Art Works Blog

Art Talk with New Amsterdam

From l-r: Judd Greenstein, photo by Joshua Frankel; Sarah Kirkland Snider, photo by Murat Eyuboglu; William Brittel, photo by Murat Eyuboglu

The music produced by New Amsterdam Records has been described as post-classical, indie-classical, genre-less. Regardless of its classifications, or non-classifications, the record label has been gaining notice for its eclectic mix of boundary-pushing albums. Founded in 2007 by Judd Greenstein, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and William Brittelle, the "pro-artist" label (artists receive the majority of profits) provides a home for nearly two dozen musicians and composers, who work with New Amsterdam on a project-by-project basis. The label also gave rise to New Amsterdam Presents, which organizes concerts, tours; and the Ecstatic Music series, which brings artists from different genres together for unique collaborations. We talked with the three founders by e-mail and phone to get the scoop on how they hope to change the musical landscape.

NEA: What was the inspiration behind starting the label?

JUDD GREENSTEIN: The inspiration behind the label was really necessity. There was not an outlet for the records some of us were trying to make when I initially started the label. When Bill and Sarah came on board, we realized there was a real need for it, not just in terms of the people that we knew, but in terms of defining and articulating a broader community of active musicians around the country and around the world.

NEA: Each one of you maintains an active musical/composing career. How do you balance your roles as musicians and business owners?

SARAH KIRKLAND SNIDER: It's not easy to balance roles, but we try, because composing is extremely important to each of us. I think our role as composers strengthens our role as label directors, because we understand firsthand how difficult it is to not only write music, but to make a living doing it. This is why we created such a radically artist-friendly platform. When we sketched out the mission and bylaws for our label, we thought hard about what we would want to see from a label ourselves, as artists.

GREENSTEIN: The two really feed each other. I wish I had 24 hours free for each [role] in a day. What’s nice is that my decisions as a musician are informed by the knowledge that now there’s an outlet for the work that I’m doing. For any artist, you have to imagine where your work is going to go. When you’re taking control of the production of your work and the way that it’s going into get into people’s ears, and into their lives as a musical product they can enjoy, it allows you to not be limited by the structure of the industry. To be creating the industry yourself means you can do whatever it is you imagine musically.… If I do that, then I’ll be serving the other artists that we have on the label, and I’ll be serving the needs of a much broader community.

BRITTELLE: I live in Brooklyn, but I’m looking out at the beautiful sunset in upstate New York. I finally decided that I had to get a separate space where I could come up and unplug two days a week and just write music. The thing that’s great about the label is that there’s a lot of need for it, and we’ve been really lucky to get a fair amount of attention for what we’re doing. The downside of that is that there’s always 18 million things to do. Its really, really hard to just unplug and find your own creative space. So the conclusion I’ve come to is that I just have to get out of the city.

NEA: What do you look for in a musician or composer that you’re looking to sign?

BILL BRITTELLE: We don’t sign artists in the conventional sense. We work by project. Not everything I have, or Judd or Sarah has written, is released by New Amsterdam. We’re looking for a particular thing that doesn’t really belong anywhere else that has influences from other genres all kind of mixed together. I think in a truer sense, that we’re looking for are projects that encompass the full musical life of the composer, where all of their influences and everything that makes them who are as a musician is included in the music. Like it has a high level of craft from their training, but at the same time, there are simple, powerful moments, or maybe they have a background in early music, or maybe they have a background in rock guitar, or maybe they have a background in jazz. I think one of the things we noticed that we didn’t like about what was coming out of the academic classical world was that [classical composers] were going out and seeing rock shows at night, or listening to rock music on their iPod, but that music wasn’t really making it into the music they were composing. Or if it was, you were kind of losing the more powerful aspects of more popular music in favor of making the music more palatable in an academic setting.

KIRKLAND SNIDER: We are most interested in projects that bring together disparate artistic influences and traditions in a wholly integrated way that feels personal and unique.  We are also interested in creating albums that have a sonic and stylistic cohesion and consistency.  Beyond that, we like music that has a strong profile and makes a bold and clear statement; music that simply has that elusive, ineffable quality that makes it irresistible.

NEA: According to your website, New Amsterdam focuses on “music without walls, without an agenda, and without a central organizing principle.” What do you see as the potential pitfalls and benefits of categorizing music?

KIRKLAND SNIDER: The benefit of categorizing music is that you immediately offer a would-be listener a clue that a piece of music might be of interest to them. This is also a pitfall, however, because labels mean different things to different people, and so you might unwittingly turn someone off to something that might really appeal to them. Part of our reason for starting New Amsterdam was our realization that there was a lot of music being made by people in the "classical" world that might strongly appeal to people outside that world, people who traditionally identify themselves as pop or rock or jazz (or other "vernacular" styles) listeners. The challenge is then to find a way to describe the music that will gain the attention of all potential fans, classical or pop, which is really difficult to do in a marketplace that very much likes to keep them separate. So this is a constant issue for us: how to market music that is "in between" in a marketplace that really isn't designed to support it.

