Discussing repertoire in VAN last week, pianist András Schiff said, “No one can do everything; we have our limits.” Tell that to Jacob Greenberg. A longtime member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, Greenberg performs as a soloist, accompanist, and with orchestras on piano, harpsichord, harmonium, organ, and clavichord. He has recorded repertoire ranging from Bach to Phyllis Chen, though what matters more is how he plays it. Take just two examples: his Debussy, which is crisp and clear though never sterile, eschews the kind of “impressionism” often (wrongly) associated with the French composer without sacrificing luxurious beauty; his Elliott Carter has the polyphonic precision of a fugue, clearly rendering the intricacy of material that might sound like an atonal wash in other hands. 

A year ago, Greenberg moved from Chicago to Berlin, where I met him for coffee recently. We talked about learning from instrumental mechanics, his problem with Dvořák, and shots with George Crumb. 

VAN: The pianist Nicolas Hodges, who like you focuses on contemporary music, is recording an album of Debussy. You recorded the Préludes and other works on your 2018 album “Hanging Garden.” Are there things that strike you as modern or avant-garde about Debussy? 

Jacob Greenberg: It’s an essential question, and it’s hard to answer. Compared to a composer like Ravel, I hear Debussy as more of a universal modernist—if that resonates at all—and Ravel simply as being more French. What Debussy does with register and playing with resonance has far-reaching implications. Much more contemporary composers have picked up on basic ideas that Debussy set into motion. But for me it’s also just about beauty, and his aesthetic, which embraces international sounds. Ravel did too, of course. But I often try to imagine Debussy’s first encounter with gamelan music: this electric first encounter with alternate tunings and the timbre of the instruments. I’ve tried to imagine just what it opened up for him. It’s too bad he didn’t live for longer, and that we didn’t get his opera on [Edgar Allan Poe’s] “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

YouTube video

When performers with early music backgrounds play more canonical repertoire, it’s easy to hear their early-music approach. Do you think a similar phenomenon exists when performers with new music backgrounds go back to the same canonical repertoire? 

It depends on the composer, but yeah. It also has to do with instruments and what you hear as being interesting or fresh in a fortepiano or in a harpsichord. Next month, I’m building a clavichord at a workshop in Rostock, [Germany]. You get a prefabricated set of pieces, but you also have to cut, sand, and assemble it, and tune it and string it. The intimacy of that instrument has always struck me. I’ve tried to imagine what Bach heard on it—with the “Well-Tempered Clavier” and so many other keyboard pieces—and why it was his favorite keyboard instrument. It’s so intimate and so soft, it’s a really private experience playing it. That has something to do with it: imagining the original instrumental sounds that people heard and what they heard as fresh and interesting about them. 

I’m also always trying to see parallels. Historically, what did people originally think was interesting about sonata form? How did they play with it, how did they make variations on it to the extent that a general audience could hear deviations from the form? But also more abstract associations. Finding parallels between old and new music is personal, idiosyncratic, and maybe a bit random. 

As a pianist, is it scary experimenting with other keyboard instruments? 

No, I’m adventurous about these things. I started doing more work on the harmonium around seven years ago: It was a process of exploring the mechanics of the instrument, what appealed to me about it, and my tactile response to it. I’m a keyboardist; I have access to these different instruments. It always seemed silly to me not to take advantage of more of them. It takes a basic curiosity, I guess, but for me it’s a productive process of exploration. I’m always thinking about instrument mechanics, that has really influenced my thoughts about playing technique. I’m much more aware of instrumental color than I used to be, spending more time on different keyboard instruments. 


Composers such as George Crumb and Helmut Lachenmann use instrumental mechanics as compositional material. Is that part of where your interest in instrumental mechanics came from? 

I think so. I worked directly with Crumb and Lachenmann, and they were both really important to me. Crumb was such a generous man and such an amazing, distinctive composer. I recorded an album with him, I went to his house with members of my ensemble and spent time with him and his family. He was an amazing person and extremely flexible and generous in what he would let performers do with his music. He lent me his own shot glass to use in “Vox Balaenae,” rather than a chisel or whatever it is that he calls for, which actually would damage the string—the shot glass made the perfect sound. 

I spent a weekend with Lachenmann at his place in Italy working on his “Serenade.” The level of innovation in that piece is unbelievable. So both extremely influential composers, of course, but important for me and my understanding of the instrument, and how I can use general knowledge of mechanics and of piano acoustics for all kinds of repertoire, new and old.

