A Conversation with Andrew York

Below is a transcript of my conversation with Grammy award winning composer/guitarist, Andrew York. Andrew and I spoke via Skype on the evening of May 10th, 2015. Enjoy!


Patrick Smith: Hello?

Andrew York: Hi, is this Patrick?

Patrick Smith: Yes! Is this Andrew?

Andrew York: Thats me. How are you? Its not too late for you?

Patrick Smith: No, no. Im always up this late.

Andrew York: Okay, yeah. Me too, usually.

Patrick Smith: Yeah. Wow, its really quite a thrill to be talking to you. Im a big fan.

Andrew York: Oh, thank you. I appreciate it.

Patrick Smith: Okay, so I just have a couple of questions to ask you if youre up for it.

Andrew York: Yeah, of course.

Patrick Smith: You have a really great reputation as both a performer and a composer, and I wanted to ask you if you identify more strongly with one or the other aspect of your musical personality?

Andrew York: Yeah, thats a good question, and a hard one to answer. In a way, even though theyre extremely intertwined, its kind of apples and oranges. I always wanted to create things. Even when I was a kid, I always wanted to make something new. That was one of my biggest desires, so composing satisfies that need in one realm, anyway, trying to create new sounds, new music. But it wouldnt be enough if I just did that. Ive always wanted to realize it myself and play it. And Ive always been a strong player also, so yes, theyre very interconnected, but theyre like two facets of the same jewel.

Patrick Smith: Thats interesting. You know, my first exposure to your music was John Williams Spirit of The Guitar album, where he plays a few of your pieces. I believe Sunburst is the first track on that album, right?

Andrew York: Right, right.

Patrick Smith: Since you are the composer and the performer of your music, do you find that you approach it maybe differently as a performer than you did as a composer? Do you ever take inspiration from other performers interpretations of your work?

Andrew York: Yeah, those are, in a way, two different questions. I mean, for me, performing it almost never changes my ideas about the composition but what happens over time is that my realization of it changes. Because I look at it like this: any art, and specifically were talking about composition, consists of patterns, the richer the better, the more interconnected, the better. So, just because a composer writes something, and you may be aware of this too, I dont know how you look at it, but Im not always aware of all the levels of order that I put in my own composition because a lot of things come out subconsciously. Were much more brilliant subconsciously than we are consciously. So, when we stew with things, a lot of order can be created in a composition or in a work of art thats not immediately apparent to the creator. So, when I perform it, I notice that over time, I learn the best ways, or some of the best ways, to express the patterns, and that can change over time. I almost never change the composition. There are two types of composers: ones that edit continually, like George Lucas, for an example. You know, he cant keep his hands off of any of his films. How many versions has he done of all the earlier stuff? Its ridiculous. I mean, thats fine, but there are composers like that that Ive noticed are always fiddling. I reach a point where Im satisfied and Im done. If I dont reach that point, I rarely release it. So, I release it as a completed entity usually, but what changes is my realization of it. And related to the second part of your question, now and then, I hear somebody play one of my pieces in a way that I hadnt thought of. More often than not, Im somewhat, I wouldnt say disappointed, but most players miss a lot of the things I put in there. You know, they just dont catch a lot of the nuance and the patterns and interconnection. And therefore, when I do master classes, I say that people need to perceive the richness of patterns in any piece, not just mine, as a matter of intelligence, being able to perceive these things, and as a matter of ability, technical or otherwise, express them. But usually, Im noticing people miss a lot. But now and then, someone will play something for me, and Ill go, thats cool! I hadnt really thought of it that way, but that really works! So, it just shows me at the end that I dont even understand all of the patterns that I put in there. And thats the way it should be. I think thats actually natural, its not mysterious at all. How do you look at it? I mean, as a composer.

