JSP: Have you done much experimentation with extended techniques on traditional instruments or do you have any interest in that?
SG: I do have an interest in that. I think it's important that, you know, I use whatever sound palette I can possibly get my head around, and stretch in all areas in terms of timbre and technique, but to be honest I have not delved into that area much, and it's something that I need to work on clearly. I've been mainly focused on using the instruments in their traditional way as best I can to say the most that I can and communicate as best I can. But other than maybe a few slightly extended techniques, you know, bending a pitch here or using a false fingering here or there , I haven't done much of that, and I think it comes down to what you're exposed to, and perhaps it's because a lot of the music I've been listening to just simply doesn't delve into that area, but certainly there's a whole world of music that does do that, and I'm just going to work more on listening to more of that, studying the scores and talking to performers. Because that's really an area where you need to work with performers quite a bit.
JSP: Let's start talking a little more about the nitty-gritty of your musical style. What are your main influences? I know you play jazz, you've played a lot of jazz and pop music. Has that influenced you a lot? Or is it been more classical music? Or the so-called classical, serious music?
SG: I think more and more it is influencing my jazz background, is influencing my concert music and I'm really OK with that. For quite some time I tried to keep these two worlds apart, I felt like they really don't have anything in common, and there needs to be a clear separation between the two, but more and more I realize that, you know, any composer's got to have an identifiable fingerprint, and if my background is a jazz background or a pop background then I certainly need to bring that in. But it's…you know, there's a lot of concert music out there that is jazz-influenced and it seems, uh, how do I say it? It's contrived or it's too blatantly jazz-influenced and I think I try to make it a little more subtle and you can certainly hear my jazz background if you listen for it and it's evident, but it doesn't hit you on the head, you know, like some music I've heard.
JSP: So what sorts of things would I hear? Do you have any examples of jazz influence in your music?
SG: Definitely. It's…mainly harmony is what we are talking about. Rhythmically I don't hear as much of my jazz and pop background in my concert music. I don't hear a lot of rhythmic influences, but harmonically, absolutely. And that shows up in my concert music as a lot of chords that are very extended and can point to a tonal center, or a root of the chord…It's often triadic yet there's many extensions above the basic fundamental triad, lot of dominant…essentially dominant sonorities like so much of jazz music has, is a dominant chord with a sharp eleven or a flat nine or some sort of extension. So I use that sonority as an isolated moment, but I don't resolve it the way one would in jazz music, so I think that's the difference, I might have a dominant chord that you could identify as such, but it's not going to go to its one chord, you know, you won't find a five-to-one progression in my music, but you will find isolated sonorities that might sound as though they can go to a certain place, but they generally don't. And that's not to say that that's my entire harmonic vocabulary, but I think that it's one of the feature that kind of sticks out as being a fingerprint of mine. Probably the best example of that would be my piece for cello and piano, which is Fantasy for Cello and Piano, and there's a slow middle section where the pianist is playing a lot of very thick…uh, thickly voiced chords that are clearly jazz-influenced and it's one of the more obvious moments in my…in all my pieces that is very jazz-influenced.
JSP: When you're…in the majority of your music, do you find that it's the rhythm or the harmony, or the melody that most drives the composition of it? Does that make sense?
SG: Absolutely. I think for me it's always been the harmony. It probably goes back to me being a pianist from the start and that I conceived music as vertical chords and…melody is really a gift, and I'm not sure that it's my strongest gift, and melody's always been hard for me, to write a convincing melody, and I'm still working on it, and I probably always will. I think harmony is generally where I'm most comfortable, and that's probably what drives my music and gets me through the piece.
JSP: Some of your music is very rhythmically driven as well, at least as a listener and a performer.
JSP: The rhythm is very important. Is that something you worked out, or does that come…does that feel natural to you?
