In the wake of orchestra bankruptcies, diminishing arts funding, and a huge barrier to entry into a long established and often insular community, how do young composers draw from the rapidly changing and diverse world of art and music to find a voice and place to flourish? In less than 4 years, with 2 Grammy nods, New Amsterdam Records and the young budding community of artists it supports is making waves in the NYC community and reaching out across the country. I sat down with composers, entrepreneurs and indie-classical record executives(?) Judd Greenstein, William Brittelle and Sarah Kirkland Snider to discuss Grammys, the role of the album in indie-classical music and the expansion of New Amsterdam Presents.
JAY: Thank you so much for meeting with us to talk about New Amsterdam Records and the current climate of New Music in New York. First off, congratulations on your 2nd Grammy nomination for Jefferson Friedman’s String Quartet No. 3! Could you talk a little bit about that album and the Matmos collaboration?
BILL: There’s a mystery first quartet that I know exists but isn’t really out there. I think of [The Second and Third Quartet] as two masterworks of the century so far. I know they’ve been incredibly inspiring to me as a composer and I think they really capture the spirit of a lot of things that are going on right now. When we were approached about doing this record it was a no-brainer. We all knew that Jefferson knew his work and we hadn’t worked with Matmos before, although they worked a lot with So Percussion who we work with. Jeff had a relationship with Matmos, and part of the idea was to see it through this electronic reflection, which put a really interesting slant on the album.
JUDD: The quartets on that album are very much on the classical side of the spectrum that we represent. Even though I think most of the attention has rightly been on the quartets, I think the way that people have heard the quartets is very different for the presence of the Matmos tracks being there, even if people don’t think about it that way. Just the fact that they’re there as a juxtaposition, it’s like having a frame around the painting that you’re looking at or even the wall itself beyond the frame; it just changes the way that you perceive the art. They’re obviously wonderful works of art themselves, but the whole album takes on a different hue because of that mixture of the original material and then these refracted versions of it. I think it is an interesting project in that it is so far in the classical direction for the types of things that we tend to do.
SARAH: That’s what’s really interesting. You’ve got the quartets on one side and electronic refractions on the other. Together it shows those two very different sides of what we do.
JAY: I think one of the really captivating things about New Amsterdam is the wide range of artists that you work with. From ensembles to composers, electronic music to classical, the way that you present each album is always unique based on how the composer or artists wanted to interact with the different elements. What prompted you to start the label and see New Amsterdam through as a concept? How did it blossom into what it has become today?
SARAH: Well, there are only so many labels that release our kind of music. There is a lot of music that needs to get released, that doesn’t have a home. At that point in time, Judd didn’t want to wait around for a label to pick it up so he just decided
to go ahead and start a label himself. I remember talking to [him] about it and he said, “I want to release this album so we’re going to start a label and also because Jody Redhage wants to release an album and Jody is a friend of ours, so let’s just do something.” Starting a label or working in records was always something that I wanted to do so I was like “OH! Well, I’ll help you!” We got together and talked about it and had lots of conversations, and then one day Judd said, “I met this guy Bill, you have to meet him. He’s amazing. We have a lot in common with him in terms of the way we think about music.” We had one dinner and within 20 minutes, this is a done deal. Now what do we call ourselves? It was amazing.
JAY: Over the past 10 years, more and more composers have moved towards making a studio produced full-length album first versus writing for the concert hall. It seems to be a significant shift in the paradigm of a composer’s composition process. I think it’s really exciting and I think its shaping new forms and styles. However, the biggest challenge for composers who write for the album first is understanding the new “produced” sound world that they are working in and how that’s going to translate back to the live concert performance…
BILL: Sometimes you can’t do it. I ran into that with my record; I wrote it for the studio. With this last record, Television Landscape, every time I tried to do it live I felt like it was a poor approximation of the record. Penelope translates a lot better. A string sound translates pretty well to recording and live performance. It can be really challenging when you are mixing a bunch of stuff together. One of the things people are starting to do is think of it as two different things. If you are writing for the studio you just step back and rethink it. [In the studio], you can just bring in a sax player for one song. When you are touring, you can’t bring someone around for just 5 minutes a show.
JUDD: Those are the same challenges that indie groups are facing, now that that music is becoming more textural and involving more instruments and isn’t just a core band, that is, playing the same set of instruments for every song. The challenges that we are facing are similar to those of a lot of people who are making interesting music in a variety of fields. You have to remember the alternatives. When we started the label, as much as anything else it was out of frustration of what the world of being a composer actually looked like. We don’t really talk about it that much, but when you take a step back, is it actually that satisfying to write a piece for three or four instruments that you can imagine is going to get picked up by every ensemble of that instrument group around the country and around the world? We are taught that myth when we are in composition school, that you should have your orchestra piece, you should have your string quartet etc… Those things are valuable in a certain way, but there’s a real ceiling, especially as young composer, to actually have that work performed, or performed well. And so, as an alternative to that dismal fate of being a composer who is writing and never getting to hear the work performed, making an album… is a way of immediately asserting yourself and being able to take control and say “Here is my music. Here is how I would like it to be heard and hopefully, at least you will encounter it, whether you like it or not…”
BILL: It’s an extension of the score, and that’s what’s exciting. It’s an extension of the idea and being able to plan this thing and be able to marinate in your artistic juices for a long time and get it as close to possible to what’s in your mind. That’s one of the things that makes what we do different than rock or indie-rock, because there is a collaborative nature to classical performers, but there isn’t that collective experience of creation with most of our records. I think that’s one of the fundamental divides. That’s why it makes it even more exciting to be in the studio.
