When I spoke to Andrew York last spring, right before half of the world’s population began sheltering in place, he was putting the final touches on his new online video subscription service, Andrew’s Den.
“We have maybe 30 videos edited,” he told me, “and another 20 in the can.”
Since then, in weekly video postings, the virtuoso guitarist and composer has been discussing the technical issues involved in playing his own pieces, “the inner lines, how to be aware of some of the compositional form, and how to bring it out,” as well as more general subjects pertaining to music and guitar.
“I’m doing a series on improvisation, on ear-training, on identifying intervals,” York tells me. “I’ll do composition, ultimately, and fingerboard knowledge, of course. Just as wide an array of subjects that I can offer with my multistylistic background and my abilities of improvisation and composition, too.”
The short weekly films in the Andrew’s Den series are produced and edited by York’s wife, Annette, who has also been serving for the last couple of years as his manager. Filmed with his guitar on the blue sofa in his music room in Redlands, California, York is a warm and soulful teacher.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more knowledgeable and gifted guide.
A Prolific Career
It has been over 30 years since York, a classical composer and instrumentalist trained in jazz, launched his career with the double whammy of having John Williams, perhaps then the most famous classical guitarist in the world, record his piece “Sunburst,” while his own steel-string performance of “Andecy” was included on the wildly popular 1988 Windham Hill Guitar Sampler.
Commissions from Christopher Parkening soon followed, and as York’s solo career continued with performances and recordings of his own, in 1990 he became a member of the fabled Los Angeles Guitar Quartet as well, performing, composing, and arranging on ten of the group’s albums, including the 2005 Grammy Award-winning Guitar Heroes, before departing from the group on amicable terms in 2006.
At 62, York remains as prolific as ever. His work has been embraced by a new generation of classical players, including Jason Vieaux and Sharon Isbin, while the video of him performing his own composition “Home” on an 1888 Torres guitar for Guitar Salon International has been viewed over three million times on YouTube.
“So, I’m wondering,” I say, “how, into four decades, you’ve been able to keep moving forward as an artist.”
“Well, the short answer is that I guess it depends on the reasons you have for doing it. Probably my earliest memory with sound is being in a stroller, when I was a baby, and hearing the ‘bong’ of the escalator. Back in those days,” he says, “if you were in a department store, and they had an escalator, they always had a bell. And I remember this incredible fascination I had with the quality of the sound: the timbre, the envelope. I listened to it decay. I might have been one year old, you know, but it was this fascinating sound.
“And over the years, I realized, this is why I do what I do,” he continues. “I’m always dividing up sounds into their constituent parts, being aware of what’s going on around me in a three-dimensional auric sense, and when I’m composing, I’m in that world, immersed in this synesthetic landscape of sound. So, that’s the first thing, and the second is my father playing guitar and my family being musical, and that was always there. And as soon as I could play guitar, even as a young boy, I imagined myself onstage.”
“And what’s been consistent and what has changed over those years, for you, in terms of working as a composer?”
“That’s actually kind of a difficult question in a way,” he says. “There have been so many seasons in my career. I mean, I was lucky to have a measure of success where my music became more and more popular, and to join a group—the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet—that became very popular. And as a composer I had other streams of creation that had a great return for me, both emotionally and somewhat financially. I’ve gained a lot of experience over the years, and I have more tools in the toolbox.”
But on the other hand, he notes, “nothing is different, really. I still use the same processes. I always just did it by what interested me, you know? You can’t write for other people. Quite early, I boiled it down to the very simple idea of comfort and discomfort. If I’m comfortable with a piece—and that’s a hard state to reach—it’s essentially done.”
An Unrelenting Intellect
Music isn’t York’s only pursuit. He has an unrelenting intellect. “And the problem with a mind like that is it interferes with the artistic process,” he says. “A fast and active intellect will want to take control of everything, and I learned very early that that’s a very bad idea for an artist.”
As a way of feeding his intellect, of keeping it separate from his composing, York works on physics and mathematical problems. About three years ago, he bought a book called Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics by William Dunham. “It is full of equations, like the history of theorems and things like that,” and having vowed to read and understand it, he signed up with Khan Academy, an online learning service that offers instruction on a wide variety of subjects. There, he worked through algebra, linear algebra, calculus, and matrix theory. “I’m able to learn vast amounts in a short period of time,” he says. York has even had articles on math published in scholarly journals (and included them on his website).
