Guitarist David Russell
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Aside from a few older composers whom I contacted and spoke with on the telephone, for the most part my interviews with musicians were done face-to-face while they were in Chicago. I also did some gathering while on my infrequent trips to New York or Seattle, but the bulk of them took place in the Windy City. The performers or composers would be here and we would meet at a convenient time.
When the artist was around for a few days or a few weeks — as when they were engaged with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or Lyric Opera of Chicago — there was plenty of time to make the arrangements and have the conversation. With single events, however, the performer often would simply not have a free hour before departing for the next location on their tour.
Because I generally had no pressing need to obtain interviews by a certain deadline, it was sometimes months or even years between the initial contact and the time when we sat down together for the conversation. This chat with guitarist David Russell was one of these which had been pushed back a few times until a suitable space was available.
We were finally able to get together in June of 1996, and it certainly was worth the wait. Russell was cheery and amicable, and seemed to enjoy speaking about his instrument and its world.
Here is what was said on that nice warm afternoon . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Nice to finally get together after all this time. We’ve been trying to meet two or three times when you have been in Chicago.
David Russell: Yeah. It’s always been kind of short visits.
BD: Do you like short visits, or would you rather have longer visits?
DR: I would rather have longer visits when my wife is with me. When I’m on my own, short is fine because I don’t get enough time at home, and it’s always nice to come back. But this is the first time I’ve ever been here in the summer. I’ve always been here when it’s so cold, and Chicago is pretty windy and cold in the winter. So it is great; a lovely day today.
BD: Does the weather affect the instrument, or does it just affect you?
DR: Actually, it does affect the instrument because here in the rooms it gets so dry. I find I have to turn on the showers and put wet towels around because the guitar dries up too much. It doesn’t sound so good, basically.
BD: Does it get too soggy in the summertime?
DR: No. This is great! The instrument sounds great just now because this is ideal weather, really. Also, your fingers go better.
BD: So how does a Scotsman wind up being a world-famous guitar player?
DR: [Laughs] Mostly because my father plays the guitar. He’s an amateur and doesn’t play very well, but he started me. Really, I just started when I was a little kid, and then we all moved to Spain when I was about six. It’s not that everybody in Spain plays the guitar, like the popular image, but certainly a lot of kids learn to play. It’s quite normal for kids to play in little groups and little bands, and accompany songs, and so on.
BD: Did you go to Spain for the guitar, or did the family just happen to go there?
DR: We went there because my parents are artists. They’re both painters. They had been to the south of France a few times, and we ended up going to Minorca, one of the Balearic Islands, mostly because for landscape painters, places with a lot of light and long summers are exciting for them. Scotland is a great place, but really, the weather does get you down at times, especially if you spend a couple of years in the Mediterranean. You get really spoiled. I love going back to Scotland, but it’s pretty rough.
BD: Is there any Scottish guitar music?
DR: There is, actually. There are a few contemporary composers from Scotland that are very good; McGuire is one who comes to mind. In Scotland there are maybe only four or five million people, but there are quite a few good young guitarists there. There’s the Scottish Academy of Music that has very good general music all around, and they have a good guitar department. In the in-between period — in what’s really called the classical period — there’s none. But if you go right back to the period of when the lute — which was really the predecessor in many senses to the guitar — there’s quite a lot of Scottish music, mostly because Scotland had a lot to do with France. In the Renaissance there was a lot of nobility in Scotland, and there are many old manuscripts there. Most of it is actually transcriptions of Scottish songs, Scottish folk music, and it’s being brought to light now, more by lutenists, obviously. I’ve never actually played any of it. I played some in arrangement for guitar and double bass, but the double bass was playing the melodies, which is a rather unusual arrangement. But it was fun to do.
BD: You don’t find yourself wanting to champion this Scottish music?
DR: Sometimes. I still have a little bit of a Scottish accent and I suppose I feel Scottish in many senses, but I left the country at the age of six and lived for many years in Spain. When I started to study music properly I went to London, so I no longer feel as nationalistic about Scotland or about being Scottish as perhaps one of my brothers who lives there.
He’s much more Scottish in all senses, and votes Scottish Nationalist and all that. I don’t really feel myself as identified with the country as perhaps someone who’d lived there all their life would. In many ways I can identify more with Spain, because I’ve lived there for many more years. I live in Spain now and my wife is Spanish. I have much more to do with the Spanish culture than with the Scottish culture, in some senses. But I do have some of the old manuscripts, and there’s some beautiful Celtic/Scottish music that could be arranged, though some it has been done. I would be interested at some point, not in making an arrangement in an old style but an arrangement in a slightly more modern style, to take advantage of the possibilities of the guitar. But at the moment, I don’t have time to do all that!
