The intro to this article will be self-indulgent garbage so please forgive in advance (and don't hesitate to skip right down to the interview) but I can't resist. The music of our featured artist this month, Andrew York, is more than special to me. Inside the mind of every guitarist, there's one default song; when you close your eyes and think of a guitar, the one song you always hear first. For me, it's “Sunburst”, released on Andrew's 1986 debut album “Perfect Sky. Everyone has their own. “Sunburst” is mine and every time I hear it, think of it or play it, it brings me back.
It was either 1994 or 95, when St Augustine High School brought in Mr Trey Brewer to teach the then-nascent SAHS Guitar Program. To an adolescent kid who lived and breathed guitar- and nothing else- that class was the only reason I bothered attending at all. It's quite a privilege to have a 'guitar program' at your high school and don't think for a second I'm unaware of or otherwise naive to that fact. This was a time when scholastic music programs around the country were being gutted or closed but we were lucky. Dozens of miles of contiguous coastline, its associated oceanfront real estate and 10 hotels for every McDonalds does oddly favorable things for your tax base, such as affording the opportunity for one of your two county public high schools (back then there were two, today, there are seven) to offer something like a dedicated guitar program.
Everything about it was special. After-school field trips to see players like Eliot Fisk. Somehow the instructor wrangled (and I'm not kidding) Christopher Parkening to come in and have a sit with us. The astonishing figuring on the Brazilian Rosewood back and sides of our teachers RL Mattingly classical guitar. The ridiculously cute girl who played bass. It wasn't a class you ever cut. This is where our teacher debuted his offering of “Sunburst”, which was quick to take among the more advanced students. It somehow worked its way up to our local young guitar superhero, Mr Sam Pacetti (then only in his early 20's) who played it at the first ever Gamble Rogers Folk Festival, back in 1995. I've been playing "Sunburst" ever since those days and still haven't gotten it all the way right, but whenever I drop down to D, “Sunburst” will always be the first thing I play.
Its with the benefit of almost two decades hindsight that I can look back and confidently say that “Sunburst” was my own personal 'big bang', as far as the very moment when my musical thinking shifted from a kid who grew up into the 80's with shredders mindlessly sweep picking arpeggios (and landing on that big, high bendy note to give it 'feel') to someone who realized that the guitar is- and always should be- a tool for making great music, that 'technique' should be in service to the sounds.
Obviously, Andrew York's catalog has a lot more depth than just “Sunburst” but its undeniably his most well known piece, one which as influenced innumerable players in the same way it influenced me. If there had been no “Sunburst”, there would never have been this site and right now you would probably be off doing something productive rather than sitting here reading this vapid introduction. If you've made it this far, I thank you... and now, the part that counts.
Early life, family, how you came to guitar?
I came from a musical family. My father and my uncle are folk guitar players and my mother a singer who sang in jazz clubs when she was young. And classical music was always playing on the radio at our house. So music was always there, and I would pick up the guitar at family musical sessions and pretend to play. When I was about six years old, they realized I was actually playing - I was watching my father's and my uncle's hands, and got the chord shapes by watching. My father then taught me everything he knew, and after that I began classical lessons with a fine teacher in Richmond Virginia named Greta Dollitz.
To this day I still know dozens of English, Irish and early American folk songs. Coming from a folkloric background is a real plus - I feel like I was introduced to authentic music of the people, which gave me a foundation with a direct connection to instinctive musical expression, and a sense of lyricism. Then my classical training enhanced my knowledge of music and compositional processes.
You have, as they say, an 'impeccable academic background' as far as classical guitar studies go. BA in Music at 22, Masters from USC a couple years later, magna cum laude both times.
There are interesting and varied schools of thought on academia and music. Now that you have a significant career under your belt, what sort of attributions would you make to your rigorous academic background in music studies that has benefited your playing and composing, that someone without such a background might not enjoy?
There is no easy answer to that question. The pros and cons of academia also are informed by the needs and qualities of the individual considering higher education. Of course, it isn't necessary to go to university to receive 'higher education.' Some people, though not many, are auto-didactic, and learn at a pace that is faster than a university setting will allow. I'm that kind of person, so my agenda in immersing myself in academia was different.
I was fortunate to have professors that recognized my intellectual needs and allowed me to go at my own pace and in my own direction. So for me it was a positive experience overall to get higher degrees. One of the best things you can do in a university setting is immerse yourself in unfamiliar territory to experience the depth and breadth of music.
Sadly, students at many universities seem to walk a narrow path of very specialized study; I don't believe that is the way to become an artist. We need greater depth of experience and exposure to other styles and modes of thinking and creating.
“Sunburst” is the one piece of music that most profoundly affected the trajectory of my own musical interests. Somewhere in the mid 1990's, it (Sunburst) was making the rounds among the more advanced students at the St Augustine High School Guitar Program. As a young man, hearing the instructor (hello Trey Brewer) play it really altered the paradigm of how I viewed the instrument. What is it like being someone who creates meaningful stuff that influences people and will live on forever?
Well, naturally I'm happy that some of my music has some cultural resonance and relevance. I never considered the posterity angle much, I only write in a way that I find personally pleasing and fascinating, emotionally and intellectually. So it seems that a percentage of people are open to perceiving the ideas I find meaningful and beautiful. But I am pleased to know that my music will have a life of its own.
