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David Russell

interviewed in 20031

Russell photo

David Russell needs little introduction: he has been at the top of his profession for many years.

Born in Glasgow, he moved as a child to the Spanish island of Menorca, where his father introduced him to the guitar. Studying at the Royal Academy with Hector Quine, he twice won the Julian Bream Guitar Prize, and after graduating, received a scholarship from the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust. He then accepted a grant from the Spanish government to study with Jose Tomás in Santiago de Compostela.

David has won nearly all the major international competitions, and many composers have dedicated works to him.

He now makes his home, with his wife María, in Vigo, in the North of Spain.

I first met him in London in the 1980s, when I was writing for Guitar International, spending many happy hours with the loose-knit musical fraternity that seemed to be permanent denizens of his flat. For this interview, I spoke to him at the home of John Gilbert, guitar maker extraordinaire (retd.), and his wife Alice, the day before David’s San Francisco concert. After so many successful recordings and World tours, it occurred to me for starters that there could be few better people to ask about where the classical guitar has been, and where it’s going.

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You’ve seen some changes in the guitar world. I suppose you could say that Julian Bream, Alirio Díaz and John Williams were the first generation after Segovia, and you were the first generation after that…

Well, in some ways yes, there was probably a gap after John Williams… but there were others (like Carlos Bonell, for example, who’s a little older than I am, or Angel Romero) in different countries. It’s really continuous, but we get grouped in generations; and there’s a group of us now who are just hitting 50 [laughs].

But in Britain, Bream and Williams really marked an era: they were so important that it was difficult for anyone to come out from under their shadows.

Right. I think Bream’s on record as saying that he’s glad he got into the guitar when he did, because if he had to start now, he’d have to compete with all these other young up-and-coming guitarists…

But still, the people who play really well, and have a very distinct character, and give beautiful concerts: they go forward, if they really want to. But I don’t think everyone has the will to keep on trying for long enough, now: and some people who do have the talent, maybe, end up getting a job because they want to make a living sooner. And that’s perfectly understandable.

I mean, you remember when our house in London was basically…

A rest-home for indigent guitarists?

That’s right. I lived like a student, for years and years and years. Because, it was necessary, really, to keep on trying for a long, long time.

And if you had to do it all over again?

If I had to do it again… I suppose, with hindsight, I’m wiser now, and I know I missed a lot of opportunities, that I wouldn’t miss now.

Musical opportunities, or business opportunities, or life?

Career opportunities that I let slip by, because I didn’t really know… I wasn’t forward enough with what I wanted.

Nowadays, many young people in the States (but also in Europe), are learning that if you don’t get your act together, you don’t have a professional presentation, then people will look at others who have a better, complete package. It took me a long time to realise that: that’s it’s not only a matter of sitting at home and playing well, and people are going to come knocking on your door. Doesn’t happen.

And even when presenters ask you, and show interest, you have to have the whole thing (here I am saying this, and I never did).

But that’s one thing I’d do differently. I did a whole load of competitions at one point, and basically just—didn’t use them. It’s something that looks good on a piece of paper, but while the iron was hot, I should really have hit the World.

But is it that straightforward? I mean, I know various other competition winners, and they go to the record company saying, “I’ve just won this or that competition”, and the company says “Big fat hairy deal”…

But in 1975–77, there were very few competitions; these days they’re everywhere. So if someone wins a competition now, it doesn’t really set them up.

Or you’ve got to win an awful lot of them.

Right. But it’s never a hindrance.

And there are some other things that I might have done differently, but in most things I did the right thing. And I’m happy that it’s taken time for things to develop for me, because it meant that for many years, every year was better than the previous year [laughs].

But I really don’t feel like an old veteran: I feel the same as when we were having parties in London and going out for curries and things. It’s only that I’m lucky enough to travel the World and play the guitar all over the place. And that’s great, and it gives me a whole lot of free time, even though that time isn’t always at home.

How full is your calendar, in fact?

Well, this year I’m going to stop for half a year: when June comes along, I’m not going to work until Christmas, basically. This is the first time in my life that I’m taking off a big chunk of time like that. But normally we travel seven or eight months a year. I couldn’t really do more concerts, I’d go crazy, because I wouldn’t have time to learn new pieces or anything.

It’s not a lifestyle I’d like, I must confess.

Well, it’s a lifestyle that we’ve got used to, because we’ve been married for 19 years, and María travels with me all the time. So half of our life is on the road; and we love it. If we have three or four weeks at home, I get itchy, want to do something.

