Julian Bream on Recovering From Injury, Jazz Guitarists, & the Dearth of Modern Guitar Composers

classical guitarist julian bream
Interview by Chris Kilvington | From the August 1993 issue of Classical Guitar

We can all hear before we are able to see, which may partly account for music’s potent quality. Watch any film on TV, and you soon realise that the powerful, emotional moments are almost invariably accompanied by music; the words are not enough. Chris Kilvington’s next question, in this extended interview with Julian Bream, concerned this premise.

Note: This is part of our ongoing series celebrating the legacy of Julian Bream, who passed away this year at the age of 87. This is part two of a two-part interview.

Chris Kilvington: Do you feel that music can sometimes express what words can’t?

Julian Bream: I think that’s an interesting proposition. There is an abstract purity about instrumental music, whereas once you have words, that in itself gives a fixed emotional framework to the work. Instrumental music conveys a dimension which is abstract, mystical and also engages the intellect. And those three things are, above all, intercepted by the heart. But that doesn’t mean to say I don’t like songs, I love songs, the French songs of Faure, Debussy, Ravel and the German lieder. It’s a different concept of music.

I wasn’t actually thinking of songs so much. I think that everyone in this life must, at one time or another, have been, as we say, “lost for words,” incapable of expressing linguistically something that was within themselves. Maybe music can sometimes offer that expression. You know what I mean?

I know exactly what you feel; but I don’t know what you mean!

Maybe I don’t know what I mean!

Chris, you can’t know what you mean, as the music is obviously saying it for you, not any words. That’s it! And that’s why writing about music is in some way a complete waste of time. And yet, even so, a person’s thoughts on music can be very revealing. I think you’ve got to read musical criticism with the foreknowledge that it is a waste of time, basically. Yet it can be a highly entertaining business. I read a wonderful book recently about the critics in Beethoven’s time and what they said about his music. It’s amazing what you can learn about the society of 170 years ago. We tend to class music into categories, and contemporary or avant garde music is said to be something difficult to understand for many people, and often stretches the medium which is being used to its utmost breaking point. But this is a natural corollary to how things evolve. One must remember that in the 18th century nearly every new work was an avant garde piece! Audiences were hearing nothing other than avant garde music—take Mozart’s clarinet concerto: when that was written it was way out, and the G minor symphony too. People weren’t listening to Palestrina! They listened to music of the day. Maybe one or two people sang a few Bach chorales… but it was generally a totally different situation. I think musical life was much livelier because of that, and the musical language was in a wonderful state of evolution at that point in history.

Do you think, then, that it’s retrogressive to play works of the past such as you do; do you think it’s a backwards step?

No, I don’t think so. But I think it’s rather hard luck on contemporary composers that they have to hear a masterpiece by Bach before they hear the first performance of their new work. I think that’s unfair and not at all helpful. It’s unfair for them to be compared with the beauties of an age which had a totally different aesthetic. I do admire someone like Pierre Boulez or Harrison Birtwistle; their music is continuously evolving. And most music of the last 15 years has become so-called “melodic,” or you could say harmonic in the quasi-traditional way. And I think most of it is pretty mediocre stuff.

You do?

Yes, I do. I hardly know of a person I want to commission a piece from now. I think the two composers alive with the greatest musical ears are Takemitsu and Lutoslawski. You know, there was always a time when I felt I must commission so-and-so, I must get a new work. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older but I’m not so very enthusiastic about what I hear now. I don’t go to many concerts but I regularly listen to the radio specifically to hear certain works and get the feel of a new composer—there may be a Beethoven in our midst that we don’t know about. It’s very easy to make great sweeping statements about things. But that’s my general feeling at the moment.

That’s rather sad.

Maybe; but if you look at the years between 1755 and 1770, that period wasn’t exactly redolent with masterpieces either. You’ve got to have periods of rest and of taking stock. And then new things come along.

You wouldn’t say no to another Nocturnal or Bagatelles, quality-wise, would you?

Well, there’s nobody who can write that music anymore. They’re period pieces, they’re of their time. I notice that guitar programmes, when I see them, are rather more conservative than they used to be. And architecture, and painting…

Is that wrapped up with the political scene, the extremely functional politics we’ve seen in the last ten years or so?

I think it’s the way the world is. I believe there’s always a spirit moving through the world, always has been. And today I feel it’s so unhappy… the violence of it all… it’s a terrible time. And I feel that it’s hard to compose beautiful things in a world which is killing itself, killing itself in more ways than one. I don’t think it’s a pretty picture. Do you?

On composition again; Edward Greenfield once wrote in the Guardian, “with the ‘wrong’ notes written the player is prevented from bringing out the instrument’s proper resonance.” Any thoughts on this?

The “wrong” notes? What did he mean by the “wrong” notes?

Maybe he meant writing in poor keys, or writing combinations of notes which exclude the possibility of good phrasing, notes which don’t connect.

Is that to do with the ring of the music?

I think so, yes.

I would say that certain keys have specific moods, and one of the unfortunate things about the guitar is that it’s limited in the ways it can transpose. And this is very indicative in the 19th century sonatas; I can hardly think of a sonata which has a development section for the guitar. And key relationships do play such an important part of classical sonata form, they create part of the tension of the music. A thematic idea in one key sounds so different in another, and the guitar finds it difficult to cope with that in terms of musical development. Yet sometimes a remote key can give a covered feeling to the music; Takemitsu’s All in Twilight, lots of G Flat, A Flat, D Flat and yet it sounds very well. The reason is that he’s worked it all out very carefully on the fingerboard. It gives the piece a rather muted feeling which I believe he wants…

Because of the lack of overtones?

Yes that’s right. To a great extent.

