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Featured Composer: Matthew Greenbaum

Momenta’s latest featured composer is Matthew Greenbaum, one of the earliest supporters of the quartet. Momenta premieres his work “More Venerable Canons” on February 25th at Tenri Gallery in Manhattan. Stephanie Griffin (SG) sat down with Matthew (MG) recently for this interview. Enjoy!

SG: I’m here with Matthew Greenbaum who is a very important composer to the Momenta Quartet. In fact, one could even call him Mr. Momenta. We wouldn’t exist without him. Back in 2004, three of the founding members of Momenta performed a trio by Mario Davidovsky on a symposium on Judaism and Music organized by Matthew at Temple University. On the basis of that we decided to form a quartet, and Matthew singlehandedly created a residency for us at Temple, which is how Momenta was born. Speaking of being born, Matthew was born 65 years ago and we are about to celebrate what used to be called his “Medicare Musicale” – and is now being called “Matthew Greenbaum at 65: Chamber Music and Video Animation” at Tenri Gallery this Wednesday, February 25th at 9pm.

Matthew, I wanted to start first by asking you a little bit about how your experience as a native New Yorker shapes your identity and how that’s expressed in your music.

MG: That’s really hard to answer. On the one hand, I grew up in the Lower East Side in a tenement, and on the other hand, everybody in my family was pretty literate and I have a kind of parallel identity as a lower middle class “smart guy” and someone who by sheer accident has managed to participated in the greater musical world, first in my studies with Stefan Wolpe and later, in graduate school with Mario Davidovsky.

SG: So, would you say that being a New Yorker – for example you grew up in a tenement in the Lower East Side, but if you hadn’t been in a city like New York, you probably wouldn’t have fallen into such circles?

MG: Right – and in any case, I am kind of obsessed with the city and a lot of my work has to do with it one way or another – the texts I’ve set, like Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and a set of pieces for baritone sax and piano, the first referring to the same poem and the second referring to García Lorca’s poem from A Poet in New York – “Landscape of the Vomiting Multitudes,” which, by the way, I wrote for Marshall Taylor and Sam Hsu, who unfortunately is no longer with us. Marshall still teaches at a Bible college in Philadelphia, and when he saw the title, he said “Man! I can’t play that piece at a Bible college!” But he did anyway….

SG: Well, the composer told him to….

MG: I mean – it’s only vomiting. Even the Saints vomit, I imagine!

SG: That leads me to another question about your musical background. I know that your primary instrument is the recorder.

MG: Yes.

MG: At a certain point, I just decided, when I was 12, I needed to become a composer. I started hearing pieces in my head and I have a retentive ear, although it’s very passive, and I could kind of play back hours and hours of music. And I used to do that when I was twelve. I remember, once at summer camp, I just listened to all of Beethoven’s 7th and Appalachian Spring one morning. I just needed to do it. And recorder was just a way I used to teach myself music until I started studying a little at Third Street Music School.SG: So, how did that come about? How did you get into music in your early years and why were you drawn to the recorder?

SG: That’s a very New York experience. So, you actually were drawn to being a composer before being an instrumentalist?

MG: Yes.

SG: So, you knew you wanted to be a composer and you used the recorder as a way to have a direct experience of music.

MG: Yes.

SG: And you taught yourself the recorder?

MG: For a while, yes. I just picked up a recorder and asked myself – how does this work?

SG: Did you ever have a recorder teacher?

MG: For a while, but I was pretty advanced! (laughter) I mean – he actually got me accepted to Manhattan Prep as a bassoonist. They wanted me to study bassoon because they had no program for early music. But, I couldn’t go, for family reasons.

SG: So, you auditioned on recorder and got in on bassoon. That’s funny. When you chose the recorder, was it sort of a random choice, or were you, from your listening experiences, already drawn towards early music?

MG: Yes.

SG: What is it about early music that attracted you then, and still attracts you now?

MG: I have no idea.

SG: I personally think your early music experience comes across in your compositions. Is there any way in particular you would say that it manifests itself?

MG: I would say that pretty much everything I do is meant to be understood in two ways: through the eyes of contemporary listeners and also an extension of early music. I borrow a lot from early music; dance forms, canons, hockets, chaconnes, canons, ground basses…and also, the fact that everything in my music is contrapuntal. Everything can be understood as counterpoint.

SG: The types of gestures that you write also have an early music feel – the types of articulations, and you do a lot of things with grace notes and rolled chords –

MG – Yes. And I am also very conscious of an ornamentation level in my pieces. I leave room in the structure for the possibility of adding tones and ornaments that aren’t part of that local area so it sounds like things are more dissonant, for example, in comparison with what’s around it.

SG: One thing that distinguishes you is that you are the last remaining composer who studied with both Stefan Wolpe and Mario Davidovsky. You’ve got quite a lineage to uphold. The aesthetics that we were just speaking about, that come to you through your interest in early music – how did those aesthetics resonate with the kinds of ideas and composition techniques that you learned from Stefan Wolpe?

MG: On the surface it would seem that Wolpe has nothing in common with it, because he saw himself as a Dada composer, who developed a kind of musical Cubism. But if you look at it carefully, despite the fact that he somehow – his early years are a little obscure, but he left home when he was a kid and went to a conservatory and mastered fugue. And fugue is something that occurs in one way or another throughout his writing. And more than that, the Ghost of Beethoven haunts his music. As a matter of fact, I think Beethoven got him through the 1930s in Germany and through his exile. And the heroic stance: the idea that great work is a victory over oneself and over fate–is something that’s very powerful in Wolpe in the 30s and early 40s, like the Battle Piece, for example, and the Passacaglia. Mario also thinks all the time about the historical implications of what he is doing and is also fascinated with Beethoven. As a matter of fact, there are Beethoven quotes in his piece for string quartet and orchestra. There are Beethoven references fairly often.

SG: So, both of your major teachers had a real sense of heritage, coming from the classical tradition. What were the main things that you learned from studying with Stefan Wolpe?

MG: It’s really interesting. Wolpe was very ill and he was hard to understand. It was only afterwards that I began really understanding what he was talking about – when I started reading his lectures and essays. And I pieced together what he had been telling me. And they have to do with a sense of Cubist musical thought – where you hear the same event from a number of different time points. It implies that, just as in Cubism, they can be made available at the same time to a viewer. But in music it’s harder because it has to occur over time, and not fixed on canvas. One can do this by creating the sense, for example, in the way that gestures are broken up metrically, against a basic metrical structure – that they’re outside of that structure, that they’re being broken apart.

SG: In a sense, what you’re doing in the way you use your materials is very much like that.

MG: Yes

SG: But it just happens that your materials draw on this early music influence.

MG: Yes.

SG: So, you’re using a similar technique as Stefan Wolpe. You’re just using different building blocks.

MG: And another thing that I was very conscious of was his idea of the limited pitch field, where Wolpe developed a panoply of techniques to exploit as few pitches as possible before adding new ones. So, for example, the flute and piano piece starts out I think with something like four pitches for the first page and a half, and then others are gradually added. And his lectures are essentially manuals about how to do that – how to make each repetition of the same pitch sound new as if it’s a new pitch – especially in his lecture “Thinking Twice.”

SG: I know you sort of stumbled into working with Stefan Wolpe. How is it that ended up meeting him and becoming his student?

MG: I was studying privately with one of his students and he introduced us.

SG: And you were one of Wolpe’s last students.

MG. Yes. I think there’s one other guy –Roger Caryli–who studied with him at the same time.

SG: Was it after Wolpe passed away that you continued on with Mario Davidovsky?

MG: No, he was still alive. I studied with Wolpe until 1972 and then at that point, I entered Grad School at City College and eventually at the City University Graduate Center.

SG: So, you’d already developed your language that had this influence of early music and then you studied with Wolpe and learned all these techniques we were just speaking about. Did studying with Davidovksy in any way contradict what you’d been developing? Or was it complementary?