Still, with his intellect otherwise engaged, York is able to allow a “deeper undercurrent of being to illuminate the [musical] ideas that come through. And that’s a very rewarding way to work. I’ve never seemed to lack for ideas. I’m not saying they’re always good, but there’s always music available. I pick up the guitar, and there’s a melody in my mind, and I just play it. It happens all the time. Daily. And I don’t know why.”
It has been that way since his childhood.
“When I was a boy—probably eight, ten years old—I would be in the back seat in the car, and I specifically remember one time realizing that I have a radio in my head and that there was like a switch, a mental switch, and I could just turn it on, and symphonic music, or any kind of music, would play, and I could direct it. I could make it more intense or chatter more—you know, the violins would start doing quicker runs—or I could just let it play like a radio station. I didn’t have the skills to write it down, but I could just listen to it, and I would do this. I’d turn it on, and I’d turn it off, and put my attention somewhere else. So that’s still there.”
He grows reflective. “And I mean, sure, there’s been ups and downs. There are times I thought maybe I’m done, that I don’t really have anything more to say. Sometimes I go through some extended periods without writing things. Sometimes I’ve gone months without writing anything. That’s kind of typical, actually. And yeah, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the guitar. Sometimes I don’t really want to play it anymore. Some days it sounds like crap. But I just take this as a natural now. You’re not always surfing the waves. Sometimes you’re underneath, trying to figure out if you can come up for air. But I think after years and years of experiencing those kinds of sinusoidal changes in creativity, you begin to trust that it will come back around. Especially if you have reasons to sustain you.
“So, to circle back to the original idea, when it comes down to it now, I think I still do music because it seems like a really beautiful thing to do, to create these things that I think are beautiful and to put them out there in the world. You know, I don’t have the hubris to think that that necessarily improves the world a lot, but it gives people something that’s beautiful that they can put into their consciousness and maybe that helps.”
An Expressive Creature
As a guitarist, York has often been celebrated for the complex, singing, sensual tone of his playing. I mention to him that it has always amazed me that different pianists can bring such different sounds out of the piano, a mechanical object, after all, with three removes—keys, hammers, strings—between the players and the sound.
“I mean, you’d never mistake Art Tatum for Bill Evans,” I say.
“No, that’s true.”
“And you’ve talked about playing with personality and color and not just dry, if perfect, technique, and so, I’m wondering what you’d advise a player to do to put more of his or her inner life into their playing?”
“Well, first of all,” he says, “I think we’re expressive creatures, and for piano, it’s not that hard to imagine why different players sound different. The ones that are good and have an identity have a certain feeling that they’re expressing when they play, and it affects the velocity of their keystrokes, and the amount of space between them, and how fast they released them, and all these things give a different apparent character to the piano. So, even though it is a machine and there’s a much smaller range of what you can do to make it sound different, there is enough where it can be somewhat dramatic”.
He mentions Chick Corea. “Man, you can’t miss him when he plays. He has a crispness that’s in his nerves. He has a quickness in pressing the keys, and this incredibly crisp release and this incredible sense of time. It just flows out, and again I think it has to do with his intent, his feeling, and the way he’s able to attack those keys and release them.”
And the guitar, he says, is an even richer medium for sound, “because we have so much control over the tone. We touch the strings with both hands, and we can do all these unimaginable things compared to a pianist. We can get beyond an array of color and just pluck in different ways—that’s incredible.
“But how do you put your inner life into that? Well, first you have to have an inner life. And I don’t mean that sarcastically,” he says, “but I’m often appalled by the lack of curiosity of many, many people. I ask some people, ‘What do you find fascinating?’ and they can’t think of anything! I mean, if you asked me the question, you’d have to shut me up after ten minutes, you know?”
“Which hardly seems possible,” I say.
“Right!” York says. “So, first of all, give yourself an inner life! Go look for it. Try to find some way to relate to concepts that you find beautiful and that will percolate through your whole being and come out through your instrument. And if you have that intent inside, you will use whatever technique you have at your disposal to express those feelings and ideas. I can’t see it happening any other way. It’s not how you technically approach the instrument. That has nothing to do with it in a way, or not much.
“You think about an old blues guy whose technique is rudimentary at best, but he’s playing really cool licks, and you’re like, ‘Wow, that sounds so good!’ because that’s how he’s feeling it. He’s not going to be playing Bach, but what he’s doing is awesome.
“So, it has to start with something internal, and I can’t show you how to do that. I mean, you’ve got to go read some poetry or go stare at a tree for 20 minutes. Those are much better exercises than ‘Let me show you how to move your hands.’”