Jay Greenberg

At 17 the American composer already has six symphonies to his name. But what's life like as a child prodigy? We talk to Greenberg about the highs and lows of achieving success at a young age

You started to play the cello at three and took up theory and composition at the age of seven. What first motivated you to become a composer?
I always enjoyed composing music and thought I could make a career out of it. I’m distinguishing here between the desire to compose music and composing as an actual career or job. I’ve had the desire to compose music for as long as I can remember. Around the year 2004 and 2005 when I first started to hear performances of my music I figured I could be a composer. I’ve never felt comfortable performing, and I don’t like practising. Being a composer just requires you to write and turn up at the end to say thank you to the musicians.

What is your finest work to date?
It’s always the last thing I wrote. The most recent thing I’ve written that’s of consistent quality is a suite for piano. It’s a set of eight short fairly abstract pieces – with titles like Fugue, Scherzo and Moto perpetuo, though one is titled ‘Like a Cockroach’; and they juxtapose languages – so one is in fairly Classical B flat major while another uses a much more complex atonal musical language. But they all still work together as a set.

And which composers – both contemporary and historical – have most inspired you?
At home we had LP collections of Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, so I listened to a lot of that. Even now I use a lot of Classical forms. Other influences include Bartók, Bernstein, Stravinsky and, I guess, Prokofiev. And there’s been an increasing influence of jazz and popular music. I’m pretty sure I’m developing at least a somewhat individual voice, but I’m not sure how much it can be separated from its influences. It’s not in a radically experimental or original style but at the same time it doesn’t really sound like any other composers I’m used to listening to.

Do you think that having achieved success at such a young age might bring its own pressures as you get older?
I think it brings about enough pressure at the moment really! Most of it is internal pressure. People don’t usually expect very much from a child prodigy – they expect potential. Only very few like Mozart and Mendelssohn have achieved success in adulthood. So it actually somewhat lowers expectations. And it has the implication that people are only really paying attention to the music because the composer is only 12 (well at this point I’m 17). And most of the reviews, even the ones by the people who obviously don’t like the music, say he has potential to become a good composer even though this piece wasn’t very good.

How do you react to adverse critical reaction, if and when you get it?
It depends on the piece being criticised, but I might agree with it. In fact sometimes I’ll have harsher criticism than those who reviewed it. Usually once I finish a piece I listen to it and decide that some bits are problems, which I fix in the next piece I write. Other times I’m a little disappointed by the number of reviews that go into detail about the piece and analyse it, but that’s more because I like those kinds of musical analyses, and most people these days don’t anymore.

What are your main ambitions for the future?
At the moment the same fairly normal things most people have: you know, go to college, achieve artistic perfection. Something like that!

Interview by Rebecca Franks

A shorter edition of this interview was first published in the June issue of BBC Music Magazine, in which we reveal music's greatest prodigy. Let us know who you think should top the list by voting in our poll and heading to our forum

Image: Bill Phelps/IMG Artists


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