During a November 2022 interview at his New England Conservatory of Music teaching studio, classical guitar virtuoso Eliot Fisk turns momentarily wistful looking back over his long and storied career. “Years pass by and I think, ‘How can this be?’ I’m just getting started,” he says, voice rising. “I’m at the point where I’m looking at the last chapters of my life.”
In actuality, Fisk is quite youthful at 68, still possessing unflagging energy for music and life in general. His busy early chapters chronicle countless recitals worldwide, concerto appearances with top orchestras, more than 45 albums (and others in the wings), numerous premieres of works dedicated to him by top composers, a huge pile of his transcriptions of non-guitar music from five centuries, and a peerless legacy as a teacher. It’s not going out on a limb to predict that future achievements still await him.
Fisk’s hunger for music and precocity in guitar technique were apparent early on. Bill Viola, an IBM engineer who loved Andrés Segovia’s playing, gave Fisk his first formal lessons in Philadelphia when he was 12. That ended two years later when the Fisks moved to Syracuse, New York. The young guitarist continued teaching himself and later undertook summer studies with well-known classical guitarists of the time Oscar Ghiglia and Alirio Diaz in Siena, Italy. In 1973, Rose Augustine, the widow of Albert Augustine (nylon-string pioneer and founder of Augustine Strings), facilitated a providential meeting between Fisk and Segovia. Impressed with Fisk’s playing, the maestro thereafter made time in his schedule whenever in New York to mentor and encourage him.
Fisk enrolled at Yale University before Yale School of Music offered guitar instruction. Fortuitously, though, Yale entrusted renowned musicologist and harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick with Fisk’s tutelage. After earning both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale, Fisk established the school’s guitar department.
Fisk soon embarked on a relentless performing career, gaining acclaim for his fiery playing, stage charisma, and ambitious programming. His concerts always feature very challenging music, not only J.S. Bach’s violin sonatas and partitas or cello and lute suites, but tour-de force-performances of the 12 Heitor Villa-Lobos etudes in one sitting, Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal, or other epic pieces. Fisk thrives on going to the edge with his audience. Possessing missionary zeal, he shares his love for the poetic voice and musical possibilities of the classical guitar with listeners everywhere. Of course he’s played at innumerable concert halls and guitar festivals, but has also appeared in public schools, senior centers—even logging camps and prisons.
Fisk is lauded for his aptitude in new music, and such contemporary composers as Luciano Berio, Leonardo Balada, Robert Beaser, George Rochberg, Ralf Gawlick, and Nicholas Maw, among others, have written significant works for him.
“I’ve done ten world premieres in the last six months,” he says, raising his eyebrows. “It’s been totally crazy! Last spring, I was invited by Ian Krouse to UCLA for a residency with seven students from his advanced composition class who wrote duos for guitar and other instruments or voice. I did a lot of rewriting of the guitar parts and barely had them completed by the day of the concert. We had to put an hour and 15 minutes of music together in three rehearsals. Miraculously, everything went as well as it possibly could have. It was a wonderful, triumphant evening.”
For the June 2022 Boston GuitarFest—an annual festival Fisk founded 17 years ago—the guitarist and the Cassatt String Quartet premiered Toward the Light, a three-movement quintet by composer Daniel Strong Godfrey. Fisk found the piece quite difficult and the composer very exacting. He had to rework and learn the guitar parts just days before the successful premiere. But he is accustomed to flying by the seat of his pants in such situations. Sitting in the audience, this writer couldn’t imagine another guitarist who could rise to this task.
Given the guitar’s built-in idiosyncrasies, many composers need Fisk’s expertise. “I almost always recompose the guitar parts,” he says. “The composer will write something and I will play it back and say, ‘This is what I think it should be, what do you think?’ They almost always take my suggestions.”
Just prior to this interview, Fisk premiered a concerto by the guitarist-composer Giovanni Piacentini in Mexico City. Again, the guitar part needed help. “I wrote the cadenza in Mexico City,” Fisk says, “and improvised two other cadenzas. We made changes up to the last minute.”
Fisk embraces the entire canon of classical music and more—and not just what’s playable on guitar. In conversation, he may lapse into lines in German from an aria in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or share insights on repertoire and composers from the Renaissance through the present day. “Music is an art that ennobles all of us,” he says. “Schubert wrote the famous song ‘An die Musik,’ which is an address to the sacred art of music: du holde Kunst. The lyric says: ‘You lovely art, in how many gray hours have you raised my spirit into higher realms.’ Anything good about our species is all in the music, in the different languages of music and the ways people do music.”
Music and Service
Fisk is no stranger to accolades and awards, but feels strongly that music is not for self-aggrandizement. “It’s time for guitarists to get away from the star system,” he says emphatically. “This idea that you need to be a super-famous or rich musician traveling the world all the time is a bunch of crap. What matters is making good, honest art that touches people. That’s what it’s about. It’s about service.”
