Juan's World

Guitarist, Composer, Writer, Publisher

Interview with Composer/Guitarist Jürg Kindle: Practical Aspects of Classical-Guitar Composition, Part III

For my article on practical matters of composition for classical guitar (Classical Guitar, Summer 2017), I interviewed three acclaimed composers and a publisher of classical guitar music. This series of posts publishes the full interviews. The second is with Jürg Kindle, one of the most prominent contemporary pedagogical composers for the classical guitar.

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Interview with Composer/Guitarist Stephen Goss: Practical Aspects of Classical-Guitar Composition, Part II

For my article on practical matters of composition for classical guitar (Classical Guitar, Summer 2017), I interviewed three acclaimed composers and a publisher of classical guitar music. This series of posts publishes the full interviews. The first is with Stephen Goss, based in the UK, one of the most renowned composers for the contemporary classical guitar

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Water Wearing Stone: Practical Matters of Classical Guitar Composition

Note: This article first appeared in Classical Guitar magazine's Summer 2017 issue.

Photo: Stones in Yosemite by Michelle Friswell (Flickr)

Photo: Stones in Yosemite by Michelle Friswell (Flickr)

A composer creates, above all. Today’s composers must nevertheless navigate a myriad of factors including commissions, licensing and copyright, distribution and digital streaming, on and on. Perchance in Bach’s day it was easier: toiling in obscurity and poverty, or gaining fame—if not riches—most composers labored under the patronage of a wealthy and influential benefactor. Then again, Bach didn’t have the option of sending a performer MIDI files via Dropbox. Composers in the 21st century possess countless options, although most of us will still be unlikely, except under near-miraculous circumstances, to receive rich recompense for our work. Composing can be rewarding and worthwhile in and of itself, but whether an established or aspiring composer, attention to practical aspects and business details may have a great influence over your ultimate success.

Composition is not a solo sport

Commissions are central to both the creative output and earnings of many composers. Paying composers to write a new piece for a specific purpose or event can be undertaken by anyone motivated to support a composer and champion a new piece of music that enriches the world. Stephen Goss, one of the most eminent composers for the contemporary classical guitar, emphasizes this point.

“All my work is commissioned and has been for the last 25 years or so,” says the Welsh composer. “Would I write music if I had no commissions? Almost certainly not—for me composing is a social process, not a private one. If I’m not collaborating with someone on a project that has an endpoint (performances and/or a recording), then I’m not composing.”

Stephen Goss; photo credit: Luca Sage

Stephen Goss; photo credit: Luca Sage

Communication and give-and-take are essential. “The most important thing to remember is that commissioners are paying for something that they want,” continues Goss. “Getting as clear an idea of what that is might not always be easy, but it’s central to success. Both sides need to manage each other’s expectations. I’ve learned that the challenge is to be as creative as possible while sticking closely to the brief.”

Obtaining commissions is a gradual process facilitated by awards, grants, and social endeavors. “Winning composition prizes in Europe led to my first commissions,” states Javier Farias, a Chilean composer currently based in the United States, who was first-place winner of the Andrés Segovia (Spain) and Michele Pittaluga and Concorso 2 de Agosto (both Italy) composition competitions. “Relocating to the U.S. allowed me to find more opportunities because of the great interest from both institutions and individuals to get involved commissioning new music. This is important because there must exist a close relationship and collaboration between the performer and the composer.” In his case, recent commissions include the Fromm Music Foundation at Harvard University, Meet the composer (New Music USA), San Francisco Conservatory Guitar Ensemble, Carnegie Hall, and Apollo Chamber Players.