JUDD: Right, but we are so much further towards that than most people in the classical world. When I was in grad school, as you know, we were taught that the score is the end. That’s where your word ends as a composer. That’s an idea that I think needs to end itself. For us, it’s extremely unsatisfying that the score is an inanimate object that has no life.
BILL: The score is a pain in the ass that you have to deal with.
JUDD: Well, It’s not music. It’s an instruction manual. To the extent that that’s become the moment of evaluation for a composer is like you aren’t really evaluating an experience.
BILL: It’s like evaluating screenplays instead of movies.
JUDD: As much as I agree with what Bill is saying, that we aren’t making albums in the way bands would make albums, we are also approaching the process with much more of a true end-oriented approach in terms of actually going beyond the score to the performance to the interpretation and to the way things are recorded. We are trying to make records that aren’t going to pull a disappearing act from all the music you are listening to if they come up next in your shuffle. They are something you can listen to in the car or on the train. Some people may see that as a problematic mediation, but I think it’s much more problematic to pretend that you have to live in your isolation chamber and perfect throne with your speakers.
SARAH: You should explain what you mean by some people thinking of that as a ‘problematic mediation’, because that’s such an ivory tower, an academic point of view…
JUDD: Maybe we should talk about how classical music is traditionally recorded?
BILL: Well, there’s a whole compression issue, is what it comes down to. You try to listen to a traditional classical recording on the subway and you’ll only hear the horns.
JUDD: And mic placement. If you ask a real pro classical engineer, “How do you record something perfectly?” They will say, “Find the best spot in the concert hall, pretend that [the microphones] are your ears.”
SARAH: And as a causal listener that means that you hear all these dynamic variations but you miss a lot of lines and details. A lot of things that are supposed to have power and presence don’t.
BILL: And you have no control over the studio basically. You are basically dealt this blob, and I can put a little reverb on it and EQ it, but I can’t deal with the instruments at all, and that’s really problematic.
JUDD: Right, and meanwhile you’re going up against every other recording. The fact that a drum kit is going to have more mics on it than an orchestra should give you pause.
SARAH: But this kind of recording quality often interferes with the casual listeners ability to appreciate whatever music they’re hearing. They hear the kind of recording quality and they just tune out immediately. It doesn’t matter what the actual content of music is or whether it might be something that could appeal to them.
BILL: I like the way our records sound in comparison to traditional classical records. I really enjoy listening to them. There’s an artificial sense of space to a certain extent because you’re recording everything [in the studio] and then recreating a space. I think it’s thinking about it as the stereo is the performance hall. You’re building it for the way people are going to encounter it, rather trying to fit it into some kind of ideal that is outdated.
JAY: The representation is incredibly different in the recording than in the performance hall. I believe that as classical and new music is being influenced more and more by pop music, you can’t ignore that the production element has to be there in order for it to be represented on a recording correctly.
BILL: If you’re including these stylistic influences, and that’s part of who [you] are and how [you] grew up, it wouldn’t make sense not to include that in the way that you record it.
JUDD: That’s true of so many things that are “borrowed”. We try to not talk in language of appropriating something into classical music, but more stepping back and writing music that is itself sui generis and an amalgam of all of our influences.
BILL: We aren’t classical. It’s weird to think of borrowing from Prince or something that has been the most musical influence on my life, just because there are strings in my record.
SARAH: Yeah, whoever wrote my Wikipedia article says that I borrow from pop idioms. Why am I not borrowing from classical idioms? Why am I assigned to that side of the fence?
JAY: Well it’s definitely something that’s part of being brought up in the classical world. If you went through that training, you are taught that kind of language at first. It’s something you have to unlearn as a composer because, in the end, you are more than just a composer, you are an artist. An artist who absorbs the things around you, whatever that may be, and tries to internalize those influences in some way to then develop a sound that is you.
JUDD: If you are going to go in a certain direction, you have to go all the way. What that really means is not trying to appropriate things that you like without really understanding what you like about them. When you are listening to your favorite record, you can’t just think it’s really cool that the guitar plays this line; there’s so much more going on than just a guitar playing a line. There are all these production decisions, which amp is chosen, how the amp is mic’d, how that line sits in the context of the other instruments that are being played, what effects you put on it. All those things go into it, and then you wind up having composers who just write for the electric guitar and expect it to magically become that world that they heard that caused them fall in love with the electric guitar in the first place. But they aren’t doing the work of figuring out what they really love about it.
