JSP: We'll talk about the music specifically in a minute, but just still talking about USC, what has it been like trying to find opportunities to have your music performed? Have you had an easy time having your music performed or are students eager to play it or do you kinda have to twist arms, or a bit of both?
SG: A little bit of both. I think I've been fortunate. I've had everything I've written here has been performed and played well and I think that's a strength of being here as well. We're in the middle of so many wonderful performers that it's really not that difficult to not only to get your piece performed but really get a fair shot at hearing what it would sound like in it's best possible environment. That's not to say that it's never difficult. I mean, the students, the performers are busy themselves and depending on the type of instrument you're working with, it can be more difficult. But, you know, that's also part of our job is to form relationships and connections with people and interact with people in a way that they want to help us and play our music and to not isolate ourselves and that's a skill that is not really mentioned very often but it's important as a composer that you're able to interface with people in a way that allows them to want to help you and play your music. So I've been fortunate. I've had a lot of great performances.
JSP: That's probably helped you get great performances is really wanting to work with your performers and not dictate to them.
SG: Absolutely. And, you know, musically speaking, I think it's…I always try to write with the performer in mind and I think most composers do. But I really am concerned, from the beginning, with writing music that is certainly playable but hopefully more than that is rewarding to the performer and that not only works well on their instrument, but is music that they feel good playing and want to play it. And I'm sure that I don't always succeed in doing that but it's an aim of mine. I think, at least in recent years, I've gotten good feedback from performers that they feel like it was not just a job they were doing as a favor but they sort of enjoyed it as well and they got something out of it too. At least I hope that's the case.
JSP: Well now that we're talking more about the music, I'll ask you a big one: when you've got a blank slate, what is it that inspires you to first start a piece of music?
SG: That is a big one.
JSP: Or how to decide what you're going to write in the first place when it's not an assignment.
SG: I think, in terms of what inspires me, I think it's probably two things, at least when it comes to music the two things that inspire me the most are craft, first of all. When I'm listening to music that sounds so well-crafted and is well-crafted, I find that very exciting and certainly music that has an honesty to it. I've been talking with some of the other graduate students in the program about this and we all seem to agree that it comes down to music that has a certain honesty to it and doesn't sound academic or anonymous, that it sounds as though the composer who wrote this really got it right. Really said something that, whatever it was they wanted to say, there was a directness and clarity to their communication and it's very honest. So those two things combined: a level of craft and technique and honesty, I think. That's what inspires me the most in other music that I listen to. So that's sorta the place I try to come from when I start fresh with a new piece of music. Lately I've been starting with a lot of programmatic issues, and programmatic ideas and even text with my music and that's a great help for me because it gives you a starting point.
JSP: By text, do you mean with vocal music or do you mean that you have a text for instrumental music?
SG: Both, actually. Both. Recently I have written a lot of music with singers, so there's certainly text involved in the piece itself and that always comes first. I always have the text that I'm going to set before I start writing of course, I think that's fairly common. But, strangely enough, one of the most recent pieces I've written I used text but it's still instrumental music. I worked with a collaborator of mine who's been a really important part of my music in the last couple of years. She's a doctoral student in the creative writing department and writes amazingly personal poetry. Her name is Jennifer Dobbs and she wrote the text to my Master's thesis piece which is, “After the Fire, A Still, Small Voice.” She wrote the text to that which was an amazing project. It was very rewarding to work with her. So I asked her to write a poem for this orchestral piece that I recently wrote even knowing that it wouldn't be actually set and sung in the performance. Could she write a poem that would sort of get me started and that I could sort of relate to and work from. It was an interesting experiment. I was able to take some of the formal ideas of the poem: the way the poem begins, the way the poem ends, things like that and somehow incorporate it into my piece for orchestra. And I think it works.
JSP: But there's no voice?
SG: No voice at all.
JSP: And would the audience have the poem printed or would it be read?
SG: I would certainly hope so.
JSP: This has not been performed yet, correct?
SG: It actually was.
JSP: Oh, it has.
SG: This was performed in New York about a month ago.
JSP: This is what was performed when you … by the Brooklyn …
SG: The New York Symphony.
JSP: The New York Symphony.
SG: The New York Symphony has a wonderful program called First Music, and each year they select three emerging composers to write a new piece for their orchestra and they perform each piece separately in Carnegie Hall, and it's just a wonderful experience for the composers, and I think the students in the orchestra learn a lot from working with a new composer and new music every concert they do, so it's just a great program all around, and this orchestra piece was for that first music, and yeah, there was not text at all and in fact and they specified exactly what the instrumentation had to be and certainly no singers that was never an option, but I felt like if I could have a poem to start with, and really work from that emotionally and spiritually the piece would be more rewarding and to answer your question yes, I would certainly hope that it would be printed in the program notes so that the audience could read that and at least understand where I started from. And to be honest, I am not so sure that every moment of the piece really sounds like the poem , that wasn't the intent really, the intent was simply to use the poem as the starting point and to sort of as a…a spiritual guide so to speak throughout the whole compositional process and I hesitate to say that it would be programmatic music because it's not narrative, so to speak, like Don Quixote by Strauss, you know, there's an actual timeline happening throughout this piece and it relates very specifically to events , non-musical events , and although mine was influenced by this poem I don't consider it to be really programmatic, I just…I think it was just strongly influenced by it.
JSP: You consider the connection important enough that you would want the listener to be familiar with the poem, and to read the poem.
