For a long time, the composer Judd Greenstein kept a wall between his interest in Judaism and his passion for music. Though he was raised in a secular Greenwich Village home and is still not observant, for at least the past decade he’s cultivated a deep knowledge of Jewish history, literature and law.
“It’s interesting that my music has been divorced from my interest in Jewish texts and Jewish learning,” Greenstein said in an interview last week, sitting in his Brooklyn studio.
But that wall is about to crumble completely. While he has used Jewish sources in a few works in the past, by far his most ambition Jewish work will be unveiled next week at Merkin Concert Hall. A four-movement symphony with vocal accompaniment, the piece, titled “Shlomo,” will be performed at its premiere by 14 musicians he’s dubbed “The Yehudim.”
Greenstein, 31, began to engage seriously with Judaism in high school. He occasionally studied Talmud with a rabbi then, and as a student at Williams College, he led discussions on Jewish issues at the campus Jewish center. Over the years, he’s continued to read widely about Judaism, if not quite taking the leap into observance.
“It’s just not part of the scene I’m in,” he said, noting that his social circle mainly consists of musicians with a decidedly secular bent. But that has not stopped him from exploring the potential for Jewish material in his music, which is as indebted to classical composers like Steve Reich as it is to the hip-hop of his youth.
Greenstein first used Jewish texts in “Lamentations,” written in 2007, a composition inspired by Giovanni Palestrina’s 16th-century choral music. Palestrina relied on the Latin translation of verses taken from the prophet Jeremiah. But as was common at the time, the translation kept the first Hebrew letter that began each new verse in the body of the text, which made it easy to check for disparities between the original and the translation.
When Palestrina set the translated text to music, he kept the Hebrew letters. That freed him up to create short bursts of music entirely divorced from the meaning in the Latin text wherever they appeared in his score. After all, few in the 16th-century pews understood Hebrew, Palestrina included.
For “Lamentations,” Greenstein set parts of the Jeremiah translation Palestrina used to entirely new music he had written himself. The piece had its debut at the church where Palestrina worked for much of his life, near Rome, which was an experience Greenstein remembers vividly.
“It triggered something in me,” he said. “I actually felt very at home in the [church] spaces that weren’t Jewish, which was surprising because when I’ve been to church services before I haven’t been moved. It’s a feeling I’ve only felt in Israel, Jerusalem. It’s like walking through a palimpsest. Rome is like that too.”
The next year Greenstein wrote another piece that incorporated text from the Zohar, the core text of the Jewish mystical tradition of kabbalah. Titled “Hillula” and written for soprano and piano, the idea for the piece came from the commissioner, who was looking for something that bridged Eastern and Western musical traditions.
“I couldn’t find anything where I felt comfortable with that tradition,” he said, referring to Eastern music. “So I turned to Jewish texts that had a similarly ecstatic sense.”
Greenstein felt that the Zohar expressed a similar type of spirituality found in Eastern religions like Buddhism. He chose passages that described death as a metaphor for man’s ultimate betrothal to God, and matched it with a score that had the austere, ethereal sound of Gregorian chant.
“Hillula” is a haunting, heartfelt work, but it evinces little of Greenstein’s ambition to create a Jewish-and-classical music synthesis he would soon begin writing. What “Hillula” did do for Greenstein, however, was sow the seeds for that more ambitious piece to come. Studying Jewish texts closely, as he did for “Hillulah,” “seemed like an intense way to deepen my knowledge of religion, as well as how [studying religion] could build a bridge between cultures,” Greenstein said.
“This,” Greenstein added, “gets us into the ‘Shlomo’ story.”
Late in 2008, Carnegie Hall commissioned Greenstein to write a new piece for its “New Music” project, which gives grants to prominent young composers. Greenstein has become a well-known name in New York’s new music scene.
The troupe he directs, the NOW Ensemble, has won wide praise; the new-music classical label he founded, New Amsterdam Records, puts out albums by other highly regarded composers like Nico Muhly; and the new-music series where “Shlomo” will premiere — the Ecstatic Music Festival — is also Greenstein’s creation.
