David Russell's latest album explores the guitar sounds of Latin America.
David Russell's latest album explores the guitar sounds of Latin America. M. Riveiro
Hear David perform full songs in the NPR studio.
David Russell is one of the most prolific — and acclaimed — classical guitarists performing today. He records about an album a year and tours the world regularly. He's received too many awards to mention. He's even had a concert hall and a street named for him in Spain, where he lives.
The country has embraced the Scots-born musician and he, in turn, has drawn a lot of inspiration for his music from Spanish culture. Yet he wound up there almost by accident.
"My parents are artists and they decided they would prefer to paint in the Mediterranean rather than in Scotland," Russell told Robert Siegel. "So when I was about 5 or 6, they loaded us into a van and we went to Spain, and we ended up living in Minorca purely by chance actually — because they really wanted to go to Ibiza because Ibiza was famous as a kind of artistic colony. But the boat wouldn't take our van. But the Minorcan one did. So we ended up there."
The Guitar Was No Accident
"My father is an amateur guitarist — and he still plays. He's 86 and he still loves it. And he was my first teacher, of course, when I was a kid," says Russell, whose father did try to interest him in painting. "My father kind of had hopes that I was going to become an artist like him — the typical thing. Of course I could play guitar better than him when I was about 12. But I couldn't paint better than him. So I went, 'I'm going to be the guitarist of the house, not the painter.' "
Russell went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he was eventually named a fellow in 1997. The 56 year-old guitarist has recorded 25 albums since the beginning of his career — about one a year for the past 15 or so years.
For each one, he concentrates on one composer: Bach, Giuliani, Rodrigo, Barrios — or one style: Baroque, Renaissance, even a CD of Celtic music.
His latest, Sonidos Latinos, features guitar music from Latin America. As with all of his other projects, Russell spent a year immersing himself in the music and culture of his chosen subject.
"The nice thing about making one style, really, is I can delve into that style a whole year," Russell says. "So when I arrive to the studio to make my recording, which is usually just a couple of days — very little time, at least I feel relatively confident that I know what I'm going to do. At least you think you're doing the right thing by the end of those many months. And, in some ways, to be convincing in your recording, you have to be convinced yourself. Even if you're wrong, if you're convincing, then you're right in a certain way."
So Russell reads about his subject; talks to composers who are still living; and listens to recordings. That thematic approach doesn't always work for a concert, where Russell says it's nicer to have a variety of styles.
To prepare for his latest recording, he listened to a lot of folk music from Latin America — because he says that's often the source material for composers from those countries.
"In some ways it's in that gray area of where's the edge of classical music? And where's the beginning of pure folk music? It really does sit at the edge," he says. "The sort of things that the classical players are not very good at — and many of the folk players are really good at — [are] certain rhythm elements. I can't really completely achieve it but enough, perhaps, to put a taste of that into the pieces I'm playing."
The 'Magic' Of The Music
Russell is, however, very careful about trying to get the cleanest sound out of his guitar — none of the string squeaks and fret buzzes that give so much of folk music its human element.
"I really like to hide all of those things. I mean that's a little bit like wearing a really nice suit. I don't want people to know my underwear," Russell says with a laugh. "It's not really to hide the human element. It's more that I want people to be able to achieve the magic feeling of the music. And unfortunately those little human elements often just bring you back down to earth with a thump."
But, for example, when we hear a musician breathing during a recording, it helps us see the musician performing. Russell concedes that's one way of enjoying the performance.
But, he says, "I find sometimes the breathing and the sniffing and things sometimes make me see them suffering," he says. "Because I know that I make more noise when I'm suffering. Whereas, if the person is breathing comfortably and enjoying the music, I know I don't make any noise when I'm in that state."
And David Russell seems to be enjoying the music most of the time.