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David Russell: Of Guitars and Pingpong Balls
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David Russell: Of Guitars and Pingpong Balls


The sounds of Scotland come honestly to David Russell.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: So do the sounds of Spain.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: His parents were Scottish - artists, bohemians. When Russell was a kid, they moved to Spain, a village on the island of Minorca. Back then the family traveled around in a camper van. These days the town isn't much bigger - about 1,200 people - there is, though, an avenue named for its best-known classical guitarist. They call it Avencuda David Russell.

Russell's way with a guitar has also got his name on marquees around the world and on a 2005 Grammy Award. That was for his CD, "Arie Latino." His latest recorded offering is called "Air on a G String." It's a collection of music from the time of Johann Sebastian Bach, and David Russell is in the studio with his guitar. What a pleasure to meet you.

Mr. DAVID RUSSELL (Guitarist): Hello. It's nice to be here.

HANSEN: Why did they name a street after you?

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, they named me, first of all, adopted son. And usually you have to be dead before that happens. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: So, the last street that they opened, they gave it my name.

HANSEN: Were you introduced to the art of Spanish classical guitar when you were there? Because, you know, after all, I mean, Andres Segovia, he was the classical guitar player.

Mr. RUSSELL: (Unintelligible).

HANSEN: Right.

Mr. RUSSELL: Segovia did some really special things. With two notes he could give you the chills. So, I spent hours trying to imitate some of his phrases on it, yeah.

HANSEN: Was there one tune in particular that meant something to you?

Mr. RUSSELL: Oh, yeah, there were lots. But there's a very famous tune called "Recuerdia de la Alhambra" by Segovia. It's a bit that goes...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RUSSELL: So, that top note, he would play just so quietly. So, you get that...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RUSSELL: You know, I sometimes do it a little bit but I feel that getting a little bit close to kind of imitating the master, shall we say.


Mr. RUSSELL: But some of that in certain pieces of music are really beautiful. But when you do it in a piece of Bach...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RUSSELL: It doesn't work. You know...

HANSEN: Yeah. No, you can't.

Mr. RUSSELL: You need to be straighter.

HANSEN: Because Bach's music is almost more mathematical in many ways.

Mr. RUSSELL: Sort of, yes. I'm sure Bach felt it was very emotional as well.


Mr. RUSSELL: But it does have higher levels so you really have to give the whole phrase without stopping on a note just because you like it.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Do you have to sometimes resist the, I don't know, the temptation to get yourself lost at listening to the music and all of the sudden your fingers have run off the road?

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, I get to do that at home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RUSSELL: But when I'm in public, I've got to be on the ball 'cause, you know, I'm hoping that that's happening to my audience, not to me.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: I have to bring up Bach's "Air on a G String." There's not a bride or a groom, I think, that are not familiar with this piece of music.

(Soundbite of song, "Air on a G String")

HANSEN: How do you make it sound fresh?

Mr. RUSSELL: Well, I once played at some concerts with a jazz guitarist, Barney Castle, and Barney did the introductions. He was very, very eloquent. So, he said, we jazz guys, we take a tune and we add all these other notes and things and play completely differently. And the classical guys, they take the tune, they play the same notes and they work really hard to make it sound completely fresh every night.

(Soundbite of song, "Air on a G String")

HANSEN: Even in Bach's time there was a premium on the ability to improvise and embellish and make things fresh. And, I don't know, maybe when you have a perfect melody you don't actually want to do this. But, you know, you do have to make it your own. I have to play, though, some pieces where you have taken - it sounds like you've taken - a few more liberties. Let's hear this one by Jacques de Saint-Luc.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: I mean, what is that and how much of what we're hearing is 300 years old and how much is 2008, David Russell?

Mr. RUSSELL: A lot of it is my improvisation. I'm not a great improviser on the baroque style but all the ornamentation is mine.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RUSSELL: The thing is if you have a piece by Bach, he often develops the piece to such a high level that you can hardly do much more to it. But Jacques de Saint-Luc wrote very simple baroque music. And so if you don't embellish it, it just falls apart. It sounds way too simple.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: By comparison, I guess, let's just play this from your Grammy-winning CD. This is "Danza Brasileira" by Jorge Morel.

(Soundbite of song, "Danza Brasileira")

HANSEN: Now, that is so different and it just seems like you go from speaking one language to another.

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah, it's really strange - him, kind of, like, one straight after the other.


Mr. RUSSELL: (Unintelligible) whoa, doesn't sound anything like. But, you know, it's like playing baroque music. It's usually a brighter sound, a cleaner sound shall we say. And that's got a slightly huskier sound in it, you know, which I do with the hands. You know, if I play straighter to the string, you get more this kind of sound:

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Bright.

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah, bright. And if I turn sideways...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RUSSELL: It gets more velvety.

HANSEN: I think we've held people off long enough, because you do have your guitar here, beautiful guitar, and you're going to take us out with a tune. Why don't you tell us what you're going to play.

Mr. RUSSELL: A piece by Agustin Barrios, "Una Limosna Por Amor de Dios," which means arms for the love of God. Supposedly he was in El Salvador as an old man and this beggar woman would come and slowly knock on his door gently. And that's actually you hear the beginning of the piece, you hear this slow note. And then she would sing a song asking for something.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Classical guitarist David Russell. His new CD is called "Air on a G String." It features music from the world of Bach.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Edwin Hansen's daughter, Liane.

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