Maestro David Russell was invited for the 2016 Calcutta Classical Guitar International Festival in Kolkata. He had an intense schedule with concerts and masterclasses, but he was extremely gracious to give us time for this wonderful interview. Here is the transcript of the conversation with Pune Guitar Society’s Kuldeep Barve.
Note – ‘PGS’ is Pune Guitar Society
photo – davidrussellguitar.com
PGS – Thank you for your time. We would love to hear your thoughts on Clarice Assad’s works.
David Russell – My knowledge of Clarice Assad’s music is quite limited. I have heard her play her crossover, jazz, Brazilian style. I have heard her play with the family, because i have been good friends with Sergio and Odair for many many years. A couple of years ago i was in New York and i met with Sergio and he took me to Clarice’s house. Me and my wife, we went for lunch. I enjoyed meeting Clarice and she gave me one piece of music that a friend of hers had arranged…lovely song! So, i arranged it a little more and i sent her a little video as a kind of present saying thank you..because she had invited us to her house. Later she put it on Youtube or Vimeo, so i also put it up too. It’s a lovely lovely tune….for me it was a nice experience to know her and to know her music.
PGS – Your thoughts on Maestro Sergio Assad’s music…
David Russell – He is making a big impact. He has become a very important composer in the guitar world. I have played one of his first solo guitar pieces – ‘Aquarelle’. He had already played the slow movement, the ‘Valseana’. He then wrote the other two movements of ‘Aquarelle’. I played that one..fantastic piece, very difficult, but great piece. Then some years later, he composed a piece called ‘Eli’s Portrait’, a portrait of Eli Kassner and it was a present for Eli’s 80th birthday, so i performed that one. Some years later he wrote another portrait called ‘Sandy’s Portrait’. That’s a newer piece, maybe three four years old, which i have played too. In between he has written many many pieces. I have not played everything he has written of course, but I will be playing some other pieces of his next year. For me, he is a genius and i love playing his music.
PGS – Can you elaborate on his compositional style and the aspects of his music you like..
David Russell – We are all looking for new music which is accessible for the audience, which the audience can enjoy. As a guitarist it is also very enjoyable. His music is challenging but its guitaristic. If you work hard with his music, you get a good result. It doesn’t go against the guitar. Even if it is physically difficult to play, it is very satisfying to play. Musically, he has found a connection between Brazilian music and classical music. I think its a connection which for me is more classical with a Brazilian taste. Some other people might think that it is more Brazilian with a classical taste. Doesn’t really matter. I also see it as music written by my friend. There is a personal and human connection and i know he has worked for months to write it. I am going to work for months to make it playable. That connection i find very very enjoyable.
PGS – Do you play Leo Brouwer’s music..?
David Russell – I have played it. There was a time when many people were playing Leo Brouwer’s music. I was really looking for something else. But of course, when i was a student, i have played his Espiral…i cannot remember all his pieces, but pieces like Danza, the Fugue..i recorded for the BBC along with several others. I know him. But now, i have not included him in my programs for some years now. Probably because a lot of people are playing his music..
PGS – You have seen and heard his music being performed over the years..with his Concertos..
David Russell – I have played one of his Concertos. The ‘Concerto Elegiaco’. I have played it several times at different places with different orchestras. The Elegiaco is a fabulous piece. It is a deep and strong piece. Sometimes some music can seem flashy, but this one does not go for the flashy element; it goes for the depth. It is also a piece which works fantastically well for the piano and guitar. It really works beautifully for the piano/guitar reduction. There are not many pieces which you can do piano and guitar. it’s always is a bit of a struggle. The ‘Aranguez’ is OK but it loses so much. But Leo’s piece really works well for the piano/guitar. I have only played it once with the piano, but i have seen a good friend play. It was fantastic; it was almost better with the piano/guitar than with an orchestra, almost, because of the power they got between them.
PGS – Stylistically, how do you look at Leo Brouwer and Sergio Assad, two of the most prominent composers for the guitar?