Fisk has invested much time and energy in service to young guitarists. For decades he has commuted between teaching posts at New England Conservatory and Mozarteum University Salzburg, in Austria, tutoring many brilliant international students at both institutions. He teaches in their native tongue—if it’s one of the five languages in which he is fluent. Notable former students include Marco Tamayo and Joaquín Clerch (Cuba), Adam Levin (USA) and Scott Borg (Australia), Grisha Goryachev (Russia), and Ricardo Gallén (Spain), to name just a few.
Fisk is characteristically modest about those he has guided. “Joaquín Clerch and Marco Tamayo were accomplished virtuosos when they came to me,” he says. “I think I was able to make a difference for them by expanding their cultural horizons. Coming from Cuba, they had been locked off from the world. Grisha Goryachev played so well, what could I teach him about technique? There were things about classical music I showed him.”
In addition to imparting musical knowledge, Fisk also instills a service ethic in his students, many of whom hold music faculty positions at various universities and conservatories. Adam Levin (profiled in the January/February 2022 issue) is among those who have embraced Fisk’s philosophy about becoming a music activist. In addition to performing, teaching, and recording, Levin is a powerhouse organizer. With his cohorts in the Great Necks guitar trio, fellow Fisk alumnus Scott Borg and Matthew Rohde, Levin started the non-profit Kithara Project. With a mission to enrich the lives of disadvantaged youth through classical guitar, the Kithara team raised funds to build a school in Mexico City and has established three other facilities in America.
While pondering his retirement from his Salzburg position in about 18 months, Fisk and his wife, Zaira Meneses, also a guitar virtuoso, developed the idea for an arts enterprise that encompasses many aspects of Fisk’s career: the Eliot Fisk Guitar Academy. He had no desire to bestow his name on the new venture and explains that the organization’s acronym, EFGA, has a musical raison d’être. “Those letters are the bottom tetrachord of the Phrygian scale, which is our guitar scale,” he explains. “It just worked out.”
The site describes offering “an extraordinary international, cross-disciplinary musical education with hands-on, live performance preparation for students of all ages and backgrounds to explore and develop their talents to the fullest.”
Fisk says his wife is “on fire” for EFGA and taking the leading role in its development. EFGA offers online courses, some involving guitar, some more general, such as ear training and music theory. Fisk and Meneses aspire for EFGA to become international in scope and “integrate the beauty and discipline of art and music into daily life” and address additional topics. Fisk adds, “We might have programs on philosophy, history of art, opera, and lots of things that can relate to the guitar. It’s a universal instrument that permeates every aspect of life on the planet. The guitar is the hub, and the spokes of that wheel go out into all of human endeavor.”
In 2023, EFGA will administrate both the Boston GuitarFest and Meneses’ Latin American Music Festival. Future goals include hosting international festivals in Spain, Mexico, Austria, and California. Other ambitions involve commissioning new works from contemporary composers and sponsoring a variety of video and audio recording projects. “We have to create our own islands of beauty, lighting a bunch of candles,” says Fisk. “We believe in this and want to create a welcoming, worldwide community of people of good faith and goodwill.”
Observations Along the Way
Fisk offers both kudos and caveats to the rising crop of young virtuosos. “Sound production in the right hand today is better than it ever was, but the art of the left hand has been lost,” he opines. “Many in my generation started taking out vibrato and portamento and sought evenness, with every note sounding the same.” Additionally, Fisk feels spontaneity and expression get lost when the ultimate objective becomes making zero mistakes. “Like anyone else, I want to make as few mistakes as possible, but I think I’ll play better if I’m playing expressively,” he says. “If you are just hoping to not make mistakes, I don’t see how you take flight.”
At a time when inexpensive subscription streaming services draw listeners’ attention to individual tracks more than full albums, Fisk will continue to add complete albums to his catalog. He anticipates an early 2023 release of his recording of Bach’s six cello suites. Later in the year he will record albums featuring the aforementioned Godfrey quintet, Toward the Light, and the Piacentini concerto.
More than half a century of dedication to his musical quest has only heightened Fisk’s love of “the sacred art” and fuels his desire to continue the journey. “You can lose yourself in it and do what you really want—time travel or spiritual travel via music. You go to places with music where the world ceases to exist and you are in a magical realm. That’s why we are into music and the guitar. I don’t regret any of the hard work I put in. I have ideas for ten lifetimes, but all I’ve got left is a little bit of this one. I’m trying to make the most of it.”
What He Plays
Eliot Fisk plays a 2010 Stephan Connor guitar (dubbed “Palladin”) with a spruce top and maple back and sides. The scale is 650mm, and a removable extension under the top two strings makes the neck 24 frets, to facilitate playing artificial harmonics. Fisk uses Augustine Paragon Red strings (carbon trebles) and occasionally Paragon Blue (high tension) basses.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.