COMMAND—Greenberg Review II

Jonathan Bellman
[Part I of my Greenberg Review may be found here.]

The question will always arise: how normal is a talented young’un like Jay Greenberg? I’ve no idea, nor am I completely clear what is so valuable about all aspects of “normal” that one might aspire to it. I suspect there’s a lot of normality lurking at the fringes here. My suspicion is that an adolescent joke or two at the expense of family members (who else?) may be found in the composer’s notes; among those acknowledged are “my brother, who taught me the true value of silence,” and “my parents, who encouraged me to do my homework.” Having 1) a brother, and 2) parents, I sense the tiniest little needle (I foresee that he and the brother will end up either best friends or both missing teeth—or both). So it goes.

As for the crack about the homework, I wonder what connection it has with his description of the symphony itself: “My Fifth Symphony is a counter-stereotypical work combining a Romantic melodic sweep with the methodical mathematical thinking of the serialists. This is manifested in the third movement, which is based upon an exponential function, y=1/x2; the function describes an upward arc mirrored across the y-axis, never quite touching or reaching either zero or infinity, and then descending back down. In a similar manner, the music climbs up to a climax it never quite reaches, before descending to a resolution that doesn’t occur.”

Now, I am a long way from my second-year algebra (I LIE—it was never in any sense mine), which I completed with a C and then ran for my life. I could ask my son what this means, but 1) I don’t think it’s that important for the symphony, and 2) he has not distinguished himself by missing opportunities to mock me, so the last thing I need to do is provide more ammo. My suspicion is that Greenberg is tweaking brother, parents, and strict serialists, and perhaps he really did get a germ of an idea from a mathematical concept. To my claylike, nonmathematical mind, though, this does not seem anything like “methodical mathematical thinking.” Conductor Serebrier perhaps pushes the point a bit too far when he says (again, he is quoted in the CD notes): “What jumps out at once is the coherent form of each movement—the logic behind every choice the composer makes.” I wonder about this “logic”; it sounds like Cold War-era sciencization of music for purposes of respect and funding. See? We’re a science too! Very logical! To my mind, there is no logic that would dictate an equali-chorale in the finale of Brahms’s First Symphony, nor a verbunkos tune in the finale of Beethoven’s Third, or a zillion other such compositional choices. Yet they are are deeply persuasive, and have a kind of intuitive coherence that brings us back again and again. Something of this kind of compositional intuition seems to be present in Greenberg’s work; there are too many possible choices for a “logic” to apply, really, but some very, very RIGHT choices are being made.

As for the expected Quid nunc?/Whither? question, I hope Greenberg lives happily and enjoys the full range of human experiences; this will give him a wealth of stuff outside composition lessons to write about. I look forward with real impatience to hearing much more from him, because this recording has a lot to say to me and gives me real pleasure. For him, I use my favorite word for instrumentalists, arrangers, and composers: he has real COMMAND. More, please!

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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8 Responses to COMMAND—Greenberg Review II

  1. Wrongshore says:

    Have you seen Alan Rich’s comments on Greenberg? He’s reviewing him as a developed composer, responding to the Mozart treatment he sees in the press, but he’s not at all happy. “The best movie music these days has moved far ahead of the swashbuckling glop that fills out most of this symphony.” Is this fair — and if not, because Greenberg’s young, or because the music’s better?

  2. Jonathan says:

    I have not read Rich yet. At the moment, I am far less interested in Greenberg’s age than in his use of musical language(s) and symphonic concept. I am also interested in his music because I keep wanting to listen to it, which is something I’m not prepared to analyze yet. “Swashbuckling glop,” eh? Wow–Mr. Rich sure showed him. Maybe Greenberg will want to become a critic, now, or give up music entirely.
    I’ll try to find a link to Rich, for my education. Thanks!

  3. Elaine Fine says:

    There is nothing quite as exciting as a young person being creative. We certainly put a great value on youth in our culture. All the hoopla that surrounds Greenberg helps generate interest for the medium of orchestral music among people who would normally not pay attention to it.
    I have certainly been impressed with (though I can’t say I have been engaged with or emotionally moved by) what I have heard of his music. He has enough notoriety and exposure in the world of music as a child prodigy to spend the rest of his life working as a composer, which will certainly make his life easier.
    I hope for the best for his future. I also hope that he continues to grow as a person and as a musician. I hope that one day I will be moved rather than simply impressed with what I hear from him.
    Let’s hope that he fares better than Korngold.

  4. Eric says:

    His stuff is junk. When I was at the Conservatory there was always some flavor-of-the-month young composer who was going to be the next Mozart. They’ve all disappeared and taken tenure gigs teaching theory and writing stale music. More to the point: this kid has craft, but his musical language is vapid and tired.
    But for those of you that want to hear the new shit, there’s two great projects in NYC worth putting on your radar; that is, Rudder and Battles (two different bands, not the name of a weird-ass law firm).
    Also, we always have Reich!
    Me, my hero has to be Ives; because I’m old and I’ve failed, and my only hope is a hail-mary come-from-behind late-career push.

  5. I have not heard his music, although it is always amusing when film music becomes part of a musical description (invariably from the thirties, which is only early days in the whole existence of film music). But I’m easy, it is hard to do something even pretty good, hurrah for Mssr. Greenberg. Surely, if I was him, I would refrain from any press or program notes (going against all marketing advice) and leave his age and everything else out of it. Either people like the music or they don’t (oops, my light weight musical thinking is showing). Usually time is needed to test importance?
    As to the math, I once read Georges Perec’s “Life, A User’s Manual” (en Anglais), and loved it, long before finding out it was totally a function of a mathematical formula, and I never trust a composer’s own, after the act, analysis, it is like listening to a drunk describe a long past affair.
    How many composers doe it take to screw in a light bulb? One, and ten thousand failed composers under the description of critics, musicologists, theorists etc., to tell her how she could have done it better.
    How come a baseball batter has to only hit .250 to be considered good, but a composer has to hit 1.000?
    But I am curious now, so I’ll even go out and find this Greenberg’s 5th (I’ve always been partial to anything that comes in 5ths).

  6. Wrongshore says:

    Here’s the Rich: — I put it in a hyperlink but forgot to re-add it when it rejected HTML.

  7. squashed says:

    I have to say listening to the symphony #5 is like listening to somebody’s homework. It’s nice and all the ‘answers’ are correct. But it’s not a love letter or mad manifesto. It’s a work done to answer a set of ‘requisites’.
    I am no composer and my background is simply having no taste and listening to too much music altogether. I don’t know the fine theories, but listening to No.5 give me that deja vu urgency to scream… “Dude, say something that I haven’t heard before and get to it. You are wasting my time.” It’s the exact same feeling I get listening to a bad Shostakovich chamber arrangement album I have, Arvo part conducting his own beatus, or typical internet mash up.
    It has series of ideas, but it feels like watching a giant Disney Fantasia cartoon. No.5 is muzak for classical circle. If I have to imagine a “mash up” to pass music department final exam. This will be it. Overall, it doesn’t resonate.
    I will speculate it’s the reason why it has ‘music for film’ feel. It’s a collection of music signifier signifying nothing. It’s not enough to prop itself up and need a ‘story’ to hold it together and drive it. There is no sorrow, joy, love, hate, anger, desperation, etc… it’s droning …
    And I listen to drone.

  8. Squashed says:

    Battles .
    Posted by: Eric | December 11, 2007 at 08:34 PM
    Battles guitarist is Tyonday Braxton, son of Anthony Braxton, the free jazzist. And the drummer is Don Caballero the fastest drummer in the scene.
    kinda hard to fight pedigree like that.

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