BD: Are you helping to expand the possibilities of the guitar?
DR: I think we all do, yes. Of course, some of my colleagues dedicate a lot of time to very avant-garde music. I’ve had a period where I did some of that, but I wouldn’t call myself a champion of avant-garde music now, mostly just because of the circumstances — the kind of concerts I’m booked to play, the place I live, the people I live with. My wife doesn’t like modern music [laughs] and it’s difficult to practice that kind of music if people around you don’t really like it, even if you feel a certain affinity. I would say that I don’t feel as much affinity with the avant-garde as I used to. There are other composers who are also very skillful and write very beautiful music without being champions of atonality, but in using quite a lot of tonality and certainly moving forward, shall we say. It’s no longer simply post-Romantic, or whatever you call it. There is a problem in that the guitar doesn’t have the same audience as perhaps the avant-garde music audience. Our audience tends to be a mixture of a lot of people who like the guitar music, partly because maybe they started in country music and played with their finger-picking and so on. They say, “Hey, I just heard this classical guitarist and I really dig that.” They kind of slowly move into listening to classical music coming from more pop music, often. In some places it’s okay to play for the audience that really wants very avant-garde music, but in many cases it’s not fair to your audience to give them something that they don’t really want. There is a certain amount of balance that we all have to find, that I think is fair for ourselves and that satisfies ourselves, and also satisfies the people who, hopefully, come out and listen to our concert.
BD: Does it still surprise you that some people don’t know that a guitar can do anything except play in a rock band?
DR: [Laughs] Yeah, but in Europe that doesn’t happen so much. In Spain, certainly, most of the guitarists, or most people who go to a guitar concert, have usually heard flamenco and so on, and people don’t come to the classical guitar so much through rock music as they do in this country. In this country, rock and country — or country-and-western — seems to be some of the growth area. Then some of the guys that like a little bit of classical music pop into our classical concerts, and then they maybe come to more if they like it. So I think our audience in Europe comes from a different background, shall we say. But it still surprises me. It does surprise me up to a point, but think how much rock music is on the radio. Sometimes if you sit in your car and go through all the channels, there’s so much rock music in comparison to maybe one little bit of, “Hey, that sounded like a violin in the middle of there,” and that’s probably an advert, unfortunately! [Both laugh] It’s just an unfortunate situation for us. We’re always going to be, at the moment, a kind of minority; we’re catering to a minority audience, to a certain extent. The only thing we can do is when people do come to our concerts, hopefully those people are going to come back. By doing our concerts well and making sure that we don’t alienate our audience, and making sure that it’s as exciting... well, how can you make it as exciting as a rock-band concert? I’m not going to have helium gas and all these different things coming out!
DR: It’s difficult to go the whole road, but there are a whole lot of problems involved in making our concerts — I wouldn’t say “exciting,” but a great evening for people who do come. That’s what good rock bands do. You go to a rock band and it blows your mind. You say, “Well, wow! How are people going to go to a classical concert if you can get this?” We have to blow their minds other ways. It’s different.
BD: Are you, perhaps, more conscious of this than, say, a violinist or an oboe player?
DR: They have certain kind of circuits. They have a pretty large audience that will always go to classical violin concerts and would never dream of going to a classical guitar concert. They might also go to the opera, so we have to make sure that we do maintain our audience, just like maybe a solo harp concert or something. We’re going to have to make sure that we do it well, and that the people who do come are going to want to come back to another one. And we have to remember that sometimes amongst opera singers or pianists, they can all go around hating each other, but we need to really help each other, because if somebody gives a successful guitar concert, it’s good for all of us. So it’s a big success for me if somebody else plays a great concert. We’re not in competition; it is just the opposite. If somebody blows it, he or she has blown it for all of us in the sense that that audience has been alienated from the guitar. This is partly because not enough people know what it’s like, and not enough people have heard enough good classical guitar concerts. There are some great young players around and there is a great lot of good playing going on, but there’s also been some rough playing. If somebody goes to a piano concert and the performer messes up, they say, “Oh, I didn’t like that pianist.” They don’t say, “I don’t like the piano.”
DR: They don’t even conceive that idea. But it does happen to us a little bit.
BD: So you have to always be on your best?
DR: We should, yeah. We really have to, for our general good, for all of us.
BD: Is the atmosphere good for playing guitar these days?
