Eliot Fisk: Teaching students through experience

Grammy-nominated classical guitarist Eliot Fisk spoke Friday afternoon at Carnegie Mellon as part of the School of Music’s new Charles Boyd Master Class Series. Addressing about two dozen faculty, composers, and guitar students, Fisk spoke about the relationship between performers and composers, and about issues in classical music.

Fisk has been called an innovative performer for contributing to the guitar repertory. In addition to his own guitar transcriptions of pieces such as Paganini’s 24 caprices for solo violin and various pieces of J.S. Bach, Fisk has worked with many notable composers, including Luciano Berio (1925–2003), George Rochberg, and Robert Beaser. Berio’s Sequenza XI for guitar was written for Fisk, who helped Berio come up with effective new techniques for the guitar.

Fisk has also worked with Leonardo Balada, a composer on Carnegie Mellon’s faculty. Fisk, in collaboration with the Miro Quartet, will play the Pittsburgh premiere of Balada’s quintet for guitar and strings, Caprichos No. 1, when the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society’s 2006–2007 concert season opens tonight at 8 p.m. at Carnegie Hall. During the lecture Friday, Fisk played passages of Balada’s quintet and pointed out some of the changes that were made to make passages more effective. Fisk was excited about Balada’s piece, describing it as “something new for music, and something new for the guitar.”

Fisk encouraged young composers to work with performers and vice versa in order to write better for particular instruments. “I think it’s something important to meet up with young performers, even during school, who need to work with composers and start this dialogue from the beginning,” he said. “I’d like to see more interdisciplinary activity, too.”

Fisk also told composers that they need to be willing to work with performers and accept changes. He said, “Music should not become ossified; it should not be written in stone. There should be a process of creative reinterpretation [by the performer].”

Fisk also addressed an issue important to all fields: avoiding specialization to the point where you lose touch with the public. “Moses went up the mountain, but he came back down, too,” he said. “Studying music, of course you need your chops, but once you achieve mastery, you need to go out and communicate it. Go outside the family of musicians and reach out.”

Fisk takes his own advice. According to a 2000 Cape Cod Times article, “Fisk has made it a point to present programs in inner-city and out-of-the-way public schools, prisons, and senior centers.”

Fisk himself is not a stereotypical self-absorbed, internationally-famous star. The lecture and subsequent discussion demonstrated that he is a very down-to-earth, accessible, and passionate person with unwavering faith in the power of music. “As far as I’m concerned, music relates to everything,” he said. “Music teaches us things we need to be a multiethnic democracy.”

Fisk also teaches. According to his biography on www.eliotfisk.com, he teaches in five different languages at Mozarteum University in Salzburg, Austria, and at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Mass.

Tonight’s concert features an all-Spanish program. Up until the 20th century, the major centers of classical music were Italy, Germany, Austria, and to a smaller extent France and England.

“No country anymore has hegemony of composers. There are many fine Chinese composers out there today,” Fisk said. Today, various cultures have taken up classical music, making it their own. Composers in Ireland are very active, for example. Rather than simply composing in the classical style, however, they are trying to synthesize Irish music and classical music.

Balada’s, Caprichos No. 1 makes use of Andalusian folk tunes. Fisk was excited about how the advent of technology and the Internet have affected modern composers: “We’re so opened up to the folk musics of the world. And with the Internet, you can download information that it would’ve taken a lifetime to gather before. We have so many wonderful sources of creativity,” he said.

The opening of the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society’s concert season tonight will be very special. This will be the first time that Balada’s quintet is performed in Pittsburgh. The program features Spanish composers; Juan Arriaga (1806–1826) was a child prodigy who died before he even reached the age of most college sophomores. The Miro Quartet will play his Quartet No. 3 in E-flat major.