BRITTELLE: I think it’s easy to be idealist about not calling music anything or feeling that music shouldn’t have a genre. As a composer’s writing something, there’s no genre to it. They’re not trying to adhere to anything; they’re just trying to express musical thought and emotion. Once it leaves them and enters the music industry in any form, it starts being forced into different channels, for better or worse. I think rather than trying to fight those channels, as a label, we work with our publicist to try and take advantage of those channels, because those channels are ways to get to people who are interested in certain things.… One of the big decisions we always have is what iTunes store does this go on? Is it the classical store or the rock store? We spend a lot of time talking about that.… You have to make those decisions, and you have to allow the music to be pushed out in those channels and trust that the people that are listening to it are going to be open to all the different aspects of it, not just the genre part that they happen to be interested in.

GREENSTEIN: Artists tend to really dislike any kind of label for whatever it is they’re doing. No artist wants to be told that their music belongs to one genre or another, or [to] be given any sort of brand that would suggest a limitation or even a connection to some tendency that they might not think they have. But once you’ve been in the position of trying to frame work that’s unusual to an audience, you realize that you need terms, and you need categories, and you need a way of building that frame so that the potential audience becomes intrigued before they actually come to [the music].… It’s in fact the presence of those terms, and the narrative that’s constructed around the music, that winds up often getting [the work] to people in the first place. So the pitfall of using [terms] is that you have to limit people in some way, but the much greater pitfall of not using terms and not framing the work is that people probably won’t hear the work at all, and that seems much worse to me.

NEA: How do you hope to reinvent traditional notions of classical music?

BRITTELLE: I think that one of the traditions of the past few generations has been to really create a dialogue with the generation before, often rebelling from it. If you picture romantic music as kind of a rebellion to classical structure and formalism, then you have modernist music, which is kind of a response to the schmaltziness and over-emotiveness of romantic music. Then you have minimalism as a response to angular and dissonant and hard-to-follow modernist music. What we’re interested in is not participating in that pendulum swing, and getting off that track. It’s not about a genre or what a group of peole are doing; it’s about what individuals are doing. It’s about individual composers finding their voices and building their own islands and creating their own world and feeling free to be honest about who they are and what they express. I don’t really think that we’re trying to change the course of classical music, or trying to say anything about what classical music is or isn’t.

GREENSTEIN: We [three founders] definitely see ourselves as classical musicians, and that’s a term that’s about as loaded as anything. People sometimes want to run away from it because it implies too much that they have not liked about their own training, or their own experience, or the way that they’ve felt hemmed in by a classical culture. By and large, we love the classical tradition, we see ourselves as part of that.... I think classical music just needs to be accommodating of the world of music that it’s situated in.… That’s where I see classical music expanding and growing, into a place where composers are writing for specific players---they’re still writing classical music, they’re still writing scores---but they’re writing it with room for the players themselves to have a presence in the formation of the work between what’s on the page and what comes out in the concert hall. I still see that as part of the classical tradition, and I think if that’s something that we can incorpoarate into classical music going forward more strongly then it has been, then that would be to the benefit of the field.

NEA: What would you like to see more of in the music world?

BRITTELLE:

Overall, in musical culture, I’d like to see a little bit more sophistication from listeners. I wish listeners would challenge themselves more. There is a lot of incredibly interesting music out there.

KIRKLAND SNIDER: We'd like to see better infrastructure to support the kind of music we release. The music world is really at the very beginning stages of supporting this kind of music; there are presenters who are looking to present it, but they are on the cutting-edge, and still fighting for institutional support to make it happen. Grant and fellowship opportunities for composers in our community are growing, but still have a long way to go. Most of our composers feel very caught between worlds and career models; they have projects that could be quite popular with audiences, but are written for forces that aren't easy to put in a van and tour. It would be wonderful to see more presenters and institutions take risks and make an investment in this musical movement, which is what it needs before it can become sustainable and beneficial to both artist and presenter.

GREENSTEIN: A lot of things. I would like to see more genuine risk-taking.... Real danger and real risk and real risk-taking comes when nobody knows what’s going to happen in the concert hall. When that happens is when you get artists to do things that perhaps they have not been asked to do before. And it’s pretty rare to find a cultural organization that is willing to take that kind of chance given the money involved and the need to bring audiences. That’s one of the big challenges that we face now. We have a culture where the organizations that are supposed to cultivate risk-taking, and cultivate newness, are actually being run in ways that minimize risk as much as possible. I would at least like to see that acknowledged, even though I understand that it may be hard to change. I think the first step is in really having an open discussion and dialogue in our society about how we expect new things to come about, how we expect artists to be put in positIons where they can take chances and how we create a culture where audiences can come to show where don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but are excited for that lack of knowing. That to me is a much more interesting society than one where you just scan the concert calendar for the things you already know and then circle those dates.

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