Andrew Greenwald is a composer and percussionist currently based in New York. In addition to composing he is also a composer/performer with Ensemble Pamplemousse. Read further to learn more about Andrew's work.
How did you get started with music and what were some of your first experiences with composing?
I started playing drums when I was 14, playing in a high school fusion band called “Aquarius” and going to jam sessions at Smalls in NYC. After that I studied drums and percussion at NYU and began playing around NYC and touring. That time (the late 90’s - early 00’s) was a flourishing environment for the downtown jazz scene in NYC. I went out to see gigs every night at clubs like Tonic, The Internet Cafe, Knitting Factory, 55 Bar… and many others. Most of these places no longer exist, or no longer program that music. Eventually I began playing at these clubs with my contemporaries. It was a wonderful time, I had access to my influences, and could see them play every week, hang out with them - it was great.
This went on until the mid 00’s, when the clubs began to close, and the scene started to shrink a bit for many reasons. I became less interested in playing, and slowly drifted away from the music. It was at that time that I became interested in what some of my close friends were doing with thru-composed music. I had already been playing with my colleagues in Ensemble Pamplemousse, and the music was really inspiring. Eventually, they asked me to write something. The first piece was called “T.T.T” for sine waves with snare drum modulation. I was quite happy with it, and people liked it. Most importantly, I really enjoyed working independently, composing on my own. Around that time a friend told me about graduate programs in composition, and that there were fellowships. I could not believe it, and after some research, saw this was true. I applied to Wesleyan University in 2008 because Alvin Lucier and Anthony Braxton taught there, both artists who I respected immensely. I got in… that’s when I really began composing seriously.
How did your background in jazz influence your creative work in more experimental music, both as a performer and in your compositional work?
I was always working with interesting musicians who had unique ways of approaching their instruments. I saw and heard what they did, and somehow it seeped into my own thinking about how instrumental playing could be approached from a performance practice point of view. Additionally, dealing with notation as a percussionist, and seeing my colleagues deal with the like on their instruments, I developed an ethos about the function of notation, what worked, what did not work, etc. I guess what was most important was understanding that each musician is unique, and writing for instruments was really quite an open field for exploration.
Alvin Lucier - your advisor during your master’s studies - is a composer whose name is synonymous with experimentation and exploration of sound. Did your time with Alvin foster your interest in exploration of sound and possibilities of sound production in your early compositions?
I learned so much from Alvin. We never had lessons, or talked about music that much. We just spent a lot of time together, talking, having dinner, driving around. I was his assistant, so I got to really understand his personal narrative through music, the way he worked. It was like being a family member and an apprentice. The most important thing I learned from Alvin was how to be an artist, not how to compose. I arrived at Wesleyan without a lot of experience, but to him I was a composer, and he would take my opinions and suggestions seriously. It was essential for my confidence. He taught me to follow an idea through to its conclusion without interfering in the process, and to take the work seriously, but not to take myself seriously. We do very different things, but he genuinely enjoyed and supported what I did. His support was familial. He became close with my colleagues in Pamplemousse, and we have worked with him on many occasions since. I ll never forget one interaction: I got a call from Alvin at 7am on a Tuesday in late January 2010. I had applied to doctoral programs, and he was as nervous as I was about it, truly empathetic. I called him back when I woke up a bit later, he was frantic, telling me that he had been called by a certain professor at a place I had applied, asking for some additional info because this person wanted to convince his colleagues to admit me. It just so happened that I had gotten a call from Stanford the night before admitting me to the program. Stanford was my top choice, so I was really happy and went out celebrating with my friends the night before. So on the phone I gave Alvin the information he needed for the Professor, and then told him not to worry about it - I had been admitted to Stanford, so my mind was already made up. He knew that this was where I had wanted to land. Instead of congratulating me, he tersely asked me why I had not immediately told him! He was right, but it showed just how invested he was in my success and life generally. I went to class to TA for him shortly after the call. He was so happy, proud… It really meant a lot to me.
P.S - I cannot help but also mention my advisors at Stanford: Brian Ferneyhough and Jonathan Berger. They have both been equally influential on me as a person, academic, and composer. Their dedication, involvement and investment in me as a person has had such a deep impact on me on so many levels. They each deserve long salutations from me here, but to boil it down to the barest of essentials:
Brian showed me just how high the bar could be set in dedication to the act of composing. To expect the highest of craft from oneself at all times. To be humble and fearless in the act of composing, and to forge your own path. His warmth and friendship remain a place of comfort in times of difficulty, and my feelings for him are familial.