SG: I think they would enjoy the piece more having read the poem.
JSP: But they wouldn't have to…
SG: But I hope that I've written music that is…that can stand on its own, and I think all composers when they write even the most programmatic music intend for it to be…to have the substance enough that it would stand on its own. Whether or not I've succeeded in that I'm not sure, but I hope I have. Interestingly enough that poem was not printed in the program notes for the Carnegie Hall premiere, which was disappointing but there was a really tight space issue with the program itself and they only allowed me very few words and I simply couldn't fit the poem into the notes, so it was a good test for me to see how well the piece was received without reading the poem, and from what I can tell it was received pretty well. The program notes that I did write at least kind of alluded to some of the things that the poem talked about so it wasn't completely without any knowledge, the audience had some knowledge of the subject matter, just not the poem itself.
JSP: And going back to your thesis, which was…it was poetry by Jennifer Dobbs, but it was to be sung.
JSP: Did you actually collaborate with her as she was writing the poetry or did she provide the poetry?
SG: We met at first and just talked about the project and sort of compared our aesthetic views about beauty and art and whatnot and kind of …sort of aligned ourselves on the same page aesthetically and then I just let her go, I didn't really have too much control at all over the poems. In fact I felt like that's really her area and her job and I'd be best not to really meddle with it. Similarly I wouldn't expect her to get too involved with what I was doing musically, although we certainly can give each other suggestions and we're very open to that. But for this project we did have sort of separate roles compared to I think an opera libretto being set there would be much more collaboration throughout the process. With this particular project, my thesis piece, she basically gave me one poem at a time, and I would just go in a room a work on it, and then come back and play what I had done for her and she was always very happy with it, and we started the next song, and we did that, until we had the four songs completed, and it worked really well. I'm not sure that all collaborations are as amiable as ours has been and we are very fortunate that we just get along so well, have such similar aesthetic views.
JSP: And you had your piece performed?
SG: Yes, I had it performed on my master's recital, and then fortunately enough Natalie Jansen, who was the soprano that I wrote this song cycle for, also performed it on her master's recital, her vocal recital, so it's received two performances, both by Natalie Jansen, but with slightly different instrumental groups. There's seven instrumentalists that accompany the singer, so that personnel changed from performance to performance, so it's been Natalie… I hope to get more performances out of it, yeah.
JSP: And you've talked some about how you first wrote for wind band and you've played clarinet and piano. What do you now consider your most comfortable medium to write in or for?
SG: It's almost the opposite of what I started doing. I think now I'm most comfortable with very small groups, about two to six people generally is where I feel the most at home. And I think that it has to just to do with my personal style, which I think I would describe as…I guess intimate, perhaps delicate, and that just works so well with small groups. What's often difficult about performing my music is the way the parts all work together and line up, and generally each individual part is not that technically difficult, with maybe a few exceptions, but it's generally not too tough, but the difficulty lies in the ensemble, and in getting everything to work together, and so I think that's a feature of my music either good or bad, there's a sort of intricate relationship between all the players, and when you work with small chamber groups that really comes out strongly, so I think that's where I feel most comfortable. I'm not…certainly not a composer who's known for huge, big orchestral sounds and a real sonic…powerfully sonic sound, and that's something I'd like to work on, perhaps, maybe change my focus and work on more, larger orchestral sounds and just broaden my horizons of it, and write less chamber music for the next year or so.
JSP: And you said that you're often writing with specific musicians in mind. Do you tend to work with them while you're writing to check things out, to test things out, or do you generally provide them with the finished product and have them play it?
SG: Yeah, it sort of depends…there's been two pieces in particular where I have actually worked with the performers quite a bit from the beginning, and I think it has a lot to do with the instruments themselves. I wrote a piece for solo accordion, which is such an unusual instrument, and so difficult get your brain around unless you've played the darn thing, so there was no way that I could have written this piece without, you know, without a close collaboration with the person I was writing it for. I wrote it for a friend of mine, named Eric Rather, we went to the same undergraduate school together, and he's just a fabulous accordionist, so I wrote this piece for him, and there was no question he was going to have to help me quite a bit with the mechanics of the instrument, and the idiosyncrasies of it, and the notation of it is very unusual, and it was so much fun to work with somebody, because I don't think…before that I'd really done much collaboration with the performers. I see now how valuable it can be, and you really come out with a better product. That's not to say that I shouldn't be able to write strictly on my own, I mean, that's the idea, but if you're writing for a fairly unusual instrument for the first time it's very helpful. And currently I'm writing a piece for guitar and voice, and the guitar is certainly not as exotic as the accordion, but it's, you know, it's intimidating, it's an unusual instrument again, unless you are familiar with it on a personal performance level, so I'm working with the guitarist, and he's checking over things and making sure that it's all playable, but I'm also doing my homework first before I give it to him and make sure that I have a pretty good idea that it'll work. And so far so good. Everything I've given him…
JSP: Sorry… so guitar…
SG: So, I'm writing for guitar, and it's unusual enough that I feel like I wanted some feedback from the performer as I was going. I didn't wanna spend a month or two months writing a piece that's totally unplayable, but at the same time I really believe it's important that I either do my own homework and dig into the instrument myself and really try as best as I can to understand what's gonna make it work, and so far everything I've presented him has been playable and there hasn't been any problems , but it's still good to have that reinforcement to know that it's going OK.