Stephen Goss talks to James Rippingale on the future of the classical guitar, composition and his time as a student at Wells Cathedral School.
Stephen Goss’s music receives hundreds of performances worldwide each year and has been recorded on over 70 CDs by more than a dozen record labels, including EMI, Decca, Telarc, Virgin Classics, Naxos and Deutsche Grammophon. His varied output includes orchestral and choral works, chamber music, and solo pieces.
Recent work includes several projects with the guitarist John Williams, who has recorded and toured Stephen’s Guitar Concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Describing the concerto in an interview for Soundboard, Williams said ‘I don’t know of any guitar concerto which is as consistently successful on all fronts’.
In this interview Stephen talks to Wells classical guitar teacher James Rippingale about the classical guitar, composition and his time as a student at Wells Cathedral School.
JR: Thank you for agreeing to talk to us Stephen. You attended Wells Cathedral School in the early 1980’s as a Sixth Form Music Specialist, could you tell us a little about your time with us? What were the highlights for you? Were there peak experiences for you in your time here, formative moments that shaped your career?
My time at Wells was transformative. I was very fortunate to meet some wonderful people and great musicians at school, many of whom are still good friends 35 years later.
SG: My time at Wells was transformative. I was very fortunate to meet some wonderful people and great musicians at school, many of whom are still good friends 35 years later. It’s hard to pick out highlights or peak experiences – it was the environment itself that made the deepest impression on me. To be surrounded by like-minded people in a culture that encouraged a questioning attitude gave me confidence and helped me feel comfortable in my own skin. I arrived at the school as a joint first study violin, guitar and composition. The school very much encouraged my creative work and guitar playing and gave me some excellent opportunities. One highlight was the school orchestra’s trip to Hong Kong and China over the Christmas Holidays 1981/82. It was the first time I had been outside Europe and China was still quite closed to foreigners. I was completely blown away by the culture shock of both places and couldn’t wait to find out as much as I could about the history and culture of these places.
JR:What was daily life like at the school in those days?
SG:There was the usual mix of lessons and practice, rehearsals and sports. I very much appreciated having friends who weren’t on the Specialist Music Course, I don’t think I was ready to live in a musician-only community. I liked the ‘normalness’ of daily life at the school – the routine, the fact that the musicians were not treated as ‘special’, but just as ‘the musicians’. The school felt friendly and like an extended family – I had come from a comprehensive school in Wales of 2,500 students, so Wells seemed small. I loved the fact that we were encouraged to practise as part of the timetabled school day.
JR: What were your main musical interests? Were there particular composers or performers that inspired you as a young student?
SG: When I arrived at Wells, I had already had a rich musical childhood through my county youth music scheme and county youth orchestra in West Glamorgan. I came with a passionate interest in Stravinsky, Bartok, Mahler, Bruckner, and Richard Strauss. At Wells, I had the opportunity to build on this by spending time getting to know Wagner operas and the music of Debussy, Ravel, and Shostakovich. I was also introduced to a huge range of popular music by friends in De Salis and Ritchie Houses – Gentle Giant, Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, and Miles Davis to name a few.
JR: How did your time at the Wells Cathedral School help to prepare you for your future career as a performer and composer?
The ‘can do’ attitude of the staff and other students made me realise that doing this stuff for a living is not only desirable but possible.
SG: Wells helped normalise the things I was interested in. At Wells, it seemed acceptable to spend time writing music for impossibly large orchestras. The ‘can do’ attitude of the staff and other students made me realise that doing this stuff for a living is not only desirable but possible. I think we were encouraged to find our place rather than know our place.
JR: What drew you to the classical guitar as a young music student and what do you feel it has to offer to aspiring young musicians today?
SG: I was eight when I started to play the guitar, although I had been nagging my parents for a year already. I wanted to be like the pop stars on top of the pops, my earliest musical influences were the chart-topping Glam rock bands of the early 70s – Bowie, Sweet, Slade, Gary Glitter, Roxy Music. It was parents who insisted that I learn ‘proper’ guitar. So I had classical lessons and then never really looked back. I fell in love with the sound of the instrument and started writing my own versions of the tunes that I had to learn. The guitar has a universality – it is a musical chameleon. As a guitarist, you encounter music from many different stylistic roots and histories. There is a culture of improvisation in guitar playing, which is a vital element to music education. The guitar is a creative as well as recreative instrument. Its versatility is what it has to offer aspiring musicians.
JR: What advice would you give our aspiring young guitarists and composers?
SG: Spend a lot of time following your passions. The main way people get good at playing and composing is by devoting an enormous amount of time to it. A good teacher is essential for a guitarist. Listening to and studying a wide range of music is the best way to learn how to be a composer. Having ideas is the easy part – everyone is naturally creative. It’s realising those ideas in a satisfying way that requires technique, skill and knowledge.
Spend a lot of time following your passions. The main way people get good at playing and composing is by devoting an enormous amount of time to it.
JR: You have written extensively for the classical guitar from grade syllabus pieces that many players will be familiar with to major new works for some of the greatest guitarists of our time with top level guitarists like John Williams, Xuefei Yang and David Russell regularly performing your works. I first heard your music when Xuefei Yang recorded Raise the Red Lantern and The Chinese Garden. I was immediately impressed and bought the scores. In particular I found the piece Yellow Earth utterly haunting and beautiful. I recently heard David Russell perform Cantigas de Santiago and was again very impressed. I feel that your music expands the possibilities of the instrument whilst communicating clearly and directly with audiences. Could you tell us how you approach writing for the classical guitar?