JAY: Right, I think it has to come from an organic place of understanding a genre, or idiom.
The establishment doesn’t necessarily open their arms to young composers and embrace them with a supportive network. Considering that, you guys don’t sit back and wait for performances to come to you, which is essential to succeed in this climate. Recently you guys formed New Amsterdam Presents. Tell me a little about your vision for that what you hope to see moving forward.
JUDD: …[New Amsterdam Presents] has enabled us to pursue areas or programming that we wouldn’t normally be able to because we aren’t limited to only work with artists who have recording projects on the label… How can you develop a national reputation if you aren’t performing national tours? You need to provide a live experience for people. Everything has become easier, and harder. It’s easier to make a record and get albums out into the world, but if it’s easier for everyone you’re actually facing much more competition. Unless you have a local hook to draw attention to your project, it’s pretty unlikely that local radio stations or media are going to pick up on what you are doing. Even when we have a national story on NPR or in a major national publication it doesn’t resonate for people like actually having an opportunity to hear the music being discussed live. So we have to build a touring network.
SARAH: I think in 20 years those networks will be more developed than they are now. We’ve been talking to presenters who are interested in this movement and this kind of music and finding spaces that are appropriate. It reminds me of this comment that Alan Kozin make about indie-classical, he was talking about how he thinks this aspect of music making is going to separate itself from the rest of classical music in the way that jazz broke off from blues. I really think that it’s true. There are so many people who submit albums to our label and a lot are the younger generation, kids in their twenties. For us it feels native and comfortable, for them even more so, because they fought even less against teachers who are putting those ideas in their head and telling them no. I think more and more we are going to be seeing this.
JAY: What new albums do you have coming out in the coming months?
BILL: In May, we have Michael Mizrahi, a pianist for NOW ensemble, who is doing an album of all new piano music. I think all of it was written in the past five years, and most of the pieces were written directly for him and some for the album. One is Judd’s first Ballad that he wrote for Michael. It’s mainly composers we’ve worked with from within own community, but there’s one or two that we haven’t. I think it’s really listenable and it’s not a collection of pieces as much as it tells a story. They have the consistency of a NOW Ensemble record with different composers, but there’s a similar feel that runs throughout the pieces. Then in June, we have my next record “Loving the Chambered Nautilus.” It is very different from my last record, which is an electroacoustic record. I don’t sing on it at all. It’s chamber based, and the idea regarding the metaphor of the chambered nautilus is that basically you have an organic being an inorganic shell, so the electronics form the shell and interact with the organic string quartet. Then in July, we are releasing an EP by a new New Amsterdam artist Aaron Roach. He comes from more of a rock background and has a really interesting skill set. He is a wonderful singer, but also plays the horn, guitar and bass… That will be the EP that will introduce him to New Amsterdam fans and he’ll be doing a full-length probably the year following. Then in August, we have a release by Tin Hat, and as Judd said, they were one of the groups that were doing the thing we were interested in doing before we existed, so it’s nice to join forces with them. In the fall, we have Missy Mizzoli’s song from the Uproar coming out with some kind of multimedia component to it, and then we have an album by Roomful of Teeth which will include stuff by Meryl Garbus from tUnE-yArDs, and Caroline Shaw, who is one of the members of the group.
JAY: How do you guys balance composing with all the administrative responsibilities?
SARAH: It’s hard, but we hired an operations manager and that helps a lot.
BILL: Michael Hammond has changed everything. He actually did the sound and design for Sarah’s record, and he is coming out with a record of his own. He’s a very talented young man and came along at the right time.
JUDD: Some days I think all I want to do is write music, and some days there’s so much to do with New Amsterdam that if I spend a full day on it I realize how much more could get done. It feels like that tension is actually healthy, because when you run into a difficult stretch in one, you realize the other can provide a different type of activity that you also are engaged in.
BILL: New Amsterdam is almost like a wild beast and composing feels like a shy deer in the woods where you can scare it away really easily. You really have to cultivate the composition part, or at least I do. So I got a place. I have a little studio Upstate, and I’m not going to tell where because I don’t want anyone else to go up there. It’s really cheap, just a room with a piano and some electronic equipment. So I go up there two days a week, shut everything off, and just write. That way, I can come into the city. I can dive in and be on the internet until the wee hours working on whatever.
SARAH: Every time I see Bill and Judd it’s really overwhelming. There’s so much to talk about with New Amsterdam. It’s just never-ending. But that keeps it exciting and fresh and never dull.
BILL: I love working with the people on our roster because you learn so much artistically too. It’s just really inspiring, all the different ideas floating around. I think it’s great fuel for the composer fire.