COMPOSERS ON COMPOSING Andrew York: Listening to His Heart (And Mind)
From the Summer 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY MARK SMALL
Andrew York has enjoyed an extraordinary career as both a composer and performer. He was a member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet from 1990 to 2006, and has since pursued a solo career. During his LAGQ years, York contributed compositions and arrangements to the ten CDs they recorded together, among them the group’s 2005 Grammy winner Guitar Heroes. York’s compositions gained wide visibility when John Williams began performing “Sunburst” and “Lullaby” in concert and recorded them on his 1989 album Spirit of the Guitar. Other artists, including Christopher Parkening, Sharon Isbin, Jason Vieaux, and many younger guitarists, have since played York’s music. The melodic appeal and diverse musical influences (classical, new age, jazz, folk, world music, and more) in his music have prompted guitarists worldwide to explore his ever-expanding catalog. In a recent wide-ranging phone conversation, York shared many thoughts on composing.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: How does inspiration for a new piece come?
ANDREW YORK: Inspiration has always come from so many different places. Sometimes it’s from a deeply internal sense of beauty or fascination with a conceptual thought or a phrase that I improvise on the guitar. It also comes from observing the natural—or really any—environment that has a bit of a magical quality at that moment. It may be just a reflection of your inner state anyway. I see inspiration as a constant seeking for beauty and patterns of fascination that have a depth greater than what they suggest on the surface; where the bottom drops out and there seems to be a limitless potential for depth.
CG: Do you compose with or without the instrument?
YORK: I do both. I do the majority of the composing in my head, but often the initial inspiration comes when I’m improvising and enjoying letting a rhythmic pattern, a sequence, or a melody come out of my subconscious. If it’s something I find fascinating, I record it immediately on my iPhone. When I begin to develop a theme that I like, the development becomes a mental process. I do most of it at night when I am lying in bed, sometimes while I’m sleeping. Some of the themes for pieces I’ve written recently were worked out in my sleep. I’d wake up with an entire phrase that I want to use based on what I was thinking about. I’ll get up in the dark, find a guitar, and record it. There is really no separation between waking and sleeping in terms of doing work for me. I also do my best mathematical work in the dark lying there with no distractions. It takes its toll on my sleeping! It’s the same process when I have a commission.
CG: Do you plan how dissonant a piece will be, or the form, or level of virtuosity a piece will have, or do those things evolve with the piece?
YORK: I am suspicious of planning too much about how music is going to go. It’s a creative process and I feel that if I impose too many external constraints, my music could become derivative or a parody of itself. I try to always be open to going beyond any walls or boundaries instead of erecting them at the beginning. That’s different from saying that you have parameters you want to work within. Let’s say you know you want to write a piece in four parts for an ensemble. You can live with that parameter. Trying to balance between dissonance and melodious qualities would suggest that you are overly concerned with external opinions about your work. No artist should be.
CG: Do you have concerns for how a new piece will go over with an audience or commissioner?
YORK: If someone commissions a piece, I want them to be happy and I want the audience to like my music, too, but from a different perspective. What anybody thinks—especially critics—doesn’t affect what I do. I don’t want a negative review, but I take positive reviews with a grain of salt, too. I want the audience to like the music because they were moved by it or felt they had something important communicated to them. That’s a current that runs deeper than anyone’s external opinion, even a well-educated person’s. I have divorced myself from the need for validation from others about my music.
But that’s not always easy. I don’t like negative reviews or censorious people, and there are a lot of them out there. There are a lot more people who like my music than those who reject it. But it’s a natural statistical flow—it’s going to happen. If you ally yourself with any camp, it means you’re seeking external validation rather than trusting your creative process.
CG: When did you start writing music?
YORK: I started writing as soon as I could do anything with the guitar. I have a piece I wrote when I was a small child, about six. I always wanted to create new things, even when I was small. That’s why I like to paint, write computer software, and compose and improvise music. Now I am doing mathematical research to find new ways to express natural laws and concepts. It’s all the same on a deep level—it’s all creation.
CG: Do you try to go sparingly on the idiomatic resources of the guitar that some composers overuse?
YORK: I have a simple process that’s about comfort and discomfort. If I think or play through a section of a piece I’m working on, I simply notice areas where I become uncomfortable. Is there too much repetition, or not enough? Are the harmonies moving too quickly? I don’t even have to know what the problem is. I just need to know I’m uncomfortable there and I rework it and try different things, such as a longer transition, more counterpoint, less harmony. I do this in an intuitive way until the discomfort disappears.
I am a very cerebral person, but I try not to allow myself to compose that way. Being excessively intellectual in any art form takes you nowhere good. Intellect—as powerful as it is—is only a splinter of our creative self. I allot my intellectual side its proper place for doing analysis, but I don’t let it compose. So when I can think or play through an entire piece and nothing bothers me and I am satisfied, I usually don’t change it anymore. I’m the only one that has to be satisfied.
CG: Do you set out the form of a piece when you start writing?
YORK: As I get older, I feel I am at a mature place in my composing and feel good about my abilities and the complexity and power of my music. Every composer I’ve met seems to be one of two types—those that start from the small, fascinating elements they like and let them grow out from there, and those who think formally and distill down to the details. If you are detail-
oriented and start with a small magical idea to develop, you learn how to deal with form. If you are a form guy and have an idea for a great structure, you learn how to create interesting smaller moments.
