Greg Sandow

Composer, consultant and writer




For many years, Sandow was best known as a critic, both of classical music and pop. As a critic, Sandow wrote for The Village Voice in the 1980s. His column was on new classical music, though he also wrote about the mainstream repertory, typically challenging traditional assumptions about its function and its meaning. In recent years his writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Opera News, and the Wall Street Journal, where for a long time he was a regular contributor. In pop music, he became chief pop critic of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in 1988, and in 1990 joined the staff of Entertainment Weekly, which had just begun publication, and where he served first as music critic and then as senior music editor.

During his years as a critic, Sandow abandoned composition, but later resumed it. His works include four operas, one based on Frankenstein, music from which he incorporated into an orchestra piece, A Frankenstein Overture, which has been performed by the Pittsburgh Symphony and the South Dakota Symphony. Others who have performed his work include the Fine Arts Quartet, the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble, and the pianist Jenny Lin.

Sandow has made public appearances throughout the United States and also abroad, and has also done consulting work and other special projects with classical music institutions, including the Cleveland Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra[ and the New York Philharmonic. Since 1997 he has taught at the Juilliard School as a member of the Graduate Studies Faculty, and from 2006 to 2009 also taught at the Eastman School of Music, where he gave the commencement address in 2008. He blogs about the future of classical music on the website.

Sandow has also extensively written and researched unidentified flying objects, notably for the International UFO Reporter, a quarterly publication of the Center for UFO Studies.

Sandow is married to Anne Midgette, herself a former classical music reviewer for The New York Times and now chief classical music critic for The Washington Post. Sandow dedicated his "Quartet for Anne" to his wife. They live in Washington, D.C., and Warwick, New York. They have one child, Rafael Aron Sandow, born October 15, 2011.




What does music mean to you personally?

I have no idea how to answer that! But maybe I could say that of course music is powerfully expressive. Though that’s pretty obvious. Beyond that, I have two special, personal ways of relating to music. First, any music is in some way a construction. Sounds happen. Both horizontally (so to speak) and vertically. One sound after another, and also many sounds at once. How they fit together fascinates me. It’s something all kinds of music have in common — that sounds happen, and they fit together in countless ways.

Then, second, music is a powerful expression of culture. I’ve been involved, as audience or professional, with some powerful times when new kinds of music evolved. All of them expressing something new going on in the culture. The rise of rock & roll in the 1950s, the rise of ‘60s rock in the ‘60s, the emergence of minimalism in the 1970s and 1980s, the explosion of punk in the ‘70s, the rise of hiphop. Such energy in all of these movements! And quite apart from the new things in the culture that all of these styles expressed, all of them evolved new ways in which music was constructed. Heaven for me to go deep into all of it.

Do you agree that music is all about fantasy?

I wouldn’t want to say what music is about. That varies for different people. But of course there’s a strong imaginative element in it! And if any of us want to call that fantasy, it’s fine with me.

If you were not a professional musician, would would you have been?

I might have been a lawyer, or (something I’ve dreamed about) a filmmaker.

The classical music audience is getting old, are you worried about your future?

I don’t worry about my future, since I’m 73. But I do worry about the future of the field. The audience is slowly slipping away. In Washington DC, where I live, big classical performances now routinely play to half-empty houses. So obviously classical music needs to change! And it is changing, but up to now I don’t think the changes have brought us to a place where classical music can sustain itself financially in new ways, and give many musicians a chance to make a living. Once that evolves, the future is ours.

What do you envision the role of classical music to be in the 21 century? Do you see that there is a transformation of this role?

I think classical music will become a contemporary form of art and entertainment. it’s important to say that some of it will be entertainment, because much of it was entertainment in classical music’s past! That means that much of the music played at classical performances will be new. And it will sound and feel like the other music people listen to today, meaning that some of it will have a beat, and will be strongly blended with pop (in its many forms) and hiphop and world music.

When I say that classical music is searching for new ways or that the classical music is getting a new face, what would come to your mind?

Since I’ve made a career of helping classical music find its future, I know many ways in which classical music is getting a new face. Informal performances, performances in clubs, musicians talking to their audience (which used to be just about forbidden). Blends of classical music and pop. And all kinds of wonderful creative projects, like one at the University of Maryland, in the US, where musicians in the student orchestra played Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun from memory, dancing the music while they played it! There’s a beautiful video of that on YouTube. I was at the performance. One of the most thrilling moments I’ve had in music.

In the US, there’s also a strong trend to play classical music in the community. This is valuable, because it takes it out of the concert hall, and brings it to people in the places where they live, work, and play. It also connects music with important social causes.

But there’s a bad side to this. Community service is wonderful, but it’s not the same thing as art. Art often challenges the world. If we always aim classical music to please a community audience, then we’ve lost our souls as artists. The artists who’ve most strongly inspired me —Verdi, Mahler, Bob Dylan, Stravinsky, in literature Proust and Samuel Beckett, in film Truffaut, Godard, and Antonioni — never did anything in the community. They made their art, and the world came to them.