For Goss, conferences and festivals are critical, particularly the Guitar Foundation of America (GFA) Convention. “I think composers have to get out there—to be seen, to meet people, to talk to people, and to share ideas in formal and informal social situations,” recommends Goss. “Composers have to be careful not to bombard people with self-promotion, however, and nothing is less appealing than a composer who drones on endlessly about their latest pet composition projects. Festivals have a two-fold function—to meet, talk and share ideas with people who might play or listen to my music and to hear the music that other composers are writing. The GFA Convention is always a fantastic event with seemingly limitless networking opportunities and a rich fayre of inspiring concerts and thought-provoking lectures.”

For prominent Swiss composer Jürg Kindle, commissions have played a less central role, yet opportunities for collaboration are still beneficial. “Many people think that as a well-known composer I get a lot of commissions; unfortunately, however, these are very few.” admits Kindle. “My works have all come from my own initiative. Of course, it’s something special when you can write for a specific ensemble, the motivation and inspiration is much higher. Instead, I receive inquiries for lectures, seminars or workshops. These are always good opportunities to keep in touch with the guitar world.”

Freedom in restrictions

Paradoxically, the inherent boundaries imposed by commissions may benefit a composer. “In a way, the more restrictions I’m given, the more creative I can be,” says Goss. “I enjoy working on very prescriptive commissions. The hardest pieces to write are the ones when the commissioner says ‘do whatever you want to do.’ Deadlines are also very important to my compositional process—they focus the mind and enable compositional decisions to be made. My composing life is thus a series of deadlines.”

Considerable freedom is still bestowed on the composer. “When you get a commission, the stakeholder paying for it knows plenty about the kind of music you compose, so generally few limitations are imposed regarding a certain style,” Farias remarks. “You need reach agreement ahead of time regarding the specifics of instrumentation and the length of the work. In my case, most commissions involve writing music for guitar in combination with other instruments: choir, string quartets, orchestras, etc.”

“Some projects are highly experimental; others involve less risk-taking. These aspects are governed by the commissioner,” continues Goss. “I have learned a great deal from the artists I work with. Every artist brings something different to the collaborative process—they will all want different levels of input. I think it’s important to be sensitive to this and be ready to be flexible and adaptive. When working with a soloist, there’s usually a lot of room for trial and error; if I am writing for orchestra, the piece needs to play directly from the page. You can’t turn up to an orchestral rehearsal with any ambiguities in your score.”

Toward the Urtext

Instruction and composition are interlinked for Jürg Kindle, leading in no small part to his renown. “In the early 80s, very little educational literature was available for guitar, so at first, I wrote music for my students purely because I needed something useful,” he relates. “In 35 years as a guitar teacher, my most important learning experiences have come at music schools. I’ve tried out all my pieces in my own teaching; they work because they’ve been thought out didactically and derive from practice.”

Collaborating with performers also entails a learning process. “I’ve learned that it’s important to inhabit the performer’s musical world view—to see things from their perspective,” emphasizes Goss. “I’ve learned to always try to write music that is totally bespoke for the person or people who are going to perform it first. I’ll make every effort to get to know their playing well, and try to write music that fits their hands. Performance context is very important. Consequently, I have written very different guitar music for people like John Williams, David Russell, and Xuefei Yang.”

Jürg Kindle

Jürg Kindle

Kindle agrees: “Collaboration with performers, or working with guitar orchestras on their own pieces, are joyful moments. If you succeed in accurately capturing the technical and musical level of the performers, find the appropriate story for them, encapsulate it in body, mind and soul, and satisfy an audience, the wonderful loop between your idea and its realization is fulfilled.”

Farias recommends using today’s technologies to facilitate collaboration: “For world premiere performances or recordings, I’ll send the musicians some MIDI files of the new work. Some musicians may not need or prefer this, but in my experience, it’s proved helpful in imparting in the performers more confidence in performing new music.”

Goss echoes the importance of enabling performers to feel comfortable in performing new pieces. “Making sure that a soloist feels comfortable on stage with the technical and musical challenges of a piece is crucial, particularly if you want many repeat performances,” he says. “My music is not easy to play, but it’s not unreasonably difficult. I’ve learned that a piece needs to be the right length, style, and level of complexity for each performer who commissions me. I also like to spend time with the performer trying to find elegant solutions for technical and musical problems that might exist in the first draft of my piece. We tend to work towards the best version, rather than away from an immaculate conception or perfect ‘original.’ An urtext is something we work towards, not away from.”