DR: I find it good, yeah. It’s difficult for me to judge because as my own career has developed, obviously my audience has grown. So I don’t know if it’s better now than it was twenty years ago. It’s better for me because twenty years ago I was struggling in little places and not getting work. But I think there has been a big, long period where it’s been very difficult to get audiences, not only for guitar, but for all. There’s been a big dip in audience and I think it’s getting better again. There was a period in Europe where a lot of public money went into concerts, but they were neither promoted well nor were the people that were playing them chosen well. Often, they put a lot of money into paying some big fee to somebody who’s famous, and then do no publicity. So how are people going to go to the concert? You’ve got to make them want it, so everybody that walks into the concert is excited about being there, not just on the off-chance, and I think that’s beginning to come round a bit.
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BD: How do you divide your career between the solo concerts and the concerto performances?
DR: Just as it comes. Concerto performing for guitar is always a small proportion of the concerts. I’ll probably play five or six across the summer, and maybe fifteen solo concerts. That’s about the proportion, and this year it’s maybe a little more than some other years. Basically it’s just as it fits in. I don’t necessarily go out of my way to look for concertos. Playing concertos is great fun for us because it’s different and we don’t do it very often. Also, we get a chance to play for a different audience. It’s not the same audience that goes to a solo concert, so it’s fun and I enjoy it. We do have a slight problem because the classical guitar is a very quiet instrument, and we usually have to amplify. Nowadays, the amplification is getting better and better. The systems are better.
BD: So it doesn’t sound like it’s amplified?
DR: If it’s done well, it should sound good enough. If you think, for example, when you listen to a CD, that’s actually gone through a whole lot of mechanical things, and basically it’s amplified. Yet it can sound beautiful if it’s done properly. I think a normal, amplified concert — or concerto, especially — should be done well, and nowadays there are small systems that can make the guitar sound very good. The guitar’s always going to sound better amplified than the guy hitting off as hard as he can on the instrument because all you’re going to hear is just this twang. It sounds more like a badly played banjo than the guitar, so all you hear is the impact at the beginning of the note, if you hear anything. The beauty of the guitar in some ways is not the impact of the note, but the dying of it just after the impact. There’s a kind of glow to the note, and that, really, is very low in decibels. The impact at the beginning is very high, but the beauty of the note is just after that, and if we hit the guitar very loud, you just increase the distortion at the beginning, and it’s very frustrating. It makes it sound very percussive and very unmelodic, so even mediocre amplification is always going to be better than the guitar hit hard as you can.
BD: Do you always play the same instrument, or do you have several different instruments that you play during the year?
DR: I have several. In fact, this is one that I just got ten days ago. It’s a German maker called Dammann, and I’m kind of excited about playing it because I love the sound and it’s a beautiful instrument. I’ve normally played on an American guitar by a maker called John Gilbert; I’ve used his guitars since 1980. He’s made beautiful instruments for me all these years, and I still use them, but I thought just for the concerto, this one is sounding great, and so I was kind of excited about using this one.
BD: You play different repertoire on different instruments?
DR: That’s definitely going to happen because this one’s quite a dark instrument in its sound — round and pretty strong — but I’m not really too sure how it’s going to sound with baroque music because it lacks a certain tinkly effect that you can do with the Gilbert guitar. That one sounds really nice in baroque music. Maybe it’s one step closer to the harpsichord, shall we say, and this is more like a grand piano sound. I have to kind of bend this one a little bit. I can make the tinklier sound, but it’s not natural for this guitar, whereas with the Gilbert, if I was playing Spanish music, I had to kind of bend it ’round to try and make it more gloopy, to make it sound dark and warm with big vibrato. It was quite hard on the Gilbert. It was always an effort. I also have another American guitar by a guy called Greg Byers that I’ve used most of this year, and it sounds great with the Spanish music.
BD: So it’s the kind of music that goes with that guitar. Does that influence your selection of programming?
DR: It will. If I use this one this year, it’s definitely going to make me play some of the more romantic music that I’ve had to set aside a little bit recently. But then I’m going to experiment with the program I’m using this summer, and I won’t change my program just for the guitar yet. This really is an experiment. But this guitar sounds great for Rodrigo. It sounds good when you play it with a pretty thick sound, and a sort of macho sound.
BD: There’s a lot of solo music for the guitar, but are there enough concertos?
