Guitarist David Russell Chats About Music and Recording Techniques

Classical guitarist David Russell

Classical guitarist David Russell was born in Glasgow in 1953, and raised in the town of Minorca. Upon studying the guitar at the Royal Academy of Music, he twice won the Julian Bream Guitar Prize. Wins at the Andrés Segovia Competition, the José Ramírez Competition, and Spain’s Francisco Tárrega Competition helped to further propel him to an international career, which continues strong.

Russell made his first recording in 1978, toward the end of the first LP era. His discography now extends to 24 recordings, the last 14 of which have been for Telarc. Among them is the CD Aire Latino, which won the 2005 GRAMMY award for Best Instrumental Solo – Classical.

In April of 2009, Russell released For David, a marvelous Telarc CD of works written especially for him. The range of expression is exceptional. One of the CD’s highlights is Sergio Assad’s flowing Aquarelle, which begins with astounding bursts of color. Steve Goss’ three-movement El Llanto de los Sueños (The Weeping of Dreams), inspired by the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, starts off dreamily, but soon becomes energetically and emotionally charged. To balance Ben Verdery’s Now and Ever, an impassioned statement against slavery, the CD ends with a trio of works by Phil Rosheger, including the sweet Lullaby to Wake Up With.

Moved by the beauty of For David, I was delighted to discover that Russell was about to perform in San Francisco. Wanting to learn more about his craft, I gave him a call. Here’s what he had to say:

Classical guitarist David Russell

Jason Victor Serinus: I listened to your CD last night. It’s so beautiful. I assume that over the years, many compositions have been written for you.

David Russell: Yes. To do this CD, it was difficult to choose amongst them. In the end, I chose pieces that I’ve kept in program, played in concert. There are many others I’ve also played that people have written for me. But you have to stop somewhere.

JVS: Do you tend to play these compositions the most?

DR: All I’ve played in concert. This year, I’ve got Steve Goss’s piece on my programs. Last year I played Ben Verdery’s piece and Phil Rosheger’s. The Assad music I played six or seven years ago. They’ve all been successful in concert and I’ve enjoyed playing them. Those are the reasons I’ve chosen them.

JVS: By the time I got to the Goss, all I could say to myself was how beautiful the music and playing are. Your tone is so warm and sensual. How many years did it take you to develop your sound?

DR: I don’t know. I’ve been playing since I was two or three. I suppose I had to work at it at the start.

Tone production on a CD is an art. I’ve made maybe 15 CDs with Telarc. The last 12 or so have been with the same engineer, Tom Knab, and the last 10 or so have been recorded in the same hall. Tom has also really worked on reproducing my tone. Also, we record in a concert hall, so all the reverberation you hear is produced by the hall, not electronics.

I’m going to be recording in a few weeks, and I know that when I get there, Tom will be set up exactly as we had it last year, and we’ll go from there. We may tweak it a bit if we try some new mikes, but often we go back to what we used maybe three years ago. Ultimately, the tone production is also the recording quality, a lot of which is Tom’s work.

Classical guitarist David Russell

JVS: You’re performing in Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. Given how dry the venue is, is what you hear onstage different than what you usually hear from a hall?

DR: My guitar has a very warm sound. I work at making it sound as if it has a big acoustic. I’ve played Herbst many times, and it doesn’t sound dry too much at all. It’s more a perception that when you first get there, if you plink the guitar, it will sound dry. But if you give it a deep sound, it’ll sound great.

JVS: So you know how to adjust your sound for different acoustics.

DR: I have to, because I play in different halls all the time. If I’m playing in a dry hall, I have to be careful not to play too fast, because the temptation is to speed things up because you don’t get anything back. The temptation is also to play too loud, because you think no one can hear you, which actually sounds worse. Whereas in a dry-ish hall, everybody can hear you anyway. It’s not a problem, really.

A lot of the warmth that you hear in a person’s playing has to do with the expression. As long as I remain expressive in my playing, even if the sound of the hall is a little bit dry, the feeling won’t be dry. I hope.

JVS: There’s a wonderful tenderness in many of your passages. Is there a lot of editing on the recording?

