VIOLAB interview with Andrew York
You are well known as a composer as well as a guitarist. Some of your compositions are easy
student pieces, and some pieces just sound simple. What are your intentions when you
compose easy pieces, since you also create very complex compositions?
It is very tricky to create very simple music that also has depth and playability for student level
players. It is a wonderful puzzle to write seemingly simple music, and I like the challenge. I
also find it very important to create pieces for students that are modern, that reflect current
culture. So many easy works in the traditional guitar repertoire come from the 19th century.
Some are good and some are less good. But they have a sound and harmonic structure that is
less relevant to today's younger players. So I am happy to bring the student repertoire into the
present by creating new contemporary music for guitar.
Of course, I've also written some very complex works. Some of the later ensembles that I
wrote during my time with LAGQ are very intricate and developed works. Few people are
aware of the extent of my catalog, and think of me as just the guy who wrote "Sunburst." But I
have hundreds of solo and ensemble works, and they vary in style and sensibility to a
You are known for writing music that is accessible to people, and that blends modern styles
with historical influences. Was there any resistance to the use of folkloric elements in your
music, and other styles, like rock and roll and jazz in your compositions?
Though my music has weathered most of that kind of simplistic viewpoint, I think that there are
still many musical 'snobs' out there. I had a new-age stigma that still lingers in the mind of
some of the older denizens of the classical guitar world. I had a very successful hit on the very
successful Windham Hill record label back in the eighties, and this many purists found
unforgivable. But recently Sharon Isbin recorded the very same piece on one of her CDs, and
won a GRAMMY for that CD. Isn't that hilarious? I never really cared what others thought, I
tend to not take narrow-mindedness very seriously. All that being said as an example, there is a
freedom growing among the younger guitarists, a willingness to allow music to move into the
future and not stay mired in the past. This is not only refreshing, it is necessary for the survival
and viability of the instrument, and for the creation of music that actually reflects the present
instead of only echoing the past.
Who are some of your favorite musicians?
You know, when I think about the musicians that influenced me in my life, my first memories
are of my father and uncle playing guitar, and my mother singing. My parents are very talented
musically. I remember the folk songs, and even with the simple harmony, there was a magic in
the harmonic movement as chords would go from major to minor, and I could see clearly that
everybody was aware of the subtle but powerful changes in atmosphere by the changes in
harmony. This affected me deeply as a child and I still am obsessed with the richness and
dynamism of changing harmony. As I began to play guitar with the family, at about age six, I
learned all the songs and then began classical studies quite young. I also began to wade
through my father's record collection, which was mostly classical. Beethoven became a hero of
mine when I was about eight years old. My sister bought me the LP of Leonard Bernstein
conducting Beethoven's ninth symphony, and I listened to it so much I wore it out, so she
bought me a second copy. I was obsessed with Beethoven's fifth, seventh and ninth
symphonies, and even now when I hear them it is as if his humanity is poured out in the most
beautiful, poignant and painful manner. Very personal music, and it deeply influenced my
compositional ethos. Then I discovered Stravinsky, who opened my ears to another level of
color and compositional possibility. and then J.S. Bach . . . he is incomparable, and I would
call Bach the Einstein of music, except that still doesn't do justice to his genius. At this stage of
my life I am still continuously amazed at the impossible blend of beauty and mathematical
precision in his music.
What about musicians in other styles of music? Since your compositions are filled with
different stylistic influences, where did that come from?
Yes, I was lucky in that my fascination with music led me into the study of many different
styles. When puberty hit, I became obsessed with playing rock and roll. I had an Ampeg V-4
stack with four 12-inch speakers, and I was playing very loud, playing with bands in bars
when I was sixteen years old. It was a great experience to directly learn how to use the
instinctive power in music that rock captures. I was into Led Zeppelin, James Gang - many
bands that had good guitar players. I really liked the way Joe Walsh played, very lyrical. As a
composer, it is very valuable to have direct experience with other styles - a composer can't draw
authentically from other styles without some kind of deep participation with them, preferably
early in life.
Then, when I was 17, a friend took me to hear the Airmen of Note in Washington D.C.,
playing on the steps of the Capitol building. They are the air force big band - you know, saxes
in front, trombones behind, and trumpets standing in the back row, plus a rhythm section.
They blew my socks off, and from that point on I had to play jazz. I actually started studying
jazz guitar immediately with the guitarist from the Airmen of Note, Rick Whitehead. My
musical heroes were now Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Joe Pass and John McLaughlin. For
many years I became a serious bebop and fusion guitarist. When I moved to L.A. I imagined I
wanted to be a studio guitarist there, but after studying with some of the heavy cats on the
scene I realized that it wasn't for me. I preferred to focus on writing for solo guitar, and
performing my own music. This satisfied me creatively and I had found my path after winding
through many stylistic spirals, and now I could combine all the influences I had experienced
into my compositions.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Ah, how refreshing to be asked something that is not about guitar! I have a rich intellectual life
apart from music and like to study mathematics, and work through equations. Computer
programming is also a serious hobby, which is creative in a similar way to composing. I've
written software of many kinds, from audio to strong encryption programs. I also like to cook
very much, and improvise in the kitchen with available ingredients each day.
Speaking of mathematics: What do you like to do most? Do you solve equations, or do you
create equations yourself?
Being self taught in math, I seem to be doing it all at once. Right now I'm working on algebra,
trigonometry and calculus at the same time. Finding and creating new equations on my own
that successfully describe aspects of the natural world is a puzzle and a fascinating pursuit right
Are you also into Physics?
Yes, very much, especially at both ends of the size spectrum, from quantum to cosmological
levels. This stuff is hard to truly understand but endlessly interesting to try. I'm particularly
fascinated by the anomalies, the things that don't fit with the standard model. Scientists don't
like to dwell on the unsuccessful details of the current theories, but I find these the richest areas
to think about.