My family travelled when I was very young, just a kid, so I’ve always done that sort of thing.

I suppose as time goes on, you know more and more people around the World, and so you spend more time with friends than in impersonal hotels…

You know, we’re always happy to see friends, but we stay in hotels, that’s our home. And sometimes with friends you can feel a bit of an imposition…

It can constrain you to their timetable, too.

The Russells with the Tanenbaums and John Gilbert.
The Russells with the Tanenbaums and John Gilbert.

That’s right. Here with John and Alice [Gilbert], we’ve stayed here many, many times, and I love them. But most places, we like to rent a car—even here, we’ve rented a car—and it gives us the same independence and level of comfort that we have when we’re at home.

So we can just say “Let’s go”, and go somewhere. And one of the things we’ve been doing in the last few years, in this country, is we drive the tour. So we’ve driven from New York to San Francisco.

You must like driving better than I do.

I love it! And I love it when the concerts work out so that we have time to drive from one to the other.

It doesn’t always work; but we’ve crossed the [North American] continent a few times, and gone up and down a few times, and hopefully we’ll do more like that.

Do you teach anywhere on a regular basis?

No: I teach in classes, and I teach on courses, and I love doing it. But I probably really love teaching because I don’t teach [regularly]. It doesn’t bore me at all, it’s really exciting to be with a student. But I realise of course that I can’t have that much influence on students. So I think it’s the difference between having a whole lot of influence on very few students, or very little influence on a whole lot of students. In some ways I feel that the workshops are a good complement to the regular teachers. And because I learned an awful lot in masterclasses, mostly with José Tomás, I really value that form of teaching.

He was a very strong teacher, and I think (at that time, in Spain) he was head and shoulders above everyone. Even though I didn’t study with him that often, his way of teaching, his clarity of ideas and his inspiration were what was important.

So when I do classes, I don’t necessarily hope to change a pupil; but if I can inspire them to work for the next six months, then my half hour (or hour) with them is really worthwhile. Just changing a couple of fingerings in a piece, that’s pointless.

And I think that nowadays, students are lucky to have direct contact with people who are doing what they want to do.

I’ve been to quite a few masterclasses, and obviously my level isn’t at the level we’re talking about; but I’ve always found that the most useful thing is, you see yourself in a mirror, which, of course, isn’t usually a comfortable thing. You get someone else’s informed perceptions of your playing.

Yes. And there’s another thing that happens in a masterclass: the student is under much more pressure. And so, what you say has much more power than if you say the same thing in a relaxed situation. And that means that sometimes the masterclass has a certain element that you can never get in a private lesson.

Give me your opinion on this, if you will: I once enrolled in a masterclass of Ben Verdery’s. And I picked the most difficult thing I could actually get through, [Jorge Morel’s] Danza Brasileira. Because I thought, well, if I pick something I can play perfectly, then what’s the point? He’s not going to have anything to address.

But when I explained that to Ben, he said No. He thought that you should treat a masterclass as a performance situation, as a recital to the other students.

I think, for a medium-level player, it’s much better if you play a piece that you really have down. The pressure of playing in front of your peers, in public, is more than that of a concert, really, because you have just a couple of minutes, and have one shot at it, and there’s this guy about a yard away staring at the fingers. It’s much more pressure.

So if you play something that’s too difficult for you, with this pressure on top, you probably won’t play so well. So then the teacher has to spend most of the time just getting your ego back to where you can play OK. And we can’t necessarily fix it.

If the player is really advanced, and they come along and they play Royal Winter Music by Henze, or something, and they play it fantastically well: sometimes, you almost want to say “That was really great. What am I going to change?” There’s no point in looking for problems.

So it is an in-between thing: for a really great player, it’s perhaps good for them to play something they don’t have down quite so well.

But if you’re a medium-level player, it’s better to have something well-prepared, I think: it’s easier for the teacher, and also for the student. Because if I ask you to change something, you can change it more easily, if it’s something you know well enough.

So that’s my opinion, I agree with Ben in that sense.

In fact, last week Ben and I were talking about just this subject: what is better for a masterclass.

There are some kinds of pieces that are great for masterclasses—not necessarily for the student, but for the public that are listening, because they give the teacher scope to talk about many things, demonstrate things. And other pieces that don’t give you so much scope.

That’s an interesting concept. What would be some of the good pieces?

Well for me, a lot of pieces by Bach: for instance, the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, which is not too difficult for the player…

Urp!