Patrick Smith: I agree with you. I obviously havent had as many opportunities to hear people perform my music as you have, but the times that I have I mean, if its a situation where Im working directly with them and theyre interested in my opinion of their playing, I definitely find myself, pretty often, either saying one of two things. Either, Im not so sure that the way youre doing this is the way I would do it, or I really like the way youre doing that and I didnt think of that, but Id like you to do it that way. So, I think, probably, the same way you do about it.

Andrew York: I know the world of well-known guitar composers is small, but I know one of my colleagues is sort of different. He believes that theres sort of one way to play his music. He has very exact ideas about how it should be expressed. Im not that way, you know, for the same reasons I just said. I find that you can come at these patterns more than one way. Its almost like an equation. You can reduce it, you can modify it, and you can do a lot of things just in the interpretation, not in changing the notes. I dont mean anything like that, but I just mean the ways of realizing it and drawing connections between different aspects of the phrases, and so forth. So, I usually dont insist that someone plays it a certain way. I just tell them if theyre playing it in a way thats leaving out a lot of good stuff. There are wrong ways to do it where youre just playing it badly or missing a lot of stuff, but I dont think theres any one right way or right tempo or any of that.

Patrick Smith: Interesting, interesting! Well, I guess, kind of branching off of that subject, your album Dénouement, a lot of your pieces are actually titled after specific forms. You have Gigue and Sarabande. Do you enjoy giving yourself the compositional challenge of exploring forms, or are you trying to give your listeners an extramusical idea to hold onto?

Andrew York: Well, that was a long time ago and I dont typically name pieces that way anymore. At that time, I was interested in writing some suites that essentially were collections of traditional forms, perhaps done in more modern ways. So, yeah, that was all. I didnt really have any strong ulterior motives. I was interested in writing a baroque style gigue, but with modern harmonies. If you isolate some of the harmonies, youll see major seventh chords with no thirds, added ninths, you know things that sound so natural when you play, that still sound baroque, but when you really pay attention to the harmonies, theyre not moving in a way thats at all baroque. I think thats one of the successes of that piece is that it still sounds rather traditional, just a little spicy. But if you actually look at the piece harmonically, its quite a bit different, and I think its a success that it doesnt beat you over the head with it.

Patrick Smith: I dont know if youre familiar with the composer Celso Machado, but a friend of mine and I play in a duo and weve played some of his music. He has a piece called Motivo Barroco which is very, kind of, similar to what youre describing. It sounds very baroque when you listen to it, but a lot of the underpinning harmonies are not at all anything you would expect to find in baroque music.

Andrew York: Oh, yeah, Machado! Sure! Hes really good.

Patrick Smith: Yeah, hes quite good. Okay, so apart from your pieces that are titled after forms, you also have a lot of titles that suggest metaphors. Do you enjoy writing programmatic music, or do you enjoy absolute music as well?

Andrew York: No, I dont believe in programmatic music actually. I mean, personally. Im not saying it cant be done, but for me, Im very interested in pure music, whatever that means. I just see music as an extremely complex and nuanced emotional language. Its more than that. Thats one thing I see there, but I dont tie it to any other images or storylines typically. Now, there are exceptions which have been fun for me to explore, but in general, my music is not something that I ally with any other alternative form of expression. Though, it works very well in that regard. Ive had people use it to set poems, Ive had dance concerts choreographed to my music, and of course, thats what music does. It gives an emotional background which is essential for a lot of other forms of art. But I see it in a more pure way when its just played by itself. An attentive person can respond any way they want with their own personal imagery or history or emotion. So, I would be limited by saying, this piece means this. I know I title my pieces which tend to point in the direction of certain imagery, but that shouldnt be taken very literally.

Patrick Smith: Im curious then, do you title your pieces retrospectively, once youve listened to them and perhaps drawn some specific imagery from them yourself?

Andrew York: Yeah and there might not even be any imagery from them for me in that way. But usually, the last thing I do is title a piece. After its completely done, Im like, geez, what am I going to call it? I always try to think of something colorful that would be evocative to a person looking at the name on a program or something because that helps, I think, identify the piece in someones mind as well.

