Interview with GFA-featured composer Kevin J. Cope

The Guitar Foundation of America has for many years distinguished itself by hosting the prestigious GFA International Concert Artist Competition and by publishing Soundboard magazine, a quarterly publication available to members of GFA, widely-regarded as one of the best classical guitar publications in print (http://www.guitarfoundation.org/). This September, GFA and Soundboard have chosen to distinguish our very own Kevin Cope by featuring him within the magazine and making him their cover story. Kevin is a long-standing member of WCGS and a talented composer who we are excited to see receiving recognition for his outstanding compositions. I sat down with Kevin this past week to ask him some of our own questions:

ML: What inspired you to begin composing?

KJC: I started playing electric guitar in high school and was always writing terrible heavy metal songs with some friends. The music that interested me most was the most musically complex: Dream Theater, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, etc. I was always way behind in writing ability when compared to these rock stars, so I eventually decided after high school that I would never be happy unless I worked on music in college. I didn’t have enough background at the time to get into music education or performance, so I went to college for audio recording just so that I could get into all of the music classes that I wanted to take. As I learned more theory, my writing got better and better which was really exciting. Eventually, my college added a classical guitar professor to the faculty and I was able to take classical guitar lessons, which changed my playing forever. I would bring in my latest compositions to lessons and get a little feedback, but my professor was not a composer so he (and some other professors) suggested that I find a composer and work with him. The piano professor set me up with a professor at a nearby (about 60 miles) university and I started real composition lessons. I migrated at that time from writing impossibly difficult heavy metal and rock songs to classical pieces, which I had found, through my music theory and history classes, to be much more gratifying.

ML: What motivates or inspires you to compose for a particular instrument or instrumentation? What kinds of things must you consider when composing for an instrument other than guitar?

KJC: When I first began composing and then continuing through college, I wrote for what was available to me or what would best suit my academic needs at the time. I wrote for strings, guitar, voice, piano, and some wind instruments so that I could better learn how the instruments work. Now I am writing for specific groups or performers according to the commissions I receive and have been heavily focused on guitar over the past 2 years. When writing for an instrument that you don’t know the first step is getting out an orchestration book. Learn all that can be learned from it (range, normal and irregular techniques, timbral characteristics that correlate to ranges and techniques) and then look at a lot of scores and listen to performances on that instrument. Then you have to consider how all of these things can be used with the instrumentation that you have to work with. Many instruments have similar ranges and creating a unique space or using special techniques can help to differentiate the instruments so that they don’t muddle each other. After or during writing the most important part is getting someone that plays that instrument to help edit. People are always the best resource.

ML: What is the compositional process like for you?

KJC: My compositional process is often different depending upon my goals. If I want something more easily playable I will compose at the guitar more, but if I am looking for interesting or unique musical traits or techniques then I usually start at the computer or staff paper. I always start with some limitations imposed by myself, though. This can be scales to be used, chords, textures, time signatures, range on the instrument, or if the piece is to be melody-based, harmony-based or technique-based. All of these specifications are just a jumping off point and are really just a way to get pen to paper at the start. I basically never hold fast to all of my initial parameters but it does allow me to start.

I also want to add that firm deadlines are pretty necessary for me as well. If someone tells me to finish a piece whenever I can, you can expect it in 10 years (most likely). If you say that it is due by this Friday, you will have it.

ML: What composers have been influential to you stylistically or in the way you approach composition?

KJC: We are all a product of our influences so my compositions are a reflection of all the music I like or respect. Like a large percentage of young composers, I can say that popular music still influences me. Not all popular music, mind you, but mostly rock and progressive music of the 60s through 2000s, with the larger percentage of influences leaning toward the 70s. The big ones would be YES, Dream Theater, Steve Vai, Soundgarden, and many more. On the classical side I have a wide range of influences as well. Many guitarist-composers greatly influence me such as Villa-Lobos, Tarrega, Barrios, Dyens, Koshkin, Beaser, and York. However, the non-guitarist composers (or those who wrote only rarely for guitar) also have a huge influence. The most influential include Ginastera, Piazzola, Stravinsky, Rouse, Corigliano, Adams, etc, etc, etc. Many more standard composers always have an influence as well, like Beethoven, Lizst, Brahms, Mozart, Bach, Grieg, Wagner, etc.

ML: Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions Kevin!

KJC: My pleasure. Thanks!

The pieces Kevin has featured in the Soundboard article are two movements from his Suite No. 2 for solo guitar, “I. Bomba” and “III. Lullaby”. You can hear Mr. Cope performing both pieces by following the links below:

I. Bomba – http://youtu.be/xamWdOQY0VE
III. Lullaby – http://youtu.be/BO6ew4MYqCE

The sheet music is also available for purchase in print & .pdf format at Strings by Mail and through Mr. Cope’s own publishing imprint, Edition Baraszewski (links below):

http://www.stringsbymail.com/store/suite-no-2-for-solo-guitar-12556
http://www.editionbaraszewski.com/store.php?crn=232 (PRINT)
http://www.editionbaraszewski.com/store.php?crn=225 (PDF)

Kevin Cope’s latest commission Origin Unknown: A Pole Was Journeying, for alto sax and guitar, will be premiered by Duo Montagnard on October 28th at The University of Delaware. http://www.music.udel.edu/news-events/events/Pages/duo-montagnard.aspx

To learn more about Kevin Cope and his compositions, please visit his website at http://kevinjcope.com. Kevin will also be performing as part of the faculty guitar recital at Darlington Arts Center on November 8, 2013.