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Interview: Eliot Fisk - Classical Guitarist

April, 2007

Jason Victor Serinus


As the last direct pupil of the legendary Andrés Segovia – the artist responsible for elevating the modern guitar from the tavern to the concert stage – Eliot Fisk continues to perpetuate his teacher's legacy. Taking his cue from Segovia's pioneering guitar transcriptions of Renaissance and Baroque works for lute by Weiss, J.S. Bach, and other composers, Fisk has transcribed works for various instruments by Bach, Scarlatti, Haydn, Mozart, and Paganini.

Just as Segovia inspired new works from Roussel, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Casella, Turina, De Falla, Ponce, Villa-Lobos, and a host of others, Fisk has in turn commissioned works from Berio, Balada, Bolcom, Montsalvatge, Maw, Rochberg, and Schwertsik.

Fisk is hardly content to merely concertize, record, and retreat to Granada, the Spanish city where Segovia developed his craft. As founder and director of the annual Boston Guitar Fest, held every June at the New England Conservatory, Fisk approaches his role as teacher with the zeal of a preacher. His work has been recognized by King Juan Carlos of Spain, who asked the Spanish consul to the United States, Enrique Iranzo, to present the coveted Grand Cross of Isabel la Cátolica to the artist at a special ceremony at the Boston Guitar Fest 2006.

This interview, conducted under the auspices of Ma Bell, took place last fall, shortly before Fisk was set to join the Miro Quartet for a concert at Yale's Morse Recital Hall.

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Jason Victor Serinus: Does this performance mark the premiere of Leonardo Balada's Caprichos (seven movements after songs of Federico Garcia Lorca for guitar and string quartet)?

Eliot Fisk: It was premiered at the University of Texas in Austin, as a commission done for us by the Austin Classical Guitar Society. The society is run by a former student of the guitar professor at the University in Austin. I'm not sure if it was a collaboration with the University as well.

By the time we do it at Yale, we will have done it other places. There won't be too much premiere left [laughing]. It's almost our last concert together in the U.S. in 2006; we'll also do it a bunch of places in 2007.

It's a very interesting piece. Leonardo Balada was born in Catalunya, Spain, but has been Professor at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh for a number of years. He's written quite a lot for the guitar over the course of his lifetime, and has been associated with some of the great guitarists such as Andrès Segovia. Angel Romero was the dedicatee of one of his guitar concertos, which I recorded for Naxos maybe five years ago.

As a result of that recording project, we developed a friendship. I was thinking that, in the modern era, there are a few pieces for guitar and string quartet, but there's really only one that's hugely successful, by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, which was written about 50 years ago. I felt it was time for something else, maybe a guitar quintet, where the guitar can really shine as a soloist.

I came up with this idea and proposed it to Leonardo, who liked it a lot, of having a piece for guitar and string quartet that was inspired by the Spanish folksongs that were collected by the great poet, Garcia Lorca. I sent Leonardo a bunch of the folksongs, and from these themes, he chose seven of them. He based the seven movements of the guitar quintet, Caprichos, on these seven tunes, and subjected them to his Dali-esque modern vision of these quite old folk tunes from different parts of Spain.

JVS: Am I correct that Revueltas wrote works to poetry by Lorca?

EF: Oh, I'm sure. Lorca has been one of the seminal inspirational figures across the entire 20th century. So many, many people, including Castelnuovo-Tadesco, who wrote a piece for guitar and chorus based on Lorca's work, have been inspired by Lorca. He's inspired people across every possible trajectory of cultural activity. I don't happen to know about Revueltas. But Lorca has the stature of a 20th century Shakespeare for the Spanish-speaking world. Huge, huge.

The wonderful thing about Lorca that comes out in this guitar quintet is the wondrous mixture of the absolutely fundamental folkloric and the sensibility and erudition of an aristocrat. It's a wonderful fusion of the visceral power of the folk element with the refinement and sophistication of the aristocratic part of human nature.

JVS: How has the piece been received?

EF: It's only been played once, and it was extremely well received. Enormously well received. Balada has written some very dissonant, hard-to-fathom modern works, but this, I think, has its weirdnesses, but it's also somewhat similar to Dali in musical terms, in that in the midst of the sometimes surreal treatment of these ancient folk themes ,there's a very recognizable sort of total or reprsetational aspect.

