'I am a soloist, completely'

Print edition : January 20, 2017

David Russell, renowned guitarist. Photo: Ashoke Chakrabarty

Interview with the classical guitar icon David Russell.

IN the world of Western classical music, the name David Russell hardly needs an introduction. Considered one of the greatest living classical guitar players, Russell is known throughout the world for the unique tonal quality of his music, sublimity of expression and ingenuity of interpretation of compositions. He was awarded the Grammy in the category of Best Instrumental Soloist in Classical Music in 2005. In 1997, he became a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Academy of Music, London. Born in Scotland in 1953, Russell spent his childhood in Minorca, Spain. The town even named a street after him—“Avinguda David Russell”.

Russell was in Kolkata to take part in the Calcutta International Classical Guitar Festival, which was held on December 16-18, 2016. In an exclusive interview to Frontline, the affable and unassuming guitar legend spoke extensively about his music and his passions. “I am always looking for something new and interesting and hopefully it will be exciting for the audience,” he said. Excerpts:

When did you first pick up the guitar?

I started before I can really remember. My father was an artist, but he also played the guitar and he taught me when I was a baby. I took it seriously when I was around 12 or 14. That was when I started thinking of myself as a guitarist. Why the guitar? Because that was the instrument we had in the house, and my father had a collection of records by Andres Segovia. We used to listen to Segovia’s music a lot.

It must have been quite a thrill for you when Segovia wrote you a congratulatory note after hearing you play. How old were you then?

Ah, yes, of course. I think I was about 18 or 19 at that time. I had played for him at different times. He was very kind and spoke to his agent in London about me. For a young guitarist, it meant a lot to me at that time.

You are Scottish by birth but you spent your childhood in Spain. How big a role did the musical ambience there help you to develop as a guitar player?

For guitar playing, it helped a lot because many people play the guitar there. Many kids in the village where I lived played the guitar, more to accompany songs. But the atmosphere was very good for music. Also, you get to hear a lot of classical Spanish music there.

What other instruments do you play?

I play, very badly, the violin [laughs] and I also played the French horn. That is because when you study at the Royal Academy, you have to play other instruments as well. My level of playing [the violin and the French horn] was not so good; it was just ok. I was in this small amateur orchestra, and we would play some Beethoven. But my soul is the guitar.

Apart from Segovia, who else were your influences?

I would say Julian Bream and also John Williams. When I was studying in London, they were living there and playing many concerts. Bream came to the Royal Academy sometimes and listened to us. He was very good to me. He said some things that really changed my life. Later I got to know Williams. He has this fantastic technique. I saw how good you have to be to do this for a living, and that the level is very high in the general world.

Sometimes young players may be the best in their towns, but they don’t know if that is good enough. Initially, I didn’t know myself, until some years later when I found out how much I had to do to get to a level that was enough, shall we say, to be a professional guitarist. Seeing how Williams played was a great education—his comfort with the instrument and music and his amazing abilities with his hands. This was when I was around 19. It made a big change, and I got a lot better.

How many hours do you practice?

When I am at home, I probably play for around four hours—but then sometimes it is for two hours and on some days for five hours. But if I am between concerts and not learning new compositions, and I am really just maintaining myself, I usually practice the basic stuff—the techniques, etc. That is not really for many hours. Usually, I play for an hour or two in the morning, and if there is time, for another couple of hours in the afternoon.

You have played for many composers. What makes you decide or agree to play a particular composition?

I wish I knew, for then I could tell the composer what to do [smiles]. I have no idea. I am always looking for something that is new and interesting and hopefully exciting for the audience.

Sometimes you learn something, and then you just feel, “Oh, this is just not going to work”. I may have even worked on something for three weeks and then realised that it is just not happening. That can happen for modern pieces, for contemporary friends who are composers, as well as old pieces.

As a teacher of music what do you stress on?

It depends at what level the student is and what he wants to do. But if they are serious students who want to spend their lives doing this, then I like to show them that they have to get a good level of technique. They also have to be interesting and exciting in their playing; they have to make the music go over to the audience, to find a way to communicate with the audience. They can’t do that without the basic equipment. That is important if one wants to be at a very high level.

For a teacher of young students —I don’t really teach children any more—it is very important to maintain their enthusiasm. Kids come all excited about wanting to learn to play the guitar, and then after two weeks they lose interest because it is too difficult. A teacher of young children has to know how to keep their interest by giving them just the right repertoire, the right pieces, and maybe a few melodies, and slowly bring the students up to a level. The first year is very difficult. I have seen very talented students, with good fingers losing interest because it got too difficult. The technical aspect is important—to get the fingers, etc., right—but only once the children are into it. At the beginning it has got to be enjoyable.

Most of my work has been with very serious students who want to be professionals.

With your concert schedules all over the world, how much time do you get to teach?

