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. (Thanks also to Uwe Heiss for translation assistance.)
Jürg Kindle was born in 1960 in Glarus (Switzerland). As a young guitar teacher in the early 1980s Jürg Kindle began to compose pieces for his students. At that time, there was few suitable teaching materials for guitar to meet the needs of what soon became a comprehensive network of music schools. After 35 years as a guitar teacher, musician, and composer, Jürg Kindle can look back on a rich repertoire of works for the guitar and the mandolin, with over 80 works printed by international publishers. These include about 200 solo pieces, 20 quartets, 12 trios and several guitar duos, works for guitar ensemble, chamber music with guitar, two concerts for mandolin orchestra, as well as a teaching book for the guitar and a theory textbook. Jürg Kindle’s works today appear around the world as obligatory pieces at guitar competitions and on concert programs. His pedagogical textbooks have become standards in guitar teaching. Jürg Kindle is a lecturer at the Pedagogical College of the canton St. Gallen (Switzerland). Since April 2016 Jürg Kindle publishes his works exclusively in his own publishing company, Edition Kalimba.
Q: What is the role of commissions in your composition trajectory and process?
A: Many people think that as a well-known composer I get a lot of commissions. Unfortunately, however, these are very few. If I were to wait for people to commission my work, I would have composed very few pieces. My works have all come from my own initiative. Of course, it is 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.
Q: What are some of the most important things you’ve learned in working with artists or foundations that have commissioned you to write for them?
A: In my 35 years as a guitar teacher, I’ve made my most important learning experiences have come at music schools. At first, I wrote music for my students purely because I needed something for them to use. In the early 80s there was very little educational literature available for guitar. All the pieces that I have composed, I have tried out in my own teaching. For this reason, all my works have been thought out didactically, and they work because they derive from practice. Collaboration with performers, or working with guitar orchestras on their own pieces, are always joyful moments. If you are able to accurately capture 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.
Q: Describe some of the best practices or tips you’ve learned in collaborating with performers of your work, particularly for world premier performances or recordings?
A: My most beautiful assignment was a work for 60 guitars, from level 1 to level 5, for the Conservatory in Toulon (France). I composed "Transmissions - The history of communication", and conducted the premiere myself. The subtitles of the work are "Drums" "Smoke" "Telegram" "Letter" "Telepathy" “Mobile phone” and "Praying. The kids were, of course, crazy about "mobile phone" a collective tapping piece with integrated ringtone. "Transmission" was published by "Les Productions d'Oz". I try to think in images and associations. First, I always try to convey a story, to arouse emotions and sensations. A composition needs a common history and common images as the foundation. Only then do you have Klangkörper (a body that resonates, as in the guitar). ?
Another wonderful collaboration was with the "EOS Guitar Quartet" and the recordings for "The Complete Guitar Quartets". I was at first not very confident about the songs and needed some courage to win over the quartet for the CD project. The four musicians, however, were immediately struck by the pieces and began to record with great dedication. They breathed an incredible energy into my work and have explored the sound spectrum of the guitar to its very limit. They released a wonderful album, which today serves as a reference for many guitar ensembles. The "Techno" video with EOS on YouTube has become a hit, and I have seen additional videos on YouTube, where every nuance has been perfectly reproduced.
As a composer you also have to possess the courage and the humility to give an ensemble enough room. It often happens that the performers turn your idea into something even better. That warrants the greatest gratitude and respect. If they carry on your torch, your mandate is fulfilled.
Q: You have a self-publishing label, Edition Kalimba. How has creating your own publishing company affected your commissions, dissemination of your compositions, or other practical aspects of your work? Is your biggest economic return in royalties from sheet music sales, recording licenses, performance royalties, grants, commissions, film/TV placements, or other?
