Some Thoughts on Jay Greenberg

Lisa Hirsch, in a comment on my post linking to an article about Jay Greenberg:

I realize I ought to read the article, but it makes me so angry that this young man can get recorded because of his age when established composers can't count on getting their work recorded.
This phenomenon brings up all sorts of feelings, doesn't it? I understand Ms. Hirsch's anger at these opportunities not going to more established composers.

However, it reminds me of feelings I had as an undergraduate regarding the funding and attention given to intercollegiate athletics. I felt at the time that the money and attention should be going elsewhere, especially the arts. This was based on the misquided notion that if the money and attention wasn't given to sports, it would naturally go to something more "worthy". It wouldn't.

In this situation, I think it would be naive to think that if Sony Classical wasn't recording Mr. Greenberg that they would be recording [insert the name of a composer you consider under-recorded]. I don't believe that this is the case. Regardless of the merits of Mr. Greenberg's music, I don't believe it would have been recorded were it not for his age. I have no doubt of this.

I haven't heard the two pieces on the Sony release. Based on the one-minute snippets available at amazon.com, Mr. Greenberg's melodic skill is considerable, and his rhythmic pallete appropriate and limited. I can't really judge the harmony, because I would need to hear how it plays out over the large-scale for to get a real grasp of it. As for his skill in handling structure (arguably the most important aspect in tonal symphonic [sonata-style] music), I haven't a clue, because the excerpts aren't long enough.

I don't know if Mr. Greenberg is the real deal or not. To proclaim him a "genius" at this time would, it seems to me, have to be based largely on the idea that genius equals facility and/or prolificacy. I think there's more to it than that. I think it has to include a profound sense of the human condition that most of us lack plus the talent and skill to present that sense in aesthetic form. It's way too early to tell if Mr. Greenberg has that.

I do think it is interesting how eager some are to label him a genius. There seems to be a need to have a composer we can all label the contemporary Mozart or Mendelssohn. I'm not sure I understand this. I don't know if there are any such geniuses out there, but I do know that there are countless new and recent works of genius that most of us don't get to hear and don't even get to hear about. To that extent, I do agree with Ms. Hirsch's lament that the Greenberg marketing effort has sucked so much oxygen out of the room.

* * * * *
There is another aspect of this I will touch on in a later post. Greg Stepanich brings it up here:
There is a word for composers who say they’re not jealous of Greenberg’s accomplishments at this point, and that word is liars. It’s impossible not to see in Greenberg all the dreams you had for yourself as a composer, if only your piano teacher hadn’t moved away, or a cousin stole your favorite banjo, or, frankly, that you had enough talent.
More to come.


  1. That is an excellent point.

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  3. The misuse of the word “jealous” is a pet peeve of mine.

    I think it could be used in the context of Steve's blog post, in that it connotes an anger directed at something.

    Envy, the desire to have what another has, is what I believe Mr. Stepanich means.

    Either emotion is unproductive, if not destructive, unless one uses a negative energy in their creative process, and I don't know how that kind of dynamic can be practically sustainable.

    I'd like to believe that mature creatives have a more balanced, honest and realistic view of the vagaries of commercial success than the picture Mr. Stepanich paints in the quote above.

  4. I do think it is interesting how eager some [viz., me] are to label him a genius.

    Eager? Wrong word. I used the term genius most advisedly after exposure to his work sufficient to make that determination with some measure of confidence.

    Greenberg is, in my determination, unquestionably a musical genius. And I'll desist commenting on why some are allergic to the use of that term in this context as I've already commented on that in the updates to my first-ever post on Greenberg some two years ago.


  5. For the general listening public, and the greater unwashed masses, the talent and ability at his age is somewhat interesting, at that “60 Minutes” level. For the more discerning cultural world, he will have to continue to prove himself. And the recording companies will need to continue to be interested.

    He’s awfully young. Wait’ll 19 hits.

  6. Anonymous12:48 PM

    It isn't youth, it is project. In a sense Greenberg is very Mozartean - he wants to make music that is absolutely bounded by the popular style successfully.

    That's a narrow cone, and we celebrate Mozart because he was able to expand that cone beyond almost all possible recognition, and would have lived to see it if he had had even a reasonably short life rather than a pathetically short one.

