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From Math to Musicology: Establishing Personal Identity as an Artist

Q&A Interview with Joshua Grayson

2/12/2021 • Reading Time: 13min

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About Joshua Grayson

Pianist, musicologist, and genealogist Joshua Grayson has played classical piano since the age of three. After studying at Juilliard’s pre-college division for six years, he attended Indiana University, where he double-majored in piano and math. He earned a PhD in historical musicology from the University of Southern California, writing his dissertation on the late choral music of Arnold Schoenberg as a reflection of the composer’s religious, ethnic, and national identities. Maintaining a wide variety of interests beyond his musical activities, he is currently starting a genealogy research practice which focuses on Jewish families from Central and Eastern Europe.

Q&A Interview

Tell us about your musical beginnings: as a very young child, before attending Juilliard pre-college.

I can’t really tell you how I first began playing piano because I honestly don’t remember. According to my parents, I was about three or four when I started. My mother plays as an amateur and apparently I asked her to teach me. According to the story, she showed me something very simple at the keyboard and I protested that I wanted her to teach me “with the circles and the lines.” My mother can be somewhat taken to hyperbole, so I’m not sure exactly what happened. Since I was so young, I was already playing piano in my earliest memories—I really can’t remember a time when music was not an important part of my life or my identity. During the three years or so that I studied with my mother, we worked our way through several of the John Thompson beginner piano books.

When I was about six or seven, my parents went to a concert at the Bard Music Festival in Upstate New York where they heard a piano recital by Edmund Battersby. When they read his biography, they found that he headed a music program for children at what was then called Montclair State College in New Jersey. They decided that it would be a great place for me to further my studies, so they took me to audition there that fall—that must have been in around 1989 or 1990. I still remember quite clearly a very big man smiling at me as I played some John Thompson pieces and an arrangement of “Baby Baluga” by Raffi.


At Montclair I took classes in theory, something called “eurhythmics” (which I think was a bit like rudimentary solfège), music history, and other classes. I also played chamber music: the Mozart G major piano trio, the Haydn G major piano trio, and two movements from Carnival des Animaux with another pianist and with orchestra. I was often invited to play in Professor Battersby and Dr. Rendleman’s evening masterclasses, in which I was the only non-college student. I can still hear my father apologizing for having to leave early because “he has to be a third grader tomorrow.”

In the summers, I went to several sleep-away music camps: Stokes Forest Music Camp in northern New Jersey, a summer festival at Hartwick College, and two summers at Luzerne Music Center. In my first summer I was 9 ½, but the summer camp had a rule that only ten-year-olds were allowed to stay overnight. The plan was that I would go during the day and my parents would pick me up at night. Dr. Rendleman, the director of the camp, opened a registration book, shuffled some papers, and said, “I didn’t know he just turned ten last week!” So thanks to her kindness, I was allowed to be a sleepaway camper! I asked my piano teacher, Joseph Smith z”l if he would be willing to give me a lesson every day, which he did because I wanted it.

You specifically asked me about my time before Juilliard, but Juilliard is so central to my life, development, and identity that I couldn’t not include it. I certainly enjoyed music before Juilliard, but it was Juilliard that made me fall in love with music. Although it has a reputation as a place where individuality goes to die, in my experience that couldn’t have possibly been further from the truth. It was a warm place filled with incredibly caring, nurturing people. I studied piano with a professor who taught me that in order to be a great pianist, you can’t just know about piano—you have to know everything about everything, because it’s all related. (That’s probably jumping ahead a bit in the interview.) She talked only a little about technique. Instead, she focused on interpretation—from tiny details of phrasing to grand, sweeping emotions. Sometimes I would have an entire hour-long lesson (which usually went to at least two if not three hours) on a single phrase of music. Many times we would discuss literature, art, or philosophy. It was thanks to her that I realized music isn’t just a fun thing that I like to do, but it is a vehicle for all the hopes, fears, dreams, vulnerabilities, and achievements of humanity.

I also had the great privilege of privately studying composition for a year with Andrew Thomas, head of the precollege division and a former composition student of Nadia Boulanger. Although I deeply regret that I only studied with him for one year, he ingrained in me an insatiable curiosity about music and about many other subjects.

My mother pushed me very hard as a child, perhaps as a way of living vicariously through me. She had wanted to be a concert pianist, but felt that her parents hadn’t supported her enough to make that a reality. Instead of pursuing a career in music, she ultimately became a social worker. She tried very hard not to have that happen to me, and I think she sometimes got carried away. A few years ago I read an article about the harms that “helicopter parents” can unwittingly cause to their children. In many cases, children are pushed very hard by their parents into doing things the parents want but they themselves are uninterested in. As a result, these children grow up into adults who never develop a sense of internal motivation, but rather spend their entire adult lives trying to please others. The article mentioned all kinds of psychological damage that can accumulate over a lifetime as a direct result—anxiety, depression, substance abuse, abusive relationships, unfulfilling careers, etc. etc. etc. Many people with that type of background also tend to lose their intrinsic human curiosity and openness to new experiences—and I think that’s really a shame.