JVS: You have played Herbst Theater in San Francisco many times. You may recall that it's a very dead hall…

EF: Yes, I remember that it's very dry. But if you put the sound out, it will come out there. Maybe some of the classical guitar players of today have forgotten the gutsy, romantic, virtuosic heritage that we come from. I think some of them have gone the direction of what to me is – in the effort to perhaps correct some of the excesses of the old-style romantic approach. Some of them have gone overboard and so reduced the chromatic, and dynamic, and emotional palette of the guitar that it's become sort of a second rate upright piano, instead of being a first-rate romantic guitar.

If you suffered in Herbst Theater, it might have been in part because of this. What I'm trying to do in my piece and work( and all my music) is carry on a great romantic tradition that I was fortunate enough to be able to try to inherit very directly from the sources of that tradition. Obviously, Segovia, having been my mentor on the guitar, was one source. So were some his great direct students, with whom I also studied. But also through the other great Spanish artists whom I've been fortunate to know and work with, such as the late Victoria de los Angeles, who was a very great, great soprano…

JVS: I heard her when she was either 73 or 74. When she started singing, I was in an absolute state of wonder.

EF: She was one of the glorious artists of the 20th century. One of the great ones. I had the good fortune to play with her; I did a bunch of recitals with her right at the beginning of my career. She was everything a great artist needs to be. She was sensitive. She was spontaneous. She was unbelievably music. But beyond that, she had a unique personal magic. We can only describe it as a kind of wondrous, Divine gift.

Victoria as a person was pure as the driven snow. I was very saddened by her passing away, and also by the circumstances of her passing away, which were quite tragic.

JVS: Can you tell me about that?

EF: I'm not that well informed. But I know that her husband sort of betrayed her, her trusted secretary also betrayed her. One of her children had Downs Syndrome and she was taking care of him. She was taken advantage of financially by several key people in her life, and probably emotionally as well, because she was really a beautiful, generous, giving, loving person. I always adored Victoria. And, of course, playing with her was always an honor, a privilege, and an education.

She had more artistry in her little finger than most people in her hand. By the time I was playing with her it was the late ‘70s or early ‘80s. It was after what would have been considered her absolute glory years, but the artistry was just unfathomable and unique. It was a unique voice.

JVS: The whole thing of the guitar being lightweight and not being able to carry in big spaces. Does that have to do with how you approach it?

EF: It has to do with a number of things. I've been fortunate enough to have worked with some of the great Flamenco players. I just finished a recording with Paco Peña, who is now living in London. I've played a lot of duo concerts with him over the years. So the Flamenco style has also influenced me a lot in a lot of my classical work, whether playing Spanish pieces or even some of the most crazy, avant-garde modern stuff, such as works by Rochberg or the Berio Sequenza, which is totally inspired by the Flamenco tradition.

The Berio is a humongous 16 or 17-minute guitar piece in one movement. He was another seminar figure in the 20th century. In the guitar Sequenza, Berio really does two things. He pays homage to Spain, exploring every possible resource of the guitar. But he also, in all the Sequenzas he wrote, all of which are portraits of the people for whom they were written, wrote the way Mozart said in that famous letter how he would fit the aria to the voice the way the glove maker fits the glove to the hand. Berio wrote each Sequenza with a specific virtuoso in mind.

When I came to play the guitar Sequenza, I realized, God, this really is a Flamenco piece. Berio himself said I could say that in interviews. So I try to fuse with all the subtlety of the classical tradition and all the wonderful nobility of an ancient tradition of guitar playing that goes back to the 1500s, where our repertoire begins with some very beautiful, sometimes austere 16th century counterpoint – polyphonic fantasies in four voices – which is a repertoire that I find young people today don't even study.

When I teach, I try to give the whole range. I insist that they all learn four to five difficult, imitative pieces of Renaissance polyphony which people don't play or study anymore. From there, I try to show them some basic Flamenco techniques, which in a way you could say is the opposite extreme, a completely instinctive approach to the instrument. Then I try to fill in all the spaces in between. What I'm trying to do with the guitar is to show its tremendous expressive range. Rather than to restrict because of worrying about one 1/16th note not coming out perfectly clear, and to obsess over little details, which maybe are important, but in the course of things aren't really what artists exist for. Not to say that I don't work as carefully as anyone else, note for note, when I'm practicing. But when it comes to a time of needing to communicate from the stage, what I learned from all the great ones I've worked with, be it composers like Berio or Rochberg, or performers like Segovia and de los Angeles, is that what you're looking for is a sort of deeper communication.

