A former pupil of Segovia, now America’s premier classical guitarist, Eliot Fisk visits Durham this weekend for two Duke Performances concerts: a solo recital of diverse guitar transcriptions on September 28 at Reynolds Theater followed by a guest appearance with the Ciompi Quartet on September 29 in the Nelson Music Room. Speaking by telephone with the same speed and precision with which he plays the guitar, the garrulous virtuoso held forth on a variety of topics, from the hidden connections between the Latin-American and European pieces on his Duke Performances program to classical music’s undeserved reputation for elitism.
The Thread: Your Duke Performances concert includes transcriptions of Latin-American popular songs. Could you give us some context for this music?
Eliot Fisk: My real introduction to the Latin-American repertoire was through the great Venezuelan virtuoso Alirio Díaz. I studied with him very briefly, but he left a lasting impact on a lot of us in my generation. He was basically the first great disciple of Andrés Segovia and was his assistant for awhile. Alirio brought to the classical guitar something totally new, these wonderful Latin-American rhythms and tunes—very popular music, but very interesting and complex, with lots of cross-rhythms. Díaz played this stuff with such freshness and spontaneity, and that really grabbed a lot of us. He was a great virtuoso but also a real poet. It was interesting to see that during the course of his career, he gravitated more and more to this music.
In the last decades of his life, Díaz wrote down a lot of these wonderful arrangements he’d made and created a whole repertoire for the guitar that I don’t think gets played enough. It’s a nice opening to a concert because it’s very tuneful and festive, but it also has a rhythmic verve and variety—and a certain sweetness—that is really special. Only two of the ones I’m playing [at Duke Performances] are actually his versions. Estrellita by Manuel Ponce, is my own arrangement. Ponce was Segovia’s greatest friend, and it’s ironic that Segovia never played this most famous piece of Ponce, which became almost a folk tune. But it’s also a great art song, and I thought it would be a fitting sendoff for the first pieces.
Is there something egalitarian about this kind of transcription—how it levels the playing field between popular music and high art?
I think the whole distinction between art music and popular music is not a particularly helpful one. One thing that I think is a big difference is that the academic composers seem to be more capable of a big work. Once you pass three or four minutes, the number of masterpieces goes down precipitously. Many people seem to be capable of doing a great three-minute song without any musical training whatsoever. Less people can sustain the arc of a composition like a Bach suite. That’s where, as we used to say, you separate the men from the boys or the women from the girls.
Are the challenges of playing Latin-American popular music different from playing European classical music?
Every music has its zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. In earlier epochs, people would play Bach and really do whatever—Segovia used to play Bach in a romantic way, and it was glorious and very personal. Then people came along with this idea, “We know what Bach did; we know his instruments.” But nobody knows exactly how Bach improvised a figured bass accompaniment in his works. The wonderful thing about Bach is that his music is unforgiving in the sense that you can never get to Bach’s level, but forgiving in the sense that it’s so perfectly put together, you almost can’t totally ruin it. The proportions are all exactly how they have to be. In this program, Scarlatti is the bridge between Latin-America and Europe because his exquisite harpsichord music is very much based on Spanish folk music for the guitar, which made it very appropriate to transcribe.
Luciano Berio wrote Sequenza XI expressly for you. Can you tell us the story behind that?
I had won a competition in Italy and was en route to play a concert in a little town in the mountains of Trento, near where Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is set. For whatever reason, when I first played there in 1981, I had a great success there. They said, “We have a special relationship with Luciano Berio, so why don’t we see if we can get him to write a Sequenza for you,” and that sounded great. I never thought it would happen—so many things, in Italy especially, are dreamt of and never end up happening. But as it turns out, it did happen.
I went to meet Berio in the fall of 1987, and very shortly before the premiere on April 20, 1988, I received the score. The Sequenzas are a sort of wild set of pieces. This is one of the longest, biggest, most theatrical, and most directly a portrait of the person it was dedicated to, me. Though you wouldn’t necessarily recognize it, it is based on the flamenco style. It’s sort of flamenco without the rhythm, which sounds like a complete contradiction in terms. It uses a lot of the strumming techniques, and elements of flamenco come into it in a disguised way. After that [at Duke Performances], I go into pure Spanish romanticism with three different composers I love very much, and bring the Italian bookend of Paganini to close out the program.
I made a whole recording of Castelnuovo-Tedesco some years ago, including the Quintet with the Shanghai String Quartet. I’ve known his music since I was a boy, largely through Segovia’s championing. This quintet is one of his most successful pieces. He has an interesting catalog, extremely varied. He wrote a wonderful piece for guitar and piano that actually worked; he wrote for guitar and English horn, and flute, and narrator, and orchestra—he wrote a lot for the guitar. He has this very fluid technique and was able to compose incredibly quickly, but always with perfect style. This quintet shows a lot of contrapuntal mastery, with a lot of canons throughout the piece, sometimes double-canons. And in typical fashion, in the last movement, he throws everything together in his sort of Hollywood-accented way.
Are there certain qualities of a piece that make it ideal for transcription, or is it just a matter of pieces you want to play?
Number one, it’s pieces I love and want to play. But there are cases where there is a tantalizing historical connection, as with Scarlatti—who was so influenced by the guitar—or the case of Paganini, who played the guitar so well and wrote so many pieces for the instrument. In the Cappricci, you can really see the influence of his guitar playing on his violin writing. Segovia had a wonderful maxim: if you transcribe something, it’s got to be as good or better than the original, or suggest things that don’t come out as clearly in the original, but are completely valid musically. I don’t want to do a caricature of a piece. I’m trying to get as close to the composer’s original intention as possible, but I’m going to have to change things. Like the Wallace Stevens poem says, “Things as they are / Are changed on the blue guitar.”
We’re continuing our collaboration in January down in Houston, and then we go to Italy for a week of concerts. I’ve always been interested in what people call crossover-type things, but really, music is music, and if you find somebody with whom you resonate, that’s a fun thing. Bill and I have known each other for years but only just started playing together. He reads music, which makes it easier than it has been with some other guitarists I’ve worked with, so we can do Bach together; we do Berio; we do a number of his own tunes. I can improvise decently enough that it’s not embarrassing. He’s a wonderful guy too.
You have a reputation for playing against so-called classical elitism by bringing your music into different cultural and teaching spaces. Is that important to you?
I think that music is an underrated force for the good in modern society. This so-called elitism—I think that’s pretty much gone from classical music. It’s almost gone the other way, that people are so eager to dumb things down that I’m not sure it makes a contribution. Classical music or art music, which is the term I prefer, has really been an aspiration for quality. You could take food as an analogy: eighty or ninety percent of the stuff in the aisles of American supermarkets doesn’t give you anything outside of a quick sugar high. With music, I don’t want to just fill somebody up; my aspiration is for them to be nourished in some way. When my ears gravitated to classical music, it wasn’t because I was a snob—I was just interested in quality. I wanted to live a good life and do meaningful things, good things, fun things. Without being too elitist about it, I think there is a difference between quality and no quality, imaginative music and unimaginative music, real virtuosity and just moving your fingers fast.
Eliot Fisk performing his transcription of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 at the NY Guitar Festival: