Judd Greenstein *14, a native Manhattanite, has composed an opera based on Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs.
Michi Wiancko
An ‘unfettered’ composer blends styles and sounds, to create genre-defying music

There aren’t many operas about urban planning, but Judd Greenstein *14 has composed one. Drawing on Robert Caro ’57’s biography of Robert Moses and other sources, A Marvelous Order brings to the stage the battle between Moses and grassroots activist Jane Jacobs over his plan to demolish her Greenwich Village neighborhood. Moses and Jacobs “are operatic characters already, larger than life, and we wanted to tell the story of how New York City has changed and evolved,” says Greenstein, who grew up in Manhattan. The story will be told with custom-built LED screens that use animation and singers trained in non-operatic singing who bring fresh dimensions to the genre. Seven years in the making, the opera — with a libretto by Princeton professor Tracy K. Smith — will have its premiere in 2021.

Greenstein had never created an opera before, but he’s known for his exploration of musical genres and how they intersect. As a composer, performer, and artistic director of a record label, he creates and supports music that blends styles, sounds, and instruments.

“So much of what I’m trying to do is create opportunities for musicians to pursue music in the way they want, as opposed to being constrained by the existing infrastructure for music,” he says. “It’s more interesting when you allow all those things to get messier and speak to each other in new ways.” Among his other recent projects are an orchestral song cycle for an indie-rock vocalist, a ballet score, and an ensemble that creates and performs pieces about Biblical characters.

Greenstein started composing on the piano at age 9. During his teenage years, a friend enlisted him to apply his musical skills to rap. Soon, he was “writing hip-hop beats at the same time as classical music,” he recalls.

A college internship with Bang on a Can, a collective making innovative new music that was co-founded by Julia Wolfe *12, helped set him on his path. As a graduate student at Yale, where he received a master’s degree in composition, Greenstein co-founded NOW Ensemble, which Time Out New York has described as having “the formal elegance of chamber music with a pop-honed concision and rhythmic vitality.” At Princeton, where he earned a second master’s degree — he is still working on his dissertation — Greenstein co-founded his own record label, New Amsterdam Records, to make the ensemble’s first album because “not many labels were recording music of the kind we were making in the way we wanted,” he says. “Classical music was still thought of as something for a specialized listener, and the way it was recorded reflected that — a pristine setup with limited microphones to emulate hearing it in a concert hall.” He remains co-artistic director of the nonprofit label, whose mission is to support music that transcends genres. It has released more than 100 albums, and its artists have won a Grammy and a Pulitzer Prize.

Princeton Professor of Music Steven Mackey, Greenstein’s thesis adviser, describes him as “prodigiously skillful and unfettered by taboo and dogma.” His work with New Amsterdam Records and as a music-festival curator has “contributed to the formation of musical scenes or subcultures that will have historical importance,” Mackey says.

The project that is perhaps most resonant for Greenstein is the Yehudim, an ensemble of percussion, keyboard, guitar, and song that he is relaunching in 2020. He studied with a rabbi before composing works for the group that explore the wisdom of King Solomon and draw on texts from the Jewish mystical tradition of kabbalah. The New York Times called Sh’lomo, a four-movement symphony with vocal accompaniment blending indie rock, folk music, and pop, an “epiphany ... [that] fuses his disparate musical inspirations with his abiding interest in Jewish history and literature to explosive effect.”

Greenstein, who composes, plays keyboards, and sings with the Yehudim, is at work on new compositions for the group. “It’s this crazy band I put together,” he says, “and it’s my most personal and open space.”