Publish or Perish

Composers can utilize a publishing company to make their work available in manuscript form, but as with book publishing, many are turning to the possibilities of self-publishing. “Having your music published is a good strategy to help your music better known,” says Farias, warning, “Nevertheless most composers aren’t going to see much in terms of royalties, unless you are very successful or publishing pedagogical materials.”

Goss also warns, “While flattering to be offered the chance to have one’s music published, not all publishers offer the same thing and there are many pitfalls to be aware of. My main advice is to get legal support before signing a contract, and have a full and frank discussion with your prospective publisher about precisely what it is they can offer you. There’s also a great deal to be said for self-publishing, now that distribution’s easier through the Internet. Having said that, I am very happy with my current publisher, Doberman-Yppan, who are efficient, helpful, and professional. They take care of many things I don’t have time for—professional typesetting, distribution, sales, promotion, etc.”

Eric Dussault of Les Productions d'OZ and Doberman-Yppan offers some practical guidance for aspiring composers. “It’s not necessarily easy for composers starting out to find a publisher. Most traditional publishing houses are doing fewer publications and avoid risks. Nevertheless, I think the best thing for composers is to get his or her music played.”

Goss also emphasizes performance in extending a composer’s reputation: “For me, it’s felt like water gradually wearing away a stone, a combination of many factors, in having my compositions become more widely known. Performances, however, are probably the most important thing.”

Whether self-publishing or working with a publisher like d’OZ, composers utilize personal websites and social media channels to make their work more widely known and connect with performers, commissioners, and other audiences, but this is no substitute for personal interaction. “I always advise my composition students to get to know as many people as possible face to face—attending festivals, concerts, competitions and other events,” says Goss. “Once people have had some social interaction with you, they are much more likely to take note if they hear a piece of yours in a concert, or see a post on Facebook or YouTube.”

Kindle, for one, has found greater economic success and other rewards from the self-publishing route. “I worked with international publishers for 30 years, while teaching 40-60 guitar students every week to make a living, composing at night, on weekends, and during holidays. Not to denigrate publishers, because I owe them my broad recognition, but they’ve never resulted in an economic boom—royalties from my 80 publications barely pay the telephone bill. Self-published has become more rewarding. I have direct contact with those who order my work and receive feedback from them. My imprint Edition Kalimba (editionkalimba.ch) is now one year old. It’s been a challenge, but it’s exciting and I’m responsible for my own economic success.”

Even Dussault recommends self-publishing as a viable option. “We see more and more composers today able to handle their repertoire by themselves,” says the Québec-based publisher. For this reason and others, d’OZ offers typesetting and printing services to clients. “Some composers prefer to have complete control their over copyrights and production. Today’s aspiring composers should learn the basics of self-publishing, copyrights, and mechanical rights.”

Rights and Mechanicals

As a composer, you’re owed money whenever the music you’ve written is recorded, streamed, performed in public, or used on a film or TV soundtrack. Composers can retain, license, and even sell rights to their work. Under U.S. copyright law, while it’s not required to register your work, it’s certainly wise to do so, especially in the case that you’d need to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Publishers will often register copyrights—and prefer to do so in the publisher’s own name, but this can be negotiated. Composers can register their own copyrights with the United States Copyright Office, either as notated scores or audio recordings, or both. (Registration of musical works is either as sound recordings, i.e. a CD or for streaming; or as work of the performing arts—if both, the applicant registers the work as a sound recording.)

Each country has different copyright laws and agencies; thus, composers and publishers must also consider whether to protect the copyrighted work in multiple territories. For example, if a Norwegian composer’s work is likely to be recorded and performed in the U.S., he or she may want to register copyrights in both territories. Composers can also consider using a Creative Commons license to share their work while protecting their copyright.