A: I worked with international publishers for 30 years. To make a living, I’ve taught 40 to 60 guitar students every week for 35 years. My compositions are all produced at night, on weekends, or during the holidays. I do not want to denigrate the publishers, because I owe them my broader recognition. On the other hand, they have never resulted in an economic boost. The royalties from my 80 publications barely pay the telephone bill. If I give two guitar concerts, I make the same. If I create the notation, fingerings, and layout of my works, why are they still given away? You have no rights to your music until 70 years after your death. Basically it is like giving up your children for adoption. The new works I’ve self-published have become more rewarding for me. I have contact with the people who order them, get direct feedback from them, and it results in new contacts. It’s a challenge to go directly to the public with these publications. But it is exciting and I am responsible for my own success economically. In April, "Edition Kalimba" will be one year old. I published 24 works in this first year. These include 10 guitar trios, 6 quartets, 1 piece for guitar orchestra and clarinet, 3 solo pieces, a tango, and a Renaissances collection for guitar ensembles, as well as 12 etudes for mandolin solo called "Fingerfood". I managed to get out the name of my publishing company, and thus orders are constant. Interest is growing, since I also offer all works in PDF. Now I derive more pleasure from my scores. From the idea of he cover, the graphic, to the shipping, everything is now in my hands. The pieces are like small plants you have to water again and again. Suddenly such a small piece will get a beautiful flower and you can look forward to it.
Q: What is the most important piece of practical advice you would give an aspiring guitar composer?
A: I would say that he/she should write for and not against the guitar. Everything should be tested in practice before it is released. In any case, the composer should be honest with himself or herself. For example, I do not care whether the music I write is commercial, or whether it is so-called "something new". I take my guitar in my hands with respect and am curious to discover what she wants to tell me. A small motif can trigger an avalanche of ideas. An hour later, a piece is perhaps already recorded and documented. If I want to write something new at all costs, then my flow is blocked and something comes out that sounds artificial. I write from instinct and try to write as inspired with as few changes as possible. I find it somewhat arrogant and opinionated to speak about "New Music". This is only another way of saying: "Look, I’m something special, better than the past". I’ve had experiences as a rock drummer, a Latin percussionist, a guitarist in a tango quintet, in various folk bands, as a bandolim player in a chôro group, and with the classical guitar. These have all shaped me. The guitar is like a prism that transforms my musical influences into notes. Traditions characterize us. If you stand against or even over the traditions, you must also reject a share of yourself. John G. Bennet said, "To cultivate traditions is to carry the fire and not to worship the ashes." This quotation has become a deep conviction and philosophy of life for me. A composer should consider very well what his traditions are, how he deals with it. The more honest he or she is, the more authentic his or her music will be.
Q: As a composer, is your biggest economic return in royalties from sheet music sales, recording licenses, performance royalties, grants, commissions, film/tv placements, or other?
A: As I’ve said, the income from my works is hardly worth mentioning. Revenues from CD's are insignificant ever since the providers began streaming services. For the royalty of a single CD sale, you have to be streamed 150,000 times today! There are about 60 YouTube videos with my piece of Kalimba. I also know about many CD's on which my works have been recorded. I’ve never received royalties for recordings or concert performances in the US or Canada. I wonder if a copyright exists there at all. Germany and Switzerland cooperate well, because I get an annual royalty statement. Revenue from these markets is also very modest. My economic situation led me to set up the publishing company "Edition Kalimba". A few books sold out of my own publishing house bring me more today than a whole year’s worth of royalties from other sources. My composition work could always be accomplished only because I always had good positions at different institutions. Composing is my vocation, but it is only possible thanks to my profession as a guitar teacher. It is an illusion to believe you’d be able to live by composing. I am proud of the fact 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 just wonderful how I can motivate many young guitarists with my music and connect with many professional musicians around the world.
Q: Do you work with a performance rights organization (BMI, ASCAP, SESAC)? Do you copyright your work (i.e. with Library of Congress or another international agency)?
A: All my works are registered with SUISA (Cooperative Society of Music Authors and Publishers in Switzerland).