A Conversation with Paul Galbraith
Published: 1994 Author: Graham Wade
This interview took place just after Easter, 1994, in Paul’s home in Richmond, Surrey, quite near to where I gave him his first guitar lessons in the early 1970s when he was a mere eight years old. Since then Paul has studied at Chethams School and the Royal Northern College of Music, and achieved international renown as a recitalist. Our conversation follows up some of the ideas expressed in a fascinating lecture at the 1993 EGTA conference.
Graham Wade: So you are now playing a new guitar by Rubio – an eight string! What were the reasons for taking up this type of instrument?
Paul Galbraith: The reasons I gave to Rubio at the time were that the arrangement of the Brahms Variations opus 21a, which you heard me play at the EGTA Conference in Cambridge, tried to keep a high part going simultaneously with a lower part, and strange things evolved down the fingerboard. It struck me that things would be a lot easier if I had a lower string and a higher string, so that instead of having to go so high up on the fingerboard I could go across the strings. So it has now been christened the ‘Brahms’ guitar after this – that’s what Rubio called it. We didn’t want to just call it ‘eight-string, with extra strings either side’. There have been other eight-string guitars, after all, with just two extra bass strings.
GW: You have already done a tour with the new guitar in the USA.
PG: Yes, I have. The new guitar does look rather odd. It is based on the design of the Orpharion instrument, so that the bridge is at a slant, and so is the nut. So all the frets fan out, starting with the nut, until we come to the ninth fret, which is straight on; from then on the frets slant in the other direction. The bridge is slanted so the bass strings are longer than the top string. From a distance it looks as if the whole neck is somehow warped.
GW: So this creates a lot of interest?
PG: It does. But anyway when I step on stage with a new audience, my posture – my get-up with the resonance box and the spike – causes the audience to unsettle themselves for a while.
GW: You like that?
PG: Well, it’s not really here or there – I have to accept the fact really. So the eight-string guitar is just another oddity to add to the others! In fact I have found it is something people can latch onto more easily than with anything else that I do. And the new guitar must make such a remarkable sound. It is super. It’s a normal guitar but with a super sound quality. And I do feel that the fact that no one string has the same length gives a certain balance which I have never felt with any other guitar before.
GW: Your so-called ‘oddities’ are a way of achieving a so-called ‘normality’, aren’t they?
PG: My own – yes! Increasingly I have a clear idea of what I want to achieve. Obviously I spend long periods of time, isolated on my own, practising. So what I do has never seemed odd to me, in any sense. But it is always a slight surprise, to be honest, when I find a reaction in other people. Then I have to remember – oh yes – the fact that it is quite odd!
GW: Do you think that other people will imitate what you do?
PG: Well, that has happened already, actually. It’s quite difficult because very early on, just on the inspiration of seeing a particularly successful concert, somebody might say that this is just the position. Because when I discovered this sitting position for myself, there was an element of Eureka! from discovering it. Much of this process was beyond questioning and doubt – it was something I had discovered in myself and that was it. There was no looking back. Doubt did not enter into things at all. So when somebody else takes up this position and imitates, it is very often from a totally different viewpoint, usually with much less intensity and less of a totality in discovering something like that. This needs either total commitment, which is, as I said, like something from inside oneself, or it may be better to leave it alone, because it has proved very confusing. Some people have been caught between my position and the more or less conventional position, and found themselves in no-man’s-land between the two, and this could be very upsetting. There have been people I have been working with over a long term who have wished to imitate certain aspects – for example, in Greece where I teach in Athens. What I tend to do is go the opposite way round. I tend to encourage people not to change to my position, unless they are so enthusiastic that I can’t stop them. That’s usually the best idea.
GW: So why do you do that?
PG: This is to avoid putting them in a difficult situation. The sitting position works for me and that is because of a whole series of criteria which I have and which I want to achieve. The actual posture is like the tip of the iceberg – the rest is underneath. For someone just to take the tip of the iceberg, without the background, could be detrimental. It could lead to not knowing how to deal with the instrument at all.
GW: What if you taught a beginner? Would you teach a person who was just beginning?
PG: I would do if I knew I was going to be with the beginner for a good period of time. It’s unfair for me to take a beginner knowing that it is possible that they will move on in a year’s time to another teacher. Their postural situation would then be very negative. But I did start with a beginner, an eight-year-old, and had very good results. Whether it was his particular talent or not, I’m not sure, but he was going at such a rate. We put a capo on the guitar – so that he was playing in the cello position with a capo and so was higher up the instrument. Physically he was very comfortable. The concept of feeling your way round the instrument, instead of just visually aiming at it, made him at home on the instrument much faster than if he was facing the complexities of six strings. The guitar does look quite daunting, visually, at first. Not to have that complication and to concentrate on the playing hand in front of you is quite an advantage.