Music licensing is the process of obtaining permission to utilize a copyrighted work in a film, TV program, ad, audio recording, digital download, etc. Again, there is a distinction between the licensing of the musical composition—the melodic, harmonic, and percussive components—and a sound recording—an artist’s recorded performance of a composition. A composer who records his or her own compositions may license both the composition and performance, and at least in theory be compensated for uses of both.

Four distinct types of musical licenses come into play. A synchronization license (or “synch” license) entails the right to synchronize a musical composition timed with visual content, in a YouTube video or film soundtrack, for example, and the ability to reproduce that content. These licenses are generally one-time flat fees ranging from nominal amounts to thousands of dollars, depending on the specific rights needed, budget, and relative leverage of the negotiating parties. Mechanical licenses authorize the manufacture, reproduction, and distribution of audio-only recordings (vinyl, CD, downloads). A performer recording an instance of your composition is therefore required to seek a mechanical license, typically through a licensing agency. If a composition has been previously recorded, “compulsory” licensing provisions mandate standard royalty rates to be paid to the copyright holder. A public performance license permits performance or broadcast of a musical composition or sound recording, such as a concert performance of your piece. Finally, a master use license confers the right to fix a master recording in a specific media and make copies for a flat fee or per-unit royalty (record labels typically own masters). This type of license would be invoked if, say, a producer wanted to use a Jason Vieaux recording of your composition as opposed to Pablo Villegas’ recording, for a TV commercial. “Fair use” exceptions to copyright allow use for educational purposes under certain circumstances.

Composers can register with a performing rights organization (PRO), which represent songwriters and publishers by negotiating blanket licenses to broadcasters, restaurants and bars, and other places where music is used in public, then collect fees and distribute them to registered songwriters and publishers as performance royalties. In the U.S., these include Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI); the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP); and SESAC, Inc. When registering with a PRO, a composer also needs to determine whether to register only as a songwriter or also as a publisher—separate rights are conferred and fees collected for each.

PROs also vary by territory. Productions d'OZ works with SOCAN and SODRAC in Canada; Goss is a member of the Performing Rights Society in the UK; Kindle with SUISA (Cooperative Society of Music Authors and Publishers in Switzerland); Farias with ASCAP; and I am registered as a publisher and songwriter with BMI, for performance royalties and mechanical rights.


Composers, Farias maintains, are compelled to create from an almost irrepressible personal, artistic impulse. But from a financial standpoint a composer may wonder “what’s in it for me?” For Goss and Farias, important sources of income from composition are commission fees and grants.

“It’s not a sensible way to try and make a living,” admits Goss. “Even after 30 years writing professionally, the financial return is limited. I charge a daily rate and then work out how long the piece will take to write and work out a commission fee that way. My daily rate is equivalent to that of a bricklayer or plasterer. Things are different for people working in more commercial or applied areas of composition, but still not easy. The more artistic control you desire, the less you’re likely to earn.”

In addition to understanding copyrights and licensing issues, composers should consult with a financial or tax advisor about the tax implications of composing. A composer may, for example, deduct expenses such as copyright registrations, PRO membership fees, website costs, and other expenses against income from mechanical licenses or publishing royalties.

Not surprisingly, most composers supplement their income from teaching or other means. “Composing is my vocation,” says Kindle, “but it’s only possible thanks to my profession as a guitar teacher. It is an illusion to believe you could live by composing. My economic situation led me to set up my publishing company; a few books sold from Edition Kalimba bring in more than a year’s worth of other royalties. I’m proud that, together with my full-time job as a guitar teacher, I had the energy to build my portfolio over the years. I view this today as a privilege; it’s wonderful to be able to motivate many young guitarists with my music and connect with professional musicians around the world.”