Almost none. I teach at a university in Arizona [United States] and I also teach at the Royal Academy, but I go there twice a year and spend a few days with the students. I no longer have my own students. I don’t have a job. Who wants a job? [laughs]

My wife and I are lucky to be able to travel all over the world and do concerts. It gives us an opportunity to go to new places and visit new cities. Before coming here [Kolkata], I played a concert in Singapore, spent some days in Yangon [Myanmar] and then visited Gujarat. I came here a few days ahead of my concert to practice, because for the past weeks I was without my guitar. But between practice [sessions], we walked up and down the streets of Kolkata, took strolls by the river. I consider myself lucky to be able to do that. I will teach when I can’t play any more [smiles].

What do you generally listen to?

Mostly Western classical music. I also love folk music of different places. I have quite a few albums of Indian folk music. I enjoy root music, the original. I am not so fond of crossover and fusion music. I don’t really like jazz and ragas combined. It’s like putting honey over your rice. I prefer to listen to jazz separately and Indian music or Spanish music separately. But mostly I listen to Western classical. For instance, when I get in my car, the music I turn on will inevitably be Western classical.

I enjoy listening to young guitar players. They are searching and finding new repertoire. I see in them the enthusiasm that I had—I still have —when I was 30. At that age you are more ambitious, you’re struggling, you want to get better. I’d like to go and see Johannes [Swedish classical guitar player and composer Johannes Moller, who had come down to Kolkata to play at the guitar festival] play tonight. I’d like to see what he is doing because he has written some new pieces that I find very enjoyable.

Not a good improviser

When you play alone and for yourself, do you improvise?

Not so much. I am not a very good improviser; at the most, I doodle. But in classical pieces, what we do is more of ornamentation than improvisation. When you repeat something, you add a few trills and maybe even a scale—it is very common in baroque music. But not everybody does it. It is a common thing to do in Vivaldi’s compositions, not so much in Bach because Bach is usually very complex.

A good improviser has to be very free within a structure. Many musicians in the classical period also improvised. Bach was apparently a great improviser within his own style. I, too, sometimes add things in pieces that I play, but I don’t really consider that as improvisation as a flamenco player does.

How much personal interpretation is it possible to give a classical composition, given that it is all set and written down?

Yes, it is written down, but in the same way that a book is also written down. Your personality and how you interpret the book comes out when you read it out loud. Your personality brings it to life. It will be different from the way another person will read the same book. So, if you play a piece by Bach, it will sound different when I or someone else plays it, even though it will be the same notes that all of us are playing. One of the challenges is how to find that personality and how to expand it and make it interesting to the audience. So, when you go to hear a piece by Bach, which has been there for 200 years, it is worth listening to because it is new and alive and will only happen this time. I see a performance more like the theatre—there you use the words to create an event. The words will be the same tomorrow, but the event will be different.

You are considered one of the greatest solo classical guitar players. Do you also like being a part of an orchestra?

No, I am a soloist, completely. But sure, it is also nice to be a part of a group, but for me only once a year maybe. Even with an orchestra, I am usually the soloist. I grew up as a soloist and learnt to do this thing not as part of a team, but by myself. If you play, for example, the oboe, you have to be part of a team. The guitar is essentially a solo instrument.

Tell us something about your instrument, and why you chose that particular guitar?

This one [pointing to his guitar] is 15 years old. I have a newer one by the same maker, Matthias Dammann. He is from Germany and he is a genius. I have been using his guitars for the past 20 years. This guitar is the one I use most of the time. I have played this guitar for all my albums for the past 15 years.

I have other guitars at home which also sound good, but I always come back to this one. This one does most of the things that I want from a guitar. It has a good bass, a lovely singing treble and it is comfortable to play.

When you are a young player, you get a chance to get a good guitar—everything is better than your bad first guitar—you adapt your playing to this new good guitar. Eventually, comes a time when you don’t want to adapt anymore. I play a guitar my way, if it sounds good, that is great, if it does not then I will not use it.

Matthias has always understood my need. There have been times when he made a new one, and I took it, and then I gave it back, telling him that my old one was better. The last guitar he made for me was better than the rest, but he did not want to give it to me immediately. He wanted to study it because something extra happened in the making of that guitar. So he kept it for a year or two, and I continued with this one [the guitar in the picture]. As for strings, I have been using D’addario strings of normal tension for years.

Besides music what are your other interests and passions?

I used to play tennis, but now I play golf. I love photography; I have several Canon [cameras] at home. It is a hobby that I can travel around with. I am also a runner. My wife and I run marathons. Three weeks ago [late November], we ran a marathon in Valencia [Spain]. We run usually two marathons a year, which gives us an incentive to be fit. For training, I usually run about 120 kilometres a month, around three or four days a week. My timing in the last marathon [42 km] was four hours and 20 minutes. I am not super fast, but then I am over 60 [laughs].