you enjoy listening to?

I have a large music library totaling about 15 weeks/3000 albums, approximately 96% of which is classical or “post-classical”. (Unfortunately I’ve never really been able to “connect” with most popular music, but I do enjoy some jazz and folk music as well.) Probably 60% of that is classical music from the 20th century and later, from Ablinger to Zwilich, including a wide variety of styles, (sub)genres and movements. Another 30% or so is music from (roughly) Gregorian chant up to about 1900, with the remainder being given over to various forms of free improvisation, sound art, postminimalism and other such trans-genre gray areas.
While my tastes often seem limited to outsiders, I feel they are pretty eclectic within the confines of the genre I’m most interested in. For instance, some composers I’ve been listening to lately include Richard Barrett, Franco Donatoni, Alfred Schnittke, Maurice Ohana, Roberto Gerhard, Mauricio Kagel, Edmund Rubbra, Johann Wenzel Kalliwoda, Rued Langgaard, Alberto Ginastera and Jan Dismas Zelenka, and my most frequently listened-to composers (according to last.fm) include J.S. Bach, Cage, Schumann, Stravinsky, Stockhausen, Mozart, Bartók and Chopin.
Composers often talk about how they’re driven to write music in order to create what they want to hear. Perhaps, then, composing is an odd career choice for me, since I don’t listen to my own music and so much of the music I enjoy already exists. I don’t focus on that but instead on how fortunate I am to be living in a time when there is so much great music easily accessible.

6. How is composing changing, and where do you want new music to go in the future?

There seems to have been a lot of ink spilled lately over the future of composing – with the end of the Cold War, the growth of the internet’s bestseller culture and the global economic downturn, many sources of patronage that had sustained composers for most of the 20th century have dried up or turned their focus towards more economically rewarding forms of music-making. I think, however, that it is impossible to generalise what composers are doing, because composers are no longer a unified bloc easily divisible into styles and schools (if they ever were) but a group of individuals whose aesthetic aims, practices and means of making a living are wildly divergent. That said, one trend that has seemed to be accelerating of late is the moving of new music away from the traditional venues – universities and concert halls – and towards new, usually smaller ones. Both the more “accessible” composers and the “crunchier” ones are increasingly starting from outside the classical tradition, and their work tends to be either critical of or overtly distance itself from that tradition – which, perhaps, should not come as a surprise, given that the average classical listener appears to prefer to purchase 50 recordings of Beethoven’s Eroica than a single one of an unknown composer.
My (somewhat selfish) hope for the future is that new (classical) music will become a much bigger deal, and more widely distributed both in real life and across the internet, so that finding worthwhile music to listen to will become significantly easier! That said, since major musical paradigm shifts seem to happen about every 50 years and the last one was in the 60s, I’m definitely looking forward to being alive to witness my generation’s Poème electronique/Rite of Spring/Tristan/Beethoven 5.

The young and gifted Jay Greenberg has already created a significant catalogue of solo, chamber, and orchestral literature that examines and builds upon classical forms. The youngest composer ever to have an exclusive agreement with Schirmer/AMP, Greenberg’s other notable first achievements included exclusive contracts with Sony Classical and with IMG Artists.

His first Sony Classical CD showcases his Symphony no. 5 – recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra under José Serebrier – and his Quintet for Strings, with the Juilliard String Quartet and cellist Darrett Adkins. Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony recorded his tone poem Intelligent Life for release on a second Sony all-Greenberg disc. A recording of I Still Keep Mute is on Rideau Rouge Records.

Greenberg is writing a new piece for Britten Sinfonia. His latest works include: Quintet for Brass, commissioned by the American Brass Quintet and premièred by them at the Aspen Festival in 2012; Blues for string quartet, a prize-winner at Staatstheater Darmstadt’s 2011 “Soli fan tutti” composer competition; Neon Refracted, commissioned by the New York City Ballet to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Lincoln Center, premiyred in June 2010; a setting of Vladimir Nabokov’s poem