In these days in the world, when the world is in such complete and utter chaos, when we're seeing something that we would call civilization threatened from every possible perspective, I think it's an important thing – an important time – to be an artist. Art has to do with the universality and unity of mankind, the common aspiration to a higher and better state of existence than what we can see here on earth. Each artist in his or her own way, is trying to make a little contribution, maybe put one stone in a very big pyramid. In all my work, whether I'm teaching or performing or playing chamber music or developing new repertoire by commissioning it or transcribing it across a 500-year arc of history, I realize that I'm really one little soldier in that thin red line that's trying to hold against the horsemen of the apocalypse who are riding riot all over the world at the present time.

This is something that I think is part of that great romantic tradition. All of these people that were even my reason for getting into classical music in the first place – Segovia on the guitar, and on other instruments Kreisler whom I loved so much, or Rubinstein or Gilels or Horowitz or even Heifetz in his diabolical way – all these artists – Callas, Casals – that whole generation that is now mostly passed away – these people embodied a certain affect and work ethic and moral ethic. They were Egotists with a capital E, where these days are so often running after a kind of cheap and fading and unimportant celebrity that has no relation to whether you've done anything important or not. We all know that we can be sold anything that aren't good for us, from Coca-Cola to the Iraq war – we've been sold all these things by big ad campaigns. We have to step back and ask what's really worth saving, what's really worth preserving and developing further and what do we value about this species if there's even going to be a species.

In my own little corner of classical music, I'm trying to serve this higher ideal. That's what I'm about as an artist, as a guitar player, and hopefully as one of six billion on the planet.

JVS: I live in Oakland's barrio where people are literally fighting turf wars and killing each other. Everything you talk about I experience on a daily basis.

EF: It's fascinating you should say that. I started this little guitar festival in Boston in June '06. We call it The Guitar and the Global Village. I got so tired of people thinking about this very kind of closed, small vision of the guitar that I decided that when we'd do classical guitar, we'd relate it to a lot of other things.

At the New England Conservatory of music in Boston where I teach, we're fortunate to have people who teach a lot of other things. We're fortunate to have this wonderful professor who teaches sitar. The first day we had sitar with a lecture/demonstration and a concert, and in the evening we had Flamenco guitar. The next day we had baroque day, with a wonderful harpsichord player, John Gibbons, who is great – just terrific – and he taught guitar and gave a recital for us. The next day we had the world's number one Bach scholar come in and lecture to us. We went to the Museum of Fine Arts, and we looked at the old instruments and heard them. That evening we had a harpsichord recital. The next day we featured the Armenian oud, Then I played with string quartet. The last day… I kept trying to give a bigger view of the guitar.

The next and bigger guitar festival in Boston, scheduled for June 5-11, 2007 is going to be called La Herencia Latina (The Latin American heritage). We could actually do a whole festival on any one of a bunch of Latin American countries, but we're going to go southwards geographically. We're going to start with Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, and Argentina. I hope to offer everything from the food to the visual arts to the popular dance and popular music, culminating in a significant composer from each of these countries. In the case of Mexico, it would be Ponce, who was Segovia's great friend. In the case of Cuba, probably Leo Brouwer. From Venezuela, we're leaning toward Antonia Lauro; Brazil, Villa-Lobos; Argentina, Ginastera and Piazzolla. The idea is to make this great homage to Latin America. Secondly, to touch on the immigration debate, and remind everyone how much we owe to the Latino presence in our country, and how much good has come of it.

My other goal is, during the year, I want my students to go out to every possible Latino organization in the whole city, be it a senior center, a school, a church – anywhere – I want my students out in the community proselytizing about the festival, and hopefully seducing a few dozen people from the Latino community to come into our festival as listeners or participants in some way. My goal is to try to spread art music across various parts of the culture.

Next year I'm going to take on North America, and see if I can get into the African-American community. It's a huge jump. I don't have any illusion of getting a huge audience. All I want is an audience that is not de facto segregated. I want the same 2% of the Latino community and the African-American community that I have of the white community. I want classical music for what it really. We have a bad rap.

