interview: now ensemble

March 27th, 2007 · No Comments · By

(now ensemble)

Judd Greenstein of the NOW Ensemble kindly answered some questions for us. NOW Ensemble will be performing pieces by UVA graduate students this Friday, March 30th at 8pm in Garrett Hall (next to the amphitheater). The performance is free, so come see some interesting and innovative music.

Nailgun: Can you give a brief history of the NOW Ensemble? What were your goals in founding the group?

Judd Greenstein: NOW Ensemble was formed in 2002, when composers Patrick Burke and Judd Greenstein, and clarinetist Sara Phillips were all students at the Yale School of Music. All three were frustrated by the lack of interaction between performers and composers in the program, and decided to start a group to facilitate this type of communication. The original conception was a “collective” model, with variable instrumentation from concert to concert and piece to piece, but gradually, we developed a new model involving fixed instrumentation. We wanted a mix of instruments that would have a good balance, avoiding the problems faced by many new music groups. We also wanted a group that would sound good, and that would be fun to write for! And we knew we needed people in the group to be committed to playing new music. The final instrumentation – flute, clarinet, electric guitar, double bass, and piano – was the result of knowing people who played those instruments and who loved new music, combined with our liking the balance of the instruments’ sounds.The main goal in forming NOW Ensemble was to facilitate interactions between composers and performers. Typically, composers work in isolation, writing for groups that play their music very infrequently, and may not play a piece more than once. The players who play the piece may have never played together before, and may not be familiar with new music idioms. For performers, it can be frustrating to work on pieces in isolation from the composers who wrote it, making decisions without any collaboration at all. NOW Ensemble grows out of the old model of composers writing for specific players, with their specific sounds, preferences, and other traits. The quintet that we’ve had for the past three years – with Alex Sopp, flute, Sara Phillips, clarinet, Mark Dancigers, electric guitar (and composer), Michael Mizrahi, piano, and Peter Rosenfeld, bass – know each other extremely well, and have played all kinds of music together as an ensemble. This is a rare and valuable entity – the chamber music group that stays together for years, playing only music that is written for them. In this way, they combine the best qualities of a great new music group, as they are all virtuosic players on their instruments, with the best qualities of a band, because they rehearse and perform together often, and have done so for a long time. For Patrick, Mark, and me, having this ensemble to write for is an amazing resource – we know how they each play, and how they play together, as well as how this strange group of instruments can best be used. As it turns out, the five together create a fantastic sound!

N: Who is in the ensemble and what different positions do they fill?

JG: The band is Alex Sopp, flute, Sara Phillips, clarinet, Michael Mizrahi, piano, Mark Dancigers, electric guitar, and Peter Rosenfeld, double bass. Mark is also a composer for the group, along with Patrick Burke and Judd Greenstein (who sometimes plays piano as well). In some sense, the five performer-members are the “public” face of NOW Ensemble – they are “the band”. But all seven members are on equal footing. I’m the Director of the group; I oversee the administration of NOW Ensemble, with lots of help from the rest of the group.

N: What is the typical process for learning pieces? Do you usually meet with composers beforehand?

JG: Usually, the group learns repertoire independently of the composers, then meets up with them (including Patrick and me) after they have a sense of what’s going on in the music.

N: Could you describe the range of music that you play?

JG: We’ve worked with a wide variety of young composers, and that means that we’ve played an incredible range of music. There was a week in December where we premiered 13 works! We’ve premiered around 40 works, total, and they range in every direction – tightly or loosely notated, tonal or atonal, static or constantly changing, rhythmic or devoid of regular pulse. It’s great that the group can play so many different kinds of music so well.

Since Patrick, Mark and I are the “house composers” for NOW Ensemble, our music has helped to define the sound of the group, as it’s most frequently heard. Our music is similar in some ways – it’s all highly rhythmic, generally tonal, but in more of a rock-tonality rather than classical-tonality way. It’s also very different, though. Patrick writes very formally tight, highly narrative works, while Mark writes more textural music that moves through static blocks of sound. My pieces for NOW are all very different from one another, but they tend to be very melodic and almost orchestral in the breadth of sound that I’m trying to get. Fortunately, the players are capable of making that kind of sound!