I do feel that even though humanity is naturally endowed with endless creativity, we are actually living in a sort of artistic dark age right now. Lots of art is very derivative and trivial, and many people seem unable to tell the difference between depth and drivel. So I am definitely out of the mainstream, in that I feel fiercely individualistic and try to be artistically authentic. Each time I compose I struggle to avoid giving into a formulaic approach, and try to evolve each piece as if I was starting anew. This demand for freshness and a zen-like approach to sound forces me to try to break new ground continually. It never gets easier, and sometimes I feel it is too hard. But it is worth the effort from a personal perspective, and I also feel it is important to inject good music into a culture that is awash in bad, whether they notice it or not.
For one hour, would you rather be a dolphin or an eagle?
Man, that's a tough one. Both fly in their own medium, eagles in air and dolphins in water. I'm obsessed with flying, so both will do nicely there. Dolphins sleep by having one hemisphere of their brain go to sleep while the other is awake, switching sleeping sides of the brain as needed. What might it be like to have one side of your brain sleeping and dreaming, while still awake on the other side? This is so fascinating I can't stand it. And we will never know what that feels like, except that it would be very, very interesting. Dolphins also have a larger brain size in body/brain ratio than humans, a sign of very high intelligence.
So it would be illuminating to be a dolphin and see just how smart they are. They just may be the most intelligent species on our planet, which we don't have the humility or perception to realize. And as terrestrial creatures, we can only experience indirectly what it would be like to live in water. So I would be a dolphin.
Riff on the process of composition. What composers influenced your own aesthetic, do you have any personal idiosyncrasies during your own composing process? How do you think about approaching any given composition? What's in your head?
Composition is the act of creation, with music as the medium. When I paint, or write software, the feeling and process is very similar, just the final form of the information is different. I think that beauty resides in the perception of complex interrelating patterns that echo greater order, and so please our minds and move us beyond our mundane awareness. So composing for me is a search for beauty and meaningful patterns of order. To this end, I use the ability of my ear to discern subtle relationships of intervals and harmony. I use my intellect to offer a palette of compositional techniques from different musical periods and genres.
Composers that influenced me are many. Beethoven was my hero when I was in elementary school. I wore out the LP of Leonard Bernstein conducting the 9th symphony, so my sister bought me a second copy. When I was very young I would listen to records insatiably, and get something of value from almost all of them. I remember finding recordings of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sousa marches, Abbey Road by the Beatles . . . all these eclectic musical samples really turned my head around. J.S. Bach has been a constant companion, his music is an expression of something beyond this world. I love Stravinsky, he taught me that anything is possible with music. Even Cat Stevens wrote popular songs that had harmonic twists that are so quirky and cool, he influenced me with his moments of transcendence.
Seven, and then ten or eleven more with LAGQ. First was Perfect Sky, my first recording, actually put out on cassette, and later on CD. It reflects my jazz studies while I was at USC, having three tracks on electric guitar, one on steel string and the rest on nylon. A very eclectic recording, but it has withstood the test of time. Denouement followed a number of years later, and has a sound and form I still love. The pieces are arranged in groups of 3-8-3-8-3, and every grouping begins with the letter D, as does the title of the CD - lots of symbology there. And some of the strongest material I have ever written. Then Into Dark, a serious and virtuostic work. which includes the Cello suite in C major by J.S. Bach. Then there's Hauser Sessions, which I recorded on one of Segovia's Hauser guitars from 1931. I did a CD with Dai Kimura for Sony Japan called "California Breeze" that was released only in Japan. Too bad, it has some pretty cool stuff on it. Then I made Conterpeace, where I collaborated with different artists. One track is with Andy Summers, and some tracks with Japanese classical pianist Mitsuko Kado, and half the CD is free improvisation with pianist Allaudin Mathieu. This recording is really different, atmospheric and dreamlike at times. I like that it is so different from my other works. Then lastly I have done Yamour, a double CD and double LP of back to my roots, all solo guitar works. I'm very proud of the compositional maturity and performance on this recording.
You broke some stuff down in your “Jazz for Classical Cats” series (highly recommended), but talk about the various technical benefits enjoyed by people who seriously pursue the CG discipline. Someone with a CG background will just flat out be able to do more stuff with their picking hand than someone without (or, someone playing with a plectrum), which translates into very interesting polyphonic variety. How often do you find classical-native playing techniques working themselves into your guitar compositions that maybe aren't totally in the classical idiom?
I use classical technique all the time. Well, I still use a pick once in a while, and I know how to play with some other kinds of right and left hand stylistic techniques too - but really, you nailed it when you said that classical technique gives you the power and ability to execute polyphonically. Once you can do that, it informs everything you do on the instrument. There's no going back from that, and why would you want to?
Jam session with any artist, past or present. Who would it be.
J.S. Bach. The greatest musical genius of any century, I would actually just be happy to listen to him improvise, if it were only possible. But to weave a theme together . . . ecstasy. That's why time travel is impossible, because some things would be just too cool to experience. But keeping in the historical context, I'd also like to jam with Ziryab, the 9th century oud player who changed the course of oud playing by his stylistic brilliance, and influenced Andalusian music deeply too. He was also a polymath, so there would be lots to discuss. Also Orpheus, the legendary Greek poet/musician who lived 2500 years ago, who was said to be such a master of mystical musical power that he could even levitate stones with his music . . . how could you not want to play with this guy?
Interview and Intro By L. Morgan, St Augustine, Florida.