COMPOSERS ON COMPOSING Stephen Goss, Jorge Morel, Dušan Bogdanovic, and Gerard Drozd on Inspiration, Influences, and the Hard Work of Writing
From the Summer 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY MARK SMALL
By the time the modern guitar had six strings and a standardized tuning system, keyboard, string, woodwind, and brass instruments had already arrived at their current state. Hence the literature for other classical instruments has been in development longer than that of the guitar and boasts contributions from some of history’s greatest composers.
With so many writing guitar music these days, an ongoing debate in guitar circles is whether a guitarist who has mastered the idiosyncrasies of the instrument, but is a self-taught composer, tends to get by more on the guitar’s attractive idiomatic resources than on purely compositional ideals. Can such a composer produce work with the gravitas of Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal after John Dowland or Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez? Countless non-performing composers have created hugely successful works for a range of instruments. But alternatively, among the great composers we find many virtuosic players (Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Mozart, and Vivaldi come to mind) who wrote extraordinary works for their own instruments.
The concert repertoire penned specifically for the modern classical guitar is of fairly recent vintage, with a foundation laid by a core of 19th-century composer-virtuosi. In the 20th century, Andrés Segovia sought to broaden the repertoire by commissioning new works from living composers—specifically non-guitarist composers. Those efforts have continued with younger generations of artists, and a coterie of contemporary non-guitarist composers have created masterpieces for the repertoire—works by the aforementioned Britten and Rodrigo, Manuel Ponce, William Walton, Luciano Berio, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and others are revered by guitarists and non-guitarists alike.
We will not attempt to settle any debates here, but will examine different approaches and philosophies of these successful contemporary guitarist-composers.
STEPHEN GOSS: WORKING FROM THE BIG BANG
Welsh composer-guitarist Stephen Goss studied guitar at London’s Royal Academy of Music and holds a doctorate in composition. He’s currently chair of composition at the University of Surrey (UK) and a professor of guitar at the Royal Academy of Music. Goss has also distinguished himself as a performer and recording artist as a soloist and with the Tetra Guitar Quartet. He has created a large catalog with works for orchestra, chorus, piano, solo guitar, and guitar with other instruments or voice. About 60 percent of his music includes guitar.
For over a decade, Goss has been receiving commissions from top artists, including John Williams, Xuefei Yang, Miloš Karadaglic, and David Russell. He says the awareness of his composing began with his own performances of his music. “Some people heard my pieces, either live or on CD, and became interested in them, and they eventually started to ask me to write music for them,” Goss says. “At first these commissions were unpaid—I was just happy to have my music played by professional players.” Xuefei Yang heard Jonathan Leathwood premiere Goss’ “Oxen of the Sun” in London, and subsequently commissioned the suite Raise the Red Lantern, the first of many collaborations between Goss and Yang. “John Williams heard Xuefei’s recording of my Albeniz Concerto in 2009 and became interested in my music,” Goss relates. “It’s been a gradual process, a slow burn that has taken many years.”
Goss gained even more visibility after Williams recorded his Guitar Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic in 2012. Of the piece, Williams has said, “I don’t know of any guitar concerto which is as consistently successful on all fronts.” Goss has already written five concertos—three with guitar. In 2017, he will have four new concertos premiered in the U.S., Germany, and Russia.
It’s somewhat of a surprise, then, to learn that Goss finds composing a painstaking process. “It’s the hardest thing I do,” he says. “I spend a lot of time researching and thinking about each piece before putting pencil to paper. In a way, my creative process is similar to the Big Bang. There’s an initial impetus at the start that explodes in every direction imaginable. It might come from a novel, painting, building, landscape, person, a piece of music, or an abstract idea. Then comes the difficult process of reining in the ideas. I spend a lot of time on the design phase of composition—planning structure, harmonic language, register, density, and many other musical parameters.” Goss does the majority of his writing away from any instrument.
He also tailors his music to the performer who commissioned it, fashioning something to fit the musician’s hands, playing style, musical personality, and concert programs. “I thrive on the collaborative process,” Goss states. “I encourage performers to give me as much feedback as possible on what I write for them, and I’ll often make changes based on their suggestions.
