November/December 1982: Vol.1, N2
by Colin Cooper
One announces one's presence at David Russell's North London home not with anything so ordinary as a bell, so disruptive as a knocker or so suburban as a set of chimes, but with an arpeggio drawn across the strings of a zither by means of a plectrum attached to a length of cord at the other end of which is a carved handle. At once you know you have come to the right address.
Not that there is anything overly aesthetic about the guitarist's appearance. His face is tanned from a stay in Minorca; his sinewy frame would do credit to an Olympian athlete. A windsurfing accident an important thumbnail; patched up with tissue and glue, it typifies his unfussy and practical approach to the problem of reconciling the enjoyment of living with the demands of professional musicianship. You feel that he will never find an insurance company bold enough to insurance those nails, but when he picks up his guitar you realise that it doesn't matter: David Russell is the sort of player who would probably play well even if he had just fallen off the Matterhorn.
Yet he might have become a different musician altogether: a violinist, a pianist, a horn player even. What drew him to the guitar? It was no surprise to learn that it was the records of Andrés Segovia.
"One had Granados, Dance No. 5 and Dance No. 10, another had Sevilla on one side and Granada on the other, another had the Sor variations, yet another had Turina's Fandanguillo. My father was a guitar enthusiast. He started collecting that were turning up in Glasgow shops, along with old jazz records".
"Segovia does some things in those old records, like vibrato and intonation, that I always found slightly haunting. There is a kind of veiled mystery that you can never emulate in new recordings. You can't get that kind of distant sound that comes through all the crackling and popping. I suppose that sounded fairly alluring".
A musician's platform manner has been compared to a doctor's bedside manner. David Russell's arrival on the platform at one inspires confidence, perhaps because he manages to convey an impression of relaxed yet total confidence in himself.
"It's strange how you can go to a concert and, before the player has reached the chair, either you like him or her or you have formed a negative attitude. It happens before the player even touches the instrument, There is a saying in Spain that you can't trust a person who doesn't trust you. The player who walks on to the stage looking scared doesn't exactly inspire great trust. The player who doesn't look comfortable doesn't inspire great respect".
"People generally are aware of body language, the completely irrational feeling by which most of us judge the things that happen. Body language for musicians could be studied in the way actors study it. When you walk on the stage, you are an actor. The way you move, with your elbows stiff, for example, and your stomach muscles tight: those are signs of discomfort, of protecting yourself from your audience. Or you can move with your arms flowing, standing upright, comfortable. Or perhaps you could move with your chest forward and your chin jutting in a arrogant way, which could be interpreted as another kind of defence. Every player has to give it a little thought and maybe even try it out in different ways".
"I was lucky in that before I knew anything about the Alexander Technique I happened naturally to go into a fairly good position with the guitar. It means that I am comfortable and well balanced. There is a trick you can try in the house of someone, an aunt, say, with whom you feel uncomfortable. You are sitting on the end of the couch, completely wrapping yourself up, mentally defending yourself without meaning to. You can't relax. You mind is tight. The next time you go there you try to open up your shoulders, perhaps let your legs fall apart a little bit, balance your back and maybe even lean right back and let all the muscles go. You can't help feeling much more relaxed, and consequently so does your aunty. You have a much better conversation, and you suddenly find she is a more interesting person. There is an analogy with your audience".
"Why has Segovia charmed his audiences? Because he's so charming on stage, even with the halo of fame around him. Like Rubinstein. Before playing a note he's able to smile comfortably at his audience. Eye contact is important. If you can give the impression before you play that you've looked into everyone's eye, corny though it sounds, then you've taken them in. You don't have to stare at them, but it gives the impression that you're playing directly to each person. It's something quite apart from the musical and technical qualities".
Talking about technique and interpretation and the connections between them, David Russell is not primarily an analytical player, though he has a very clear idea of where the music is going and works hard to convey that sense of direction to his listeners.