But in spite of my mother, I never, ever felt pushed or pressured—for the simple reason that I loved music so much. And I think a huge part of that love is because of Juilliard. Looking back as an adult, I realize just how much I owe to the education I received there. I consider it the honor of a lifetime. Sorry to answer my own question instead of yours, but I just had to.

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Joshua Grayson lecturing at a Genealogy Symposium in Warsaw, Summer 2018

A true polymath, you completed undergraduate studies in not only piano performance but in mathematics. Of course, much has been written about the relationship between math & music. From the perspective of a performer: what are your personal & general thoughts on that relationship?

I hope I don’t disappoint you too much, but I always considered music and math to be completely separate activities. Of course, the reason why music works the way it does ultimately has to do with math. But I always felt that it worked in the background. Most of the great composers probably knew very little about math.

To me, music was always about expression and philosophy and intuition and a hundred other things. When I studied math, it was a chance to tap into a completely different part of my brain. It’s about calm, rational, logical reasoning. Once you get to a certain level in math class, it does become much more open-ended than the strict calculations or symbolic manipulation you do in high school algebra class—there are many ways to solve a problem, some of which can be very elegant. Sometimes the way you prove a theorem can embody a philosophy and can be truly beautiful. But it’s a different kind of beauty, not the same thing as musical beauty.

I will say, however, that I am really, really good at polyrhythms. For example, I virtually never hear anybody correctly play the dotted eighth-note – sixteenth-note right hand over triplet left hand rhythm in Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata. Same with the complicated polyrhythms in Chopin. I feel quite confident at performing not only these, but also the even more complicated polyrhythms some 20th- or 21st-century composers seem enamored of. But ultimately, the mathematics behind polyrhythms comes down to fractions and least common denominators, the kind of math you learn in second or third grade. It’s not anything that I studied in college math.

 

Tell us about what led you to pursue a PhD in historical musicology. Was your interest informed by your studies at the piano, or perhaps vice versa?

As I mentioned, when I studied composition with Dr. Thomas I developed an insatiable curiosity about music and about many other topics. Also, from Ms. Fuschi, who taught me that I needed to learn everything in order to understand music. Thanks to both of these fantastic teachers, I realized that it’s quite impossible to play music you don’t understand.

When I took required music history courses in college, I found them absolutely fascinating. I was especially interested in how the development of music was affected by factors in society. In short, the reason why music developed the way it did, took the forms it did, was not an accident. Rather, composers were influenced by important factors in human society and world history.

As just one example (and maybe not necessarily the best one), composers in the early Renaissance began treating the third as a consonance rather than a dissonance. The reason they did so is because that practice was very common in England. In fact, the reason English musical practices were so influential specifically at that time (which was a critical juncture in music history) was because England had invaded large parts of France during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Had it not been for political and military developments, the entire history of Western music might have unfolded completely differently.

In short, things that go on all around us and affect the world also affect music. Many of the major themes of the past two hundred years in world history—industrialization, urbanization, identity, migration, climate change, and so much more—not only affected the world around us in a general sense but also helped to shape classical music—something so deeply personal to me.

It turned out that reading Grout and Palisca (the same textbook that makes many college music students groan) opened up for me new ways of seeing and conceptualizing music. Ultimately, music is such a fundamental part of who I am as a person that learning about it—how and why it came to take the forms it ultimately did—is actually learning about myself.

 

I also love the music of Arnold Schoenberg, & I believe he is very much underperformed. How would you describe his style to someone completely unfamiliar with classical music?

Is the person unfamiliar with art and literature as well as classical music? If not, I would say that it’s very much like the artistic style of Wassily Kandinsky or the poems of T.S. Eliot. For someone who doesn’t know much about classical music or the arts in general, I would say, “do you like a challenge?” This music is about challenging everything. It challenges so much, on so many different levels. Ultimately, I think it is about confronting one’s innermost fears, the hidden sense of horror and dread that lies beneath the smooth surface of conscious understanding. It is about the unearthly terror at the base of our soul when we stare into the mirror and are confronted with the certitude our own mortality. It is about the fear and rage and torment that we all must ultimately face as humans, particularly as artists. We are never as vulnerable as we are when listening to, or especially playing, Schoenberg’s music. This connection with the very deepest levels of our souls is a cleansing experience, and is absolutely necessary.

In fairness, I should have really asked you, “which one of his styles?” Almost more than that of any other composer, Schoenberg’s music is really that of four separate composers. His early music, before he invented atonality, is his most accessible. It is extremely beautiful, and many non-specialists would fall in love with it right away if they gave it a chance. His expressionist music, which I described above, comes from around 1908 until around the First World War. Immediately after that war, his musical style changed profoundly, as with many composers. Like many other musicians, artists, and intellectuals in Europe, he embraced an air of cool detachment and ironic wit in the early 1920s. This coolness, along with his invention of the twelve-tone system, was in many ways like a cry for help—a systematizing impulse that at its heart was a human need to rein in the anarchy that had led to mass human slaughter and taken Europe to the brink of civilizational collapse. Schoenberg was responding to the exact same forces, and in very similar ways, as the Neoclassicists were. After he fled the Nazis and came to the United States, his music took yet another turn. His music written here is far more eclectic, sometimes echoing his earlier styles and sometimes totally new.