“With the guitar, the repertoire is constantly evolving,” he continues. “For example, if a guitarist commissions a piece from me, they tend to play it in every concert that they do in a season—sometimes longer. When I write for other instruments, I’m lucky to get more than half a dozen performances after the premiere.”
Goss says he does not factor audience reaction into his composing: “My main concern is to do a good job both in my view and in the eyes of the people who have commissioned or performed the work. It’s always gratifying to have an appreciative audience, but trying to second-guess what an audience might enjoy, either now or in the future, is not a game I want to play.”
JORGE MOREL: VIBRANT RHYTHMS, JAZZ HARMONIES
At 86, Argentina-born Jorge Morel has had a long career as both a performer and composer. He began guitar tutelage with his father at seven and continued at the Buenos Aires music academy of Pablo Escobar. Morel went on to launch a brilliant international performing career. He made New York City his home for decades, until recently relocating to Florida. Morel gained acclaim playing the guitar repertoire as well as his own works—many built on the vibrant rhythms of his homeland. Living in New York, he played regularly at jazz clubs and shared the stage with such luminaries as Bill Evans, Stan Kenton, and Herbie Hancock. The influence of jazz shows up in the harmonies of Morel’s solo guitar compositions and his arrangements of pop, jazz, and show tunes.
As a composer, he is largely self-taught. “When I was 16 or 17, I began writing some short pieces,” he says. “I was 22 or 23 when I wrote some of the solo guitar pieces that survive today.” While his guitar writing is done intuitively, he also studied with composer and conductor Rudolph Schramm to learn about other instruments. “Rudy helped me with harmony and orchestration,” Morel relates. “He encouraged me to write the concertos that I wrote later on.”
In addition to Morel’s recordings of his works, many top players have recorded them. Among those who have played his compositions are John Williams, Pepe and Angel Romero, David Starobin,
Hillary Field, and Christopher Parkening. A YouTube search reveals the ongoing interest in his music by players worldwide. Among Morel’s most popular pieces are several evocative of his South American roots, including “Prelude” from his Suite del Sur, “Romance Criollo,” “Danza in E minor,” and “Danza Brasilera.” In a more classical vein are his concerti Fantasia de la Danza and Concierto Rapsodico, bothrecorded by Krysztof Pelech.The three-movement Sonatina appeared on David Russell’s Grammy-winning album, Aire Latino.
Morel says that he always composes with a guitar in his hands and consults the piano when writing orchestral music. “Although you can be a great composer and not a great guitarist, it helps to know and play the instrument well enough so that you can write music that is idiomatic and interesting enough to attract players and the audience,” he says. Indeed, Morel’s use of Latin American rhythms, jazz harmonies, and appealing orchestration continues to draw guitarists to his music.
Morel says isn’t sure how many compositions he’s written. “I have a list somewhere,” he says. “There are maybe 120 originals, including 11 works for guitar and orchestra, and almost 100 arrangements. Most of them are published, except for about 11 or 12 new ones.” Now retired from the concert stage, Morel divides his creative energies between composing and painting. “I am writing a string quartet—no guitar—a guitar quartet, a guitar and flute duo, and a guitar duo,” he says. “Hopefully, they will be performed soon.”
DUŠAN BOGDANOVIC: DRAWING FROM OLD AND NEW INSPIRATIONS
Like Morel, Serbian-born Dušan Bogdanovic was also influenced by jazz and the rhythms of his native land. But considering Bogdanovic’s different take on jazz and the vast differences between the rhythms and meters of Balkan and South American music, he’s created a sound that is uniquely his own. Bogdanovic undertook formal training as both a guitarist and composer at the Conservatoire de musique de Genève (Switzerland) during the 1970s. “My composition teacher was Pierre Wissmer but I also studied with Alberto Ginastera privately,” Bogdanovic shared in an email. “My composition studies were primarily important because of my work on the orchestration of the Debussy Preludes and analyzing Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s music. It was also important to be in an environment where composition was the focus.”
Bogdanovic has recorded many of hisown works, but they have also been played and/or recorded by Bill Kanengiser, the Falla Trio, the Newman & Oltman Duo, Denis Azabagic, Jérémy Jouve, Zoran Dukic, and countless others. Bogdanovic has also collaborated live and on record with such jazz artists as James Newton, Charlie Haden, and Milcho Leviev, among others.
