Eliot Fisk - Looking for New Possibilities
In conversation with Nadia Sartori
N.S: How did your career begin?
E.F: My career began when I was seven and by chance a guitar entered my family’s house. I went to a classical teacher who happened to be a former pupil of Segovia’s in Vienna and that’s how I started but I was not at all serious with the guitar until I was about ten or eleven when my family went to Sweden.
In 1966, I went back to the States. When I returned I found a good teacher named William Violla. He gave me the foundation of all the technique that I’ve ever used or had since. In two years of regular lessons I don’t think he gave me one compliment ever. If I played something well he would say, “alright what’s next,” meaning he would always give me 4 or 5 pieces that I’d have to play. He would also expect me to make a list of all the pieces that I played and pick at random every week, 4 or 5 pieces that I had to play. I was both scared of him and so determined to prove him wrong, to show him that I could play well, that I really started to work hard. I was just obsessed with producing sound that pleased me. I guess I was always inspired of course by the records of Segovia who was always my great idol. When I was about fourteen I met Oscar Ghiglia and then from the age of fifteen I studied with him every Summer at Aspen at the music festival. I subsequently became his teaching assistant when I was about eighteen. Meanwhile I had met AIirio Diaz one summer in 1973 and I studied with him. He sort of freed me, and unleashed a certain something that had been wanting to get out. Soon after that I met Segovia which was a great thrill for me and we developed actually the beginnings of a very close relationship. I would go and play for him in his hotel room in New York every year. Of course he was already an absolute legend by that time, but he always found time.
In 1972 I went to Yale University, and there I met Ralph Kirkpatrick, the harpsichordist. That, I would say was the final important teaching influence on my development. He was great as far as helping me to develop away from the instrument, because he never played the guitar and I never played the harpsichord. I would play for him on the guitar and he would just sit there and listen and make specific comments. He would remember what he liked and what he didn’t like. And would pose to me a series of questions which forced me to seek further and develop myself.
When I was about 25 or so I went back to Europe and won a contest in Italy run by Oscar Ghiglia. It is the only contest I have ever won. Every other contest in which I ever participated, I was usually thrown out for playing too emotionally and taking too many liberties. I remember specifically a contest in Geneva 15 years ago where I was not allowed into the finals and the newspapers singled me out for the most severe criticism. They said I played with too many accents and took too many liberties with the music. They praised all the other players in the contest with the exception of myself. Of the people who participated that year I don’t think too much has been heard of them. So I think its a good message to young people not to worry if they don’t win contests. The whole idea of contests I think is crazy. We need to look for a much better alternative. We have to offer something better than that because it teaches young people that the enemies are their colleagues. The enemy is the indifference of the society at large to fine art, fine music -anything of quality .The enemy is the increasing mediocrity all over the world whether you look at McDonalds or whatever. The enemy is not another guitarist who might happen to play well. In art and aesthetics there is no objective way to judge anything – it is almost a useless question to try – to think about.
N.S: Maybe we should talk a little bit more about Segovia and his influence on others?