DR: A fair amount. Editing for me is a tool we can use. I like to play a piece completely from top to bottom a few times. Then, whatever complete performance I think is best, I subject to editing, I prefer that to recording patchwork from the beginning. By recording complete, the whole concept of the piece is still there, even though the editing is about dropping in the little bits that were not clean enough.

Editing is a tool to be used in the same way that an actor in a film is not the same thing as an actor onstage. It’s a different concept. You have no excuse, if you get to edit, that the record ends up sounding no good. You have no excuse. So there’s no point saying that the reason a recording is bad is because there’s very little editing. You can’t sell that. Whereas, if I have no excuse, I really do have to do my best. I feel that the bad player, no matter how much editing they do, still sounds like a bad player, but without mistakes.

Editing is kind of like the eraser for Picasso or whomever. The concept is very different from playing a concert, which is more like acting in live theater. It’s a different feeling.

To be honest, with today’s tools, if you can hear an edit, it’s a bad edit. It’s totally impossible to hear if you do it well. You need to choose the place properly – not in the middle of a run or some inappropriate place.

JVS: You said you started playing when you were two…

DR: Basically, I don’t remember when I started, but I think I always played the guitar. My parents told me that my father started teaching me when I was a little boy.

JVS: What about the guitar spoke to you and made you want to stick with it?

DR: I suppose it was because, at home, there were only a guitar and a flute. My father plays guitar, and he has a lot of old André Segovia recordings. That’s what I heard at home, and it became normal.

When I was around 10 or 14, I really wanted to do it seriously. It just became natural that that was the thing I wanted to do.

JVS: Is it like your voice – the way you speak your heart? It’s interesting what sounds we choose to speak in.

DR: I suppose I was just lucky that the instrument I was playing is one I enjoy. It also satisfies many things. Musically, I like to be able to do the whole thing, and not just be a cog in an orchestra. It’s very beautiful to play in an orchestra, but I like to be in charge.

The guitar also gives me a chance to travel many, many places. It’s an instrument that kind of crosses the border between the classical and non-classical worlds. We’re often kind of in the gray area. There’s a million things you can do with the guitar.

In some ways, the guitar is there because I can’t sing. I play the guitar instead.

JVS: Was your father a musician?

DR: My father is an artist – he paints pictures – but the guitar is his hobby, if you like.

JVS: What kind of music surrounded you as you grew up? And you grew up where? I can guess from your accent, but your bio isn’t clear.

DR: I grew up in Minorca, a little island in the Mediterranean Sea. My parents moved there when I was six. Although I’m Scottish, I’ve lived many more of my years in Spain, including now.

JVS: Which is so perfect for the guitar.

DR: It helps. It’s nice to have grown up with Spanish folk music at home and around. A lot of the children play guitar in the little village where I live. And my father and mother mostly love classical music.

My father also loves old style jazz, and has lots of records of Django Reinhardt and players like that. He’s not really a jazz freak. He loves flamenco as well. I’ve never really done much flamenco, but it’s certainly interesting to have done some, and my father was mad keen on flamenco.

JVS: Since the guitar straddles the line, do you play pop music? Where is your focus and deepest love?

DR: I’m completely classical. I never played electric guitar in a rock band or anything like that. I like folk music a lot. Rock music and pop music arrived in Spain later; in the sixties, when I was growing up, Spain was a little bit behind. You heard much more Spanish folk music than the Beatles, who arrived a little bit later. The kids in the village who were three or four years younger than me all went into pop music.

JVS: Are you experiencing many younger people coming to your concerts?

DR: It goes in cycles, and depends where you play. In the U.S., a lot of young people come. I play a lot of university cities, and a lot of placex, there are lots of students of guitar and all instruments. I just played in Charlotte, and the audience was split between the mostly retired Friends of Music people who support the classical music series, and a whole lot of students. It’s a really strange mixture of everything.

It really depends on each city, and often on the energy of the few people who are doing the organizing and the extent of publicity. I’m seeing my concerts fairly full these days. I’m glad that things are not suffering too much. I wonder how many people will be going out each night, but people seem to still keep coming.

JVS: The guitar to me is a very inward and subtle instrument. In an era where people are so into electronics and driving, mechanistic beats, is it difficult for people to slow down and sink into the subtlety and nuance of the guitar?

