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: That’s me. How are you? It’s not too late for you?
Patrick Smith: No, no. I’m always up this late.
Andrew York: Okay, yeah. Me too, usually.
Patrick Smith: Yeah. Wow, it’s really quite a thrill to be talking to you. I’m 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 you’re 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, that’s a good question, and a hard one to answer. In a way, even though they’re extremely intertwined, it’s 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 wouldn’t be enough if I just did that. I’ve always wanted to realize it myself and play it. And I’ve always been a strong player also, so yes, they’re very interconnected, but they’re like two facets of the same jewel.
Patrick Smith: That’s 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 we’re 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 don’t know how you look at it, but I’m not always aware of all the levels of order that I put in my own composition because a lot of things come out subconsciously. We’re 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 that’s 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 can’t keep his hands off of any of his films. How many versions has he done of all the earlier stuff? It’s ridiculous. I mean, that’s fine, but there are composers like that that I’ve noticed are always fiddling. I reach a point where I’m satisfied and I’m done. If I don’t 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 hadn’t thought of. More often than not, I’m somewhat, I wouldn’t say disappointed, but most players miss a lot of the things I put in there. You know, they just don’t 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, I’m noticing people miss a lot. But now and then, someone will play something for me, and I’ll go, “that’s cool! I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but that really works!” So, it just shows me at the end that I don’t even understand all of the patterns that I put in there. And that’s the way it should be. I think that’s actually natural, it’s not mysterious at all. How do you look at it? I mean, as a composer.
Patrick Smith: I agree with you. I obviously haven’t had as many opportunities to hear people perform my music as you have, but the times that I have… I mean, if it’s a situation where I’m working directly with them and they’re interested in my opinion of their playing, I definitely find myself, pretty often, either saying one of two things. Either, “I’m not so sure that the way you’re doing this is the way I would do it,” or “I really like the way you’re doing that and I didn’t think of that, but I’d 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 there’s sort of one way to play his music. He has very exact ideas about how it should be expressed. I’m 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. It’s 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 don’t 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 don’t insist that someone plays it a certain way. I just tell them if they’re playing it in a way that’s leaving out a lot of good stuff. There are wrong ways to do it where you’re just playing it badly or missing a lot of stuff, but I don’t think there’s 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 don’t 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 didn’t 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, you’ll 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, they’re not moving in a way that’s at all baroque. I think that’s 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, it’s quite a bit different, and I think it’s a success that it doesn’t beat you over the head with it.
Patrick Smith: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the composer Celso Machado, but a friend of mine and I play in a duo and we’ve played some of his music. He has a piece called “Motivo Barroco” which is very, kind of, similar to what you’re 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! He’s really good.
Patrick Smith: Yeah, he’s 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 don’t believe in programmatic music actually. I mean, personally. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but for me, I’m very interested in pure music, whatever that means. I just see music as an extremely complex and nuanced emotional language. It’s more than that. That’s one thing I see there, but I don’t 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. I’ve had people use it to set poems, I’ve had dance concerts choreographed to my music, and of course, that’s 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 it’s 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 shouldn’t be taken very literally.
Patrick Smith: I’m curious then, do you title your pieces retrospectively, once you’ve 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 it’s completely done, I’m 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 someone’s 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 you’re 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 you’ve established yourself as such a popular artist. You’re kind of a rock star in the guitar community.
Andrew York: (laughs) Well, that’s nice of you to say, but really, I’m just very stubborn and I just do what I want to do. That’s what I’ve always done. I mean, okay, I won’t say I’ve 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 wasn’t really a terrible review, but it wasn’t 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, he’s not really known and he would like to be, so he enjoys sabotaging the successes of those who he’s 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 don’t 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 that’s 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 can’t 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 don’t 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. That’s beyond positive, that’s more a spiritual thing, for lack of a better word. Music has that higher function. So, that’s a long answer to that, but coming back to the original thought, I only write to please myself because I can’t write to please someone else. I can’t do that and be authentic. I mean, imagine if you start writing for the critics that don’t like you to try to please them, you’re no longer being authentic. You’re not really creating. You’re 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 you’d be trying to recreate the things that have brought you success to this point. It’s 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. I’m 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 I’ve composed, it’s not as much as you, so I haven’t run into some of those issues. I have yet to find myself re-using or feeling the urge to re-use ideas, but I’m sure that I will sooner or later have to fight that urge. Okay, I’m 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 didn’t 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 I’ve never had the desire to do an all-Bach album. I love the idea. I just don’t have the time. I mean, I really worship Bach. He’s 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 it’s such incredible music and it’s such a challenge to play. It takes everything I’ve 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, that’s another story. But traditional repertoire is fine, but it’s like this vast body of B-level music. I mean, I’m 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 don’t have anyone. You know, that’s one of the reasons I’m writing. I mean, I’m doing the best I can to increase the repertoire. To hear a bunch of B music just played ad nauseam, it’s kind of mind-bending for me. But I’m 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 they’re old enough, they’ll say Segovia, but even Segovia is being forgotten. A little younger, you might remember Williams, but he doesn’t concertize anymore. So who’s left? You and I know David Russell and Barrueco but nobody else does! We’re 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 wasn’t 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, that’s 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 they’ve done is acceptable. And then it just seems like of course it’s alright. It had to happen. But there’s 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 don’t 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 I’ve 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 it’s something about his spirit that’s 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 you’ve got, but you’ve got to be fierce about it. In my opinion, you can’t copy your teachers or what’s 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. That’s the best advice I can give. And that’s of course a lifetime of work.
Patrick Smith: Sure. Well, I completely agree with you, and thank you very much for your time. I’ll keep an eye on your schedule and hopefully if you’re 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