[laughs] well, let’s say the Prelude… which gives huge scope for a lot of things to talk about, like musical concepts, style… a whole lot of things that can come out, even if the player can’t play it very well.

So, regardless of the level that the player might be at, it opens the door for the teacher to make it a really interesting masterclass for the public. Whereas certain pieces which are not successful in masterclasses… maybe Britten’s Nocturnal, or something. Because it needs so much time; and if you break it up, it becomes just a set of variations—it loses that grandeur.

So if I were going to work with someone on the Nocturnal, I would actually prefer to do it in private, and have enough time for us to think in long phrases and long ideas.

Usually, certain pieces by Sor and Giuliani are great for masterclasses, because it’s a bit like Mozart: it’s one step between sounding infantile, and sounding glorious. It’s kind of easy for it to sound a little bit stupid.

Barrios is great, Barrios is fantastic—partly because I know almost all his pieces, and so it’s easy for me to play and demonstrate them. But also because there’s a certain kind of musicality within Barrios (and also Tárrega and others) that needs a certain kind of imagination, and you can really help a student make a piece better on that. And it’s great for the class, for the whole audience, if you show the student getting better.

I suppose you’d agree with me that the general technical level of students has gone up?

It’s amazing! You mentioned what Julian Bream said before: and nowadays, each person that does make a career—really make a go of it—has to be a very, very complete player. Because the standard is getting fantastic.

But although people may see that as threatening, in an overall sense I think it’s good. Because when I was young, the general standard of the guitar was nowhere near the general standard of some other instruments (although there were individuals who were close to the level of violinists or whatever). And it’s raising the general level.

Unfortunately, in the past there have been some duffers.

Yes, I’m sure we can both think of examples.

Well, you more than me, because you were reviewing. And I think there was a time in Britain when it really hurt the guitar audience, because there were too many concerts that were not good enough.

But these days, players are so good that most concerts are really good. And hopefully, the bad concerts are something of the past, although it doesn’t mean there won’t be the odd one.

And, of course, a début concert that’s less than perfect because of nerves, is not at all the same thing as a recital by a turkey with no idea what’s happening in the music.

Absolutely! Even if someone’s having a bad night, you can still tell that he’s got it. And even if someone’s having a good night, you can still tell that he’s a duffer.

David in Córdoba.
David in Córdoba (1983).

What about guitars? Have you seen improvements in construction? Because, basically the guitar was unchanged from Torres’s time until people started experimenting in the 60’s (I’m not talking about the weird things that people like Maccaferri made)…

And probably later than the 60’s, I think—there’s been a huge improvement over the last five years. People like John [Gilbert], Smallman and other people… the level of guitar has just gone up enormously. And many of the guitars that I see now would have been counted among the best instruments in Julian Bream’s early days; but not any more. There are many, many really good makers. And now makers have communication among themselves, whereas before, things were like family secrets. Now, makers in South America know what those in Australia are doing. And there’s more access to good wood, it’s easier to get anything from anywhere in the World.

How about modern materials? Have those made a difference?

In some guitars, maybe there’s a slight difference. But there are not many carbon fibre-topped guitars, or anything—they’re still spruce or cedar. Guitar cases, now that’s another matter… [laughter].

And I honestly think there comes a point where each player simply has to search for a guitar that reacts well to his own touch.

You’ve always preferred spruce, if I recall correctly…

Yes, but for the last six years I’ve been playing cedar guitars by Matthias Dammann. I played spruce for many years, but then John made me a cedar, and I used that for some time. I think things almost move like fashions, it depends what famous people are using, and a lot of other people follow that. I think there are qualities inherent in spruce that you’ll never find in cedar; cedar does other things.

I remember your saying to me once that you didn’t want a guitar with a Spanish sound or an English sound—you wanted a guitar that would let you produce the sound you wanted…

Yes, I suppose that’s true: I would like a guitar that didn’t dictate. That’s the ideal.

But realistically, all guitars have a voice, and you have to learn to use that voice. You can’t make even the best guitar sound like a Ramírez, and also like a Romanillos—you just can’t do it.

So do you get bored with the sound you’re currently producing, and want a change?

Absolutely—I’ve got lots of guitars at home! I’ve kind of stopped buying guitars, because for a while…

So you’re not still looking for the perfect guitar?

[laughs]. Well, I kind of am, yes. But I’ve got a few really good guitars, and I’m happy with that.

Your latest recording is Bach. Do you use your own transcriptions?