SG: I think a little of both. Yeah, in recent years, my time at USC, my rhythm has become much more sophisticated and…um…probably more intricate and sometimes even complicated, but not always. In a recent piece that you're familiar with, Encircling Andreas, it's very rhythmic, especially the first movement, and I think that was a conscious effort on my part to think more about texture and less about harmonic motion and melody, but more just about sound and texture, and rhythm was a tool I found useful in making the piece move and be coherent combined with different textural ideas. I don't know if that makes any sense…
JSP: It does, and something that I noticed from what I have heard of your different compositions is that while your rhythm may have intricacies it's not of the school of rhythm where…looking at the page it's very complex and intricate but listening to it, it sounds almost random. You don't seem to…I don't know of any of your music that is written in that way, but I don't know all of your music… Encircling Andreas , the first movement is very rhythmic and very…it has a very steady pulse and the second movement is slow and much more…ah, expansive. But both of them are pretty clear in their rhythm…
SG: Right. Yes, some of it is, you know, especially on the page if you look at it is pretty complicated. Often there's a lot of notes, but I always hope that from a listening point of view it's intuitive and makes sense and it doesn't sound random like you said, and I think that probably comes from my process which is very improvisatory sometimes, and a lot of the way I start with the piece is strictly sitting at the piano, and just improvising or even taking a walk and just…even away from the piano entirely. Starting the piece that way, and the rhythmic vocabulary in that environment is hopefully always going to be sort of intuitive and maybe not toe-tapping but it will have some sort of musical sense to it, and then the trick is to notate it, compared to maybe notating very complex rhythms first and then figuring out how would that actually sound, which I think yields perhaps more academic or random-sounding rhythm vocabulary. I work the other way, I try to work as a listener first, or as a player first, and then get it on paper.
JSP: Is the orchestration or instrumentation something that is for you immediately connected to your musical ideas or sometimes do you come up with these ideas at the piano or on your walk is more of just a harmonic or rhythmic idea that doesn't have specific sounds attached to it?
SG: Yeah, I can answer that. No, it really doesn't have specific sounds very often. I wish it did. My life would be easier if I could hear the finished product first, but I have to work very hard at it, and usually what I hear first is simply just a loose gesture and it might be harmonic, it might be rhythmic, but is always very foggy, and the finished product comes from sitting at the piano quite a bit and working with…finding the notes. I might hear a sort of a loose outline of a melody or a general harmonic direction, but not the specifics, and you know, the specifics come from just sitting down and working it out, and the orchestration and the actual instrumentation of how it all works that's when that happens: through the working out of it. And it's never apparent right from the start, of course. At least for me, it's never been that way. Although I guess if you're writing for two instruments, for cello and piano, you're generally going to hear what the cello's going to play and whatnot but especially with my orchestra piece I just wrote. I really honestly had no idea who would end up with this line and what the oboe what going to be playing at this moment. And you just have to work it out one measure at a time. And it was a hard process. I feel like every time I start a piece, that I've never done it before and I feel like I'm re-inventing the wheel every time. I mean, it gets easier, but every time I start a new piece I sort of have that very frightening feeling like I don't know what I'm doing and then as I work with it more and spend a few days it all starts to come back and I get the ball rolling but it's a strange feeling to start a new piece every time and think, “Oh my gosh, what am I getting into?” But I think that's pretty normal and maybe it'll get better as I get more pieces under my belt. It's hard work but it's worth it; it's fun.
JSP: Do you consider yourself a tonal composer or atonal, or do you not think in those terms?
SG: I've struggled a lot with that. I think most composers of my generation or of the last twenty years have really struggled with the questions of: Where do we fall? What should we be doing? What shouldn't we be doing? And I've just given up trying to label myself but I think if I had to I clearly would have to say that I'm a tonal composer and that there are always certain notes that seem to sound like a tonic or home to me and there are always areas of gravity to my music. I think certain notes tend to want to go in a certain direction. Certain notes sound resolved and others don't. And I think those qualities spell out…that means you're writing in a tonal language, essentially. Maybe not major-minor tonal but tonal in a very general sense, that certain notes do have a gravitational pull towards others and atonal music, I guess by definition would mean that none of the notes have any more importance than others and I don't know that I've ever written music that's entirely that way. It just doesn't feel right to me. I'm a tonal composer but I hope that my vocabulary is fresh, inventive, and not limited to any one type of sound or structure.
JSP: Do you identify with a particular style or school of composition?
SG: Yeah, absolutely. There is one composer that just seems to speak to me more clearly than anybody else and who is a composer that I can just come home and listen to without any effort and it's John Adams. And I'm not sure what it is about his music, other than, like I was saying earlier, it just seems to be so honest and true to his own voice that it really speaks to me. And he's a very tonal composer, very rhythmically active, very tonal and I don't think our styles are that similar. He uses a lot of pure major and minor triads, although I do use those, they're fairly rare. And he uses them quite a bit and so effectively. And certainly he's influenced by the minimalist movement. He's considered a post-minimalist and I really do identify with that, just as a listener. But I don't consider my own music to be minimal, in fact it's almost the opposite. If anything, my music moves from one area to another almost too quickly perhaps, if I can criticize my own music. Maybe it's not minimal enough. And I sometimes throw in a lot of material, a lot of motives, a lot of harmonic ideas in a fairly short amount of time and work through them very quickly. That's almost the opposite of minimalism which is strange because, as a listener, I certainly, probably relate to that much more than the other “isms” that we have.