YouTube video

When you’re putting together a CD with a curated program, where do you start? What’s the first impulse? 

A programmatic concept comes into focus. The one that I put out in January, “Living Language,” came to me through my work with George Lewis, and getting to know more about his evolving composing style: Thinking about style and legacy, and how composers through the last 400 years have lent their individual voices to a style, making tribute to it but also bringing it into the present and the future. The idea came through my exposure to George, and then I thought of other composers who reflected that theme. 

You produce your own recordings…

…with the collaboration of an amazing engineer, Ryan Streber, who runs Oktaven Audio in Mount Vernon, [New York]. I’ve done all of my solo albums with him, in the studio and on location. 

How do you divide up the labor? 

Ryan, God bless him, lets me do as many takes as I like—or until I drop. I usually have a clear idea of what I’m going for and it’s a matter of time until I capture it. But he’s always following along with the score and giving creative input, asking me questions about what I’m really after, what my biggest priorities are, why I’m making certain choices. It’s an intense creative relationship, not just a technical one. I often work one on one with Ryan, in post-production also, so I’m in the booth making micro timing changes, which are really meaningful and sometimes really impactful.

The latest from VAN, delivered straight to your inbox

Success! You're on the list.

In an article on your website, you wrote, “I found that I most identify with composers whom I believe revel in conflict, however submerged.” I was just listening to your CD “Neoclassic.” How does Haydn revel in conflict? 

Right, you can apply that strictly and loosely to different composers, places, and periods. Speaking generally, I spend the most time with composers who I think like to challenge audiences. It’s not accepting “accepted” things about the way we hear music as a given. It’s playing with form and instrumental color, thinking of fresh ways to present things which are often in cognitive dissonance with what we’re led to expect from the listening. You know, there are some composers whom I think of when I think of “classical music.” Maybe Dvořák is one of them. I’m drawn to composers who are not that.

YouTube video

The non-Dvořáks of the world…

…who are in it to challenge, to reveal, to express ideas which present the possibility for conflict. However abstractly, I look for ideas of artistic conflict that reflect psychological challenges, which are located in history, in a time and place. 

You’ve also written, “There’s never any excuse to play bad music or teach it to my students.” 

Well, that’s just with piano music. 

OK. Because as a former flute player, I had to play a lot of bad music to improve at the instrument.

I should add a caveat, which is that to discover any greatness in what is being written now you have to wade through a lot of bad music, or music which may just not be worth your time for one reason or another. But that’s true in any age. So little of what’s produced is worth saving.

I’m interested in the “one reason or another”: How do you define quality in a composition? 

It’s personal. I can only speak about my own tastes and how I like to spend my time as a musician. I’m really drawn to harmony. I think I live for it. And if I feel that a composer doesn’t value it to the extent that I do, I can’t identify as much with that composer, and there’s less of a bond. 

Who’s a composer you think doesn’t value harmony? 

Even Brahms’s harmony is not all that interesting all the time. When it’s trying to be innovative—and you can always hear when that’s happening—that’s when I feel there’s the most to listen for. I’d rather have that than [a composer] not trying, sitting back to write in an accepted style. 

You’ve been in Berlin for about a year now. Is the aesthetic divide in new music across the Atlantic still as big as it used to be? 

Unfortunately yes. There are so many things that don’t cross the pond. Even from here to the UK: The knowledge of composers doesn’t travel. The great advantage of living when we live is that music is more available than it has ever been. The people who make it are easier to find and to have a dialogue with, but so many [composers] are just not known to us. In Berlin, I can go to a concert with six composers I haven’t heard of.

It’s too bad that the composers who are at smaller venues here don’t cross over to big institutions; that’s less the case in the States. If I have a musical mission in being here, it’s to bring the composers whom I know best, who are often American but also from other parts of the world, whom I think deserve to be heard by everybody—and to convince a general audience that they belong. 

YouTube video

Have you encountered resistance to some of those composers’ music here? 

Harmony has a way of turning people off right away: Composers who have more traditional, tonally inflected harmony are often dismissed outright. But I think what people can rather be listening for is the individuality of the composing voice. That takes time and repeated exposure, which people aren’t [always] willing to give. Sometimes I’m not willing to give it. But I think people just have to listen better. We can curate our own playlists in a way that is more informed and ultimately more interesting. That’s why I’m here. ¶

Subscribers keep VAN running!

VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 650 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.

Not ready to commit to a full year?
You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.

… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...