GW: You were about eight years old when you started your first lessons with me!
PG: That’s right, and more or less in the same area where I live now.
GW: These were traditional teaching methods – I’m afraid!
PG: It was the best start I could have had, I must say. It was the enthusiasm.
GW: That’s good!
PG: It’s actually quite interesting to look back then as, at the same age, I started on piano. I remember the difference with which I looked forward to my guitar lesson while I dreaded the Monday afternoon piano lesson! The guitar lesson on Saturday morning was the moment of the week.
GW: Thank goodness for that! But talking about position, I remember that while you were at the Royal Northern you used to have another position, sitting on the floor.
PG: Yes, that’s another aspect. It’s not that I suddenly wanted to play like a cellist, which is as it appears now if anyone sees me for the first time. My concern at the very beginning was not, as people would suggest after a concert, because of the resonance, or ease of playing, or just to be different. The main reason in the beginning was purely to have freedom with the right arm. I couldn’t find a way of achieving this with cushions, or any other method, and it just got more complicated. I thought I’d have to have something specially designed. It probably would have ended up, if I’d gone that way, with something along the lines of the Aguado tripodison, which would hold the guitar in place securely.
But then I just found that things suddenly fell into place one evening. I was sitting on the floor, took up the guitar, and the way my legs fell around the guitar held it naturally in position. So I played like that for the next three of four years, and discovered that very few people had the natural physique for the guitar to fit in that way. Soon after that I toured Brazil with a Brazilian guitarist, who adopted my position for the tour, so both of us were sitting on the floor. When two people are sitting like this it is much more convincing, so nobody was questioning it then, during the tour. But the other player had more problems with this, having to support the knees with cushions, and so it seemed far more complicated. But it was just a sheer fluke that it happened for me so conveniently.
GW: You mentioned the other criteria you wanted to achieve, posture being one them?
PG: Well, the posture came out of a need. It happened following a series of events soon after I entered college. I went into college with a heavy workload of concerts and recordings to do. One very traumatic and educational experience I had at that time was when I went to record my first compact disc, which was meant to be all Bach. I suppose it was rather ambitious to do a series of lute suites at that time. But when I heard myself back on the studio equipment, I realised that what I was feeling inside, what I thought I was producing, wasn’t actually coming out. There was a lot of belief involved, almost a leap of faith. Something was being communicated probably, judging from the reactions of people there. That is something pretty tangible when you are performing – you know when you are communicating or not. But very little of the actual substance of the interpretation I felt inside was being transmitted in actuality or was actually there. The company agreed with me about this, and asked me to come back later when I was more mature – the usual response. We agreed to leave it open and return whenever I felt ready.
It threw me into an area where I suddenly realised that either I had to change something radically about my playing or I was coming up against a brick wall. Throughout school I was already questioning how to practise, and I used to organise myself very thoroughly in terms of this amount of various aspects of technique and this amount of thinking about interpretation. The priorities I had up to this point were very useful because one of my piano teachers had been with Cortot for about ten years and had a lot of experience in that world of interpretation, and another had come from the Russian school of piano playing – in particular Neuhaus – and I had read a lot about Neuhaus’ ideas. This gave me a lot of alternative ideas about how to practise, instead of just note bashing, really trying to find the voices through singing, trying to find the essence of the emotion in a piece. But I just felt that it wasn’t going any deeper, that it was repetitive practice, and it was leading to a kind of dead end. I couldn’t see beyond that or see any way round it. It was quite a difficult moment for me.
GW: And you were quite young at this time?
PG: Yes, about eighteen or nineteen. Everybody else seemed to be perfectly happy with my playing at that time. The funny thing was that having found suddenly one of the root reasons behind all of this, and having met George Hadjinikos, who explained a lot of things to me – he was a great help at that time, and has been subsequently – I then left off practising for six months. I just didn’t know how to practise any more. I just felt that the more I practised, the less came out, and if I didn’t practise, things became a lot better! It was a very strange position to be in. And so I thought it would be better to leave off until I knew how to go about things, but in a way which was going to be constructive.