DR: No, there are not, really. I would love to have another 10 concerti that are really good and worth playing. There are a few composers who have written some very good concerti recently, and the one that comes to mind is by Leo Brouwer, a Cuban composer who is now working as a conductor in Cordoba, Spain. Brouwer has written three or four concerti. There are two of them I really like and that I think are excellent. They’ve made the guitar sound good; the orchestra sounds good, and all around it’s exciting to play. There are quite a few pretty contemporary pieces, but we only get a chance to play a few; Stephen Dodgson wrote a few concerti, and Lennox Berkeley, and a few of the English composers. I’m sure in America there are many that I wouldn’t know of. The problem is that we may only get one booking in a year, or one booking in five years, for some of these concerti. They’re very difficult and take a lot of time to learn, so it’d be unusual for me to actually learn one simply on the off chance that one day I might get booked. But when I’m offered, I pick. Usually they say, “Can you play the Rodrigo concerto for us?” I say okay, I’ll be there. When they say to me, “Take your choice,” next time I’ll probably try and play one of the other Brouwer ones that I haven’t done, or one of the concerti that are lesser known. As far as the solo repertoire, there’s more than I’m ever going to be able to learn in my years of life and playing.
BD: So how do you decide which ones you will play and which ones you will let go?
DR: It’s nice to play things that other people don’t play, and sometimes it’s nice to take a risk and play something that may not sound great; something you maybe put a lot of effort into, and then play it twice and put it away. But still, I like doing that, and I like to have at least 90 percent of my program each year be new stuff for me. Hopefully about half of that is not very well known, or completely unknown. This is not necessarily all by modern composers. Sometimes it will be stuff from the last century because there’s still a lot to be played — sometimes by well-known composers like Fernando Sor and Giuliani. People tend to play the four famous pieces by Sor, whereas there are another twenty that are good. Actually he’s got a pile of music this high [puts his hand above his head]. He wrote hours and hours of music. A lot of it you won’t necessarily want to play because maybe it’s written for amateur players of his period, but a lot of it is pretty good. We get stuck with the ones that Segovia made famous.
BD: What is it that makes them good?
DR: I don’t know. It’s a whole mixture of things; sometimes a lack of flaws or a lack of boring parts. There was a period where musicians like Julian Bream would take the scissors to them and just cut out bits that he didn’t like. [Both laugh] Nowadays, unfortunately — or maybe fortunately — we can’t really do that. I sometimes really feel like doing it, but I don’t think it’s fair. It’s easier just to put up with the slightly weaker parts of the composition. The best pieces don’t have weak parts. Sometimes pieces become good simply because they’re played well by some very famous people, and so people accept that this is a good piece.
BD: So they’re played better than they are?
DR: At least all that’s good there is brought out, especially if the younger players have a really good model. Let’s take Segovia, who in many ways did a lot of the groundwork for the rest of us to start playing concerts. He would take something — like a set of variations by Sor on a theme by Mozart. He discarded the beginning of it. It has a nice introduction, but it’s really well-written music. He also played it really beautifully — in his own way, but really beautifully. So everybody had to come up to that standard if they were going to play this piece.
BD: Does everybody then discard the part that he discarded, too?
DR: Now we all play it with the beginning because actually it’s a very nice introduction. I don’t know why; he may even not have had it. These things sometimes just get lost, and he just started straight off without the andante beginning and straight into the theme, whereas Sor always wrote a kind of introduction, or a fantasy, and then a theme. Segovia just cut it, but he played it so well that we all had to come up to that standard, at least, or hopefully do it better. That also has happened with other pieces of repertoire. It’s very difficult for the younger players to take something that’s completely unknown and make it really good without a model, originally. We should all know how to do that, but as a twenty-year-old, a model always helps you. You see what can be made in a piece, so you face it with more confidence. As a forty-year-old, you’re supposed to face it with confidence even if you’ve never heard it. Of course you’re supposed to know the language, and that’s why I really enjoy playing pieces that no one’s ever played. There’s also another great advantage — you can do just what you like. You make your own interpretation because people have no expectations of it.
BD: They just expect it to be brilliant in general?
DR: Hopefully. Yes, that’s right. We should, you know. For example, it’s nice always to ornament in baroque music, but if you take one of the famous lute suites, which is part of our repertoire, and you ornament the hell out of it, one person may love it and the other person is going to hate it, because you don’t do what they expect with the piece. Whereas if you take a completely unknown piece by one of the other composers of the baroque period, you can ornament the hell out of it. Great! Have a field day! Nobody knows whether it’s your notes or theirs, and I think that’s more the way a lot of the baroque players of that period were doing. They weren’t all playing Bach, which is very, very developed. We have many other composers that were writing less developed music. I just think it’s more chance to ornament and to play around with it.