E.F: I hope he will be influencing others more than he has been recently. He sort of fell in to a bit of disfavour. I think a lot of people like to look down their noses at him, partly because he took a lot of liberties with the music, which I think is one of his great lessons. People have to be less afraid of the notation and the composer and be more daring in the liberties they are willing to take with the music, because only by this kind of a daring leap of the imagination can we ever hope to bring out of the music that which is within it. I hope people will return more and more to Segovia because somebody said all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato. I always say classical guitar playing is all a footnote to Segovia. He really sketched out the whole terrain and I think in terms of the repertoire beginning with the old vihuela players – Milan, Mudarra, Narvaez etc. and going right on up to the music of our own time, he sketched out all the parameters. He was, of course, the first to really make a big career by playing Bach on the guitar, which really established it. As far as his influence on me, I think it was really a sort of a love affair. I just really loved the sound that he produced and the meaning of what he produced just spoke directly to my spirit. That’s the reason why I’m a musician and that intrigued me as a child more than any other thing that I heard. Gradually I came to know that that’s what I was going to do with my life. I think we need to return to the example of Segovia. Violinists need to return to Fritz Kreisler, pianists need to return to Rubinstein and Horowitz. All the old romantics came a bit on hard times due to this new objectivism in music. People I think are searching a lot for an absolute truth in the realm of aesthetics which I think is a hopeless quest. I think you can only search for a personal truth and that truth will probably change everyday, every minute, and maybe that’s the interesting thing about it, that there isn’t this absolute truth. So I think we need to get back to a greater appreciation of the individual and of the individual talents of the performer and we need to resist the tendency of mercantile capitalism, which teaches you to compare one product to another. You buy the fastest car that gives you the best gas mileage for the buyer. This kind of attitude has no place in art. Com- petitions tend to give one the illusion that that could happen. Particularly in the guitar world, because for so many years nobody could play the instrument at all. People got so worried about playing all the notes, that it became in some portions of the guitar community, a sort of an obsession just to play note accurate. I think people are just barking up the wrong tree, with that. I think making a disease out of it can take a lot of the joy out of music making which is the main thing that the guitar used to have to offer. The guitar audience used to be such an interesting varied audience. All the crackpots and kooks that couldn’t fit anywhere else would come to the guitar and that was the fun of it and the joy of it. They were also the days of course of great technical incompetence and if we could somehow take the growing technical competence of our day and the wonderful idealism and enthusiasm of the old days and merge them together, I think that would be carrying on the legacy of Segovia in the best possible way. That’s what I’m trying to do in my own little comer of the world.
E.F: No I don’t have a method. I try to take a different approach for every person. In Cologne I probably have too many students, so I can’t take the time that I would like to take for each person. It’s sort of my responsibility to try to pullout of everybody the best that’s in them. Sometimes I take the wrong approach; some- times I take the right approach. I love teaching and I certainly learn more from my students than they learn from me. You have to try to develop the areas that are undeveloped and at the same time let the student shine in the areas he or she is good at and that involves the suggestion of repertoire. The most important thing with teaching, is having the ability to sense what the student needs. That’s not going to work 100% of the time, but you just try to do your best.
N.S: Where do you see the guitar heading?
E.F: I think it has to be more and more integrated into the mainstream and I think in order to do this the guitar should be combined with every conceivable medium. For example if I were to program the Henze sonatas, I would firstly present an Elizabethan piece, then a monologue from a Shakespearian drama and then a movement from a Henze sonata. It could be an Allemande by Johnson or Sir John Smith’s Allemande by Dowland or something with a regal feel and then take the opening monologue from Richard III. Have an actor do that and then have a guitarist play the Gloucester or something like that. A mixed media kind of program could be very interesting for the guitar. I think also the guitarist should be doing lots of chamber music and of course lots of contemporary music. There is no other choice.
N.S: What about making society accept the contemporary music?
E.F: You have to program it right. I don’t like programs with just contemporary music. I would like to take a theme and develop it, It could be a theme as simple as Italian music. You could go from Frescobaldi up to Petrassi or any of the pieces that have been written recently by important composers. I used to play the Britten Nocturnal preceded by Elizabethan lute pieces. You could also put in the Walton Bagatelles or something like that. I like a strong contrast in a guitar recital as I think the sound of the instrument for the general public in a big hall is hard. It’s still going to be hard to get used to but the more contrast you can offer, the better. I think it depends very much on your audience. The more you can know about them the better. Show them that this contemporary music does relate to them and give them just any hind of a handle to hold onto. You can’t expect somebody who has never heard a piece of contemporary music to identify with it right off the bat, if you don’t give them some kind of a help, either through the programming or through speaking from the stage.
N.S: What about the technique of the guitar?