Your dissertation on Schoenberg's music is entitled "Jewish Musical Identity in Exile". Please elaborate on how your study of his music & his life led to your interest in genealogy.

As with the math, I don’t necessarily see an obvious connection. I was always interested in both, but very separately.

I became interested in genealogy at a young age. On the bottom of the staircase in my grandparents’ house on Long Island, they kept an old photograph I will never forget. Taken in 1904, it shows my great-great grandfather with an enormous handlebar moustache, my great-great grandmother, my great-mother aged ten, and four of her nine siblings (the other five, three of whom I had known as octa- and nonagenarians, hadn’t been born yet).

Every time I visited my grandparents, I would stop to gaze at that picture and wonder about the people in it. My grandfather told me stories about his grandparents and great-grandfather, and about his own childhood in Germany. Our family also has a dramatic history during World War 2—my grandparents both escaped Germany to England, where they survived the Blitz while listening to Winston Churchill on the radio. So I guess it was almost inevitable that I would become fascinated by family history.

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As I mentioned earlier, I was always interested in the societal influences on music. I was absolutely fascinated when I learned that Schoenberg was Jewish, and I was so curious to see if his Judaism had any effect on his music. The two most important elements to my own personal identity are being a musician and a member of the Jewish people, so it was an incredible experience for me to learn that the composer I venerated above all others also shared these two identities.

As an aside, one of the greatest genealogists of all time was actually none other than J.S. Bach, who was fascinated with family history. He compiled a family tree stretching back two hundred years! So I’m not the only musician who’s interested in genealogy!


 

In the context of genealogy, we have previously discussed your study of several languages including pre-modern German cursive, pre-Revolutionary Russian cursive, 19th-century Hebrew cursive, and Rashi Hebrew typeface. How is learning a new language similar or different than learning a work of music at the piano?

Learning a new piece of music—especially if it’s a composer whose work I haven’t previously studied—is really an immersion into a particular sound-world. Every composer conceptualizes musical sound in a unique way. Similarly, every language has its own distinctive sound as well. In a deeper sense, every language conceptualizes the world in its own way—after all, languages are oral manifestations of culture, and they are actively used by a culture’s people. The particular grammatical structures in a language ultimately reflects the subconscious (and sometimes conscious) choices, thoughts, desires, aspirations, fears, and dreams of the people who use it. In the same way, every piece of music reflects the subconscious (and sometimes conscious) choices, thoughts, desires, aspirations, fears, and dreams of its composer.

In terms of the learning process, there are some obvious differences—being surrounded by other people (i.e., those who speak the language you’re trying to learn) is a necessity for learning a language, but a huge distraction from learning piano. But on a deeper level, they are very similar in some interesting ways. I remember when I was in high school, a physics textbook we used gave practice examples, the answers to which were given at the bottom of the page. Immediately above the answer to the first practice question, the author wrote, “Are you reading this answer before you have tried to solve it yourself? If so, do you also exercise your body by watching others do push-ups?” His point was that in order to learn how to solve problems in physics, you can’t just read about physics and expect to know how to do them. You have to do the work yourself. Languages are even more like that. You can’t just read a textbook about German and expect to come out of it reading and speaking the language. You have to practice, practice, practice, practice—just like music. Every day, you need to practice the language skills you have developed. Ultimately, exercising your mind—whether in music, languages, or physics—really is not that different from exercising your body.

 

Who is your favorite legendary pianist & why?

I guess in some ways I really was a born musicologist. I suppose I have always conceptualized music in a musicological rather than a pianistic way. In general, I never really cared who the pianist (or violinist, or conductor) was. I was always much more interested in what they were playing rather than in who was playing it. Even from a young age, I focused on the musical ideas, compositional technique, and the expression inherent to the music itself. I honestly couldn’t tell you what pianists I like. Although I must confess I do have a few pianists who I don’t like.

 

For more information about Josh, visit his Genealogy Website

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About Maryam Raya

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Maryam Raya is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning concert pianist based in New York. Praised for her “Dynamic Stage Presence” by the Union of Excellence, Maryam has performed recitals worldwide, in countries including England, Spain, France, Italy, China, Estonia, Latvia, Finland, and Dubai and has performed at renowned venues across the United States including multiple appearances at New York’s Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, The National Opera Center, multiple international embassies, among others.

Described as a “Complete Artist of the 21st Century” by Info Music France, she has been featured in countless international art, fashion, and music magazines across Europe as well as American news outlets such as CBS news. With an extensive and diverse repertoire, including numerous solo programs and over thirty concerti for piano and orchestra, Maryam is passionate about bringing classical music to younger audiences through her captivating performances and lectures.