Hanging Gardens interview on textura.org

The fine folks at textura.org interviewed me about Hanging Gardens. Here’s what I had to say.


Pianist Jacob Greenberg is a longtime member of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) (and the director of its in-house Tundra imprint) but also a solo artist of considerable renown. Albums by the Oberlin College and Northwestern University graduate have appeared on Nonesuch, Sony, Naxos, Tzadik, New Focus Recordings, and New Amsterdam, among others, featuring works by contemporary composers such as Elliott Carter and György Kurtág as well as Schumann, Mozart, and Beethoven. A major addition to the Brooklyn-based artist's discography is his recent two-disc set Hanging Gardens, which features the pianist performing pieces by Debussy, Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg, the latter represented by the remarkable song-cycle Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens); Greenberg's joined on the piece by soprano Tony Arnold, who also partnered with him on a 2013 recording of Olivier Messiaen's Harawi. textura spoke recently with the pianist about Hanging Gardens and why the pairing of Debussy and the Second Viennese composers turned out to be so complementary.

1. In the liner notes you wrote for Hanging Gardens, you state that despite the differences between Debussy and the Second Viennese composers (Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg) in musical philosophy and approach, they're aligned by, in your words, “a common embrace of sensuality in music.” It wouldn't take much to convince most listeners of that quality in Debussy's music, but it probably wouldn't be the first word those same listeners would use to describe Schoenberg's. Could you elaborate on how the music these composers wrote is, in your estimation, sensual?

The clues are everywhere. To start, a listener needs to connect the Second Viennese with their most immediate musical ancestors, Brahms and Mahler. Arnold Schoenberg was committed to continuing the legacy of Austro-German music, and he wrote hyper-expressive pieces in increasingly concentrated forms. It's a Romantic sensibility, with more changeability and eccentricity, and, notably, an intense sensitivity to musical texture; this is where the influence of art and literature comes in. Schoenberg's correspondence with Kandinsky makes clear the painterly link between his work and Expressionist art, and Schoenberg's openness to Symbolist poetry in Pierrot Lunaire shows him to be under the same literary influence as Debussy. In the Society for Private Musical Performances, Schoenberg's concert series in Vienna, Debussy and Ravel were programmed constantly.

So while it's entirely possible to play the music of Schoenberg and his students in a dry manner—which, to generalize, was the early performance practice of the Second Viennese School—one can't ignore the advances of performers like Boulez, who not only humanized these composers, but revealed their amazing orchestral imagination and the depth of their harmonic palette. I think that few pianists have approached Second Viennese piano music—which can sound the driest of all, if one tries—with an ear to sound colour and an awareness of counterpoint that, to me, is like layered strokes of paint on canvas. Those are some of the most striking aspects of the music, and they're the things that can really entrance a listener.

To mention the pieces I play on this album: Alban Berg's Sonata is defined by its passion and decadence. It has a wide-ranging keyboard style that's full of surging melodies, sumptuous rolled chords, and surprising whole-tone harmonies. Anton Webern's Variations, by contrast, creates a spare yet truly three-dimensional piano texture. Notes and chords are like points of coloured light, some delicate, some blazing. I'll say more about Schoenberg's The Book of the Hanging Gardens later.

2. You also write that the Debussy selections on the release “offer a chance to view the music of Arnold Schoenberg's school, assumed to be arid and formalist, through a tinted lens.” How specifically do the Debussy works presented enable the listener to hear the music of the Second Viennese composers in a newly refracted manner?

As I've curated the order of pieces on the album, I mean for the transitions to give some insight. Debussy's "Sarabande" from Pour le Piano leads to Berg's Sonata, which begins in the same dreamy mood in triple meter. I go from the Berg to one of the most abstract of the Debussy Études (“Pour les sixtes”), which harmonically wanders through fragmented episodes of agitation and stillness. One can draw lots of comparisons between the Debussy Préludes and the Second Viennese pieces with regard to their textures and moods. Just a few personal associations that I can highlight: I hear Webern's concentrated, melodically expressive phrasing in pieces like “Des pas sur la neige” and “Canope,” and I connect Berg's extravagance to “Ce qu'a vu le vent d'ouest” and “Feux d'artifice.” Context is everything when listening, and it forms our tastes and opinions about music. It's a pleasure to curate a listening experience on my self-produced albums.