Do you think that the classical musician today needs to be more creative? Whats the role of creativity in the musical process for you?

Yes, classical music needs to be much more creative. One problem in concert halls and opera houses is that they do the same pieces over and over again. So a sense of routine sets in. There’s very little discovery in most of those performances. Everyone knows what to expect. This isn’t always true — sometimes a performance of a familiar piece can be a complete revelation.

The schools where classical musicians learn to be professionals are, as a rule, terribly uncreative. The musicians learn their craft. But they aren’t asked to think about who they are as artists. That’s a terrible loss. For me, of course music is creative. And of course, everyone has their own way of doing music.

Do you think we musicians can do something to attract young generation into the classical music concerts? How will you proceed?

There are many things that can be done. Many things that have been done! But I think there are two very basic things to think about. First, the concerts should be informal. Or maybe beautifully designed, enveloping, with an environment created for the music. But the key is that the performance space should feel nothing at all like a classical concert hall.

Then, second, when we talk about the music we’re doing, we should talk about why we love it. We should be very personal. Talk about specific moments in a piece, and why we find them exciting, emotional, frightening, whatever. Talk about how we feel when we play (or in my case, compose). If we present our music as a personal expression, other people can immediately relate. They don’t have to know about the music. They just have to respond to our love of it.

Tell us about your creative process. Do you have your favourite piece (written by you) How did you start working on it?

One of my favorite pieces — pieces I’ve written — is called Mahler Variations, played by a string quartet. It’s a set of variations on the beginning of the last movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony. “Set of variations” means that first the string quartet plays the theme, as Mahler wrote it. And then I write more than 20 short pieces that refer back to the theme in various ways, which in classical music language means that they’re variations on it.

I began simply by arranging Mahler’s music, which wasn’t easy! He uses a full string orchestra, divided into more than the four parts available for string quartet. So I had to condense what he wrote, somehow trying to make the same effect.

Then I got stuck! And repeatedly got stuck, as I made my way through my composing. I got so stuck, so many times, that I added a quotation from Samuel Beckett to the beginning of the piece: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

One expression of getting stuck was that there are many silences in the piece, moments when the music simply stops. The final silence is in a way the climax of the piece. It lasts as long as the musicians want it to, but I suggest that it be at least two minutes long! After that, the way the conclusion of the piece grows out of that silence is (to me) just magical.

We, Moving Classics TV, love the combination of classical music with different disciplines: music and painting, music and cinematography, music and digital art, music and poetry. What do you think about these combinations?

Of course they work! And of course they’ve often been done. Almost any film has music on its soundtrack, pop songs have videos. Dance is most often choreographed to music. Maybe what’s new in our time is taking classical piece that are normally played just as music, and linking them to other arts. But anywhere outside classical music, that would be seen as a natural thing to do. So why shouldn’t it be natural for us?

Can you give some advice for young people who want to discover classical music for themselves?

They should never feel apologetic, because they don’t know classical music already. And they should never feel intimidated, never feel they need any special knowledge. All they need is open ears and an open mind. That said, it’s hard to know where to start. We can stream just about any classical music we want, but if someone doesn’t know about it, how can they find something they might like? And if they want to hear one of the great classics, there are so many recordings of each one! How can they pick? As one way through this, I’d suggest beginning with Steve Reich, Bach, and, for something truly titanic and enveloping, Mahler’s second or third symphony. For Steve Reich, I’d pick Music for 18 Musicians. For Bach, piano music played by Simone Dinnerstein or Glenn Gould. For Mahler, a recording with Leonard Bernstein conducting. This can be a start!

Now it is a common practice in the media to talk that the classical music is getting into the consumption business, do you agree? We are speaking about the supply and demand rules and how to sell your “product” in your case your compositions. How do you see it?

Well, of course we’re in the consumption business, and we always have been. People have to learn that our music is here, and we have to get them interested in hearing it. Words like product aren’t popular in the #classical music world, because we like to pretend we’re above these things. But if we want to have an audience — and, even more, if we want to make a living from our music — we have to understand that we’re doing business in the musical marketplace.

Do you have expectations what regards your listeners, your audience?

I’d like my audience to be thoughtful people, who don’t normally listen to classical music. To be clear about this, I in fact don’t care whether they’re classical music listeners or not. I just want people with lots of curiosity and passionate interest, involving many things in their lives. But since most people aren’t classical music listeners, then if I want to have a representative group from the world around me, most of them wouldn’t listen normally to classical music. That thought also widens my horizons musically,.

What projects are coming up? Do you experiment in your projects?

Every project is an experiment. I never know where they’re going to go, even if I think I do. So I’m always surprised. My upcoming project might be a simple arrangement of a lyrical excerpt from one of my operas. Turning it into a lyrical piano piece, which I hope Anna will play. But even this is an experiment, because I don’t know how to start it! The segue into this music, as it happens in the opera, isn’t possible in a short piano piece. So I’ll have to think of something new.