Are you saying that science today doesn't really explain the universe?
Well, there seems to be a huge list of unknowns, and it seems that no earth-shattering progress
has been made in the last hundred years. The early twentieth century saw an explosion in
understanding, from Einstein's bombshell of relativity, then the development of quantum
physics by numerous brilliant scientists. I don't know where the level of creative intellect is
today - that was certainly a golden age a hundred years ago. There is also resistance, I hear,
against looking into the 'non-standard' theories of science, things that contradict the standard
model. Some young scientists have even admitted that they fear their careers would be
destroyed if they explored avenues that are not accepted. This of course thwarts creativity, and
interferes with progress in unravelling the secrets of the universe.
I hear that you are a member of the Triple Nine Society, one of the most exclusive high IQ
groups. When did you join the Triple Nine Society, and how high is your IQ?
I joined in 1979 while still an undergraduate in college. I like this society, it is like Mensa on
steroids. It requires an I.Q. above the 99.9th percentile to be a member. That translates to an
IQ above 150. These people are very awake.
If aliens would land on earth and ask you to travel with them, would you go with them? Where
would you want to go? Another planet in our solar system, or to another galaxy?
How could I not go? This would be a dream beyond imagining, to actually see the universe.
As long as they can make coffee in the ship, I am there.
Would you like to time travel? Where and "when" would you want to go? Which people from
the past would you like to meet?
Man, of course. I want to go hang out with J.S. Bach, and listen to him improvise and watch
him compose. And I'd like to meet Isaac Newton, though I hear he was pretty reclusive. Well,
the list goes on. I don't believe time travel will ever be possible, sadly.
Who is your favorite scientist? Why?
Albert Einstein. He did rather well for a patent clerk. How he knew the secrets of the universe
so clearly is a beautiful mystery. It took many years for relativity to be confirmed
experimentally, but it eventually was. But Einstein knew the truth of it all along. I also
consider Isaac Newton a hero. He invented calculus in a matter of months while in his
twenties, and made equations that accurately described the motions of everything in the
universe. Quite an achievement, and no one has come close since, except maybe Einstein.
Since you are into maths, which is your favorite equation?
I like Euler's Identity, which is considered one of the most beautiful equations in mathematics.
e is the base of the natural logarithm, a number also important in calculating compound interest
for investments and mortgages! And pi everybody knows. But the coolest part of this
equation is i, or the square root of negative one. Imaginary numbers really capture my
In fact, my most recent piece for solo guitar is a six-movement suite called "The Equations of
Beauty". Each movement is named for a mathematical constant or entity - h, e, π, i, ∞, and c.
Leonard Nimoy did play guitar. If possible, would you jam together with him?
If I could have jammed with Spock I could die happy. That would be almost as good as
actually going on the Enterprise.
You are not only a musician, a mathematician but also a programmer for computer software.
You mentioned you wrote an encryption software. Can you talk about that?
I became obsessed some years ago with encryption algorithms, and decided to make completely
new ones, unlike any in use today, that are more strong and secure than current methods. I
succeeded in this, and I have a collection of software programs that do various encryption
tasks. The name of the software is CodeRing. I have not yet offered it for sale - the U.S.
government makes it illegal to sell strong encryption without an export license. I have spent
some time registering my software and encryption algorithms with the government, but the
bureaucracy part is no fun at all for me. So at this point in time I use it myself, but haven't
made it available to the public.
What do you use it for?
Any files that I want to keep the data from being accessed. You know, every email you have
ever written still exists, and companies like Yahoo and Google mine the data for information
that they can use to sell you things. I don't like my personal data to be exploited by huge
corporations with questionable ethics.
Can you "shut down" your mind easily, or is your mind always busy?
I find it almost impossible to turn my mind off. I'm always thinking about something, even in
the background of my mind, it seems. I even have trouble sleeping when I am in the midst of
obsessively learning about a new subject.
Does this drive your wife crazy?
Probably. But my wife is very understanding and accepts my intense periods of concentration.
I try not to totally disappear into my own mental world all the time, that would not be fair.
Do you help in the household? What do you like to do? What do you hate to do?
I like to cook, as I mentioned, and I also like to shop for food. I love food stores, just looking
at all the produce and imagining what I could cook with them. I think this is reasonably helpful
in a household sense. What do I hate to do? Organizing.
You have traveled extensively. Which countries do like most to visit?
Spain has always been a land that has haunted me. I have spent a lot of time in southern Spain
and I feel drawn to the culture and the landscape there. The blend of Moorish influence with
European, it has left a very unique and unusual mark, musically and culturally.
I also love to go to Japan. I have been told by friends there that I must have been Japanese in a
past life. The Japanese people have embraced my music, and I simply love the culture, the
people and the food. My manager in Japan has always made my tours incredibly fun and
But then there is Italy . . . such beautiful cities, cuisine, and sweet people. Also Mexico is great
to visit . . . so many places I have been that I would like to explore further. Basically I am a
nomad and just like to travel all over the world.
Do you find a relation or connection between your different interests, like music and math?
All the creative pursuits that have caught my fascination seem to have connections at a deep
level. Both music and math are languages that can be understood by all humanity. Think about
it; no matter what language you speak, or where you are from, music can instantly cross that
barrier and is an immediate way to communicate emotionally, on a deep level. And math, the
same thing. Regardless of our spoken languages, an equation is understood with great clarity,
with no need of translation. Math and Music are truly universal languages.
But the act of creation, whether composing, or painting, or writing software, or creating
equations . . . they all feel like different expressions of the same universal energy, the same rich
vital force. It's beautiful, and it's all I want to do.