Interview by Dave Belcher

Stephen Goss is an extraordinary and accomplished composer from the UK (Wales, specifically) who has written a great deal of works for the guitar—as well as for many other instruments and voice. Steve directs research in music and media at the University of Surrey, is a professor of guitar at the Royal Academy of Music, and is the Director of the International Guitar Research Centre.

In this interview we discuss several of Steve’s compositions for guitar as well as his collaborations with other guitarists and the state of the classical guitar in today’s world.

DB: First off, can you tell us a bit about your compositions for guitar and what you think are the challenges and benefits of composing for the guitar versus, say, some other instrument?

SG: As a guitarist myself, I have written a great deal of guitar music in solo, chamber and orchestral settings. I think around 60% of my compositions incorporate guitar. All instruments have their own coloristic and textural fingerprints as well as idiomatic idiosyncrasies, but the guitar presents particular challenges to composers. If you’re not a guitarist it’s a steep learning curve to discover what does and doesn’t work. If you are a guitarist, your knowledge of the instrument sometimes limits your imagination.

For me, the important thing in writing for guitar is to imagine sounds, textures, harmonies, rhythms, colours and musical structures and then to try and work out how to make the guitar do these things. If I use the instrument while composing, I’m looking for the sounds that I’ve already imagined—I tend not to noodle around aimlessly hoping to stumble on something.

There’s a huge difference in writing for solo guitar as compared with duo, trio, quartet or guitar with other instruments. Once musical textures and material can be shared the challenges subside. The solo guitar sits halfway between being a harmony instrument and a melody instrument. Many composers think of it as a limited piano or harp, I like to think of it as a melody instrument with some interesting quirks and effects. Successful writing for solo guitar is like conjuring trick—smoke and mirrors if you like. We like the listener to believe that the solo guitar is capable of playing any complete piece. It’s not of course, certain conditions have to be in place in order to create the illusion of pianism.

As a compositional tool, the guitar has a wide timbral palette, and the ability to play chords and polyphonic textures. The instrument has cultural roots in a wealth of musical styles from all over the world and from history. This versatility and rich cultural heritage open up many possibilities for composers.

DB: As classical music and the classical guitar both continue to evolve in modern-day culture, what do you think is the current state of the classical guitar? (This is a somewhat loaded question, but there is no shortage of articles, books, blog posts, tweets, and rumors about the approaching death of classical music and inevitably some have also begun to portend the . . . uncertainty of the life of the classical guitar along with classical music.)

SG: Well, despite reports to the contrary, I think the classical guitar is in very good health. I would even go so far as to say that we’re living through something of a golden age. This is especially true in places like China where the guitar is undergoing a very exciting revolution. The level of playing is higher than it’s ever been, the repertoire is broader and more diverse than it’s ever been, and it’s expanding all the time. There is an acceptance of contemporary music in the guitar repertoire that’s simply not there in the voice, violin, cello, and piano repertoire. For a new work to become standard repertoire for these other instruments is extremely rare: with the guitar, the repertoire is constantly evolving. 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. I can name guitar pieces that feel like old warhorses that were written very recently—the Ginastera Sonata, Brouwer’s first sonata, Takemitsu’s guitar pieces etc.

As for classical music in general, that’s another story. And things are very different depending on which country or city you live in. This is not a good time for the arts, in the UK and the US, but that is largely due to the political climate and its influence on the value of culture and heritage in society. Optimistically, I would suggest that these things are cyclical, rather than spiral—the good times will return, and we need to be ready for them when they do.

DB: You have composed a number of concertos for the guitar and you have several upcoming commissions for concertos this next year—could you tells us a bit about these works, but also how you approach placing the guitar in the context of an orchestra, which is not its usual “home,” if you will? 

SG: Well, so far I’ve written 5 concertos, 3 of which involve guitar. Over the next 2 years I’ve been commissioned to write 6 more concertos, 4 for the 2016/17 season. First, there’s a concerto for violin, guitar, strings and percussion, for the Boulder Philharmonic, Charles Wetherbee, and Nicolo Spera—that one will be based on Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities. After that is a set of variations for guitar and orchestra for Artyom Dervoed and the Svetlanov Symphony Orchestra. The premiere will be in the Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow. Then, a concerto for four guitars and orchestra for the 25th Anniversary of the Koblenz Festival and the last one for 2017 is a concerto for guitar and wind orchestra for Andrew Zohn and a number of different wind orchestras in the US.