David Russell – Very different. The way they started writing; the way they used the folk music. I must say that Leo Brouwer is writing a lot of new pieces. I heard some recently and they are really exciting. I do think that he is still producing excellent works. I think perhaps Sergio at one point was influenced by Leo’s work, like many composers of course, but Sergio is completely mature and he has really found his own personality..
PGS – With so many classical guitar players and composers writing for the guitar, how do you look at the present and the future of the classical guitar?
David Russell – There are many things happening. There are many composers who are trying out and finding ways to become more popular, which was not done in the 70’s. Was that a mistake? …Well..The composers in the 70’s were writing what they wanted, not what the audience wanted. As a performer, i am caught in between. I would love to play some pieces, but it doesn’t fit for this audience or for that audience..at the same time how far can i go to satisfy the audience? Should i satisfy myself, the composers or the audience? It is a bit of a problem. It’s a situation in which some composers became super atonal, very contemporary, which the audience did not want to go forward with. Some people did, but lot of the general audience did not, unless it was promoted very well. Then there was a compositional attempt at more contemporary ‘popular’ music. I think that we are somewhere in between at the moment. There are some beautiful pieces written in this vein, which develop this more popular idea, but not relinquish the emotional and intellectual content which is possible in popular music. It’s a thing that classical music is struggling for its audience and with the invasion of the internet etc. and basically because of the influence of pop music everywhere. For instance, when you turn on the TV, when do you hear one classical note? You could watch it one whole day before you hear something which is not electronically produced. So the young people are growing up with it(classical music) not being a part of their experience..their musical experience. It’s a pity, but it is what is happening. But classical musicians need to work, we need to fight to not lose out completely. Percentage of CD sales…classical music at one point was 20% of CD sales in the 80’s and 90’s. It was pretty good. Now it is not even 3%. The companies cannot sell much which means the promotion and money in classical music is much smaller than it used to be compared to other music in general. It’s a very big subject. As classical guitarists we are kind of outside that a little bit and hopefully we can get enough people who love jazz or rock music to come to classical music through the guitar. They might not want to go to the opera just yet, but they might come to a guitar concert! So we can perhaps offer a little bit of a bridge and hopefully…simply because the instrument, the guitar is so popular that hopefully we can get people to listen to classical music. People just do not know this beautiful music and if we do it well then we can get people come again and again and listen to concerts of young players.
I would like to add to this…we should always show our enthusiasm for our art. If we are enthusiastic, energetic and exciting about it, then it is easier to pull people in. If we are boring and intellectual, then even if we have something fantastic, it sounds boring. We must not be boring..
PGS – Do you think this is because guitarists have been living in their own ghettos and have not really made that attempt to reach out..?
David Russell – At one point, yes. At that time it was not necessary. There were enough people involved with classical music generally. It dint matter if a few people did not want to listen to it. It’s not longer the case. We have to work hard, study the past, the history etc. but we have to bring it to life…
PGS – How do you look at the guitar in the context of the larger world of classical music today?
David Russell – I think we have always been on the side, kind of fringe element. Even in the times when the lute was played. Lute was part of all the groups but solo lute was slightly aside..If you think of the great classical period of say Mozart of Beethoven etc. the guitar was around, but was always on the side..in the salons. Always kind of little bit on the side. Now, in the present with all the fantastic orchestras, London, Berlin etc., the guitar is there, but still on the side.
PGS – Do you think this can change now with much improved amplification..?
David Russell – Perhaps. We have to accept that, i think the guitar sounds beautiful un-amplified. But the amplification systems have got better and the microphones have got better. We can hopefully amplify without sacrificing the qualities of our sound, quality of musical expression if you like..i think it’s possible.
PGS – Your thoughts on guitar pedagogy and the changes happening in learning/teaching methods?