Jonathan showed me how to think analytically from a panned-out vantage point. He consistently gave me feedback and suggestions that brought my own work into focus, articulating for me what I could not put my finger on when addressing musical issues in my own compositional practice. He would say things clearly and directly, often in one short sentence. That sentence would invariably be responsible for some of the most important steps forward in my own work. His selflessness as a pedagogue and true belief in the academic process are a personal model. Additionally his mentoring through good and bad times in my own academic experience was unwavering, and essential. I could not have done the work I did at Stanford without his support.
Your music has a very characteristic notation, visually and functionally. Could you discuss how you came to your particular system of notation and maybe a little on how it developed over time?
It developed incrementally. All of my compositions are on my website (now that I have a publisher, Edition Gravis, there are only excerpts in some cases). One can see the gradual development from piece to piece. I had a very distinct sound-world in mind. It was a matter of finding the most direct way to translate that information to the performer most efficiently in order to have those sounds be replicated from performance to performance. I really made a giant step forward when composing Sofrut - a piece for violin, piccolo and percussion. I spent a couple of months just envisioning how to dispose of the information on the page. Once I began work on the piece, it became clear to me that I had stumbled onto something important. After the piece was performed, I knew I had found what I needed notationally. Since then, it has been a gradual paring down of the information on the page to the bare essentials - so much of what is important for the performer to know from the notation is shown by what is not there on the page.
You told me in a previous discussion that your notation is not really a decoupling of independent streams of activity, but a descriptive notation of what is conceived of as an instantaneous sonic idea. Can you discuss that in more detail?
There is not really any decoupling in most of my music. Multiple staves are only utilized when I need to denote certain actions which necessitate additional information in order to produce a specific sound. I am not interested in setting up a set of possible sonic results, rather simply the most direct way to access a specific, replicable sound. To me, it is a descriptive notation. The notation is there to provide the direct path to the sound, not a prescription for action.
Your approach to notation and the sound world you create is one that I have always associated with experimentation and a forward-thinking approach to instrumental writing. At the same time, you also mentioned in our previous conversation that you approach instrumental writing from the standpoint of traditional performance practice in Western music. What are some of those concepts - in terms of expression, performers’ interactions with the score, etc. - that you incorporate in your own music?
I consider my work to be historically discursive. As such, I have a reverence for traditional performance practice. I believe in a balance between compositional intention(score) and the interpretation of the performer. That is what I mean by the importance of what is left out of the score. What is absent directly informs the performer of the priorities of the composer, and his expectations of the performer as interpreter.
Any musical movement develops its own performance practice. I firmly believe this to be crucial to unique work. It has been a conscious goal of mine to create a performance practice for my work, and have been so privileged to have the support of my colleagues in Pamplemousse. They are the carriers of this information to other performers who commission me. Subsequently the circle grows, including more people who add their own interpretive talents. There is so much historical precedence for this way of working. It becomes a language and a discourse. I owe so much to individuals Joshua Modney, Austin Wulliman, Yuki Numata Resnick, Elizabeth Weisser Helgeson, Ryan Muncy, Seth Josel, Severine Ballon, Matt Barbier, as well as the JACK quartet, Mivos quartet, Line Upon Line Percussion, Ensemble Adapter and Talea ensemble for contributing to this discourse.
In addition to composing you are also active as a performer with your new music collective Ensemble Pamplemousse. How have your experiences as a performer with this group over the years shaped your compositional output and/or approach to instrumental writing?
My experiences with Pamplemousse continue to be the most influential part of my musical and personal life. I really cannot put it into words. It is my family. To boil it down to compositional output and instrumental writing would just be way too reductive, irresponsible of me. Natacha, Jessie, Dave, and Bryan (as well as former members Kiku Enomoto and Rama Gottfried, and new member Weston Olencki) are responsible for so many of my personal and musical memories. There is no Andrew the composer or - more importantly- the person without these individuals.
Without giving too much about your process away, can you talk a little about your approach to form and materials, both in terms of large-scale processes and micro-structural gestures? How much pre-planning goes into one of your pieces and how much, if any, is done more intuitively?
This is a big question, with a long answer. To be succinct: My work has been broken up into 3 series for the most part (All now completed):
1. Sofrut - These works were about discovering material and developing a syntax for them. I was inspired by the scribes (Soferim) in the Jewish tradition, transcribing the torah as an act of devotion. This is done by hand, with strict rules for the validity of the product. The work is done in ink, no mistakes are acceptable. If made, the entire scroll is deemed invalid, and the work is thus lost.