I think the guitar concerto has become a highly viable genre since the advent of top end amplification. There’s no excuse now for poor sound. If one can amplify the guitar to the acoustic level of a violin, cello or piano, then balance problems subside considerably. Obviously, one still has to be careful, but making the guitar work acoustically with an orchestra is both futile and anachronistic. Since the Aranjuez concerto is now such a standard repertoire piece, I think the idea of a guitar concerto is pretty universally accepted.

The piano is probably the most satisfying concerto instrument, and the piano doesn’t have a natural home in the orchestra either. What’s great about both the piano and the guitar is that you have a timbral world which is not replicated or doubled in the orchestra, letting the solo instrument stand out in sharp relief. The other thing that’s exciting about writing for guitar and orchestra is the very fact that there isn’t a large repertoire of concertos already. Not everything’s been tried and done yet. When I was writing my piano concerto, I couldn’t help but be intimidated by the canon of 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st century piano concertos.

DB: Your compositions have allowed you the opportunity to work with some amazing artists, including some fantastic guitarists. Could you tell us about your collaborations with artists and what it’s been like to work with some of the world’s best guitarists? 

SG: I have been very fortunate to work with some wonderful musicians—guitarists and otherwise. For me, composing is a social activity—highly collaborative. When I’m writing a piece, I like to make it as bespoke as possible for the player I’m writing it for. My guitar pieces for John Williams, David Russell and Xuefei Yang reflect this. I like to tailor the writing to an individual’s technique, musicianship and musical tastes and preferences. I think about how my piece will fit in their programme—what sorts of pieces will surround it? Performance context is very important for me.

Sometimes players contribute a lot of ideas to a piece (like Jonathan Leathwood), others will largely leave me to it (like the pianist Emmanuel Despax). Every performer likes to work in a different way, and I relish this. It means that my own craft is in a constant state of flux, changing, sometimes radically, from project to project. I have done many projects with Xuefei Yang over the years. She has an incredible knack of understanding what it is I mean musically – even if the notation contradicts this. She is able to see the music through the notation.

It’s always a bit weird if you end up working with your heroes—John Williams and David Russell for example, and conductors like Mikhail Pletnev. What impresses me about some of the more well known performers is their humility and their enthusiasm. There’s an energy about some people that is infectious and helps really raise your game as a musician.

What I like most about working with some of these musicians is the fact that I’m always learning new things. It’s great to be able to come away form a collaboration the richer for it.

DB: I wanted to ask about two of your most recent works. The first is the new set piece for this year’s Guitar Foundation of America Competition entitled Labyrinth. This looks like a remarkable piece and the concept of allowing the performer to choose the order of the sections, allowing a huge number of permutations for how the piece is performed, is quite unique among guitar compositions. What was your inspiration for this piece?

SG: For me, a composition always starts with an impetus. This leads to ideas that are closely related to the impetus. For the GFA set piece, the impetus was the commission—to write something that each competitor would have to play in the first and final rounds: something to test their technique and musicianship. The idea I had was to come up with something that would challenge the competitors’ musical creativity and versatility, rather than their technical skills (which would be displayed elsewhere in their chosen competition repertoire).

I had been reading a book by Umberto Eco, From the Tree to the Labyrinth (2014), which looked at the ways in which the ordering and cataloguing of knowledge has evolved over time. Eco talks about the tree of knowledge and then moves to the idea of the dictionary, which orders knowledge into a matrix of definitions. In Eco’s view, though, the dictionary is too rigid: it turns knowledge into a closed system. A more flexible organizational scheme is the encyclopedia, which—instead of resembling a tree with finite branches—offers a labyrinth of never-ending pathways. Presenting knowledge as a network of interlinked relationships, the encyclopedia sacrifices humankind’s dream of possessing absolute knowledge, but in compensation we gain the freedom to pursue an infinity of new connections and meanings. This idea related closely to Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, where a Labyrinthine library contains books from different times and places in different languages. However, some of these books are fakes and copies and its almost impossible to tell which are authentic and valuable.

I wanted to write a piece of music that somehow recreated this library in sound. The score of Labyrinth is deliberately ambiguous. The piece has an entrance or mouth (Gradus ad Parnassum), followed by eleven fragments or sections of music (which must be played in a different order every time the piece is performed) and finishes at the centre or goal (Glauben wir!). Every time the traveler turns a corner in the labyrinth, a new fragment of music is heard—unexpected and unrelated to the previous one. There are 39,916,800 possible orderings of the eleven sections.

