Week of the Festival: Ledbury Poetry Festival, UK

Translating the composer’s ideas into sound

A conversation between composer Stephen Goss and guitarist Sean Shibe

/ by Stephen Goss and Sean Shibe

The classical guitar is notoriously difficult to write for if you don’t play the instrument: it is idiosyncratic and cumbersome. When composers learn orchestration, the guitar is given a wide berth. Its complexities and inconsistencies are considered too much for the student. When composers come to write for the instrument, they usually rely on the expert knowledge of a guitarist collaborator. It is often the guitarist’s role to help realise, translate, and adapt the musical intentions of the composer to fit the instrument – a considerable undertaking and one that demands a sense of responsibility. Inevitably, when ambiguous situations arise, there are multiple possible solutions.

More and more manuscripts are coming to light that show works in various stages of revision and the collaborators’ decisions are being placed under scrutiny. Texts have become increasingly unstable. Jonathan Leathwood aptly sums up the dilemmas facing many guitarists in the performance of works that are the result of this kind of collaboration:

“It is a problem that some guitarists have tried to solve by privileging versions that appear to precede any intervention by the dedicatee, particularly in works dedicated to Andrés Segovia: (for example) Tilman Hoppstock’s edition of Manuel Ponce’s works (2006), and new - older - versions of major works by such composers as Mompou, Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Turina available under the Bèrben imprint. Of course, these editions with their facsimile reprints are fascinating and it is not my intention to prejudge one or another version. But it is worth underscoring the danger that such editions hold to performers looking for a definitive text. By attempting to write the collaborator and dedicatee out of the history of a major work, we risk only reinforcing the idealistic hierarchy of composer and performer that Richard Taruskin skewers in a Wagnerian satire:

The producers of timeless works are the gods, exulting in their liberation from the social (‘extramusical’) obligation and issuing peremptory commands. The recipients of the commands are the Nibelungs, bound scrupulously to carry out the masters’ intentions for the sake of their glory, their own lives pledged to a sterile humdrum of preservation and handing-on. That is the mythology of our concert life. (Taruskin 1995, 10–11)”

Jonathan Leathwood (2010)


I started my conversation with the guitarist Sean Shibe by asking about his experience with this unstable repertoire.

Stephen Goss (SG): Sean, as a guitarist who has performed many works that were result of collaborations between composers and the guitarists Julian Bream and Andres Segovia, you must have an insight into the interpretive questions facing a modern-day performer of these works.

Let’s start by looking at Andrés Segovia; he was a monumental figure in the musical world, but chose to work with lesser-known composers. He was always the dominant partner in these relationships, often making specific even restrictive demands on his collaborators. At the same time, however, the composers were appreciative of his efforts to help bring their music to life on the guitar and to introduce it to a large global public. How does a modern-day performer like yourself approach the interpretation of these works?

Sean Shibe (SS): I feel that because of the relationship dynamic involved in the process of creating Segovian repertoire there is more pressure to interpret these works with an emulation of his style of playing. This is in contrast to Julian Bream - despite his commissioning output being more recent than Segovia’s there is less pressure to interpret these works in Bream’s style of playing. It could be argued that this is because Bream’s relationship was less dictatorial and the works are more fundamentally of the composer’s mind.

The decision we have to make must be the one we believe is the most musical - or at least what best suits our vision of the work. The multitude of versions that exist for many parts of the Segovia repertoire implies, I believe, a certain freedom. Being bound here by any one edition seems to me to lack an observance of the spirit of spontaneity (or caprice) that Segovia made his choices in.


SG: Does this mean that each and every interpreter of these works is invited into the collaborative space? Surely there must be a hierarchy of versions? What might make one version more ‘authentic’ or ‘stylistically appropriate’ than another?

SS: Being a musician obligates you to be collaborative, but I would also question that choosing one alteration over another is true collaboration; I suppose that I see it more as a certain level of interpretation.

Anyway - yes, every interpreter receives that invitation (to collaborate/interpret - whichever), and there is a hierarchy of versions. Perhaps this phrase is misleading, as it implies that ‘authenticity’ can be judged on a score to score scale. I’d argue that we have to judge each decision bar by bar, as they come. Let’s say that there is a hierarchy of decisions?

Segovia’s adjustments all exist on a spectrum, the polar ends of which are those that are: a) reflective of his style and preferences; and b) those that are purely guitaristic/idiomatic. In fact, all adjustments could be placed somewhere on this continuum. Given the nature of Segovian collaboration, one could argue that emulation of his musical personality and the preservation of score adjustments that emphasise that together comprise the most ‘authentic’ choice.