2. A Thing is a Hole in a Thing it is Not - These eight works were written over five years. (2012-16). I was inspired by the writings of artist Carl Andre, those by Hans-Jorg Rheinberger on experimental systems in the philosophy of science, and Subrata Dasgupta on epistemic complexity. The same 64’’ of material were treated much like a subject in a lab experiment. Each successive piece acted as a type of experimental setup, with the goal of learning just how the initial material (subject) reacted to singular changes in the algorithm used to generate the initial piece in the series. This algorithm would then be mapped to a variable not explored in the preceding piece, generating the next work. In this way I was able to gain great insight into how hierarchies could be formed, thus gaining control of traditional concepts of tension, repose, cadence, etc… within the context of my own musical language. This was the research that went into my doctoral thesis: What Makes Speculative Coherence?
3. [Words] - This series of works was written more or less concurrently with the “Thing” series. It took the formal precepts I developed from that series, and mapped them onto sounds that I was not attached to in the same way. In some cases, the materials were found sounds- improvisors on youtube, wind dyad charts… material I had no attachment to. The goal was to see if my algorithms could function in the same fashion when mapped to other material. Would they successfully create the same hierarchies?
In summation, my work is almost 100% pre-planned numerically, then transcribed. Intuition is used when ‘problems’ of conflicting systems necessitate a weighted, and therefore aesthetic decision on my part. These are almost always the key moments in the piece, and the ones I am most drawn to. I often solve the issue in a way I would never have imagined on my own.
Who have been some influential composers (or individual pieces) that have had a significant impact on you
There are so many, the majority being the work of my friends, contemporaries and mentors. For that reason I will keep the list short, only mentioning some older works that are important to me. If I allowed any of the aforementioned contemporaries, the list would be endless, and I would not be able to live with myself if I left anyone out…
- Haydn : String Quartet in D, HIII No.34, Op.20 No.4 (Hagen Quartet recording)
- Schubert: Piano Sonata No 21 in C minor, D 958
- Schubert: Schubert's Quintet in C, Op. 163, D. 956.(Cleveland Quartet with Yo-Yo Ma recording)
- Beethoven: String Quartets NO. 59 (any) (Artemis Quartet recording)
And the necessary “desert island” list. What are the top five pieces (in any order, from any genre) that would you say have had the biggest impact on you as a musician?
I do not think I could come up with a list of albums, songs or pieces… but there are certainly individual sounds I would need to bring along. All of them trigger memories, emotions, responses that I would not want to leave behind on the mainland. In no particular order, and drastically abbreviated:
- Elvin Jones laying into a riveted cymbal at full force. There is so much music in there… like ice on fire
- The timbres of the Bozzini and Hagen quartets
- Blossom Dearie
- Miles Davis on the Prestige era recordings
- Levon Helm singing “The night they drove old Dixie down” from The Last Waltz recording
- Tony Williams playing on “Nefretiti”
- Judee Sill
- Steve Jordan’s backbeat
- Art Blakey’s ride cymbal
- The English free improvisors in the 70’s (Evan Parker, Paul Lytton, Tony Oxley, Barry Guy…)
- Jim Black’s sound
- Joey Baron’s bass drum and ride sound in the 90’s
- Ahmad Jamal’s touch
- Sviatoslav Richter playing Schubert
- Sonny Clark’s comping w/ Art Taylor or Philly Joe Jones
- Donald Fagen
- J Dilla
- Warne Marsh
- Alice Coltrane
- Gerry Hemingway’s Tubworks
- Rachel Price on “Rental Love”
- Bridget Kearney’s songwriting
- Anthony Braxton (the quartet in particular (San Jose Recording especially))
- WKCR (Bird Flight with Phil Schaap, as well as the general programming)
- WFUV (On Saturdays from 4-11pm EST)
For more information about Andrew and his music you can check out his website.
Below are some selections of Andrew's work.
A Thing is a Hole in a Thing it is Not (I) - performed here by JACK Quartet
A Thing is a Hole in a Thing it is Not (III) - performed here by Ensemble Pamplemousse and Ensemble Adapter
Trailer for "This is the Uplifting Part" by Ensemble Pamplemousse
CLICK HERE to listen to "A Thing is a Hole in a Thing it is Not (VII) for 2 cellos - performed by Jessie Marino and Severine Ballon
Thanks for reading about Andrew and his work. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for interviews with composers Leah Reid, Dan Tramte, Eli Fieldsteel and Megan Beugger as well as discussions with Bowling Green State University's Kurt Doles to talk about the BGSU New Music Festival.
Early Reflections contains interviews with emerging and currently active composers. Check out the archives to see a list of previous interviewees!