The fragments themselves are based on pre-existing music from the 12th century to the present day—or pretend to be. They are given to the performer as puzzles to consider. One or two are quotations of pieces (originals), many are reworkings from one or more original sources (palimpsests), and some are either pastiches or reworkings of hypothetical models (fakes or forgeries). The challenge to the performer comes in how to interpret the fragments and how to contextualise each one amongst the others. There is no correct or perfect order of sections—each order presents its own opportunities and obstacles.

I didn’t hear the 50 or so performances of Labyrinth in the first round, but I was there for the four performances in the final in Denver. I was very impressed and moved by what the finalists had done to come up with a solution to the problem I’d set them.

DB: Secondly, I recently watched Michael Partington’s premiere performance of your work Watts Chapel on YouTube and I also wanted to ask about the inspiration behind this piece. It seems like an eclectic mix of several different influences (most significantly Mahler), but I was especially intrigued by your description of the piece, that the chapel was a place of “peace and serenity” for you that you visited from time to time, while your dedication of the piece is to innocent victims of conflict. I think that is a really interesting concept: the juxtaposition of conflict and peace, a chapel (and other such spaces) as a place where both mourning and serenity exist together side by side. Is there any way you convey this in the music or is it simply there, guiding you as you work through the process of composition?

SG: Watts Chapel is near my home in Surrey, England. It’s a memorial chapel built by Mary Watts for her husband, the artist G. F. Watts. It was built and decorated in Arts and Crafts style by the local villagers under Mary’s tutelage between 1896 and 1904. It is a small, serene space that is perfect for private reflection.

The chapel had always suggested the music of Mahler to me, perhaps because they are contemporaneous. When I came to write the piece, I gathered together fragments of Mahler’s music that were concerned with remembrance and the transience of mortality—specifically, fragments of the 3rd and 9th symphonies, and the song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I am lost to the world), from Rückert-Lieder—and constructed a piece from these fragments. My music is slow and spacious; it attempts to evoke the peaceful atmosphere of Watts Chapel.

I wanted the piece to provide a musical space for reflection on mortality—a moment to think of those who are no longer with us, that might have been taken too soon and, indeed, a chance to think about our own mortality. The dedication has been removed since the first performance as it seemed a little bleak. Also, in the wake of all the terrorist attacks in Europe and Middle East, I felt it superfluous and naïve. The listener is encourage to find their own meaning in the music: I have provided a context for mourning.

The contrast of violence and reflective serenity is an important one for me. I am very interested in the way that people shape, categorize and recall their memories. Sometimes complete calm and peace are required in order to remember and reflect upon traumatic and violent events.

If anyone who hears Watts Chapel knows the Mahler on which it is based, they will get the sense of half-remembered music—familiar, and yet filtered and distorted. I often use quotations and references in my music for their powerful and yet ambiguous associations. Sometime they are buried deep in the music and other times uncomfortably near the surface. In Watts Chapel the Mahler is fully exposed, his style is in the foreground. The piece is simply a free arrangement of Mahler.

The relationship between arrangement and composition fascinates me. There is a continuum between a straight transcription and an original composition and all of my music sits between these polar opposites.

DB: Finally, you are yourself a guitarist and were a member of the Tetra Guitar Quartet—could you say a bit about your activities as a performer and arranger (especially for the quartet)?

SG: We started the quartet in 1988 and we played our final concert last year. So, I toured and recorded with the quartet for 27 years. There are many recordings on iTunes and Spotify and several videos on YouTube if any of your readers would like to hear the quartet in action. I think that being a professional performer really helped my composition. Dealing with the pragmatics of performance and stagecraft: experiencing the visceral aspects of music. The culture of transcription and arrangement is central to the guitar repertoire. Most guitarists make their own transcriptions and arrangements and are happy to adapt other people’s arrangements to suit their own needs. I became very interested in the idea of the creative arrangement—transforming rather than transcribing. I’m sure the guitar’s culture of arrangement has had a profound affect on my compositional approach—reworking other people’s material, rather than inventing my own.

My approach to arranging is to try and make music sound as if it were originally written for guitar. When composers arrange or orchestrate their earlier music, they always adapt and transform it. Ravel’s orchestration of his piano piece Alborada del Gracioso sounds like an orchestral piece, not an orchestration of a piano piece. For me transcribing is a mechanical exercise that involves compromise, whereas arranging is about exploring untapped potential in pre-existing musical material in a new instrumental and timbral context.

© Steve Goss, August 2016