Also, at that age you are getting into so many different things, and these included Yoga and Alexander Technique. The difference between athletics and Yoga in the way you bring about strength in the body seemed a very strong parallel between that and the way you build strength in music. You can train athletically – saying every day you have to keep up a certain standard, and if you don’t do this every day you are going to lose your quality. On the other hand, there is another approach. George Hadjinikos mentioned that Chopin had been very clear about the principle of liberating the strength of the fingers, and was very opposed to Liszt’s approach, of making all five fingers equal – a system coming down from Czerny. Chopin said that we should liberate the strength of the five fingers, not just forcing them. It is not to do with individual strength, but how you release the innate strength. This obviously involves the whole apparatus: not just the fingers but the wrist, the elbow, the shoulder, the back, the lot. Once I started thinking along these lines it became tremendous, particularly in those interpretation classes with George where he was teaching any instrument. When it came to me as a guitarist I felt very limited, because really most the technique was coming just from the fingers. A little from the wrist, if you were lucky, but there wasn’t a great deal you could do when holding the guitar in place. This is when I started thinking of an alternative way to sit which would allow the arm just to be totally free.
Possibly this was when many people thought I lost what had been a good thing. In other words, a sense of security. And I must say it took a long time to find my own balance in that new position. After all, it threw me into being totally on my own, really. I had work without a guide. Yet in some ways I had a guide from various other instrumental teachers, because I was going along the same lines as a pianist, violinist, or cellist.
GW: What about the left hand in all this?
PG: The left hand? Well, yes, it was mentioned earlier that these changes are a gradual process. When I first sat on the floor to play, the left hand was at the angle that it traditionally has been. It was only daily that the left hand crept up, inch by inch, naturally, and then I suddenly found my hand in an almost vertical position. It just happened that way and I found things much more comfortable. I never actually looked at my left hand much in any case when I played in a conventional posture. I used to close my eyes and found it a lot less complicated not to look at the left hand.
GW: Yes, because most guitarists do look at their left hand most of the time, don’t they?
PG: Yes, because I think it’s an area of focus rather as a singer might focus on the right hand corner of the room when singing. It’s very interesting when working with these Greek students, for example, that very often this kind of almost ingrown visual focus or point of attention actually can create problems, in a wider sense, in communicating with the audience. You create a kind of circle around yourself looking down, almost introspectively and very often, as soon as I say, ‘Look out, look up,’ or even ‘Look at someone while you’re playing,’ it’s very difficult to achieve. And when they do it, something opens up in a surprising way. It’s usually the most immediate access to opening up emotionally a player whom you feel has some kind of lack of communication.
GW: Well, Julian Bream has always looked at this audiences, sometimes while he’s playing!
PG: Yes, and that can be quite frightening at times, especially if he’s looking at someone with a tape recorder in their hands!
GW: Or sometimes if they haven’t! But this became part of the thing as well, did it – communication?
PG: Not consciously. I do remember classes in Alexander Technique where they were playing games at Chethams of giving phrases to different people in the room, and this can be useful. But I don’t think it was something that was conscious. As I said, I have nearly always played in that position with closed eyes, and so on, practically ever since I can remember.
GW: Is this related as well to your own personality?
PG: I suppose it might be. I’ve had all kinds of reactions from different people because I play with my eyes closed. It’s quite gratifying to read the response of someone such as Pablo Casals, for example, who played with his eyes closed. When people mentioned this to him, he always said that it had been a long while before he was able to do that! It’s not necessarily positive or negative. I went through a stage of questioning the whole thing and trying out different aspects. But when you are totally involved in the music you are not conscious any more of whether you have your eyes closed or open. It’s just you and your inner relationship with the music. Sometimes that can be so intense and very personal.
I sometimes think the notion is rather false that the performer is there and has, of necessity, to play out to five hundred people, to project yourself. As soon as you start to do that per se, as a point of departure, things can go very badly wrong. The only relationship that I think in reality can exist is you with the music. If that is strong and you are involved in what you are playing, then you are communicating – in a way to yourself, after all, with your inner self. Then there is a hope that the audience can eavesdrop on that happening and can also participate in that. But I don’t like the idea of going out there with a mind, before you do anything else, to project yourself to other people.
GW: Well, you mentioned about your students needing to open their eyes and communicate, but you don’t actually do that yourself?
PG: Not consciously. I found in the last few concerts I did start looking at the audience, but not as a conscious thing – just possibly being particularly inspired with these Brahms Variations, which is such a wonderful piece. You sometimes have the feeling with these just to look upwards, because the feeling is very strong. To be honest, it is not very often on the guitar that you have a piece of that emotional strength to play. It is a colossus – like playing a symphony on the guitar. So you’re in a world of emotion which is very wide, in a very wide space.
It may sound contradictory that on the one hand I dislike the concept of projection but that I ask students to open their eyes and look out. But when working with students, the whole effort is to push students, gradually, into finding the essential emotion of a piece, independently even of sound, let alone the instrument. Most of the work we were doing was an attempt to find that by any means possible, whether walking round the room, conducting, singing, gestures. And usually getting back to a spontaneous human gesture such as we might make every day. Bringing that consciously into music can be a very long process until it becomes spontaneous. But when you see that spontaneous link, it becomes the most natural thing in the world.