MG: It was very complementary and as a matter of fact, Wolpe and I were at a concert together where one of the Synchronisms was played – I think the second Synchronism – and he suggested I study with Mario. And in a certain way, Mario was doing what Stefan was talking about speculatively, in terms of using any musical material in the kind of abstract way we were discussing. Mario simply does it, either electronically or by transferring his sense of timbre and structure in electronic sound to his instrumental writing. I think a number of those pieces are masterpieces.  Festino for guitar, viola, cello and double bass is remarkable in that respect. It’s a great piece! And I wanted to study electronic music, which is one reason why I studied with him, but the whole razor blade and tape thing was beyond me for some reason. I don’t know why –I found it really intimidating, and I waited until digital music was easy and I just started doing it then.

SG: So you pretty much taught yourself electronic music at that point?

MG: No, it’s more like I learned a lot from Mario and then, it was kind of easy to plug it into technology.

SG: We’ve talked about your musical background and your major teachers. I think one of your defining features is that you’re not just a musician, but you are also a profound thinker -

MG: It’s not thinking so much as obsessing: I’m profoundly obsessional!

SG: You’re also one of the most well read people I know, and you’ve taught courses in musical aesthetics and visual music and philosophy. I was wondering how these aspects of your life –your interest in literature, philosophy and visual art – have affected your career as a composer?

MG: Well, part of my mid-life crisis was becoming a visual artist. Actually, originally I had wanted to go to what was then Music and Art High School for visual arts, not music. But I never did anything with that. I don’t think I have the patience to actually make visual art with my hands. But I can do it digitally. So I taught myself video animation and I now have a bunch of works that use video animation as an essential part of a chamber music setting. I have a stage piece based on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra for mezzo and video animation, in which I animated the characters that appear in Zarathustra. Zarathustra is very hard to read because it’s very preachy in the beginning and then it becomes quite surreal, and the surreal parts have remarkable characters that I think haven’t been acknowledged enough. They’re completely wonderful, like the enormous ear on little legs: a parody of Wagner. So, I have this piece, called Rope and Chasm. And I have a number of pieces that I call “visual chamber music” for, at this point, a single instrument and video.

SG: Two of which are going to be featured on –

MG: Three! The tenor sax piece, the flute piece, your piece – and the piano piece – that’s four! Yes – the piano piece with David Holzman.

SG: That’s exciting! So it’s very similar to your resistance to electronic music. You didn’t want to do it when you had to use tape and a razor blade, and you didn’t want to make visual art if it involved cutting and pasting and –

MG: It’s not that I didn’t want to. I like doing it. I just don’t think I’m good enough because I don’t have the physiological calm to do it!

SG: Speaking of physiological calm – when I first met you, I was very excited, because you were my first real New Yorker I’d ever met  -

MG: But what about your teacher?

SG: Oh yeah – Sam Rhodes. I knew Sam Rhodes – that’s true. So: second real New Yorker I’d ever met! And much of your personality is not just wrapped up in being a New Yorker, but also in your Jewish identity. Many of your pieces that I’ve played have drawn on that, such as Nameless, and the piece we’re about to do – Friday Night Fights. Also, Jewish identity in music, since John Zorn’s “Radical Jewish Culture” movement has been sort of a topic. I wanted to ask you how you feel about your Jewish identity and how it influences your choices as a composer?

MG: Well, there are three aspects, I think. There’s the simple tribal identity, which is there. And even if I didn’t acknowledge it, you can’t escape it anyway. There’s the philosophical and religious aspect, which I constantly struggle with. That’s part of what’s going on in the piece I wrote for you. I decided that I would just write a piece where all the contradictions are in there and where I didn’t feel responsible for solving them. They’re just there. The violence and the cultural production and the sacrifice and the – I don’t know – it’s hard to talk about it without it in front of me. And then, for me, there’s the aspect of having grown up in a second-generation household, which was basically leftist. Even my maternal grandfather who was Orthodox was also a socialist. So, this was my experience of Judaism. I can’t separate it from progressive politics. So, there’s this third aspect that’s not particularly noticeable in my work.

SG: Just in your life… And recently you’ve developed quite a connection with another culture, namely that of Japan. How did that come about and how has that been influencing your thinking and your music?