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BD: Is there a huge difference between music that was originally written for the guitar, and transcriptions that are made for the guitar of music written for other instruments?
DR: Yeah there is, in a sense that up until this century, most of the guitar music was written by guitarists and most of lute music was written by lutenists, with a few exceptions, of course. Most people who play the instrument are caught, in that they will only write what they can play because most of them are writing it for themselves. So unless they were really agile players, I mean technically, they wouldn’t necessarily demand enough out of their instrument. And a lot of them would often get caught into a little thing of writing tricks. There are certain little finger patterns that actually sound great, but we all know it’s really easy. So these little idioms start to creep in. Of course that happens in all instruments, and it’s normal that that’s going to happen. But most of that music is actually designed to make the guitar sound good, and maybe to let the guitarist show off a certain amount. A lot of it has more of the virtuoso quality — like Paganini violin music. Well, Paganini also wrote guitar music — not to such a high level, because he wasn’t as good a guitarist — but in the similar vein. Giuliani was another composer of that period who wrote, basically, to show off what he could do. Sor was slightly different in that he was a more developed musician, and maybe not quite such an agile player. So he got more out of the instrument, musically, by use of harmony, than just purely showing how fast his fingers would go. Perhaps at the beginning of the century or end of last century, it was easier to do a transcription because the transcriber would take complete liberty of the piece. He would actually rewrite bits and expand bits to make them sound more interesting, and just reduce other bits to give a general view of this section of whatever. They usually called it “Fantasies on,” rather than a transcription exactly. Nowadays when we do transcriptions, because of the tradition or because of whatever way it’s developed, we try to play as close as the original would have been.
BD: That sounds like it puts you in a straightjacket.
DR: A little bit, yeah. Some pieces sound great, pieces like Albeniz’s Grenada. Sometimes it’s great to play as many of the notes as he wrote on the piano. Obviously we have to reduce some because we simply don’t have enough strings, but some of those pieces do sound great on our instrument. However, I still think that some of the best transcriptions are actually the ones where the transcribers have freed themselves of the traditions, and just made it sound good on the instrument. You do the basic work and then say, “It just sounds better if you reduce it,” or you make the melody come out better by taking away some of the other stuff. But if I am adroit enough with my fingers, I should be able to get all those extra notes and also make the melody come out well. Transcribing and playing transcribed music has made the guitar players reach a better level of playing, really, because we’ve had to be technically more advanced than, say, if we were only playing Sor and Giuliani. Also I would say we are musically more advanced, because if I had to play only Sor and Giuliani and only guitar music for the rest of my life, I would sorely miss playing Bach Chaconnes. I don’t want to go through life without ever playing those pieces. I may never play any Beethoven on my guitar, but I’m certainly going be playing some of the other well-known composers and great composers.
BD: Have you thought of maybe transcribing some of the bagatelles from Beethoven for guitar?
DR: Actually, some people have done it, and the problem is that a lot of the stuff — the music by Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, etcetera — that would be accessible to us tends to be very well known because it’s accessible to many amateur pianists. And many people who study a bit of music have had a go at those pieces, so it doesn’t really sound great. It’s better to transcribe an unknown piece because then people don’t have a prejudice about how it should sound and they don’t have a model of Pollini playing it. [See my Interview with Maurizio Pollini.] So we actually are freer to do our own thing, and that’s why something Albeniz’s Grenada also being Spanish helps. There are not that many very famous people — apart from Alicia de Larroccha — that have made these great performances of it, and not that many amateur pianists sit down and play Granada on the piano. They’ll sit down and play one of the bagatelles, or a nocturne by Chopin, and some of these pieces do transcribe onto the guitar quite well, and work very beautifully.
BD: We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me get the question straight off — what is the purpose of music?
