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Interview with John Williams, Greg Smallman, and Craig Ogden

On Australia’s ABC Radio National last night there was an interview with John Williams and the mysterious guitar maker Greg Smallman.

The program is called Into the Music. The linked website includes a link to stream the audio; the entire interview is about an hour. There’s a lot of great stuff discussed, including why Williams chose the Smallman over his Fleta. Craig Ogden also drops in to talk about why he plays a Smallman.

I would also like to call special attention a portion near the end, in which Williams and Smallman discuss Segovia in a less than positive light (musical speaking). I have a lot of respect for what Segovia did for the instrument, but my opinions are very much in line with Williams and Smallman.

21 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 November 28
    Jonathan permalink

    Hi Chris!

    Thanks for linking in that interview. It really is great to hear Smallman talking about his guitars.
    I found the part on Segovia particularly interesting. I’ve never liked Segovia’s performances. Even in Spanish music such as Asturius, he just goes ahead and disrespects traditional dance rhythms; often because of technical difficulties.

    The really shocking thing to realize, is that these kinds of misinterpretations have become part of guitar playing, with people copying what are essentially mistakes!!

    Everyone should have a metronome, to be able to check if one is keeping time correctly (as one should), or slowing down or accelerating.

    • 2009 November 28

      Agreed, Jonathan. Rubato is okay, as long as rhythmic proportion is generally maintained. These weird things that Segovia does…no thanks.

  2. 2009 November 28

    I’m not that into bashing Segovia. Every master has pluses and minuses. And we really don’t have much in the way of recordings of Segovia when he was really in his prime. I have studied with several of his students. Lorimer, Ghiglia, and Fisk to name a few. I have never seen any of them tell students to play with disrespect for rhythm. On the contrary, they were all very rigorous about it. I saw Lorimer teaching Leyenda once and he was very critical of not playing the big chords in correct time. And yet, all of these guys were obviously very respectful of Segovia. Especially the sound palette that he had.
    And you can watch some of the videos of Segovia master classes and see that he was very critical of getting a correct rubato.

    And on the other hand, I have seen guitarist from more modern schools like Shearer and they play very dull and mechanical. I saw one of Shearers students play for Ghiglia once and he just wouldn’t listen to what Oscar was trying to tell him. His playing was just completely mechanical and lifeless.

  3. 2009 November 28

    Just listened to the whole recording. Over all it was quite good and very interesting. I accept a lot of what Williams says about Segovia, he is able to offer some criticism simply because of his stature and accomplishment. Some things I take a bit of issue with. Like the discussion of Seville. Now I think his approach is quite interesting and results in a good performance. But his assumptions are not necessarily Gospel. Did Albeniz write this piece in order to teach people what the rhythm of a Sevillana is? I don’t think so. It is a stylized piece which uses the character of this dance. Williams approach to it is just one way to come at it which works well for him. But I also enjoy other approaches as well. I’m sure he wouldn’t like the way Fisk plays it (look it up on youtube) but I certainly do.

  4. 2009 November 28
    Jonathan permalink

    Hi bobber!

    Interesting point. Yes of course correct phrasing is important. (And occasionally Segovia does great things.) But it has to be inline with the composer’s intentions and the score. You shouldn’t just do whatever the heck you like, esp. not if it is disrespecting the composer.

    So guitarists should not go and pretend to be phrasing, when they are actually slowing down or hesitating due to technical difficulties. Just listen to Segovia play Asturius: You’ll hear him not only play rubato, but actually loose beats. That’s not musicianship. That’s self-ego, mistakes, and disrespecting the composer!

  5. 2009 November 28
    Jonathan permalink

    OK, but you do mention that in his recordings, Segovia was not in his prime. ->That’s an easy way to “save” Segovia, hehe. 🙂

  6. 2009 November 28

    I just don’t understand the bashing. Has John Williams enhanced his reputation or his playing by pointing these things out? If Segovia’s problems are so obvious than why is it necessary to say anything at all?

  7. 2009 November 29
    Pedro permalink

    Talking about Segovia (esp. critically) is not bashing Segovia.

    I dislike this concept, where one is not able to voice opinions about artists. I think it disallows critical analysis of performance styles etc. We must be able to look at performances and judge them. And since not all performances are the same, and since we like some performances more than others, we must be able to judge performances and be critical of some points.

    This is not “disrespect”, but “own opinion”.
    Unfortunately it often happens, that my “own opinion” about a artist, clashes with that of another person, and the other person then sees this as “disrespect”. The problem might be, that the other person attaches too much value to the artist, and personally identifies with the artist.

    This is an unfortunate misunderstanding.

    My “own opinion” is not showing disrespect to ‘fans’ of the artist. My “own opinion” is not even showing disrespect of the artist himself: The reason is that I am not judging the artist, but HIS PERFORMANCE.

    =======================

    So allow me to voice my opinion: I don’t like Segovia’s playing of some pieces. I think he DOES hesitate in places, as is shown in detail in the audio interview. I consider this a flaw.

    But! I do believe that some of Segovia’s interpretations are really good: examples include Torroba’s Sonatina! Segovia’s interpretation of that is marvelous.
    Another great example is Segovias’s performance of deFalla’s Homenaje! This is the best interpretation of Homenaje I’ve ever heard! Simply incredible. Segovia really understands the style and plays it in a way which I find gripping, masterfully expressive and – how can I put it – authentic.