“My life is half composing music and half holding hands with all the people I think are great musicians and I want to see rise up with me,” Greenstein said.
The result of the Carnegie commission was “Vayomer Shlomo (And Solomon Said),” and posed the question, “What does it means to be wise?” Greenstein said. It had its premiere at Carnegie Hall in 2009, and laid the foundation for the much larger piece — “Shlomo” — Greenstein had in mind.
But Greenstein needed money to complete the “Shlomo” project. So after the premiere of “Vayomer Shlomo,” he applied for a Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, which gives a select group of Jewish artists grants of $40,000 each over two years. Greenstein got the grant, and has until the end of 2012 to premiere the final work.
“We were really impressed by his musical talent as well as the really interesting way he delved into the story of Solomon,” said Rebecca Guber, director of the Six Points Fellowship program. “We felt like it could really make a contribution to Jewish culture.”
The version of “Shlomo” that audiences will hear is the latest incarnation of the original Carnegie Hall commission, but will sound entirely different. The piece is scored for five vocalists, three keyboards, four percussionists, and an electric guitar and bass. The overall score also incorporates Eastern European folk music, indie rock, pop and lots of vibrato-less singing — akin to Steve Reich’s epic Jewish piece, “Tehillim.”
“I certainly see parallels to ‘Tehillim,’” said Chris Thompson, a percussionist in the Yehudim ensemble. “It’s a very joyous piece, very up tempo, and very rhythmically driven.” Olga Bell, a vocalist in the group and a composer herself, who will also be debuting a piece at the March 3 concert, described Greenstein’s other notable hallmarks — his feel for harmony and rhythm. “I feel most moved by [his sense of] harmony,” Bell said. “I think Judd comes from a similar pianistic background as I do, and I think that tonal sense comes through in his music.”
Then there’s the rhythm. Greenstein, who in addition to playing piano in high school, was a hip-hop disc jockey at parties as well. He’s even pursuing a Ph.D. in hip-hop composition at Princeton, and has incorporated rap lyrics into his scores before. That strong hip-hop sensibility comes through in his classical scores, Bell said: “We both really like hip-hop and we don’t apologize for writing rhythmically driven music.”
While the score for “Shlomo” remains unfinished, the basic outline of the four movements is complete, Greenstein said. It tells the story, as did “Vayomer Shlomo,” of King Solomon and his search for divine wisdom. In the Bible, Solomon is the most powerful Israelite king, having united all Twelve Tribes and building the First Temple in Jerusalem. And one of his key attributes is his divine wisdom, a gift God granted to him on his own request.
Greenstein found Solomon’s wisdom something of a riddle, however. After all, not long after Solomon was blessed with it, his empire begins to crumble. His power expands to an unmanageable size after he weds multiple foreign wives; he lives an extraordinarily decadent lifestyle at the expense of his subjects, whom he burdens with onerous taxes; and just after his death and the appointment of his son as his successor, 10 of the Twelve Tribes rebel, all of them breaking away and said to be lost forever.
“The reason I started to write about Solomon is because his story makes no sense,” Greenstein said. The question Greenstein still asks himself is why — not only why does Solomon’s wisdom still prevent him from making wise choices, but also, “Why am I spending two, three years of my life exploring King Solomon?” he said.
Greenstein admitted that he has no easy answer. But the pull of Solomon’s story — his quest for wisdom, his reception of it, then his subsequent betrayal of it — does seem to get at something profound and intriguing about the human condition. It may not be that wisdom is ephemeral, or even attained too late. It could be that having wisdom and having the willpower to use it are two entirely different things.
Those interpretations, however, don’t quite satisfy Greenstein. “My issue with ‘Shlomo’ [is] the feeling that it has to be ‘about’ something. But I don’t feel like pieces are about anything. They’re like people,” he said, “they’re too complex to be reduced that way.”
“Shlomo” will be performed Thursday, March 3, 7:30 p.m., at Merkin Concert Hall (129 W. 67th St.). For tickets — $25, $15 for student — call (212) 501-3330.