Our concert tickets are cheaper. Our CDs are cheaper. If you go to classical concerts, you can go backstage and talk to the artists. There are no police holding you back. We've got a bum rap as being the elitists, but we're the opposite. All the artists are dying to play for an audience that is not segregated.

The Boccherini we're doing is a piece he wrote for string quartet and guitar inspired by a certain patron of the composer who wasn't a particularly great guitar player. In our version of the Boccherini Quintet, I treat the guitar part sort of like a partially realized figured bass part. In other words, I add a lot of stuff to it, which jazzes it up and makes it I hope more entertaining to listen to.

The quartet plays by itself in the first half. The Miros are playing a quartet by the Spanish baroque/early classical composer Arriaga, a genius who died at the age of 18 or 19. The pieces he left us are so great.

Then I come out doing a solo set, whose contents I don't remember. The second half is the Balada, then the Boccherini Quintet. It ends with the famous Fandango, which is another example of the blending of genres between folk art and so-called classical art.

JVS: These were originally written for a baroque guitar that had a lighter sound than the modern guitar?

EF: The strings also would have had a lighter sound because they were made out of gut.

Some modern scholars now think that Boccherini would have written for a 12-string guitar (6 double strings), and that he might have even had metal strings. Nowadays we use nylon strings. Guitars and lutes have been played with fingernails, with picks, on steel, on gut, on anything at hand for the last 500 years. There's been a lot of debate, but we just don't know what Boccherini was thinking of. We have to remember that, at that time, chamber music was literally that. This piece may have been for a nobleman to play at home with friends and family; the objective was not to fill a 2000-seat hall.

JVS: You've performed with the Miro Quartet before?

EF: We performed together a long time ago, followed by a hiatus because we're all so damn busy. Now we're starting up again. They're a wonderful group; I'm really looking forward to it.

JVS: I read one New York Times article that refers to you as a “young firebrand.”

EF: [Laughing] Now I'm a somewhat older firebrand.

JVS: What were they trying to say?

EF: I think the same Messianic zeal that you've noted in me now has always been a part of my make-up as an artist.

I think to become an artist, there has to be a grain of sand in there to give you that unquenchable desire to create for whatever reason. Artists try to create a universe that makes sense in a universe that often doesn't make sense.

There's that one line in Lorca's poetry about the first bird dead on the branch of a tree. Something like that. It's like in the Lebanon war, there was a photograph on the front page of the Spanish newspaper El Pays of some poor old Lebanese man carrying a dead 8-year old girl with plaster dust all over her. It was just the most heartbreaking photograph. There are so many photographs of civilians being stuck in the middle of these military machines and being ground up. It's all throughout the history of mankind. It goes on and on with no end in sight.

I read a wonderful editorial today in El Pais, translated from English, by a Professor at Columbia named Jeffrey Sachs. He said it's time for an international peace movement. The future of the world is much too important to be in the hands of the politicians. The majority of people in the world have nothing to gain from wars. It's time for an international peace movement like we had in the ‘60s. These horrible lunatics who want to run us off a cliff, setting us against each other killing murdering beating each other. The horror has been going on for a long time. I guess the firebrand thing has to do with this.

The Firebrand thing also has to do with my views about art in society. Bach has this Cantata, “Wachet auf…” (Wake up), and I've always had that sort of temperament. My mother always said that her mother, my maternal grandmother, wanted a son who was a preacher. I think she got a grandson who was a preacher. Maybe that's what people are referring to.

My father was 100% Jewish, my mother was 100% Scottish, so I was raised Quaker.

When Reagan got elected, I said that's it, and I left the country. I was based in Europe for many years. Then I really came back to America during the first term of W. I've tried being an exile and working in the Diaspora, and tried coming back to the belly of the Beast. I've become convinced that in my old age, I need to be in the belly of the beast, because that's the number one wheel that's turning things around the world. Even though I live in Boston, which is this liberal enclave, where people are shaking their heads even worse than in Spain.

I've always been in conflict with the mainstream. My brother who just passed away had Downs' Syndrome. My parents were left wing/liberals and have always been on the fringe of American society. Loving classical music is a fringe thing. I've never been in synch with the dominant trends in society. I'm so used to it that I don't even think of it.

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2007 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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