SG: The way I write for the guitar depends on who I’m writing for. The kind of piece I would write for David Russell is very different from the kind of piece I would write for John Williams of Xuefei Yang. I write the pieces with the players’ technique and musical personality at the forefront of my mind. I also imagine my piece in the context of their programmes – Zoran Dukic performs very different programmes from Jonathan Leathwood or Ekachai Jearakul. The common thread across all my solo guitar pieces is my attention to resonance. My music tries to exploit the full potential of the sonority of the guitar. I use a lot of campanella and laissez vibrer textures which help increase the sustain of the instrument. I am also interested in finding new techniques and sounds in my writing. Often players will help with this, suggesting new and unusual techniques that they have developed themselves – this is particularly true of pieces like ‘Oxen of the Sun’ and ‘Cinema Paradiso’ where Jonathan Leathwood and Zoran Dukic made many suggestions.
JR: Each piece seems to have a story behind it with musical and cultural references woven into the compositions. For example the recent Watts Chapel written for Micheal Partington drawing on fragments from Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt Abhanden Gekommen or the Cantigas de Santiago drawing on medieval music associated with the Camino de Santiago. What draws you to these sources? How do you gather inspirational material and organise it to create new music? What do you look for? What inspires you and sparks new creations?
SG: Like many people, I get interested in new things – it might be a book I’ve read, or an exhibition I’ve been to, or a film I’ve seen. These experiences find their way into my music. My music reflects my experience and my life, living in the early 21st century. It’s these external stimuli that become the impetuses for my music. I also use writing a piece as an excuse to spend time researching something that interests me. For example, when I wrote ‘Invisible Cities’ earlier this year for violin, guitar, stings and percussion, I wanted to base the project on the literature of Italo Calvino. I had been interested in his work for some time, but had never had an excuse to spend a lot of time studying his work. The compositional process fed from the research I’d done and led to all the creative ideas in the piece – structure, harmony, melody, sonority, tempo, timbre etc. I rarely, if ever, write music that’s not based upon other music, a work of art, a person, or a landscape. For me composition isn’t abstract, it’s interpretive.
JR: Your Guitar Concerto, written for and recorded by John Williams in 2012, was met with great critical acclaim. What was it like working with a superstar player like John Williams? What was your process together?
SG: Well, it wasn’t written for John; it was written for my good friend Graham Roberts who commissioned the work and gave the first performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The piece is very much designed to suit Graham’s playing. John Williams came to the premiere and decided then and there that he wanted to perform and record the work. John had commissioned ‘The Flower of Cities’ from me around that time and was taking a great deal of interest in my other music. We worked together on the ‘Concerto’, ‘The Flower of Cities’, and ‘Marylebone Elegy’ – all of which he’s recorded. Working with John is a joy – he has great humility, modesty and enthusiasm. John likes to contribute ideas to a new piece early in the process, but is then happy for me to go away and write the piece and bring back a completed draft. His contribution continues as we prepare for performance and recording, but is often limited to fingering decisions or the addition of the odd harmonic – nothing major. John also commissioned a piece for theorbo from me for Matthew Wadsworth. He just thought Matthew might like a piece form me so he made it happen. He never makes a song and dance about these things, but he is often making little contributions to the guitar behind the scenes.
JR: What is next for you as a composer and performer? What can we look forward to in the future?
SG: Well I stopped performing publicly in 2015, as I want to devote as much time as possible to composition. I seem to be writing a lot of concertos at the moment. I wrote three in 2017 – ‘Invisible Cities’ for Nicolo Spera, Charles Wetherbee, and the Boulder Philharmonic; ‘Carnival of Venice’ for guitar and orchestra for Artyom Dervoed and the Russian State Academic Symphony Orchestra; and ‘A Concerto of Colours’ for guitar and wind ensemble, commissioned by a consortium of 13 different American wind orchestras. Next up is a Theorbo Concerto (the first ever to be written) for Matthew Wadsworth and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra – the first performances are in Summer 2018, then there are pieces for guitar and cello, guitar and viola, violin, saxophone and piano, guitar orchestra and two more guitar concertos
JR: How do you feel about the future of the classical guitar itself? What directions do you see it taking? How would you like to see our art form develop and grow in the 21st century?
The guitar is in a very healthy state I would say. I think we are in a golden age. There is so much music being written for the instrument, not just by guitarists, but by significant composers like Harrison Birtwistle and Julian Anderson.
SG: The guitar is in a very healthy state I would say. I think we are in a golden age. There is so much music being written for the instrument, not just by guitarists, but by significant composers like Harrison Birtwistle and Julian Anderson. Our repertoire is constantly developing as these new works take their place in the canon. While the guitar world is certainly thriving, it would be good to see the guitar at more of the big international music festivals, taking its place alongside violin, cello, piano, and voice. In the wider musical world, the guitar is still seen as a novelty instrument, in some countries it’s still seen as a folk instrument. While guitar is now taught at most important conservatoires around the world, there are still some notable exceptions – The Central Moscow Conservatory, for example. The general level of technique and musicianship amongst guitarists has risen exponentially in my lifetime. I would love to see this trend continue.
Stephen Goss © 2017
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