David Russell – The old systems of learning..if you look at the books written by Fernando Sor or Carcassi, they are still OK to look at, but i think many of the teachers have adapted methods which perhaps work better for our society, which has changed. Unfortunately all instruments are difficult to play and now the young people are growing up with kind of life where you learn something very quickly. Video games etc..everything is short attention span. In older times everything took longer and people expecting to be practicing for the extra hours. The discipline required to play an instrument like the guitar or the piano is enormous. So the young people who get excited and want to learn, hopefully they learn the discipline which also help them be an engineer, a doctor or an architect which also requires study of many hours and absorbing a lot of knowledge. So i think when children learn to play an instrument, even if they do not become virtuosos, its part of learning discipline and learning how to concentrate for longer periods. Everything you hear on TV etc. is all short and sweet. Very few long scenes, even in big films. Everything has changed really, whereas before scenes were longer..I do not want to say one is good and the other is bad. It’s not that, it is the way it is. So, for young people to learn an instrument is a fabulous thing. But we must make it interesting for them. The teachers..i do not have a method or anything, but if i was going to teach young children i would make them excited about learning. And if they get excited, they will put in the time. When you realize the more you practice, the better you get. So the new methods are designed accordingly. There are some Suzuki methods where the children play together. Those things are working very well. Especially for the initial stages of learning. It’s another matter you know, who reaches the really high level and becomes a professional or hopefully an aspiring professional. But all the people who are learning, they will have a fantastic time learning the guitar. They wont be professionals and that is OK.
PGS – Maestro, our last question. Please share your thoughts on the act and the art of listening..
David Russell – It all goes together..the art of listening is also perhaps not the way it was. Pieces used to last for 30 and 40 mins. Now most pieces are 4 mins. Short pieces go well with audiences. Except for experienced audiences. To become a good listener is to learn to enjoy it. If you learn to enjoy it, you obviously have to learn to experience it a lot. You cannot suddenly listen to the Bach ‘Chaconne’. You have to start with shorter pieces and if you like those, then eventually you might listen and enjoy the Bach ‘Chaconne’. But do not start with that. Start with smaller pieces. Maybe if you go to a concert, you might get some long pieces. It’s always a good experience. But for the young people, perhaps they have to put in the effort and the time. For most people now, they have the CD and they have it on the phone and they jump from piece to piece…I do the same! I am not saying its bad..we all do it. We listen in a different way compared to when we listened to LPs. When i was a young man, with LPs you could not do that. You would have to ruin your record! So, you put it on and you listen to it. Now its just so easy..you have your telephone and you just jump it from one track to another..Maybe the musicians and players have to consider that. In the concert, luckily people cannot zap you. In the concert, you have got them and they have got you. So the ability to listen in general needs more work. In the time of your or my parents there were no beeps..the noise was much lower. It’s now very different. The human society likes excitement. If you have two shops and one is playing loud music with beats, most people will be attracted to that. Of course some people will go to the gentler place. But not the first time. The first time they will go to the place which seems more exciting and only when that excitement has worn off, perhaps some people will turn to western classical music, which is more gentle. Even the more exciting western classical music is more gentle than say rock. Some people perhaps need to go through the more exciting things before they look for something more quiet…if their personality likes that. Its OK. We have to learn to live with these differences. We classical guitarists play an instrument which has a very low volume in comparison to the level of volume in our life…
PGS – Do you think listening should be included in guitar or instrument learning syllabus?
David Russell – Perhaps that is a good idea. But when something is made into part of pedagogy, it becomes very strict. If the children are playing the guitar and they have some guitar music on their phones or iPod or something, they will listen to it, if they are excited about listening to it. Its up to the teachers to keep them interested. If they do not lose their interest, they will stay with it. If their interest stays long enough, they will get good at it. Sometimes, even if the teacher is using a bad method, but if they are excited about it, then it is good. Another teacher might have the perfect hand position and the perfect method, but if they are boring, then the students get bored with it. So it is about mixing these two things. Get good hand positions, good musical knowledge and keep the excitement as well.