Matthew Greenbaum & Maimonides


sopranos Elizabeth Farnum, Priscilla Herreid, & Julia Bishop; Cygnus Ensemble; Momenta String Quartet

Greenbaum's epic Nameless bears an inscription from the single greatest work of Jewish Philosophy, The Guide for the Perplexed of Moses Maimonides (1120-1190). Greenbaum's work is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious works of Jewish sacred music ever undertaken.

The Guide for the Perplexed, written in dialogue with Muslim theologians, argued the existence of Deity by negation:

Whatever is Deity can’t be described; what can be described is not Deity.

Hence, the title, Nameless. Nameless is a long, wordless psalm. It is not descriptive; rather, it is a series of impressions—reflection, ecstasy, reverence, idyll and dance--expressed through fugue, chorus, dialogue, and aria. These are signposts for the listener that point outward to musical expressions of the ineffable in every culture and time.

There is nothing sentimental about Nameless. Greenbaum was one of the youngest proteges of Stefan Wolpe. American modernism of this Wolpe lineage is hard, primary, unsentimental (in Schiller's sense), consistent with the work of Babbitt, Wuorinen and Davidovsky.

The composer notes that Maimonides worked out his negative definition of God together with Muslim theologians. Averroes was roughly a contemporary of Maimonides, and they were both based in Cordoba, Spain. Nameless is therefore thickly enmeshed in the entire Abrahamic tradition. Finally, the composer tells us in his introduction that features of this work are “signposts for the listener that point outward to musical expressions of the ineffable in every culture and time.” As a highly abstract work that bounces off of highly abstract theology we get a model for the way cultures believe themselves to relate to one another--translation through abstraction. If you’re inclined, you might find that the work dissolves its premise in a way that mirrors religions as they gradually dissolve into abstraction, or revolve into their opposites. Imbricated here is the history of consciousness, and its major landmarks--the advent of monotheism, the disappearance or sublimation of god.

I fancy the piece as an alternation of active and passive music, but there is devolution as well as evolution, both of which are forceful, active. The vehement, ecstatic, loud and blustering music delivers soft quiet moments that are sublime. In the scherzoso sections the sublime gives way to the ridiculous, the perceptible elements of the work are chopped and diced, almost beyond recognition.

The ways the pitches are organized offer a wonderfully transparent enactment of these things. The active music furiously pulls us in different directions. When the voices enter we are hearing a 9-note chord, elements of which can be stable and poised, yet when these elements are contending with one another they are dynamic, anything but stable.

These windy sections are interspersed with moments of rest, where we enjoy quiet nature sounds, pastoral music—soughing, rustling, creaks, crickets.

There has never been so much hostility to science as there is now in 2017. One respose to anti-science must be a campaign to promote Averroes, Maimonides, & Aquinas. Science might keep in mind that it owes its existence to the Aristotelian Revolution, an important, hard shift toward empiricism launched by Averroes, Marimonides & Aquinas, these three theologians who represent all of the Abrahamic religions. There is kind of brotherhood, a form of conviviality surrounding those who love science, technology and the Aristotelian empiricism that became powerfully operative after Averroes Maimonides & Aquinas determined together that God set the world free, and that the world therefore, could be studied.

Of course, what emerged through intense theological disputation can be reversed later by others. Empiricism is fragile, but our iphones are hard to deny. We are, nevertheless, seeing in 2017 the reemergence of Plato's "unseen causes".

Moreover, can we say that a social element at work. Aristotelean conviviality quickly takes this route:

Averroes/Maimonides/Aquinas ––> Spinoza ––> Goethe ––> Wordsworth ––> Emerson––> Whitman....

Does this not leade straight to Deism (Pantheism), and arguably to liberalism? Deism ––> Unitarianism ––> the 20th C. Liberal.

And yet, for those who feel this gets too pantheistic, there is Chesterton, who loved Aquinas, wrote a lovely book about him. Chesterton resisted the Pantheistic or Deist developments by converting to Orthodox Catholicism. He may have been the one to make fun of Yeats by calling his gyres, "flying bedsprings". So many converted to Catholicism: Huysmanns, Wilde, Waugh....

Perhaps antiscience is more cultural than rational? Empiricism did not become a heresy, but this trajectory

Deism ––> Unitarianism ––> the 20th C. Liberal

seems to have shaped our present culture wars.