GW: Do you find this approach will be relevant or appropriate for all types of music? After all, the Brahms piece is a piano work, a transcription, and the repertoire covers a wide area from Bach suites to perhaps lighter works.
PG: Yes, I think so. The approach is valid for all types of work. I have done a lot of transcriptions, but I do now try to balance things so that I am not doing just transcriptions in recitals – there is some original guitar music there as well.
GW: Yes, because I know that you are interested in music, not just guitar music.
PG: Yes, it doesn’t really matter to me what the music is written for, as long as it’s relevant to me and falls within the scope of the guitar. Recently I have enlarged the capacity of the instrument in order to cater for, say, piano music, but also for the lute music of Bach, which is more feasible on this instrument now.
But the whole area of transcription is quite a wide one, and there are moments when I consider that there are some guitar works which in themselves feel like transcriptions, and transcriptions which feel like guitar works. It is difficult in reality to find where the boundary is. On paper people feel more comfortable when they see the music was originally written for guitar, but in actuality, as with the Rodrigo pieces, the composer is writing at the very edge of the six-string range. You can see the point of Rodrigo writing that music from a guitaristic point of view, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a very comfortable one. There is also often a strong mediator involved, when the composer works with a guitarist as Segovia did with Turina or Castelnuovo-Tedesco, reworking a lot of material. You can sometimes see different versions such as a Segovia edition and the Urtext edition of the same thing, as with the Preludes of Manuel Ponce.
It’s a difficult question, how far we have to stretch ourselves in order to cater for the composer’s vision of what the guitar might sound like and what we have to bring down to what we could think is guitaristic. But what is considered guitaristic has changed and has been evolving over the last few decades.
GW: You’ve got a good relationship with the music of the past, but what about the contemporary world of the guitar – is that going anywhere?
PG: It’s a good question but I’m not sure I have a very clear answer for that now. There are composers that I admire a lot. For example, I’ve been playing quite a lot of Henze recently and adapted his Drei Tentos to the eight-string guitar. That is one of my favourite works. It perhaps wouldn’t be considered modern any more, of course, but of the post-Segovia twentieth-century repertoire it seems to me one of the best works. I would like to go to Henze and work on some pieces in the way that I feel the guitar should go. Henze is a very exciting composer. The guitar is a small part of his musical horizon. He thinks symphonically and the train of his musical thought has inner logic in the sense that Schoenberg has. I used to play Schoenberg’s opus 19 on the guitar – those are pieces I love. They are a cornerstone in twentieth-century music, as well. So I suppose my tastes in twentieth-century music might be considered a little old-fashoned by now – if Schoenberg is considered old-fashioned!
GW: The reason I was questioning the direction is that as the guitar repertoire constantly evolves there is a question mark over a lot of modern music previously considered worthwhile. Leo Brouwer is now turning to a neo-romantic style and a lot of guitarists may be returning to a more romantic repertoire. Do you have any sympathies in this area, as well as in the heavier end, the more intellectual side of music?
PG: To be honest, I am not someone who has a particular favourite period of music. I go through phases of listening to one composer, as most people do. My main aim over the last ten years has been to play as much first-rate music as possible and to avoid any suggestion of the second-rate. That’s obviously a very subjective matter and I can only be responsible for my own tastes. As my musical horizons expand I hope that I am evolving as well. If someone is convinced that a composer is first rate, a credible case can be put even if another person may feel the complete opposite. For instance, one composer of great interest whom I would put in the first-rate category is Skalkottas. He wrote quite a few pieces which could feel very guitaristic in transcription because they are so fiendishly difficult on their original instruments. They could gain a fluency on the guitar which would do the work a lot of credit in many ways. One of these is his violin sonata, which I’ve played for years, and which a lot of violinists have said is more convincing on the guitar than on the violin. His Concerto for double bass is also extremely difficult for double bass but fits marvellously onto the guitar. This is the kind of writing I am very excited about.
GW: When you consider the younger players, how does the guitar scene strike you nowadays?
PG: As fairly healthy in a negative sense. People are now realising that regardless of the fact that we are playing the guitar, a great effort has to be made really to produce music. In the past there has been a lot of guitar playing which is in the category of pure guitar playing and little more. There has been a huge movement to bring the guitar out to the wider world. We are going through a kind of ‘rococo’ period where we are all finding our bearings again and emerging into something new. It’s a very difficult phase but an interesting phase to be going through.
Copyright © 1994 by Graham Wade