DR: I would think so, because the younger generation has a shorter attention span. Everything comes in little snippets and driving rhythms. It’s kind of unusual for a person to sit still and listen for a few minutes, let alone to a symphony or something that’s many minutes. But a whole concert of guitar, where it’s really quiet in comparison to their general life, is not easy. There is a certain amount of education necessary for someone to reach that level. It’s very difficult for someone to go straight from listening to the heavy, driving rhythm and walk into a guitar concert. They have to become accustomed to it.

On the other hand, there are enough people who are willing to make that initial effort. Once they start seeing the magic there, I think it’s working. But it’s up to the educators and people in the schools. Unfortunately, the classical world is losing out a little bit there.

I don’t think we’re going to disappear; I think our music is by far the most developed form of music. As the most developed form, not everybody is going to like it. It’s not for the masses, if you like. I don’t want to be elitist; it’s just that it does require some steps before someone reaches it.

Here’s an example. If you’re 14 or so and someone gives you a first sip of beer, you think, god, it’s worse than cough medicine. But when you start going out with your pals, you like one beer, and then another brand. Then you grow up a little bit and your try some wine. It tastes horrible, but you slowly culture your bouquet until you can discern between wine in a paper carton and something better. Eventually you want the better wine, and you’re willing to pay for it.

In some ways, I think in the whole world of fine arts, be it music or the visual arts or whatever, there’s a kind of process toward the more cultured or developed forms. It requires a few steps, and not everyone is willing to devote the effort.

Different kinds of music are made for different situations. At a party where everyone wants to jump around, classical music is a killer. The driving rhythm is what you need. Each kind of music has its place.

JVS: Do you have any new goals for yourself, or areas you want to move into?

DR: One of the goals was to make a CD of pieces that have been written for me in my lifetime by friends that I know. We’ve been talking about making this CD for some years, but it has taken some time. That’s one of my goals covered.

My wife and I travel everywhere together. We don’t have kids. We’re basically on the road nine months of the year, so there are some things we’re not able to do. I have to practice every day. So this month we’re going to take a six-month sabbatical after the summer and do some of the things that, because of this lifestyle, are usually not possible. We’re going to go to India, Africa, and some places without the guitar and do some things that we haven’t been able to do. Those are our goals for next year.

There are some other major projects that are coming up. Because we move around a lot and know so many people, we have an NGO that’s becoming more and more important in our life. We’re slowly going to dedicate more time to it in the next few years. It’s not really a musical goal, it’s just a goal in life. It’s very small, and has our name on it. We put some money aside, either our own or from others, to basically finance wells in little towns in Africa, and a couple of schools in India. We want to go there and see them, and inaugurate one of the schools after the summer. That’s the idea.

JVS: And musical goals?

DR: At the moment, I’m lucky that Telarc still wants to make records with me. A lot of my friends who are good players don’t have contracts. But at the moment, my goal is in two weeks time, to make another good CD.

There are also a whole lot of pieces I’ve never played. My musical goals in some ways are to play certain parts of the repertoire that I’ve neglected.

As a performing musician, I’m kind of concerned as to how long the career will keep going. But at the moment, I seem to be doing fine. I feel like I’m playing just as well as when I was 30 years old. I just want to keep it there at the moment [laughs bashfully].

JVS: I understand that right now, Telarc only has classical music recordings scheduled for a year in advance. Usually it’s for longer.

DR: We just have to accept what’s happening. I don’t want to get involved in all the work of making my own record. At the moment, I just have to trust that all the Telarc people are going to want to keep going.

JVS: Do you do well in terms of downloads?

DR: It’s going pretty well. Because guitarists tend to be quite modern, more so than opera people, downloads have grown pretty fast in the guitar world. A lot of young people are playing the guitar, so there’s a lot of interest.

JVS: What do we have to look forward to in your next CD?

DR: I made two last year, so the next one that is going to come out is of South American music. When I did the contemporary music one, we decided I’d make two in the time I usually take to make one. I think the South American one comes out next year.

In two weeks, I’m going to record all Albéniz. This year is 100 years since his death, so I’ve been doing a lot of his music in concerts.

JVS: Thank you so much for the time we’ve spent chatting. I’m very grateful.

DR: Has been a pleasure. Bye bye.