As a devoted weekly reader of NewMusicBox’s “Friday Informer” installments, I particularly enjoy the occasional mentions of composers or performers who garner mass media attention for their precociousness, physical attractiveness, or outlandish personality—in other words, not for the quality of their musical contributions. Hot string players seem to dominate this category of artist, although Jay Greenberg has been singlehandedly edging Team Child Genius closer to first. Ideally, the same evanescent cultural caprice that propels these knockouts and wunderkinds to the top will usher them back down when their fifteen minutes are up (though I haven’t tracked any of them consistently enough to confirm this hypothesis), and they’ll be held to the same standards of achievement as the rest of us. However, the field of composition is rife with laurel-resters who trade on their earlier work while their standards decline. Even composers whose younger successes were relatively modest conform to this model.
All evidence suggests that Jay Greenberg is an extraordinary talent, but if his fortunes continue to soar, he will never be obliged to write another decent piece in his life. If he should decide to lay back and churn out rehashes of his existing music, he’s probably already made enough of a mark to coast along for a few decades. And his music won’t even have to be predictably bad: Stockhausen, for instance, has been specializing for years in music that is both awful and bizarre. Greenberg could write exclusively in the medium of helicopter string quartets from his eighteenth birthday onward. He might still win a Pulitzer, although his membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters could be jeopardized.
Are there composers who were especially precocious, enjoying Greenbergian press, and are now major successes? Are they still doing impressive work? If so, could they get away with not? No names come to mind, but that may have more to do with my limited knowledge of the compositional community than with the issue in question. I absolutely do not begrudge Jay Greenberg the celebration he deserves—but I hope he, and all the other kids writing music at an age when I was mainly interested in Super Nintendo, continue to earn the accolades they receive.