E.F: Like with anything else you have to approach it in various stages. The way you teach a beginner is not necessarily the way you would teach an advanced player. There are certain rules that you try to get the beginner to understand. First of all not to make all these unnecessary motions, but then later on in the finer stages – in the ultimate stages of playing technique – certain motions become allowed again. It’s just like teaching the rules of counter point; in the beginning you don’t know parallels at all but if you look at the music of Bach, Brahms or Beethoven you of course find parallel fifths, because they are sometimes the best solution to the problem. It’s something that has to be flexible, it has to depend on the fingernails of the player, on the size of hands of the player, of the weight of the hand, the width of the fingers. As I started very young my technique developed very naturally, especially from playing Sor studies and certain tough pieces like Bach’s first lute suite, the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro and the third Sonata of Ponce. I never practiced scales as a kid, I just started to practice them about a year or two ago, but I found it helped me a lot.
I don’t like to see people practicing in a mindless and mechanical way; I like to have people developing their ear and physique at the same time, I don’t like to see technique too cut off from music making. As far as technique goes there are basic problems. To teach free stroke is one of the most difficult things, even to some of my most advanced students; they still haven’t completely mastered it to my way of thinking. But I guess Segovia again did lay the foundation. I think his fingerings with his scales are so fantastic, I think they are education enough in themselves. They are so wonderfully fluid and beautifully thought out, it’s a real choreography of the motion of the fingers, it’s a perfect combination of efficiency and musical beauty. Of course there are infinite ways you can play scales, and you should be creative in practising technique and never let your mind fall asleep. You should always be looking for new possibilities, new ways of practicing. Don’t just play the scales, even in the pattern that Segovia gave but play triplets or play quintuplets or play six, seven, eight or even nine which gets to be very hard. To accent every ninth note across a couple of octaves, is a very difficult exercise. Just to keep alive, to keep creative, to find there’s something new every day, not to fall into a dull routine, I think is very important.
N.S: You mentioned before about chamber music being so important, why?
E.F: Because when you make contact with other people who don’t have any sympathy for the technical difficulties of playing the guitar and that forces you to enter into a new realm of music making and also technique. I have played chamber music all of my life and I continue to enjoy it particularly with Paula Robison, a wonderful American flautist. I have played also with violin, string quartet and voice and I think it’s a wonderful way to learn how to be musical and how to make music relate to text, to bring meaning to music, to support the voice, to breathe. How many instrumentalists make a career out of playing alone an hour and a half in the evening. Not even Pavarotti does that. You never see Pavarotti come out on stage by himself without anything. Even Itzhak Perlman will play with orchestra much more than solo recitals, and these are the most famous performers alive today. It is a bit unrealistic to think that all the guitarist who are now playing will make careers as soloists. I think that we have to try to find employment possibilities for guitarists as members of various ensembles any possible way. We can make the guitar part of a functioning musical organization in the same way that a lot of violins are needed to make up an orchestra. We need to find as many little niches for the guitar as we possibly can so that people can also make a living from it.
N.S: Which combination do you think works well?
E.F: The best is probably flute and guitar but I’m now using guitar and violin. I think guitar and string quartet can work on occasion with a good hall and good string quartet. I’m going to try a new combination with guitar, viola and cello using some of the trios by Paganini as a point of departure. I did a whole series of concerts about eight years ago with Victoria De los Angeles, which of course was wonderful Spanish music which worked very well. I think guitar and harpsichord have certain possibilities, although better on record than in concert. They seem to come from two different worlds. But I think people need to look also for new combinations; I think guitar and clarinet could probably work well. I think it’s one of the tasks of our generation to look for new ways for the guitar to be integrated into the musical fabric of society. Another thing I think the guitar could be very good for is this kind of a outreach program, so to speak, which we have in America. Artists go into a community where there is very little culture going on and basically do a series of presentations during a week. They go out and do two or sometimes even three presentations daily to various elementary schools and old folks homes. I have done this and I learned a lot from doing it. It’s very, very draining because you do a sort of a song and dance, you talk about your life with music and you talk about the music you’re going to play. In one place, I did 59 performances in 21 days – almost three a day – it was hell. But you learn a lot from that kind of thing. For any kind of youth concert, a guitar is a very very good thing, but again, the guitarist has got to project and has got to be able to intimidate and charm people so that they will be quiet enough to get the message. I think that this is another thing that goes back to Segovia. You know he was able to do it without words, he just came out on the stage and sat there until the place grew absolutely silent. Nowadays we maybe have to mix more charm in with it.