Yes.

And is that because you’ve heard other people’s transcriptions and found them wanting, or because you want to be in complete control?

I want to do my own. I don’t even trust my own transcriptions from ten years ago: if I’m going to record something, I start again.

You know, most of us—I’m sure that goes for almost everybody—after some years, you’ll decide on a different note, or a different chord shape.

Of course I’ve learned from what Segovia did, and from what other people have done. But I still prefer to start from scratch, and do everything my own way, and only then compare to what other people have done.

For example, the chorale Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring: there are several versions, and Bach used it several times, and he also made an organ version. And so you can see what Bach did when he reduced it from the orchestra down to the solo organ, and things… and hopefully, if you do make any changes, they’re educated changes—by seeing what Bach (and other composers of that time) did when they had to transcribe from one instrument to another.

In that particular case, actually, there’s a problem in getting the tune; so I tuned the 1st string upwards. Now when I want a high D, it’s no longer on the 10th fret, it’s on the 8th fret.

I’m sure you’ve heard guitarists like Göran Söllscher and Paul Galbraith, and of course they use these guitars with extra strings—do you ever feel the impulse to do that?

I would have done it if I felt the impulse strongly enough. It’s not that it doesn’t sound great, I mean it’s good to have a note that’s two tones lower; but the guitar’s already a low instrument. And I don’t think that a slightly lower note improves it so much; that is, at that moment it’s really good, but I don’t think it necessarily makes the musical performance better. So I don’t think it’s worth it for me, although I love hearing other people do it.

I think Paul’s idea of having the second string an E and the first string an A, so you go upwards, is actually a good idea (although I’m not sure whether it will catch on). Because it means that all the Renaissance lute music can just be played straight, since you’ve got the same relationship between the strings.

It’s a lot of physical effort to handle those extra strings. And the more effort you have, the more it hinders your musical production. And so, the less you perform well. So what you gain… that doesn’t mean Paul and Göran are losing that, but they’ve put years and years of effort into that.

I play generally on a 6-string; I’ve got an 8-string, and I play it sometimes, but it’s not something I handle well enough to ever play in concert. And I don’t want to do on a CD something that I can’t do in concert—I’m basically a concert player, not a CD maker.

Well, the extreme is obviously the 11-string Bolin that Göran plays—a lot of people don’t realise the degree of control he has over those bass strings.

Yes—if you let them ring, you just get mud. You really need to spend years to learn to control it, just like we spend years to learn to control six.

So: there is a sort of natural limit to instruments, although some people can stretch it. Yepes’s 10-string didn’t catch on. Why? Well, because people were satisfied with six. And so am I.

When something is extra difficult, sometimes it does need a new musical production. Our job is to hide those difficulties from the audience, and hopefully they will enjoy it. So when you decide what you’re going to add, or take away, or whatever: if you add too many things, it’s going to make it too difficult for you to perform well. So you may think “this is a great bass line”; but if it’s in the middle of a fast Gigue (or whatever), what you gain, you lose in other things.

The final test is the enjoyment of the listener (although of course there’s an intellectual side as well). And so when I put basses into (for example) the Partita in D minor… I don’t want to put anything in that’s going to make my rhythm, or my production of the piece, a mess.

So I’m fairly sparse with the basses.

David Russell teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
David teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

How did you come upon Domeniconi’s music?

The first one I played was the Anatolian Variations [Variations on a Turkish Folk Song]. And then I met him, and he gave me his Koyunbaba and other things.

How familiar did you find the idiom of the Anatolian Variations? Did you play it to him and get his reaction, or…

No, initially I just played it how I could. And then I played it for a Turkish friend, and said “Tell me anything that doesn’t sound Turkish”.

But generally, the music is quite self-explanatory. Koyunbaba, I think, a little less so, and perhaps needs a bit of imagination.

But I’ve played many times in Turkey, I’ve got Turkish music, and you can even get Turkish TV on the satellite.

So, you can listen to the folk idiom. But, the music is not direct folk music. It has one foot in that, but because it’s developed, you don’t need to be Turkish to do it. So I didn’t find the idiom that difficult to understand, and his music really makes the guitar sound great.

Speaking of folk music, tell us about your album Message of the Sea. Is that harking back to your roots? Because I know you left Scotland when you were quite young…

You know, when I lived in London, I had a friend called Dennis Milne who was a double bass player; and we made a record together, and played hundreds of concerts together…

Dennis and I arranged lots of Scottish tunes (well, he did it, mostly). But he was the one that got me into that. We played in lots of castles and stately homes in Scotland; and for those, we had lots of pieces by Scott Skinner and Neil Gow, and things (Dennis died some years ago, unfortunately, in a car crash).