Patrick Smith: So, that brings me to my next question. With regard to your career as a composer, do you find that you approach your work in a way that is intentionally communicative or appealing to more people, or do you only try to appease yourself when youre composing? How do you think about that?

Andrew York: I only try to please myself, never anyone else.

Patrick Smith: Okay, interesting. I mainly ask because youve established yourself as such a popular artist. Youre kind of a rock star in the guitar community.

Andrew York: (laughs) Well, thats nice of you to say, but really, Im just very stubborn and I just do what I want to do. Thats what Ive always done. I mean, okay, I wont say Ive never been influenced. My first negative review There was a time in my late 20s, you know, I was maybe around 30 or something. I played a major concert, and this guy who wrote for the LA Times gave me, it wasnt really a terrible review, but it wasnt great. And I played great. I video-recorded the concert and it was a ton of new music. It was one of the most interesting concerts of the time, because there were a lot of fine concerts, but people were playing repertoire that was mostly traditional. And here, I did something new, and I played it damn well. And so the review upset me. I had to really decide how I was going to respond to negative criticism. Because at some point, and you may have experienced this already, but the more visible you become, the more negativity you attract, because people will have opinions, good and bad. So, to finish this line of thought, it turns out this guy is a frustrated composer. You know, hes not really known and he would like to be, so he enjoys sabotaging the successes of those who hes jealous of, and he also was a proponent of academic music. And he would go to concerts that were sparsely attended and maybe not even well played, but the repertoire is the type of music that people usually dont go to hear, you know, very academic stuff. He gave it rave reviews, you know, calling it very important, full audience, you know. And it was just lies. I realized a lot from that. Essentially, the opinions of others are meaningless. I mean, they can affect you. If you get a good review, it can help you. You have to be aware of those kinds of things. But essentially, negative feedback is just as irrelevant as positive feedback. And thats a funny statement because I very much want people to like my music. I would prefer them to like it rather than hate it. But there comes a point where you cant take either side too seriously because both sides are going to be very well represented. Now, that being said, I discount almost all of the negative side. I dont give any importance to it. The positive side, there has been a real spiritual aspect to it. When people tell me that my music has been really important for them at milestone moments in their life, like the death of a parent or the birth of a child, that my music was there for them, you can sense that this is a much deeper level of meaning. So that I take seriously. Thats beyond positive, thats more a spiritual thing, for lack of a better word. Music has that higher function. So, thats a long answer to that, but coming back to the original thought, I only write to please myself because I cant write to please someone else. I cant do that and be authentic. I mean, imagine if you start writing for the critics that dont like you to try to please them, youre no longer being authentic. Youre not really creating. Youre limiting yourself right from the beginning. And if you only write for the people that like what you have done, I suspect the danger would be that youd be trying to recreate the things that have brought you success to this point. Its a fine line to walk, and I struggle with it every time I write a piece. I try not to be derivative of my past while still using the things that I enjoy using. Im sure you can appreciate a lot of this, and you deal with the same issues.

Patrick Smith: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, as far as the amount of music Ive composed, its not as much as you, so I havent run into some of those issues. I have yet to find myself re-using or feeling the urge to re-use ideas, but Im sure that I will sooner or later have to fight that urge. Okay, Im curious about basically how you were able to establish yourself as a guitarist, because most prominent guitarists, it seems, have albums that are all traditional repertoire. But yours are all your compositions. Was there ever a point where you felt the need to make an album that didnt have your own music on it?