DR: [Laughs] I suppose, pleasure. Don’t take it one step further and ask what’s the purpose of pleasure, but it is certain that the pleasure can be in all senses. It can be purely almost emotional, in a sense; it can be intellectual. It can be also even social, in the sense of going out with friends and the excuse of going to a concert, with the enjoyment of knowledge, shall we say, and being able to talk about the piece — which means that you have to educate yourself a little bit about a piece or about the program and so on. It is all of these things coming together. The purpose of music for me, for example, originally was for my own pleasure — the actual taking part in it, rather than going to concerts and listening to other people do it. As I grew up, I slowly got more and more pleasure out of listening to other people doing it, partially because I became more and more educated in the music. I suppose to call it “entertainment” has some negative connotations, but I think it has one foot in entertainment and the other foot in culture, shall we say, which all surrounds banal pleasure! [Laughs] But I think our kind of classical music is maybe an educated kind of pleasure. If we’re going talk about rock music, especially if you go to a disco, sometimes the purpose of that kind of music is to blank the mind out. You’re going to a place for the dunk, ga-dunk, ga-dunk, and basically you can’t think; you certainly can’t have a conversation when it’s going on. It’s actually a bodily pleasure, if you call it a pleasure — if you like it; your whole body feels it. If you like to dance to it, that, I think, is very different from what we’re doing, and we lump it all together with music. Of course it’s music; it’s organized sound that has an effect on people. Actually, that’s probably an important thing — to have some sort of effect. From my point of view, I enjoy having an effect on the audience, and if I go to a concert, I enjoy being had an effect on. I enjoy being affected by whatever the person or the group up there is doing, or by what the music itself is actually doing to me.
BD: So you’re not looking for a specific effect, you’re looking for an effect?
DR: Yeah. It’s difficult because just like a painting can have different meanings to other different people, obviously different pieces of music are going to have different meanings to people who listen to it. There are some pieces of music that I have a very strong emotional connection with, partly because of the time I learned it, or the first times I heard it, and that makes me listen to it in a mood that you wouldn’t get. And there’ll be other pieces that you’ll feel and deeply love, that probably just pass me over. Certainly everyone bring one’s own experience to that concert, and the effect is different to different people.
BD: Are the audiences more receptive in Europe, as opposed to America?
DR: No, not particularly. American audiences are great. American people are very demonstrative, usually, and quite vocal and encouraging, and very positive. The general attitude in all of America is pretty positive towards life in general. There are some countries in Europe that are not like that. It kind of comes and goes, and it depends who comes, obviously. Audiences are just the sum total of the characters that end up there, and how people react to you when you’re playing. Certainly as a player I love being encouraged, and if an audience reacts well in the beginning, or halfway through my concert, then I get better because I enjoy playing more for them! It was strange for me the first time I went to Japan, for example. Audiences are really great there, but they clap very quietly. They don’t clap loud.
BD: Until the end?
DR: Until the end, and then they clap for a long time, and they make sure you play lots of encores. They just keep on clapping a long time, and it’s a kind of weird feeling. I wasn’t really prepared for it until my third concert. In America, generally people are very, very responsive. They’re also pretty respectful. They don’t talk too much in a concert; they don’t make too much noise. In Italy they’re great audiences, but they make so much noise! And in Spain as well. People just get up in the middle of the concert and move around. It’s kind of weird, but you just learn to live with that; that’s what it’s going to be like.
BD: They’re more free. They’re looser.
DR: Yeah. A little bit less sensitive, too. [Both laugh] It depends on how you want to look at it. In some ways they’re more free with their reactions. Once I did a whole lot of concerts in Africa — in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and a whole lot of places like that — working for the British Council. There, I would say, yes, they’re looser in the sense that they would simply get up when they wanted to get up, and they would usually get up at the beginning of a piece. Later I asked, “Why do they get up in the beginning?” and was told usually they wait to see if they’re going to like the next piece. They give you one more chance, and then they leave, rather than leaving at the end of a piece or halfway through. I don’t really mind. If somebody doesn’t like it and they want to leave, I think that’s fine. It’s no problem; I’m not going to be offended. But in Africa, the first couple of concerts I found it really weird. That’s just the way people do it there; and they also talk to me in the audience! At the end of pieces, they quite happily say something. So I interpret that as, yeah, they’re looser, because there’s none of the Britain rule of “a formal evening out.” In Spain and Italy and Greece and some of these countries, they are great audiences when you get them. When you play well, they’re a great audience to play for, but when you don’t get them, they’re the most difficult audience, really. They’re not that respectful to somebody who’s maybe having a bad night or just a rough night. They let you know.
BD: I hope you don’t get run out of town too often!
DR: [Laughs] No, but it’s a strange feeling. If you start off and you don’t play excitingly enough, then it takes hard work to get the audience back.
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BD: Do you play the same for the microphone as you do for the live audience?
DR: There’s a certain difference. I try really hard to make the recording sound as exciting as I hope it will in a concert. But certainly there are certain differences. The perfection now required in recording has reached such a high level, and the guitar is a very noisy instrument. We play at a low decibel level, so our finger noise is pretty close to our music noise — little string scratches and squeaks and fingernails clacking means that we have to play extra carefully. We have to play extra clean because the digital process picks up so much nowadays! You can’t just filter it because if you filter it, you lose everything. Usually there’s a certain kind of reserve in the recording at first, and hopefully I’m able to break away from it after I’ve got a few good takes. All recordings are stressful sort of situations, but without the excitement of a audience. The only person you’re going to try and excite is your engineer, and maybe your producer.
