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
Q: What is the role of commissions in your composition trajectory and process?
Stephen Goss: All my work is commissioned and has been for the last 25 years or so. Therefore, my composing life is a series of deadlines. Deadlines are very important to my compositional process – they focus the mind and enable compositional decisions to be made. The most creative part of being a composer, for me, is procrastination – waiting for ideas develop, grow and blossom. When the actual writing begins, the creative aspect of the work must be paired down to pragmatics. If I am not given a hard deadline, I do not finish the piece. I enjoy working on very prescriptive commissions. In a way, the more restrictions I’m given, the more creative I can be. The hardest pieces to write are the ones when the commissioner says ‘do exactly what you want to do’. 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 end point (performances and/or a recording), then I’m not composing.
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?
SG: I see composing as a learning process and 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. I like to approach each project from a different angle, a different starting point, a different set of goals. Some projects are highly experimental; others involve less risk-taking. These aspects are governed by the commissioner. If I am working with a soloist, then there is usually a lot of room for trial and error, if I am writing for orchestra then the piece needs to play directly from the page. You can’t turn up to an orchestral rehearsal with any ambiguities in your score. The most important thing to remember is that commissioners are paying for something that they want. 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.
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?
SG: 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 will make every effort to get to know their playing well. Around half of my music involves my own instrument, the guitar, and this brings particular dangers. Every composer/performer brings an embodied knowledge to their own instrument. Sometimes playing music by a guitarist/composer gives the performer the impression that they are using the composer’s hands rather than their own. What I try to do is write music that fits the hands of the player who is going to perform it. I’ve also learned that it’s important to inhabit the performer’s musical world view – see things from their perspective. How will your piece fit into their program? What music will be around it? I think performance context is very important. I’ve learned that a piece needs to be the right length, the right style, and the right level of complexity for each performer who commissions me. Consequently, I have written very different guitar music for people like John Williams, David Russell, and Xuefei Yang. My music is not easy to play, but it is not unreasonably difficult. 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). I like to spend time with the performer making 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’ that is somehow compromised by pragmatics. With my collaborators, an urtext is something we work towards, not away from.
Q: What are things to keep in mind in working with publishers?
SG: While it is very 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. There is a great deal to be said in favor of self-publishing, now that distribution is a lot easier through the use of the internet. If one chooses to go down the publisher route, you can either sign over your copyright or license it. I would always advise composers to license if they can. Once you hand over your ownership of copyright, you are in a much weaker position. Having said that, I am very happy with my current publisher, Doberman-Yppan, who are efficient, helpful, and professional. It is rare to get all three in a publishing company. I trust them and I have signed over my copyrights to them. They take care of many things I don’t have time for – professional typesetting, distribution, sales, promotion etc. However, I had a very unpleasant experience with a previous publisher. I won’t go into details, but it involved lawyers. In the end, I managed to buy all my copyrights back, but it was a stressful an expensive business. Regarding publishers, my two main pieces of advice to composers would be 1) make sure you have legal support and back up through a musicians’ organization or union before you sign any contracts (in the UK we have the Incorporated Society of Musicians and the Musicians’ Union), and 2) make a list of what it is you want from a publisher and have a full and frank discussion with your prospective publisher about precisely what it is they can offer you. If things go sour, it is often as a consequence of unreasonable expectations from one side or the other.
Q: What are some of the things that have worked in making your compositions more widely known (i.e. personal website, marketing, etc.)
SG: I don’t really know the answer to this. For me, it’s felt like water gradually wearing away a stone. Perhaps it’s simply a combination of many factors. I would say, though, that performances are probably the most important thing. It’s the only time composers have the undivided attention of their listeners. The advice I always give my composition students is to get to know as many people as possible face to face – by attending festivals, concerts, competitions and other events. 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.
Q: What is the role of conferences or festivals in promoting your compositions, getting commissions, or other factors?
SG: Conferences and Festivals are very important for me. 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. No one likes the hard sell, and there’s nothing less appealing than a composer who drones on endlessly about their latest pet composition projects. So, I think all composers have to be careful not to bombard people with self-promotion. For me, 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.
Q: How many do you attend and which are the most important ones?
SG: This varies from year to year and is largely down to how many invitations I get. In recent years in the guitar world, I have made an effort to attend the GFA Convention. This is always a fantastic event with seemingly limitless networking opportunities and a rich fayre of inspiring concerts and thought-provoking lectures.
Q: What is the most important piece of practical advice you would give an aspiring guitar composer?
SG: A composer friend of mine recently said ‘what’s a guitar composer? Either you’re a composer or you’re not a composer, you can’t be a composer for one instrument.’ I’ll leave that one out there. In my view, composition is not something that can be done casually without a lot of study. I’m often asked if I’ll conduct my own orchestral pieces. I say ‘no’ because I know that my conducting skills are underdeveloped. I could conduct my own music, but it would mean investing in thousands of hours of study first. So, my advice to aspiring composers would be ‘study composition.’ This doesn’t have to be done through a formal course at a University – many of the finest composers are autodidacts – but close and detailed study of a range of music relevant to the interests of the composition student. The film composer Gabriel Yared spends half his day doing compositional exercises (counterpoint, etc.) and studying canonic repertoire from the point of view of compositional technique (Bach, Bartok, Stravinsky, Beethoven), before spending the rest of the day working on his latest film score. He has said that film composers should not study other film music, but go back to primary sources – orchestral and chamber music from the 20th and 21st century (and earlier). I would suggest the same for guitarists who want to compose—don’t just look at guitar music for models, look much, much wider.
Q: What kind of economic return can a composer expect for his/her work?
SG: Very little. It’s not a sensible way to try and make a living.
Q: Is the biggest return in royalties from sheet music sales, recording licenses, performance royalties, grants, commissions, film/TV placements, or other?
SG: This depends on many factors. For me the most important sources of income are commission fees and grants. 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. So, even after 30 years writing professionally, the financial return is limited. 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.
Q: Do you work with an agent or manager, and if so, what is their role in terms of your compositions?
SG: No, I don’t. I’ve thought about it, but so far I’ve struck all my deals myself.
Q: Do you copyright your work (i.e. with Library of Congress or another international agency), or is that up to the publisher?
SG: The publisher does that.
Q: Have you ever considered or used Creative Commons license? If so, which one(s)?
SG: No, I haven’t, but this can be a useful solution for many people.
Q: Do you work with a performance rights organization (BMI, ASCAP, SESAC)?
SG: In the UK, where I live, I am a member of the Performing Rights Society who deal with performance royalties and mechanical copyright.
Q: Do you record your own work or is it primarily recorded (and/or performed) by other guitarists?
SG: I stopped playing in public in August 2015 when my quartet, Tetra, gave its farewell concert after 27 years. My music is now only performed and recorded by other people.