Innovation and the Publishing Start-Up

Choice magazine's annual University Press Forum offers the perspectives of University Press directors on a variety of topics. This year's Forum—the 13th in the series—addresses the topic of Innovation at the University Press. Essays from eight University Press directors are included in this year's Forum, including Bruce Austin, RIT Press; Courtney Burkholder, Texas Tech University Press; Faye Chadwell, Oregon State University Press; Steve Cohn, Duke University Press; Linda Manning, The University of Alabama Press; Gianna Mosser, Liz Hamilton, and Jane Bunker at Northwestern University Press; Mary Rose Muccie, Temple University Press; and yours truly.

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Review of my CD in Classical Guitar magazine

The Winter 2016 issue of Classical Guitar magazine includes a brief review of my CD, Serenata de la Sirena, excerpted below:

"This American guitarist-composer, who traditionally has specialized in playing works by Latin and South American composers, has self-produced a CD of nine homespun pieces mixed with five other works. Warren’s title track is warm and Latin in style, with a nice melody and harmonies. Leo Brouwer’s arrangement of “Drume Negrita” follows, with a new interlude composed by Warren, and a couple of other moments where he deviates, in an improvisatory way, from the printed score… Antonio Lauro’s short “La Catira” is a rarity that Warren plays very well. There are also two pieces by Baden Powell: “Berceuse a Jussara” is a work I had not heard before—Warren dispatches it with an almost jazz-like touch that suits the piece nicely; and “Afro Sambas” is complex and highly rhythmic through-out… The rest of the works are Warren’s. “Nisene” is a complex, patterned, arpeggiated, piece…"

Classical Guitar magazine, Winter 2016


Improvisation and Classical Guitar – Part 2

My article on improvisation and classical guitar (Classical Guitar Summer 2016) considers the history and context of classical guitar improvisation (and classical music in general); discusses why and when to improvise; and provides some strategies on how to get started.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing three imminent classical guitarists—Roland Dyens, Dušan Bogdanović, and Andrew York—asking them many of the same questions. Herein is an edited transcript of these conversations that expands on many of the techniques and topics discussed in part 1.

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Improvisation and Classical Guitar

The first step, and in some ways the most difficult one, is to wrap your head around the idea of improvisation on the classical guitar. What precisely is improvisation, and what is not? A familiar part of the musical toolbox for guitarists specializing in jazz, flamenco, bluegrass, blues, rock and other genres, improvisation has been relatively neglected, if not exactly derided, in modern classical guitar. This extends to classical music in general, of course. Considering the history of classical music and the evolution of the guitar, it’s perhaps surprising that improvisation does not play a larger role.

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Mastering at Airshow

Mastering is both a communication process as well as a technical one. The final step in the recording process, where the final mixes are sweetened and balanced, the flow and sequencing of the album is perfected, the space between tracks is determined and the relative volume levels between songs is made consistent.

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Guitarreros de Madrid

Luthiers and guitar shops in the Spanish capital

On my trip this August to Madrid, I decided to spend some time visiting a few of the city’s guitar shops and luthiers—artisanal guitar makers. I’ve visited Spain and Madrid several times previously, yet seven years had transpired since my last visit and I had rarely endeavored to visit classical or flamenco guitar makers there. August is arguably not the best month to visit Madrid—a majority of the residents have fled the oppressive heat of the city for vacations at the beach or abroad, and the inhabitants that remain are not inclined to work much, so while shops such as the Corte Inglés or Zara are promoting rare sale prices, many smaller boutiques, restaurants, and other businesses have irregular hours or are closed for the month. On the other hand, while tourists are in abundance, the fact that the populace has abandoned the metropolis leaves Madrid’s streets, cafés and bars relatively deserted.