Andrew York: Never. I mean, I love Bach and I often play Bach in my concerts and things like that, but Ive never had the desire to do an all-Bach album. I love the idea. I just dont have the time. I mean, I really worship Bach. Hes just been an incredible source of inspiration for me. I listen to him a lot. And I love to play it. But I just have so much music of my own. I mean, I have room for maybe one cello suite in a concert and then the rest of the time I need for myself. I choose to do Bach because its such incredible music and its such a challenge to play. It takes everything Ive got. Bach is often played so badly. Again, the idea is that most people miss what Bach really is. You know, they play it in this very dry and unexpressive way. Anyway, thats another story. But traditional repertoire is fine, but its like this vast body of B-level music. I mean, Im not knocking any of these guys. I mean, I think Barrios and Sor, I mean, these are fine composers. But when you put them up against a Stravinsky or a Bach, or a Beethoven, you dont have anyone. You know, thats one of the reasons Im writing. I mean, Im doing the best I can to increase the repertoire. To hear a bunch of B music just played ad nauseam, its kind of mind-bending for me. But Im philosophical about it. I understand why people do it. I mean, there are some great young players, but not a lot of them. Typically, guitar concerts are not memorable and almost nobody in America can name a classical guitarist. If theyre old enough, theyll say Segovia, but even Segovia is being forgotten. A little younger, you might remember Williams, but he doesnt concertize anymore. So whos left? You and I know David Russell and Barrueco but nobody else does! Were essentially culturally invisible. So, whatever that means. I attribute the cautious and unimaginative state of the classical guitar world to a lack of courage.

Patrick Smith: Very interesting! I mean, I think probably, that most people that I know, that I associate with, in my circles would name you if they were asked about contemporary guitarists. Do you think that the fact that you contribute to the repertoire has a lot to do with your prominence?

Andrew York: I think it has everything to do with it. I mean, I play very well. I played with the LA Guitar Quartet, which was great. So, you know, I have no problem just playing. And I try to play traditional repertoire in a very interesting way. You know, I like Glenn Gould. Do you know who that is, the pianist? Yeah, he was noted at the time for doing Bach in way where people thought he was a little bit nutty. But now, it turns out, it just sounds great. He was brilliant. He had a brilliant mind and he wasnt going to be limited by the mores of the time regarding how Bach should be interpreted. And I admire that. So, if I was going to do more traditional repertoire, thats what I would do. I would do it my own way, not trying to shock, but trying to find a fresh expression of the patterns that is hidden from the status quo which is essentially mediocre. Glenn Gould is a brilliant mind and brilliant minds never really fit into the mainstream of the time. It usually takes a while before what theyve done is acceptable. And then it just seems like of course its alright. It had to happen. But theres always resistance to a new bid of brilliance, in any genre, in any art, in any discipline, science as well. This is a very fascinating subject for me.

Patrick Smith: Well, I dont have any more questions for you. Do you have any advice for me career-wise as a guitarist and a composer?

Andrew York: Just really what Ive said. Write the things that you like. You know how it is. If someone puts on Bach or Beethoven, you can recognize it. And you wonder why that is? You know, what is the essence that you recognize as Beethoven? What is it about that music? It's not that he uses the same patterns in every piece. But its something about his spirit thats expressed and I think any great artist is recognizable because of the authenticity, the things that they use that really speak of their interior, internal life. So, as a young person, this is a hard thing. You have to find out what that is that youve got, but youve got to be fierce about it. In my opinion, you cant copy your teachers or whats happening culturally or even the past. You can draw from all of that, but it has to be fiercely unique and individualistic and reflective of you. Thats the best advice I can give. And thats of course a lifetime of work.

Patrick Smith: Sure. Well, I completely agree with you, and thank you very much for your time. Ill keep an eye on your schedule and hopefully if youre ever in Baltimore, we can meet.

Andrew York: Sounds great. How are you going to remember all of this? Did you tape it?

Patrick Smith: I did tape it! Yep. (laughs)

Andrew York: Okay, Patrick, well it was nice to talk to you. I wish you all the best in everything.

Patrick Smith: Thanks, Andrew. It was great talking to you!

Andrew York: Likewise!

For more information on Andrew York, please visit www.andrewyork.net