Composition and Music Theory Interview with Julia Kosterova

by Tommaso Zillio

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Tommaso Zillio: Hi there! This is Tommaso Zillio from Music Theory for Guitar.com. I'm here on the phone with Julia Kosterova. Julia, are you there?

Julia Kosterova: Yeah. Hi, Tommaso.

TZ: Hi there. Julia is one of the rising stars of today's guitar world. She just released an EP called Springs of Time, with some great names on it. If I remember well you have Derek Sherinian and Marco Minnemann on the album, if I remember well.

JK: Right.

TZ: Good. That's great. So, Julia, I have a few questions for you on the topic of music theory and composition. So, you just released your EP, Springs of Time, what was your approach to composing this album? How do you go from inspiration to actual notes and chords in the song?

JK: Wow. That's an interesting question. I had a melodic hard rock background so for many years I was doing a lot of blues and classic rock, that was my main repertoire in playing and also in writing. Then I really started studying, and I was getting more into analyzing and writing my own music, so in the last few years, there was a major turning point into progressive rock suites rather than simple songs. That was the push, basically, to approach it from an almost cinematic point of view rather than just writing a song.

Every composition for me is a new story, with its own dynamic, structure and form. It has to be developing, dynamic and interesting right from the very start to the coda, you know? Back to Springs of Time (EP), some people might find it eclectic, some might find it more with the cinematic approach.

There are new compositions with this progressive rock approach, and there are compositions originating from this melodic hard rock background, like "Stranger". But, they're also rearranged, with new sections added, so they fit better with the whole concept of the album. This album, actually, is the first step of a bigger project that I'm working on that's a big progressive rock show. It's a bit too early to speak about it but there's a big conceptual show, a big conceptual work, united by the whole idea which are originating more in this cinematic progressive rock style.

TZ: I see, that's interesting. Julia, do you compose all your songs on the guitar, or do you use other instruments, or do you compose away from any instruments?

JK: Different. Sometimes it happens on the guitar, like guitar riffs, but I find it more productive to compose on the piano or the keyboard, just because it's a more polyphonic approach, and, by writing in this way, it's easier to get away from guitar cliches. You're not limited by what your fingers like to do, and sometimes I end up with very complex sections, like with Springs of Time, there is that chromatic section that's kind of tricky to to play on the guitar or bass.

TZ: I remember that. I was thinking about that actually. This didn't sound like composed on guitar!

JK: But it's fun! Often, it takes a lot of practice to be able to perform it live, but that's much more fun than writing something typical for guitar.

TZ: I agree completely. Did you practice your compositional skills, or were you practicing when you were first learning to play guitar? If so, what kind of practice approaches were you using to practice your compositional skills?

JK: Well, I've been writing music since the very first days I was playing, and as my playing was developing from simple little songs to the more complex stuff that I'm doing now, yes, I've been practicing writing, and especially when I was at the Contemporary Music and Jazz College. I went there deliberately to get a deeper theoretical and compositional background. I took a composition course, and I was lucky. I will say for me, it was the best composition teacher. That course led me exactly to what I'm doing now.

It's funny, because the typical jazz approach is you do "AABA" forms and you do improvisation. We got away from that because that was boring for me so went to these progressive rock suites and integrating more of the classical approaches, jazz approaches, rock approaches, everything. Whatever you can think about. That was the best thing I could do.

TZ: Great, great. Many of our students are just starting out, or they know how to play but don't know much theory, what would you say to someone who aspires to play and write like you but is intimidated by the level of theory and technique they would have to master?

JK: Start with whatever you feel like starting with. Don't be intimidated, it will come to you. Just go for it. Do it.

TZ: That's good. That's great.

JK: It's not so complicated. It's easy to start doing something and then start looking for the information, for the books, or whatever you can find on the Internet. There are tons of resources for any skill or knowledge you want to learn, so if you're interested, you will find it.

TZ: Yeah. So, it's just getting started and the keeping on that road. Julia, what other artists do you admire for their compositional skills? And what artists do you admire for their playing ability? Are they the same?

JK: I will leave this to the critics. I prefer making music and there are people who prefer analyzing it. Well, I do analyze music and I like a lot of different artists and composers, but I'd rather leave it to the critics.

TZ: I think critics are biased anyway, especially because they don't play. I typically prefer to get the opinion of players and actually working musician's opinion.

JK:My approach is to only look for the good things. I see good in the students, in everybody, and my approach is to find good things and to concentrate on that.

TZ: That's good. Julia, how does studying music theory enhance your creativity? Do you find that experimenting with music theory concepts such as a new chord or a new scale helps your creative juices to flow? I am thinking specifically of the melodies from your song "Springs of Time". You were talking about this before if you compose them on keyboard, and those are definitely not played on a simple, major scale.