I like small magic moments—a fragment or phrase I can base an entire piece on. In the past, I would organically grow form. Now I am also able to switch to formal thinking and work with larger structures at the same time. In any art, as the decades go by, you find you are doing it in much richer ways that are hard to explain because you’ve been doing things that way for so long. I do all of it at once, I think. I don’t mind even if I can’t explain it to myself. It’s now a process that I trust and it doesn’t have to be intellectual. All descriptions come after the fact of the process; they have nothing to do with the actual process.
CG: Would you say you rely more on inspiration than craft?
YORK: I use craft like crazy when I am doing development. All the skills I’ve learned and all my knowledge of earlier styles, counterpoint, jazz improvisation, I use because I am really into development. My pieces are always contrapuntal, even if it’s not clear on the surface. I love developing things and making them interrelated. I certainly use craft for that. I like ideas that are complex in a subtle way. It is easy to create complexity and have a bunch of chaos. But it’s hard to create deeply interrelated patterns that don’t have a sense of being inordinately complex, but have a richness when you zoom in or zoom out on them. You still see patterns that are connected. This really appeals to me.
Not everyone is going to be aware of this, and that’s OK. Many people made a mistake interpreting me when I was in my folkloric phase and went back to my roots. When I first started writing intently for solo guitar when I was in my mid-20s, I was coming out of my bebop and jazz-fusion phase and my harmonies were incredibly rich. Some didn’t understand that it was very much a choice to go back to a folkloric statement and start clean, like my beginnings in folk music.
People thought I was writing simple things and that was the best I could do. But I had jazz harmony in my ears. I forgive them for that—they didn’t really listen to the music. It’s less forgivable if they have listened to my music over the decades and still accuse me of simplicity.
CG: Wasn’t John Williams the first major player to play your music?
YORK: Yes, and that happened very quickly. I had just written “Sunburst” and within a month I got to play it for John Williams, and he wanted the music. I hadn’t even written out the score at that point. You couldn’t have made a better jump than that. He was a worldwide figure and had this fame. Young people [today] can’t understand that a classical guitarist could be as famous as John Williams was in that period. It doesn’t exist now. Not long after that, I met Chris Parkening and wrote him a piece that he recorded. He’s done several of my pieces. This was a beautiful start and I’m grateful that the music attracted the attention of “household-name” guitarists. There are none now, but there were back then.
Parkening used to play on The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson was the host. Can you imagine a classical guitarist on The Tonight Show now? It is amazing how different the culture was then and how visible classical guitar could be in the larger culture. It’s not like that now.
CG: After that auspicious start, did others want to play your music?
YORK: I got a lot of commissions. Jill Brown commissioned me to write a piece for guitar, flute, and cello. That one surprised a lot of people because it was a lot more “modern” and showed different dimensions of my harmonic and rhythmic approach. After that, my pieces were getting played, and now a lot are played in the student world. I’m very grateful that my pieces are a staple for a lot of young players.
Somehow, the generation after John Williams didn’t play my music very much. I think that’s very interesting. A few of the elite players skipped over my music but did a lot of other B-level music. I think it was a backlash. I did the unforgivable: I didn’t go through channels. I went from deciding that writing for guitar was my path to having John Williams play my piece a month later. Some people get frustrated when you go from zero to position 10. It happened in other realms, too. I got a piece on a Windham Hill album, and in the steel-string guitar world, I became really well known and toured with steel-string players. That upset some classical guys because I was playing with “new age” guitarists.
CG: Why do you think your pieces connected first with those of the Williams and Parkening era and are connecting again now?
YORK: My process makes the piece authentic. I don’t try to hide anything, I simply put in the ideas that I love. I am communicating something of a deep nature about myself and my perception of beauty and I’m trying to share it. That’s all, and that does move people. If you are capable of doing that and it’s your intent, you will move some people. I don’t try to re-create something or let external factors control my writing. I just try to create something interesting and beautiful. I think my process and my ability have enabled me to create many pieces—not just “Sunburst”—but many that are popular.
One thing I value is when I get an email from someone who says that their father passed, and a piece or CD of mine gave them comfort and was a spiritual experience that helped them get through their grief. Or some couple got married or had a child and they had my music playing at the wedding or the birth because they loved it. Those things mean a lot to me. If my music is so important to someone that it is a positive force in their lives and helping in some way, what more could I ask for? This happens with regularity and pleases me.
CG: You’ve worked with publishers through the years and are now selling your own editions as downloads through your website. Is one type of publishing preferable over the other for you?
YORK: I made the decision to not keep both going. I’ve gotten all but a smattering of my pieces back from most of the publishers. I am re-notating everything and putting it on my website. I am my own publisher now and it’s a very good situation. In a way, downloads are a mess if someone has to print out a piece that’s 40 pages long; books are preferable. But people want the immediacy of getting the piece right away. I wrote my own software to do this. In my publishing, I’m everything: composer, [engraver], software engineer, and tech support. People know that if they want to get my music legally, my site is where to go. I’ve gotten a lot of support from my fans and I appreciate it.
CG: So this is a viable revenue stream in addition to your performances?
YORK: I’m not about to retire, but instead of getting ten percent from a publisher, I get all of it. But it’s very time-consuming to keep it all running. Any spare time I have is spent re-notating a piece or fixing things that are not working properly. But you don’t get into classical music for the money. I like to have control and doing it all myself is better for me.
Also included in this article as originally published were reflections from four other composers: Stephen Goss, Jorge Morel, Dušan Bogdanovic, and Gerard Drozd. You can read that here.