Perhaps I’ve been put off by anecdotes of his notoriously acerbic personality, but I certainly feel that I prefer to see the score first in the way that the composer initially presented it to Segovia. Following that, I may use the Segovia edition as a reference for certain ideas that represent a certain period of the piece’s interpretation, but only as equally as I might use Hoppstock’s version etc.

SG: Segovia’s relationship with Manuel Ponce is clearly laid out in the Ponce-Segovia letters. The reader is given an insight into the one-sidedness of the relationship.

SS: I wonder to what extent Segovia’s character actually stifled his co-collaborators/collaborators-to-be - I can imagine many people being put off by his less pleasant personality traits. Somehow, I feel that an ego like Segovia’s is more permissible for author/translator collaborator of the literary world - there, both are working for the elucidation of the realised (in the original language) author’s world - the collaboration is centred around what one person has created and therefore understands more of. When it comes to commissioning/music (perhaps particularly the guitar which requires so much ‘tuition’ of the composer by the guitarist), it’s less of a recreative act and closer to partnership. Would you say that’s fair?


SG: I think the translation metaphor is a useful one with respect to the guitar. A composer might be fluent in writing for piano or violin or any of the standard orchestral instruments, but far more ignorant of the lexicon guitar techniques. Often, a guiding hand is needed to realise the musical intentions of the non-guitar playing composer – a partnership, as you suggest. It’s here that trust and hierarchy play a very important role. Composers can be coerced into doing things that the performer convinces them is necessary, when that might not be the case. Julian Bream loves to make spontaneous suggestions when working with composers – typically, he’ll add harmonics, percussive effects, timbral variations, and chord reinforcements. He sometimes intervenes in structural matters – he swapped around the order of the movements in Michael Tippett’s sonata ‘The Blue Guitar’, for instance. He also suggested changes to the key and the texture of Walton’s 4th Bagatelle when Walton’s first draft was perfectly idiomatic. When Bream suggested changes to Harrison Birtwistle, Birtwistle would ask, simply, ‘what is it, exactly, that is wrong with what we have already?’

SS: Steve what do you think the ideal collaborative space has been for you so far? In terms of attitudes, environment and that relative to the personalities of Bream/Segovia


SG: I am a guitarist and I have written dozens of pieces for the instrument. However, I have had a different collaborative experience with every guitarist I have worked with. I try to match my writing to the individual performance style of each guitarist I write for. Some players have made suggestions about the structure of the music, the nature of the guitar writing, all manner of things. However, as a guitarist myself, it is a two-way conversation – the collaborative space is shared. When writing for other instruments, I have experienced all levels of collaboration. Some people like to interfere as little as possible, other are almost co-composers. This latter has certainly been the case with the guitarist Jonathan Leathwood and the pianist Graham Caskie – the former with John Williams and Mikhail Pletnev. I don’t think there is one ideal collaborative space, but many fruitful ones. With Bream and Segovia, some of their collaborations were more successful than others. The role of the instrumentalist can be range from one of subservience (a facilitator to help realise the composer’s vision) to a full creative partnership (as was the case between Segovia and Ponce). I think both extremes are acceptable if the final work is improved by the process.

Julian Bream had a very different approach to commissioning new work. He would contact composers that he felt should write for the guitar – high-profile internationally renowned composers that Bream rarely knew personally (Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten, Walton, Tippett, Lutoslawski, etc). Not all the composers he asked agreed to write for him, but many did. Bream would organise the commission fee himself, often paying from his own pocket (in contrast to Segovia, who never paid for a new work). How easy is it, do you think, to recognize the input from Bream in the published scores of these works?

SS: With respect to the idea of Bream’s decisions being taken as guitar canon - some of his fingerings/tone choices are as sacred as his score alterations are questioned...


SG: There is a perceptual problem here. Many guitarists imagine, even believe, that Bream’s fingerings were somehow sanctioned by the composers he worked with. And that, by extension, the Bream recordings became ‘the text’. However, I would posit the Bream paradox – emulating Bream’s performances of the Bream repertoire takes the performer further from the score rather than closer to it.

I can think of examples in Henze’s Royal Winter Music, Britten’s Nocturnal, Walton’s Bagatelles, Rodney Bennett’s Sonata, and many other pieces where Bream contradicts instructions that appear in the score. The score is the text, as agreed between composer and collaborator – the recording isn’t necessarily a true realisation of the score.

To what extent can the modern-day performer enter the collaborative space? Is it ethical or even desirable to tamper with the published edition?