BD: But they’re working, not just enjoying!
DR: They’re working, and to actually fantasize about people going, “Yeah, I love that!” is going to be hard.
BD: You don’t transport yourself to realize that someone will be listening to it in their bedroom or their living room ten years from now?
DR: I do, yeah, and I really hope that they are. Of course that’s the fantasy side, but I think there may be a certain difference. If you play in a concert, your ups and downs of volume level can be pretty dramatic to the point of distortion, and it often helps. Whereas if you listen to a CD, you’re going to be listening in the quiet, just like here in a room, so the listening situation is different. For example, if we’re talking, we use a certain kind of voice because we’re sitting close together. If you think of somebody having to talk onstage, we have to change our voice. If you’re talking to someone close-up, you can’t shout at them; you can’t use a stage voice, a theater voice. If you go into theater, you’ve got to speak in such a way that that emotion reaches the back, or at least most of the whole back. So the playing has to change a little bit.
BD: You can be more subtle for the microphone?
DR: You can be more subtle; you can be much more subtle, and you can get certain beauties that you’ll never get in a concert. Well, you may get them, but if you do it too much in a concert, it doesn’t necessarily reach far enough back. This is partly because the personality has to be exaggerated a little bit in a concert, especially for guitar. We’re such a quiet instrument, so you just have to have a big personality — at least musically — to project that and to get that. People are sitting twenty to forty yards away from you, and you have to somehow seduce them into coming and feeling close to you before you can even do these subtleties. On the CD it’s got to be subtle from the beginning. It’s got to be intimate and close because that’s the way people are going to listen to it. All the last CDs I’ve done have been recorded not in a studio. It’s always been done either in a church or a good hall — in places where I sound good to myself. For me — and I suppose many musicians feel this — if you play in a dry theater, that affects your interpretation. You don’t take enough time because the note dies so quickly. Then they add artificial reverb or digital delay to make it sound like a hall, but you haven’t played like it was in that hall, so you haven’t controlled the music yourself. In a hall that has the right reverb level for each volume level — the guitar is a low volume — the hall has to kick in just when I reach mezzo forte. Then the hall has to start adding back, and that amplifies my volume range. I don’t want the hall to kick in when I’m playing piano because it’s going to just make it sound roomy or wrong. To find the right placing, then, obviously, you give many more problems to the technicians, because for them to work with that and catch it is much more difficult. But once you find it, it sounds much better and it feels much better. The music that you play, using the space and using the time, that hall helps; it gives you that, and I think it sounds more like it’s going to sound when people sit in a hall and listen to you. Expecting people to sit in row number seven in a beautiful hall is the perfect situation. That’s the way I’d like my CDs to sound, rather than the idea of some people who like CDs sounding really close up, so the guitar is sitting two yards away from you. I don’t think a guitar sounds that good two yards away. I think it sounds great about twenty yards away in a beautiful hall. That’s when it sounds great because you get away from those little human imperfections that we all have of our fingers moving around on the strings, which is an unfortunate part of our playing, but it’s there. We can reduce it, but it’ll never go away completely; just like when you sit up close to a flute and you hear the fingers clacking and all of that. [Both laugh] How can you get the magic of the music when you’ve got this person blowing into a tube, when you’re reminded too much of that?
BD: You have to get away from it and let the focus take over.
DR: I think so, yeah.
* * * * *
BD: Are you at the point in your career that you want to be now?
DR: In many senses, yes, I suppose. We all aspire to more in some things, but I have to be happy because I’ve dedicated a lot of time to the guitar, and I would say about ninety-nine percent of my friends I’ve made through the guitar. I live for playing concerts, which is the dream that I had when I was a kid. I travel the world. I wanted to be a botanist to get to all these weird places. I get to go to them, playing guitar, so I really can’t complain. There’s maybe one or two steps that I wanted to do that are beginning to sort out now, and one of them is I didn’t have a particularly good record contract. Now I’m with Telarc and it’s going very well. In the last couple of years I’ve sorted out quite a few things. Of course, everything can get better. Maybe next year’ll be better.
BD: Do you have any advice for younger guitarists coming along?