    So you see: even if people are critical of Segovia, it does not mean that this is a black-and-white issue!

  8. 2009 November 29
    Peter permalink

    Bobber: you brought up Fisk.

    I really do not like the way he plays Sevilla. Everything he does is only driven by technique – and that’s (not only) my opinion!
    No wonder some people call him ‘The Butcher’!

    Worst of all, there seems to be this agenda, where people think Fisk is somehow thrilling, expressive etc.
    It’s sad when technical and speed obsession, lead people to believe Fisk to be expressive, and worthy of being linked with Segovia.
    Fisk is so far away from Segovia, I’d say he’s actually from a another planet.

    Fisk even constructs perverted arguments to back up his speed driven – yet sloppy – playing: He’ll tell you that the “present-day quest for perfect performances has led to a lack of spontaneity and boring concerts”.

    He’s trying to back up his speed-driven playing with arguments, that his playing is nonetheless spontaneous and “not boring”.
    I have to disagree with that and simply say: I’ve not heard a more boring guitarist than Fisk. I’ve got the CD with his Paganini Caprices and have not listened for them for over 7 years. I always dread hearing Fisk stretch himself to do those things, whilst all around musicality and expression crumble to the ground.

    -Peter

    PS: If you like speed, or like Fisk; then you like him! Nothing wrong with that!

  9. 2009 November 29
    Peter permalink

    Just in case you ask me: then which guitarist do I recommend?
    here’s what I recommend:
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B001W3L35K

    (Dukic – virtually unknown, but the man can play like no other [except perhaps Stephan Schmidt])

  10. 2009 November 29

    Peter,

    No problem with what you are saying. But (in my opinion) Williams gets into a bit of speculation when he says Segovia plays a certain way because it’s too hard to do it any other way or the correct or better way. This is tending to degrade the artist and make yourself look better. It’s completly unnecessary for Williams to do this, especially when the artist in question is dead and not here to defend himself. Still, as I said, I am willing to consider some of what he says simply because he is John Williams. But in the end, I think I have lost a bit of respect for him.

    What you said was in terms of his interpretation. I have no problem with that.

  11. 2009 November 29
    Peter permalink

    By the way: Zoran Dukic has won more first prices than any other guitarist in the world. (But nowadays he’s not doing competitions, so it’s always possible that someone else can improve the record.)

  12. 2009 November 30
    balan permalink

    Thank you guys for the above comments.it has made me aware how serious musicianship
    is dealt with.We in this part of the world,Malaysia,have not seen any of the Masters in classical guitar.The nearest is Japan & China.I have yet to watch live a master’s concert.I only depend on the net for information and listening.I am a guitarist and am very green in classical
    guitar but I am trying and it is beautiful.and Chris’s page is very helpful.
    The late Mr.Segovia is a Master.tho’ from a early period.nevertheless,a Master.I respect that.
    Mr.John William is another Master who I too respect and he would have listen to Mr.Segovia
    too in this classes.I am not sure.As for me ,their music humbles me.So Masters make mistakes too,but we .here as learners look at a bigger picture.I thank all Masters.

  13. 2009 December 7
    Max permalink

    With every intention to change the subject…
    Did anyone else notice the features of the Smallman guitar? Most notably the added wood to the hip that adds a rounded edge where the guitarist places his forearm, making for a more comfortable session? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. That’s a pretty ingenious idea.

    • 2009 December 7

      I actually have an armrest like that on my guitar. It’s really great. Comfortable. Keeps your arm from touching the top. Michael Thames, the guy who built my guitar, swears it makes the guitar louder.

  14. 2010 August 18

    Unfortunatelly I don’t find the link to stream the audio?!?? Isn’t he there any longer??

  15. 2010 October 6

    Well,Segovia was one of the greatest classical guitar masters of his time. It strikes me that a man that strove to give the classical guitar the status it has today is being critized by those who are enjoying the fruit of his labor . Well its easy to take things for granted. Sometimes we owe respect to those before us. The classical guitar has changed in construction and projection. In our beloved masters time, guitars were simpler instuments made entirely of wood. And el Maestro Andres Segovio did indeed make music with his instruments thank you all .

  16. 2011 February 22
    lorian permalink

    Don’t miss the latest interview with John Williams!

    http://www.abc.net.au/classic/weekendafternoons/stories/s3132122.htm

  17. 2012 August 23
    David Pazzmino permalink

    What people are overlooking about Segovia is that he came from a different era in music. Artists from the late 18th century and early 19th really emphasized a romantic outlook in thier playing, if you listen to recordings by Miguel Llobet (student of Tárrega’s) one hears a very free, personal interpretation marked by frequent uneveness in tempos… this was considered the norm in terms of interpretation back then, and it’s the world Segovia was born into.

    Today it’s much different. The new standard is a stricter adherence to scores and tempos with cleaner, more precise notes and playing. I personally prefer today’s standard, however, it’s rather pointless to judge Segovia based on today’s standard of play. Of course, it will fall short but it doesn’t take away the fact that he moved so many listeners back in his time.

  18. 2013 March 7
    terry gibson permalink

    for sheer enjoyment to be uplifted listen to Antonio De innocentis play paganini’s 24 caprice’s, to all the bitchy critics in the world i will quote what the lovely late flamenco guitarist philip john lee once said to me oh the critics don’t worry about them, he said to me remember when you play that’s what it is playing, meaning it should be fun, so let the world of slagging each other off take a break no one is the best and no one is the worst

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