    One thing you oldsters are going to have to get used to is that young people are going to come to the table having heard a huge amount from CDs, and having access, by hook or by crook, to most of the music written pre-1913 in some version of score, and having access to scoring programs that will do a great deal of the grunt work of common practice harmonization.

    The surface level of music which is in old styles is going to be high, because there is a wave of people who have grown up in front of the computer and attached to the internet and therefore have a level of easy familiarity with film music style and its antecedants that previous waves did not. Greenberg started playing as a child and, unless I miss my guess, has been composing for 10 years. This makes this piece somewhere around 25 for the comp major who started composing late in High School and then did music composition in College - which was not an uncommon path for people in the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's.

    This music is a great deal less impressive viewed against the back drop of what other people of the same age bracket have done. He's younger than any one better and better than anyone his age or younger. But the gap isn't as large as you might think.

  7. I agree with you, with a couple of questions.

    I was hoping that someone would point out that there isn't as big a gap between Mr. Greenberg and his cohort as the press (especially the on-musical press) has let on. When I was an undergraduate there were many composer writing passable, if uninspired, tonal music. Not to say they were at Mr. Greenberg's level, but the gap wasn't all that huge.

  8. Steve:

    Perhaps I should have used the word "envious," as JVM points out; "jealous" is one of those words that has been used in a broader sense than its original meaning and now, it seems to me, includes the connotation of envy. But JVM is right.
    I also wanted to second Anonymous' excellent point that today's young composers are going to be a lot further along than oldsters like me would have been at the same time thanks at least in part to the sheer amount of music that's easily available to them for review. What we probably need is a new paradigm for judging youthful accomplishment.
    Lastly, I agree with your point that the gap between Greenberg's tonalism and other writers isn't that large: he sounds a lot like other ordinary classical composers. At some point, he'll develop a real voice and then we'll know whether the hype bore out.

  9. I've heard the first movement of his string quintet and the last movement of his symphony in their entirety. I hear very little understanding of form beyond the most superficial level. To my ear, the pieces are stream-of-consciousness and in essence, "ramble." A series of unconnected ideas. I don't mean to be critical, really.. he's 14 years old. However, I don't hear much going on beyond an ability to write impressive single phrases (i.e., no connection of phrases). So I wish everyone would leave the poor kid alone to develop his skill in peace.. when he develops a mature appreciation of form, then I'll be interested. I can't wait to see if I dig his stuff.

  10. I want to modify my previous comments. After listening to Jay's music again, I think that it does have a nice shape overall. There are some quirks in the way he handles momentum, to my ear, and it doesn't sound as unified as mature music, but not too bad.

  11. Anonymous8:54 PM

    Hi folks. I'm a professional composer, by which I mean the mortgage, groceries, bills etc. come as a direct result of written music. I felt the need to chime in. So many cans of worms! So little time. I'll try to keep it short...

    I'm not at all envious of this kid. Who knows, he might be envious of what I've got! Whatever, it's irrelevant. I won't speak to his music, because it's all subjective. Does he have a "voice"? Meh. Maybe. It's too soon to tell. Beethoven's first works sounded like Haydn, Mozart's sounded like CPE Bach. So far what does he sound like? You make the call. He's got a record deal (hopefully he's not getting screwed by RIAA!), so who cares. If you have ears, you have an opinion, and unless you write music or know something more than the casual bystander, nobody cares, at least nobody who matters. If people buy it, it's good enough. Anything beyond that is going to have to wait a couple of decades after he's dead.

    No one really cares if you're "the next Mozart". Once people have said that, they'll just be looking for the next kid to call that so they can sound smart, and then the other kid will be forever labeled as a has-been. It's like saying you're the next American Idol. Besides, no one will really be able to tell for several decades whether or not you are/were the next "Mozart". And why Mozart? Why not Tchaikovsky? Or Benjamin Britten, if you're talking about child prodigies? Why not be the next "Greenberg"?

    On a lighter note, what I'm not envious of are the experiences this kid's probably NOT going to have, like that horrible first reading by a community/student orchestra/band/jazz ensemble, no matter how well written it actually is (face it, the LSO sounds great no matter what it plays). Having to do late night rush copy jobs, or flesh out crappy pop tunes and orchestrate horrible musical theater productions for food money are also invaluable growing experiences. There are all kinds of character-building things that add that flavor called "maturity" to music, not the least of which is that soul-crushing experience called Music School. Good times...

    Who knows. Whatever his deal is, I wish him luck. We all need luck.