3. Given that there are a number of vocal settings by Schoenberg you could have chosen for the recording, what made you decide on Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens) as opposed to something like Pierrot Lunaire?

I've played The Book of the Hanging Gardens with soprano Tony Arnold for many years. The poetry by Stefan George is singularly passionate, and the backdrop of the cycle is the lush, mysterious Hanging Gardens of Babylon, or an imagined ancient landscape similar to it. The songs are as evocative of romantic love as they are of physical sensation. The song I often talk about is number 11 in the cycle, which depicts the two lovers touching each other lightly in the afterglow of passion. The tactile delicacy of the music feels like breaths and whispers. Elsewhere in the piece, the piano writing is impetuous, and gives physical shape to the poetry's obsession, longing, and desperation. For me, therefore, the only way to describe the music is in terms of sensuality. The piece also goes to such extremes: the last song's illustration of the central character's banishment to a barren wasteland will haunt me forever. On the recording, the end of the song cycle is followed by Book Two of the Debussy Préludes, starting with “Brouillards,” which shares the Schoenberg cycle's harmonic ambiguity and vivid sense of place.

4. I don't mean to oversimplify, but I recall that when the music of Glass and Reich started to gain attention there was in the air a corresponding conviction that their tonal music symbolized a tacit rejection of the direction the music had taken under Schoenberg's influence and that soon enough his works would be little more than historical footnotes. Yet here we are a century removed from the writing of his pieces and not only are we still listening to them many have become part of the standard repertoire. How do you account for the longevity and staying power of his music?

My immersion in all kinds of music has convinced me not only of the essentialness of the Second Viennese aesthetic in music's evolution, but the potency of the distinct musical personalities of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, who truly can be embraced as warmly as Debussy has been embraced. The three are so very different, and their music is a fantastic reflection of character, showing how each of them was a study in contradictions. One can't forge a new style without showing allegiance to the past, and each composer wore this conflict in his own way. So it's that depth of character that draws us in; it speaks to people differently, but memorably, and is important to artistic longevity.

And yes, the music is often jarring, and is meant to be. But one doesn't love Schumann just because he composed in a generally tonal style; one loves him for all his quirks. Likewise, I love Debussy because I sense that underneath his music's beauty is a restlessness, always seeking new dimensions of experience. To allude to Schoenberg's written essays, style and idea are completely linked, and it's the quality of the composers' communication that makes me think deeply about them. One can listen with the same basic criteria, the same standard of appreciation, applied in all directions. And with familiarity of music comes understanding, maybe nowhere more than with the Second Viennese composers.

5. A scan of the discography at your site shows that in both your solo releases and the ones you've issued with International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), with whom you've been a longtime member, the focus has largely been on contemporary material and living composers. What prompted you to commit so fervently to the contemporary period from the beginning of your career as opposed to eras associated with Bach, Mozart, and Schumann (even though pieces by them also have been recorded by you)?

I don't think it's an either/or. I came to be involved in new music in the most traditional way, through historical listening: I was curious about contemporary composers' influences and lineage, and those things gave me some useful inroads. But to return to my earlier point, it's the distinctiveness of a composer's language that fascinates me. When I work as a pianist with young composers, I'm drawn to a creative voice that can uniquely intersect with my performing personality. In that sense, I listen in the same way to Mozart as to composers whom I and my ensemble commission for new work. The question is always the same: What makes music special and worthwhile?

The challenge of performing is a challenge of identification. How can you enlarge yourself to encompass a new language, to find yourself in something unexplored? I've found that I most identify with composers whom I believe to revel in conflict—however submerged—and are thereby revolutionary and radical in a particular way. I'm also attracted to the challenges of new music because I think that dissonance has a greater probability of truth than comfortable sounds. But everything needs to be shaped by expert hands and ears. In this era, as in all others, most art is poorly conceived. I find a lot of optimism, though, in fostering new work, and composing myself. I'm also terribly spoiled by the vastness of the piano repertoire; there's never any excuse to play bad music, or teach it to my students. So I try to choose wisely. Fortunately, my tastes are discerning but also pretty broad, so I'm never at a loss.

Jacob Greenberg