JK: Yeah, absolutely! It helps a lot. Often, as we say in Russian, you write a tune in a single breath. I don't know the English equivalent for that (note: "in one go" it's close, but not the same). You have a tune that just comes to you, and then when you know theory, or when you know exactly what you need to do, you have a map, a checklist of what else you can do to make it the best you can. So, you don't have to wait for inspiration, you just do it.

TZ: It's true. When you know theory, you have a series of things you know you can do in your work. It takes out the guess work.

JK: Yeah and it comes. It's not a purely mechanical thing, but it's the integrating of something coming from inside of you or the cosmos and the background that helps to get concentrated there or materialize the ideas.

TZ: Looking back over the years that you spent developing and improvising your skill, is there anything that may have studied differently? Did you ever realize that you were thinking of studying, or not thinking of studying about certain things in a ways that provided to be useful in the end? Was there anything that might have helped you advance quicker if you were doing it differently?

JK: That's an interesting question. Many times, I would think, "I should have studied music earlier, I should have gone for proper classical or whatever education I could do when I was a kid." It happened that I took a different path by doing business education first, so as a kid I was doing a lot of different things and music was more of a side project or as a hobby.

At the same time, when I went to study music, I did it maybe later than everyone else, but I knew exactly what I needed to study and exactly what I wanted and why I wanted that. I was already writing and I was already doing a lot of things on my own so that enabled me maybe to get much more from those studies. So, everything is for the better.

TZ: I like that you mentioned you started late. Do you think there is hope for late bloomers? Because many of our readers are a bit older than what they think they should be. I have readers in their 40s and 50s writing me, "Hey, I'm an old dog and I need to learn new tricks" so there's hope for those guys too?

JK: Why not? Do it! Do whatever your heart tells you.

TZ: Julia, I'm assuming that, like most musicians, you have your good periods and also your bad periods in your practice, such as when your skill plateaus and you can't improve no matter what you do. What helps you get through those periods?

JK: A lot of different things. Listening to some new music, or knowledge of theory, or different ways of practice that help you get over it. Or, doing some completely different things, like working out, yoga, painting. Painting is very good. It's like meditation. As I said, my compositional approach is more about visions from creating whole stories rather than based completely on the sound. So, a lot of different things. Going to concerts, seeing some of my favorite musicians, discovering something new, anything can do. Just making the right side of your brain work actually helps a lot.

TZ: Those are all good suggestions, and I'm sure our readers will take them to heart. What do you consider the most important elements to focus on while composing?

JK: Well, through analyzing music and through writing I have actually developed my own composition checklist of what builds a great tune, or what I liked in different tunes. The most important thing is to keep it balanced. If there is one prevailing element, your listener will get tired very soon. You need to keep it dynamic and interesting.

Imagine doing a movie. How do you keep your listener interested in it? What do you need to do? After you've finished, imagine you are listening to it. Do you still want to listen to it, or do you want to switch to something different? Do you want to turn the volume down? Do you want to shut the guitarist up? Of course there are a lot of tips for what you can do to write a great song. Melody, harmony, contrasting parts, musical texture, instrument interactions, dynamics, a lot of things.

TZ: Those are all important elements. Julia, are your skills, knowledge, and experience of today in perfect alignment with the vision you created for yourself when you started out? Meaning, are you doing exactly what you imagined when you started out?

JK: Nope.

TZ: I like an honest answer. I like it.

JK: I'm still learning. You cannot always live as planned. If you try to stick to a plan completely, you will always be disappointed. That's what I figured out. So you have to take it easy. You have your goal, but you also go with the flow. Whatever the universe brings to you, be thankful for it, and do your best. Make use of all the opportunities you can grab. Just do your best and be honest with yourself in whatever you want to achieve.

TZ: Those were some refreshing answers, I have to say. Many times we see all those people playing incredible guitar, like you, and we put them on a pedestal. But seeing that you are flying by the seat of your pants just like we are is really refreshing to us.

JK: I'm still learning! I've just started! There are so many new things I need to master.

TZ: That's great. Julia, thank you for sharing all those answers with us, because I know we are taking time from your busy schedule and it's great when people of your caliber sit down and share with us, so thank you, thank you very much.

JK: Thank you, Tommaso. You're doing an amazing job with this website and it's great to see somebody writing about these issues that not many people dare to touch. Many people concentrate on just mastering the instrument, but a theoretical background gives you so many opportunities to take it to the next level.

TZ: True, true.

JK: Wishing you the best of luck.

TZ: Thank you very much. Thank you, Julia.

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