MG: That was actually completely by chance, because my daughter Zoë got sick of American high schools and just decided to get her GED and go to college. She went to SVA when she was 16, and she wasn’t thrilled with that either, because what she wanted to do was Manga, the Japanese graphic novel. Manga can be funny – hers are funny – or they can be deadly serious. It’s a really remarkable art form. But in any case, she somehow learned Japanese and now she is in a four-year program at Seika University in Kyoto. And as a scheme to visit her, I started teaching in Temple University’s program in Tokyo, and the fact is, I was kind of caught up in her interest in Japanese language and culture. It just kind of became a package, and then I really got sucked in and now I am studying Japanese formally. 

SG: Are any of the Japanese aesthetics in music and art beginning to have an affect on you?

MG: Oh yes!

SG: In what ways?

MG: That’s a good question.

SG: A sense of calm?

MG: (laughter) Yeah, right! It’s kind of hard to imagine. But the one that has the most sense of that is a purely video and electronic music piece called “I saw the Procession of the Empress on First Avenue.” The origin of that is very interesting. I was reading The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon. It was written around the year 1000 [AD]; it’s an incredibly gossipy and charming diary by a lady of the court. I was reading this on the First Avenue bus passing by the United Nations and I came across the line “I attended the procession of the Empress on First Avenue,” but it was First Avenue in ancient Edo, or Tokyo, and not the First Avenue that I was on. The video animation aims to capture something of the angularity of cities across time, and the strange frailty of people and objects that pass through those grids.

SG: Is there anything you’d like to share with Momenta’s audience about what you’ve been doing recently? I know that you just released a CD -

MG: Momenta’s on it!

SG: Momenta’s on it! I know! The CD is called “Nameless: Works by Matthew Greenbaum” and it’s on the Furious Artisans label. Is there anything you’d like to say about the contents or the concept behind that record?

MG: Well, Nameless is my big piece. It’s a 25-minute wordless psalm for three soprani, the Momenta Quartet and the Cygnus Ensemble, which consists of flute, oboe, violin, cello and two plucked instruments, in this case, mandolin and guitar. The other pieces include a piece for solo violin played by Miranda Cuckson and Venerable Canons for flute and violin, the predecessor of the quartet that you are playing– More Venerable Canons.

SG: So, new and improved Venerable Canons.

MG: Yes.

SG: We’ll be playing this new quartet as part of your big 65th birthday celebration at Tenri and that will be a world premiere. The viola and video piece is also a world premiere. Are there other pieces on the program that will be heard for the first time?

MG: The flute and video animation piece is a world premiere. That’s with Cynthia Folio.

SG: Will there be any Greenbaum pieces of old? Or are you planning to celebrate the 65th birthday with more recent works?

MG: Mostly recent pieces – the one that I think will be the most entertaining is the Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes. It’s a setting of a text by Bernard de Fontenelle, in which he discusses the possibility of life on other planets. This is in around 1710, or maybe even earlier. It’s very witty and charming and I set part of it. This piece clearly quotes French Baroque music. Not literally – but it’s very imbued with it and it’s part of the text setting.

SG: And that’s an earlier piece of yours?

MG: Only last year.

SG: So that’s the oldest piece on this program?

MG: No, actually, I guess the sax piece is. That’s about four or five years old.

SG: And that’s one of your earliest pieces with video animation?

MG: Yes – it’s the first one – or, it may be the second.

SG: The last thing I wanted to ask you about is, now that you have turned 65, are you eligible to appear on the YouTube channel Old Jews Telling Jokes?

MG: Oh – yeah, I have been for a while. I think the youngest people on that site are 62. I could have done it already.

SG: Oh, really? I was wondering if you have any quintessential bits of Greenbaum wit and wisdom that you’d like to share with Momenta’s friends?

 MG: Well, I’ll tell you. One thing that I encourage people to read is something I wrote called “What We Owe the Invertebrates.” It can be found on my website and I may even read it at one of my Visual Music concerts later this year. So, if they go to Matthewgreenbaum.com and look for “What We Owe the Invertebrates” – it’s good for a laugh!

Photos by Cyndie Bellen-Berthézène (1, 4, 5) and Michael Haas (2, 3)