SS: Perhaps the more outrageous the tampering, the more permissible it is. Through that, there’s more distance achieved from the ‘sacred’ score. Think of Hugo Ticciati’s elaborate and extended improvisations on Bach solo violin works that he pairs with performances of the Sonatas and Partitas. I suppose you could argue that’s more re-composition, but regardless of the category it’s put in, there’s a radical collaborative aspect to something like that.


SG: The same is true of Pletnev’s Scarlatti for example or Alvaro Pierri’s Paganini, it just depends if people think that what they are doing is Historically Informed Performance Practice – Ticciati, Pletnev, Pierri, even Gould, know that they are meddling with the text. Their performance style is consciously anachronistic rather than ignorantly anachronistic.

SS: Do you feel that this kind of meddling is unethical? I feel that it is our responsibility to be as creative and fecund as possible (this is perhaps our only responsibility...). Bream and Segovia took the liberties they did out of creative expression. Our obligation to pursue that same creative expression gives us the authority to ignore their authority in the pursuit of the new and re-created.


SG: The purists might disagree with you. In my own work, I love interfering with pre-existing music, drawing a moustache on the face of the Mona Lisa if you will. Taking things out of context and showing them in a new and surprising, perhaps even shocking light. I am very interested in the concept of the remix in a classical music context.

SS: The guitar’s history as an instrument of folk/other genres (less rule-bound than classical music), and that fact that our instrument is still physically evolving and changing in often dramatic ways does sometimes lead me to think that we have more room to take liberty than instruments with a longer history (eg. instruments of a string quartet, which have remained more or less in the same shape for 400 years). When we operate from a different cultural background, do we have the same level of responsibility as other instruments? When we’re playing works written for an older, differently constructed guitar, to what extent will interpreting with that in mind ever be successful?

SG: You make some very good points there Sean. The guitar has a different tradition and culture of learning compared with other classical instruments. Our repertoire is largely made up of transcriptions, arrangements, music by guitarists, and music written in collaboration with guitarists. Additionally, many people come to the guitar from more informal styles of music which invite the creative input of the player – rock, jazz, folk, etc. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of concert guitarists who perform their own work. This suggests a return to the culture of classical music making that existed before 1900, i.e. that all performers also composed. The instability of these 20th and 21st century texts reflects 19th century practices when, for example, Chopin published very different versions of his Berceuse in different countries, and Liszt often adapted his pieces to suit his students’ strengths or his own whim.

Nearly all 21st century performance practice centres around the notion of an urtext – a definitive text. Perhaps with the guitar repertoire, we have to accept that texts are more slippery?

‘The genesis of the guitar’s major modern repertory in collaboration and its consequent inveterate instability suggests that there is nothing definitive to preserve or hand on, unless by taking the shortcut of accepting one or another text without question. Instead, guitarists may have to become used to placing themselves into something resembling the collaborative space in order to engage critically with their repertoire. At present, we are only just beginning to gather materials. Understanding them may soon become the most urgent question in guitar scholarship.’

Jonathan Leathwood (2010).




Leathwood, Jonathan (2010) The Medium and the Mediator: Two Studies in Composer-Performer Collaboration. University of Surrey, UK.


Taruskin, Richard (1995) Text and Act. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stephen Goss

s music receives hundreds of performances worldwide each year and has been recorded on over 60 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. Steve writes communicative music that draws freely on a number of styles and genres.

Recent work includes several projects with the guitarist John Williams, who has recorded and toured Steve’s Guitar Concerto (2012) with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Steve has also just collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber, arranging his music for guitar. As composer-in-residence for the Orpheus Sinfonia, Steve wrote the Piano Concerto (2013) and the Concerto for Five (2013). Steve has also had his music performed by The Russian National Orchestra, The China National Symphony Orchestra, The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, and the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra. Steve’s Albéniz Concerto (2009) for guitar and orchestra was released to great critical acclaim on EMI Classics in 2010.

Other commissions have come from guitarists David Russell, Miloš Karadaglić and several from Xuefei Yang, including chamber works with Natalie Clein and Ian Bostridge. As a guitarist, Steve has worked with Takemitsu, Henze, Peter Maxwell Davies and Elliott Carter and toured and recorded extensively with the Tetra Guitar Quartet, various other ensembles and as a soloist.

Steve is Chair of Composition at the University of Surrey, UK, and a Professor of Guitar at the Royal Academy of Music in London. www.stephengoss.net

Sean Shibe

was born in Edinburgh in 1992, Sean studied at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and currently with Paolo Pegoraro. In 2012 he became the only solo guitarist selected for the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme and to receive a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship. Future plans includes debut concerts in Tokyo, Nagoya and throughout China. You can see a Sean performing Britten's Nocturnal at Wigmore Hall at: http://ycat.co.uk/artist/sean-shibe/