DR: I would say whether you’re an amateur guitarist or an aspiring professional or an active professional, one of the most important things is never lose your enthusiasm. What started each one of us was the enthusiasm for the instrument. Sometimes when the younger guitarists start in a career or they finish their few years at university, that really cuts out their enthusiasm, especially when it’s really hard to find concerts. It’s really hard to mostly play not because you want a career, but because you really like to play. Keep that in mind, and keep learning new material just for yourself, and play it as well as you can. When you play a concert, you’ve got to play well. I say that to every one of them who are aspiring professionals and to beginning professionals because, as I said, every good concert is good for all of us, and every bad one is bad for all of us. If we’re always prepared, then it should be good enough.
BD: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to write music for the guitar?
DR: The advice is actually not to get trapped by knowing too much about the instrument. It’s better to let the guitarist tell you, after you’ve written, “Look, I can’t do this; I can’t do that. This is not sounding good; that’s not sounding.” Experiment!
BD: In other words, just write their music?
DR: Yeah. Don’t get trapped. One of the most horrible sounds for me is the sound of open strings — bang, bang, bing, bing — but sometimes composers get enthralled. They think, “Oh, I’ll put a couple more open strings there and two fourths there because it sounds like guitar.” They get a guitar and they fiddle around with it and say, “Oh, look, we can do this; we can do that.” You do things that are from bad guitarists; don’t get trapped by that. As a composer, be free just to write what you feel like — within reason, obviously — and get a good guitarist, or a reasonable guitarist, to help you from there. Obviously, the people who are very active and playing a lot of concerts don’t always have that much time to help composers, but we all are more than interested to see all the new material that’s coming out.
BD: Should someone who’s going to write for guitar spend a week and have a few lessons with a fine guitarist?
DR: I don’t think so. Stephen Dodgson is an English composer and he’s never learned to play guitar, yet he wrote tons of guitar music. I think he was right in the sense that he didn’t want to know what was easy and what was difficult. That way he didn’t suddenly not write something simply because it was going to be difficult, or not write something simply because it was going to be easy. He did not want to get caught in these traps. If he wanted, he could maybe experiment — write exercises for himself and get guitarists to play it to see what sounded good, rather than what was easy or difficult. It’s got to be playable, physically, but think it terms of what they hear that sounds good and is going to sound right for their music, and they’re going to be able to use the guitar to make those sounds. Often they get caught into these things. If they do have a few lessons, they get caught into the finger tricks, but they’re going to be finger tricks of bad guitarists. That’s the problem, really. Of course, that doesn’t happen with all, so that’s why I say it’s best not to know anything, at least at first, and experiment. Tedesco never played the guitar, nor did Ponce. I’m sure they could fiddle around on it, but they experimented and wrote tons of little pieces. Segovia helped them, and then they eventually became great composers for our instrument. Turina was another. I think that’s the best way.
BD: What advice do you have for audiences?
DR: For the guitar, you have to accept it’s a quiet instrument. Choose concerts in good halls, if possible. Support the societies that do put on guitar concerts. I’m always pleased when I’m put on in a hall that makes the guitar sound good.
BD: Is there any hope for the outdoor concert?
DR: We have to accept that outdoor concerts are going to be amplified. The only real problem against amplification is prejudice in that most of the other instruments don’t need to amplify.
BD: I would think that maybe it’d be easier for guitar in the outdoor concert, because you want to be amplified anyway, and the whole thing is amplified, so that’s all taken care of.
DR: Absolutely. I really have no problem about amplification. I have problems about amplifying a solo guitar in a normal-sized hall. If I’m going be put in a huge 3,000-seater and amplify, if it’s done well, even John Williams does that. He amplifies in all his halls all the time. The first times I heard him do it I was a little disappointed, but then he sounded great and he just used the same system as his recording and his CDs. It sounded just like his CDs.
BD: Life imitating art.
DR: Yeah, it’s kind of backwards, isn’t it? But there may come a day when we all simply amplify all the time. I hope not, though, because there is something special about hearing someone really get it out of the instrument, and not through all the mechanical possibilities. But the flamenco guys, for example, are all amplified everywhere. They just accept that that’s the way it is, and yet for years and years it was never like that. Now some of them never play a concert without it.
BD: You’re coming back to Chicago?
DR: I’m sure, yeah. My agency in America is in Chicago, so I come back here. Also my mother is now an American citizen. She lives in Michigan, and I come and visit her as often as I can. I come to America two or three times a year, so I’m sure I’ll be back many times.
BD: Good. Thank you for the chat. I appreciate it.
DR: Thank you.
© 1996 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at his hotel on June 20, 1996. It was used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1998, and on WNUR in 2006. It was transcribed and posted on this website in 2012.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.