"The player has to understand the reason for every note, every group of notes. He or she has to understand the direction of those notes. It's the only way the audience is ever going to understand the direction. Obviously, with some great music, even if the player just plonks away, the audience will know the work well enough to fill in any musical qualities the player has left out. I want to understand why the composer has written those notes, and somehow convey that to you so that you are drawn along from one set of notes, one phrase, to another. I hope it will catch you and make you want to listen on. If it doesn't have a sense of direction, then I don't think it will pull you along".
"You can almost verbalise which notes are the important ones; which notes you aim for, which phrase, which climaxes. And how you aim at them. I want to know the whole piece, in the same way as you know your whole road from your house to the pub. You can imagine the whole road in an instant. You know when you're going to turn a corner and you can prepare for it. In the same way you can prepare your audience for the next corner, the next climax, the next cadence or whatever. If you do it well you can achieve a more architectural structure out of a piece."
That sounded so planned, so prearranged that any spontaneity would vanish after the first bar. But changes were made within that architectural structure. In fact, said David, everything got changed.
"I work on my technique so that if I suddenly want to go into a decrescendo where up to now I've worked into a crescendo, or do a backwards rubato, letting something go forward where previously I've done the opposite, then I want to be able to do it that very instant on stage. I don't want to be tied up to having to work out every nuance, hoping it will come out as I have practised it. If you have these abilities it means that it's easier to give your listeners the impression it's the first and only time the piece is going to be played. It's more dangerous from my point of view, but it's more spontaneous."
Wouldn't a lot of composers quarrel with that?
"I agree, but they wouldn't quarrel with a good interpretation if it was successful and was played well so that people understood it. There is a difference between a couple of bars that you turn upside down and the whole intention over the entire span of the piece. There was a part of a piece I didn't understand. The composer wanted it ecstatically loud. As all guitarists know, it is difficult to make something sound ecstatically loud on the guitar. It starts to get staccato, a nasty sound. I was trying to get as much beauty as possible out of that part, trying to get what I thought the piece needed at that point; a certain kind of emotion. I was going completely against what the composer asked, and he had to tell me before I really understood what he meant. Now I try to make a beautiful fat tone, and loud, or at least give the impression to the audience that it's almost the climax."
"In Bach's Chaconne, for example, there are certain places where you wouldn't play quietly. You might want to for technical reasons, because it's easier, but it would be a mistake. On the other hand, within your build-up to that climax you may decide to play the bass notes quiet and the treble loud, and then turn it backwards for the next phrase. One day you may decide to come down to a pianissimo immediately after the climax, or you may decide on a long winding down. Both could be valid, so long as you do them well. I want to have the ability to change just at that instant, so that you don't actually think before you change. You don't say: Right, I am going to do a decrescendo. You simply play it because of the way you think. When you walk you don't actually think of putting the right foot in front of the left. You simply make the movement. Afterwards you realise that you could analyse what you've just done."
That, however, did not negate the preparation that went into each work.
"I think out my pieces very carefully so that if for some reason I'm not in the right mood, I know what the optimum way of doing it is. I've thought about ways of doing it. I don't just sit there and play and hope that the best things come." Nevertheless the apparently spontaneous feel about his performances is something audiences all over the world are relishing. The ability to make the music sound alive in that way is not given to every musician, and not every musician appears capable of acquiring it. There is even a body of opinion that deems it unnecessary, providing the composer's intentions are faithfully carried out. But it is something audiences respond to, even if they do not happen to be, in David's phrase "great connoisseurs of the guitar".
"It is said that people reach their mental peak at 18 and then go steadily downhill. I hope to reach my peak at 90. I intend to keep on developing. I don't want to stop here. Not yet."
"I've had thoughts about perhaps one day doing something completely different. But I'm far too involved in the guitar, and I like it too much to be able to do that. But I don't know, I might suddenly find something else that really draws me. For the moment I am a guitarist."