His approach to composing has changed over the years. “When I was younger, I used to compose on guitar mostly,” hesays. “But for many years I’ve been writing on piano and have purposely avoided the guitar to remain independent of the usual clichés.” As for his actual composing process, Bogdanovic says he prefers to let inspiration lead and not plan too much out in advance. “For me, the process is simultaneously feeling and thinking, and I am pretty happy not knowing exactly what I am doing,” he says. “This, however, can only go so far, and often I have to go back to analyze what I have done in order to figure out what comes next. For me, it’s important to stick to the natural growth of the music and avoid distractions—even if they are attractive or interesting.”
He began composing before thinking about others playing his music. “In the beginning I didn’t think about commissions, I just composed,” he shares. “I think that my Concertofor Guitar and String Orchestra  was probably my first commission. I wrote it for [Brazilian-born guitarist] Maria Livia São Marcos and she premiered it in Grenoble, France.” When fulfilling a commission these days, he studies various aspects of the commissioner’s artistry. “I think about what kind of performer I am writing for and [about his or her] technique, taste, strengths, and weaknesses.”
Bogdanovic has been fortunate to have several of his pieces enter the popular guitar repertoire. Among his most frequently played pieces are his solo guitar works Mysterious Habitats, Balkan Miniatures, and Jazz Sonata. However, as with any musician who has had a few “hits,” the most popular pieces sometimes overshadow other works. “It’s like considering Beethoven’s Für Elise as his greatest achievement because everybody loves it and anybody can play it,” Bogdanovic opines. He prefers to look at the high-water marks in his catalog: “I have had some really excellent players perform some of my more demanding [solo guitar] pieces lately, including my Sonata 3, Homage to Ohana, Intro and Passacaglia and my chamber music and concertos.”
GERARD DROZD: SINCERITY, FEEL, AND SPONTANEITY
On the other hand, Polish guitarist and composer Gerard Drozd has fully embraced the popularity of his best-known work, Adagio, Op. 44, his homage to J.S. Bach dedicated to guitarist and Bach scholar Tilman Hoppstock. Penned for solo guitar, the eight-minute work features a lyrical melody that unfolds over a wandering bass line moving in repeated eighth-notes with occasional interspersions of lush chords. “The piece has become so familiar that it’s like my business card,” Drozd states. “So many musicians have asked me to prepare new versions of the piece that there are now 15 versions of it for different instruments and ensembles. I’m glad that my music has gained the interest of prominent guitarists and other musicians. Currently, I am working on a version for soprano saxophone and string orchestra.” Another of his popular guitar pieces, “Triptych, Op. 102” written for Lily Afshar, is also played widely.
Drozd learned music on his own. “To tell the truth, I studied neither composition nor guitar formally,” he says. “I am totally self-taught. In a way, that has given me carte blanche to look for my own understanding of music and find my own way forward.”
Still, Drozd studied diligently, and his work shows the influence of the masters in its architecture. “I owe a lot to Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Bartok, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and some contemporary figures,” he notes. And owing to his exploration of the artistry of Segovia, Bream, Williams, Russell, and Barrueco, Drozd’s music lies very well on the guitar.
The prolific composer has written more than 250 works, including music for solo guitar, various guitar ensembles, solo piano, string quartet, and other chamber configurations, plus concertos for one, two, and four guitars with orchestra. Also notable among his works are his 24 Preludes and Fugues for guitar and 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano.
Drozd says he works from purely musical ideas, often composing without an instrument. “I use what I call ‘kaleidoscopic harmony’ and ‘theory of controlled case.’ They give me immense freedom to compose new works. I also write very quickly and never change anything once a piece is written. I always go with the first impact.
“Today, you can use a variety of compositional techniques to write a new piece. You can have extensive knowledge, but I think the most important things are sincerity, a natural feel, and spontaneity in the creative process.”
As an established composer who receives a steady stream of commissions, Drozd counsels aspiring composers, “Be honest and sincere in what you do. Try to write beautiful and good music and you will find musicians who will be interested in playing it.”