So my record company, Telarc, were talking to me about the next album, I said that I had some really neat pieces, and I’d like to do those.

What would you see as the target audience? Classical guitar fans, or folk fans, or…

Classical guitarists. That album has a lot of classical music in it, like the Sor—it’s not real Folk.

I’m seeing the perennial prophecies of doom and gloom on the ’Net, about how audiences are dropping, and so forth. Have you noticed that?

Not my own audiences. But I think the amount of things on offer—television, the ’Net, whatever—means that a classical guitar concert is going to have to be promoted well.

So it is a problem, that very often the organisers work really hard to get sponsorship, and pay the artist, and then very little of that money goes towards getting people to come.

But classical music generally is suffering right now, because you hardly ever get any on the TV, or radio: we’re being swamped by this other stuff. We’re going to have to fight for our lives—maybe not so much me, but the younger players that are coming up. And some of them are doing it by playing less classical programmes, or sometimes nonclassical programmes—each person has to find their own way.

And the things that are successful will be done more, and eventually we’ll find a balance. Whether we’ll get to hear that many more pieces by Sor, or Bach—who knows? If others don’t want it, the younger guys won’t be doing it. I think it’s a problem.

I notice one thing, in your own programme, for instance: in the old days, programmes were often a sort of dog’s breakfast, with maybe a Bach Gavotte, followed by a Sor Minuet… whereas tomorrow you’re playing an entire Partita

But you know, I think if you look at piano programmes from the 1930’s they were also a dog’s breakfast. Or Kreisler recitals, or whatever. So it’s fairly normal.

We sometimes blame the guitarists for doing this, but they were doing something that at that time was working.

You know, you reviewed hundreds of concerts; and I’m a professional guitarist, so I went to hundreds of concerts. We’re a little bit jaded. And it’s quite hard for us to put ourselves in the mind of a person that may not normally go to hear Beethoven Sonatas and things, but they might go along to a guitar concert. Because they get a kind of variety that is not too difficult to listen to. So is it wrong to cater to them? I don’t think so.

Well, wrong is perhaps a silly word, if it’s used in a moral sense. But in the sense of practicality, or musical or business judgment…

Well, a lot of the guitar-music lovers didn’t necessarily want 25-minute-long pieces, and had real trouble listening to huge great chunks of music.

So times have also changed, and where you play your concerts counts. It’s an idea to speak to the presenter for a particular place, to see what kind of audience they normally have. I’ve sometimes been in a situation where I thought my programme was completely wrong.

That must be an unnerving experience.

Well, you can feel it. If you played something well, and you played the same thing three nights before and the response was really good, it means that something’s wrong: something’s missing. But often you don’t really know, because you send out a programme six months in advance.

I’ve actually seen (on the ’Net) the verb “to Russellise”, and what it seems to mean is quite clear: it means to play a mediocre piece so well that it appears better than it actually is. It’s obviously a compliment of some kind; but how do you feel about that?

[laughs]. It’s a compliment, I’m sure. But, you know, some of our repertoire isn’t fantastic music. So, I feel that if you have a piece that is not so great, you’ve got to play it really well, to make it sound at least good enough to listen to—if you do decide to play it.

And even parts of music, sometimes. Maybe you have the middle of a Sonata by Ponce, or something: some great ideas, but then there’s maybe twenty bars where the guy’s gone to sleep. So the player has to play really well in those twenty bars, because if not, it sounds like garbage.

Whom do you listen to? I’m not going to ask you for names: but do you find yourself listening to CDs of other guitarists at all?

Sometimes, because we get given quite a lot of CDs. But the CDs I have in my car are generally classical music, and some folk music. So that’s really where my taste lies. Spanish folk music… in fact, almost every place we go I like to buy the odd CD of the folk music of the area. So we’ve got Chinese folk music, Taiwanese folk music, which I’ll be listening to when I get home…

Notes

1Unfortunately, when this interview was published the latter part of it was inadvertently replaced by a repetition of the first part (specifically, what should have been page 18 was actually a repetition of page 11, plus the first part of page 12). It is presented here in its uncorrupted form.

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Discography

I have omitted the original discography, as it can be more advantageously found these days on Dave’s website, as can a great deal of other useful information.