N: You normally play works composed by others, but what are some of your musical influences?

JG: I don’t think there’s any one set of influences that we could all point to. As a group, NOW Ensemble is a hybrid of a few things – for one, the do-it-yourself ensembles of Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, which led to the Bang on a Can idea of making your own quirky set of instruments and writing for it. Another is the classical chamber music tradition, which we all (composer and performer alike) very much respect and love. At heart, NOW Ensemble is a chamber music group, and that’s something that emerged very organically from the set of instruments and instrumentalists that wound up comprising the ensemble. Lastly, we’re strongly influenced by the broader, non-classical world in which we’re musically situated. From the composers’ perspective, the non-classical sound is as much or more a source of influence on NOW Ensemble repertoire than the classical sound, whatever that is these days. We’re not as “at home” in a rock club as we are in an art gallery or concert hall – though we’ve played at a fair number of clubs – but the music itself has a lot of that sound, and many others, in it. It’s something that we, as composers, just take for granted.

N: Is NOW Ensemble the primary job for its members? What other things are you involved with?

JG: NOW Ensemble is not the primary job for any of its members. All the performers are active as new music, classical, and gig performers around the New York area. Peter just got a job with the Montreal Symphony, so he’ll be moving up there in the Fall. Alex and Sara play in new music concerts all over the city, and also have recording gigs with rock bands. Michael is very active as a classical pianist, playing concertos and recitals around the country, and now participating in the Carnegie Hall Academy program. Mark and I are both in the PhD program at Princeton University, studying composition (though I’m almost finished), and Mark is also active as an electric guitarist in New York. Patrick teaches at Westminster College in New Wilmongton, PA, outside of Pittsburgh.

N: What are some memorable concert experiences that the ensemble has had?

JG: One very memorable experience was touring Southern California last May. We were flown out to be the featured ensemble at the Carlsbad Music Festival in Carlsbad, CA, and we really beat the bushes to build a tour around that trip. We visited CalArts, played two shows in Los Angeles – one at an art gallery that now has a thriving concert series (and credits us on their website!) and the other at an Irish pub – and finished up the tour at the Carlsbad Festival, which was really a great experience. They put us up in a nice house that had avocados and oranges growing in the backyard! It was like “Real World: NOW Ensemble”, so of course it was memorable, but it was really a great opportunity to bond as a group. One thing about our group is that we all really like each other, which is somewhat rare in music circles. I think many bands and ensembles break up because of personality conflicts, but we’ve probably been able to stay together (despite asking everyone to work incredibly hard for very little money) precisely because our personalities work so well together. We are all close friends, not just colleagues, and that makes all the difference.

Anyway…..another memorable experience was playing as part of the 2005 Free Speech Zone tour, a tour of politically-themed music that went to New York, New Haven, and Boston. We sold out a number of shows, and the energy in the clubs was incredible. For me, it was a great context in which to hear my music played. Then there have been some shows that were simply memorable because they were so good. A February, 2006 concert at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York was a highlight – we premiered three works, did two other new works for the first time, and had some guest artists join us as well. It was one of those evenings you remember because everyone was having a great time, and the music came off at such a high level. The Princeton residency we gave in December was another highlight – we played an entire show of new works very well, and had a good time doing it!

There have been many highlights – I’m sure everyone in the band would give a different example.

N: What pieces will be performing at UVA? Can you describe them?

I’ll hope that the other NOWers can step up to the plate on this one. I can tell you that some of the UVA students have written works that are very unlike most of the music that we tend to play – and we look forward to the challenge!

N: What’s on the horizon for NOW ensemble?

JG: We spend early March in the recording studio, and we’re currently in the process of mixing the CD. That should be coming out in the Fall, and we’re very excited about it. We have a number of shows in New York and elsewhere in the NorthEast this Spring, including an appearance on the Bang on a Can Marathon in June. We’ll be premiering a new work by Missy Mazzoli in May, and giving a show with composer Marcin Bela and his ensemble that same month. So there’s lots on the horizon!

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