The guitar in Spain, it goes without saying, is as ubiquitous as bulls and bullfighting. When we refer to the “Spanish guitar” today it can mean both the classical guitar or flamenco guitar; though similar in some ways in construction, the latter generally features a lower action, with strings sometimes “buzzing” against the frets, and a width, or bout, that is typically narrower than its classical counterpart. The early development of the guitar had perhaps as much to do with Italy as Spain, and of course today superb classical and flamenco guitars are made in every corner of the world. But it’s easy to associate the classical guitar primarily with Spain, and with Madrid in particular, which has been the heart of Spanish guitar making since the mid-eighteenth century.

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University Presses Gather on a High Note

University press representatives from the US, Canada, and abroad ascended to the Mile-High City for the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) 2015 Annual Meeting, June 18–20, on a high that probably had little to do with the marijuana dispensary across the 16th Street Mall from the host hotel Sheraton Denver. Despite the reality that many presses are necessarily accepting the mantra that “flat is the new up”—particularly for small to medium presses that the AAUP terms Tier 1, 2, and 3—the mood in Denver was decidedly upbeat. AAUP’s membership is a decidedly collegial and supportive group of professionals truly concerned with the creation, production, and dissemination of scholarship. The meeting’s theme “Connect, Collaborate” was not an empty platitude. The meeting’s positive mood can also be attributed to spirit of innovation embraced by many presses, the feeling that while scholarship and the academy are changing, university presses are willing and able to evolve and help drive developments, even if the precise path from here to there is still opaque.

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Chocolate Express

I arrived at the station in the nick of time, as usual, relying on my watch running fast and on the train granting me the favor of arriving five minutes late. Thanks to both, my watch ahead and the train delayed, I had enough time for a cup of coffee in the station’s café. It was empty. The man behind the counter wiped the stainless steel surface with a rag. He worked slowly, gazing attentively at his image reflected in the metal, as if his life depended on it. I’ve been catching the train every Friday for nearly two years in this very station, drinking a last-minute coffee in this very bar, with the same man wiping the counter for lack of anything better to do. By now we could be friends, of a sort, but we aren’t, and both of us are content with the mutual dislike that unites us. He’s a man from the North, used to dealing with cows and not with people. And I appreciate that. That he doesn’t ask about my family or mention the weekend’s game. That he gives me my coffee like he feeds the livestock. I couldn’t abide by anything else after a tough week on the job, one I do for the money and nothing else, just as he’s a waiter without it being his calling.

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Chocolate Expreso

Llegué a la estación con la hora pegada, como siempre, confiando en que mi reloj estuviera adelantado y que el tren me hiciera la cortesía de llegar cinco minutos tarde. Gracias a ambas cosas, el adelanto de mi reloj y el retraso del tren, pude tomarme un café en el bar. Estaba desierto. El hombre detrás de la barra pasaba la bayeta por el mostrador de acero inoxidable. Lo hacía despacio, mirando con mucha atención su imagen reflejada en el metal, como si en ello le fuera la vida. Llevo casi dos años cogiendo el tren cada viernes en esa misma estación, tomándome un café urgente en ese mismo bar en el que el hombre siempre limpia el mostrador a falta de otra cosa mejor que hacer. A estas alturas podríamos ser amigos o algo parecido, pero no lo somos y a los dos nos satisface esa antipatía que nos une. El es un hombre del norte, acostumbrado a tratar con las vacas y no con las personas. A mí eso me gusta. Que no me pregunte por la familia ni comente el partido del domingo. Que me dé el café como se echa de comer a los animales. No podría soportar otra cosa después de la dura semana en ese trabajo que hago sólo por dinero, igual que él es un camarero sin vocación.

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Learning, Practice, and Mastery

In Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, authors Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel argue that learning is more meaningful and effective when effortful, even as we are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we are not. ... The relationship of learning, practice, and mastery in the case of musicianship is explored thoroughly in Gerald Klickstein’s The Musician's Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness. Written especially classical and jazz instrumentalists and vocalists at the university level, the book nevertheless provides important lessons for musicians of widely diverse levels and backgrounds.

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