A change of tack. What sort of practice are you doing nowadays?

About three or four hours a day. I start off quite early in the morning and work through until midday. I don’t practice in the afternoon. In the morning I’ll start about 8, do an hour, have a breather, another 45 minutes, a breather, and so do about three hours playing in a four­hour session. I’ll do a bit more between 5 and 6:30 or so, and then I put the old box to bed and have a glass of gin. Down here my days are very simple. I might go out and do a bit of gardening in the afternoon or walk the dog; it’s such a negative time, whereas the mornings and evenings are great. That’s the thing being a performer, you tend to move towards the evening …

You’re a late-night person?

No. I used to go to bed very late, but not now.


Are you still having to do lots of practice on technique since the accident to your arm, or have you got all that back again?

It’s pretty much sorted out. But I had to do a fantastic lot of practice initially. And then I carried that on because I really enjoyed it. I had to change my hand position slightly because of the accident, and then the left hand, I changed that too. I did a double change.

What sort of things? I’m curious.

I tended to play with rather flat fingers on my left hand, and I didn’t notice it until I saw the scenes from the films on the Guitar in Spain. I looked at my left hand and asked myself, do I really play like that? It was terrible!

It worked OK…

Well, it sort of sounded all right, but I thought I’d never develop my left hand if I continued to play like that, so I had to change; and that was very hard to achieve at my age. But I’m glad I did it; I really had to slave, but I’m so pleased that I did it.

What bothered you—the visual aspect, presumably?

Yes, it looked wrong. I hadn’t actually seen myself playing for such a long time, which you don’t in the normal course of events. The palm of my hand was too far away from the fingerboard. And what a hell of a job it was to rectify it, too.

A lot of willpower?

Being virtually self-taught I have always had to approach these things a bit like that, trial and error—and a lot of trial specifically.

And your right hand… it’s not so much your accident, I’m more interested in how anybody can totally start again with their technique. l guess everybody would like to change their techniques at some time; you were stuck with it. You had to. What did you do?

I had to, you’re right. I had to start from the very beginning. About a month after the accident I did 15 minutes just moving the fingers, then half an hour, then 40, 50 minutes, then an hour…

Simple scales—what?

Yes, diatonic and chromatic scales, and also arpeggios. I worked in front of a mirror and I would watch what was going on and I gradually built my technique up again. It was interesting. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody, you know! But you do learn more that way, you see…

With your right hand, did you just re-constitute what you had before or did you change things?

I changed things a little bit.

Like what?

The position of my thumb; and I’m quite happy to have also changed my wrist position. Whereas previously I kept it more or less the same throughout a performance—although I moved it up and down the strings—now I’m quite ready to change the angle, to move it as I feel. It’s not a very pure outlook to technique, but it’s one that suits me now. I also notice that guitar players in general don’t fuss with their right hands anything like they used to in terms of the old Tárrega bent wrist. And I’m not at all sure that’s a good thing either; the thing with the Tárrega bend, you didn’t have to support the wrist, it just fell that way. But this flatter method, you have to consciously support the wrist.

When you had the accident, did you feel like packing it in—did it ever seem that bad?

It was certainly a pretty traumatic experience; it does have an effect on your life and your outlook upon things. It was terribly bad luck being involved in such a catastrophic accident, but I also feel I somehow had great fortune; really, I’m lucky to be alive. It gave me another dimension of feeling to have gone through an experience of that kind. It did change my life. And I stopped for a month, and maybe that was good too. The initial thought was “Maybe I’ll never play again.” I don’t know what effect that would have had on me. I would have missed the playing terribly, I must say, because I love playing. Maybe I’d have done a bit of teaching—yes, I’d have done that. But as soon as I felt I could move my fingers I knew I’d play again. That was why I had the operation done on a local anaesthetic, so I could talk with the surgeon.

You’ve got some guts.

Well, maybe; but I really wanted to know what he was doing.

ls it set in a particular way?

Yes. When they do these operations they’re limited by the amount of bone that’s there and I wanted to know just what was destroyed and what was fixable before he set it up. He might have said “I can do it this way, but your little finger won’t work.” And I’d have said “OK, I’ll have no little finger working.” And I’ll tell you what else—it just crossed my mind that I’d take up the old plectrum guitar again, because, as you know, I used to be a jazz player.

If not pluck, then pick?

That’s right. Les Paul had a similar accident, and his arm was fixed, but fixed just for playing; that was it.

Which jazz guitar players do you like?

I’m not really up on the moderns, I ought to know more. Wes Montgomery was a phenomenal player, I admired him tremendously.

Joe Pass?

Joe Pass I think is a lovely player. I think it’s very unusual playing. The way he conceives his harmonies cries out for fingerstyle. Wouldn’t you say that? And of course Tai Farlow, Charlie Christian and the best of the lot—Django. Without a shadow of a doubt.

I saw Grappelli recently in Cambridge; he was terrific.

Yes, he’s actually developed, really developed into a different musician now. He’s a great, great, great player. And his style has changed from his early period, naturally, and he’s become better than ever.

In what ways?

He has such incredible control and his ideas are so fluid now; he knows exactly what he wants to say and says it as eloquently as anyone. He also makes such a beautiful sound.

You said that if you hadn’t been able to play again you’d have got stuck into some teaching. You said in A Life on the Road, “One day I will teach.” Now, that’s ten years ago, so—when? And what would you get involved with?

I don’t know. I reckon that will be when I’m not doing so much concert playing. Playing and teaching is not a good combination. I think to teach institutionally could be rather boring for my temperament.

I wasn’t thinking of you teaching institutionally. More masterclasses, that type of thing.

Well, I enjoy doing classes. I do one at the Academy every term, and I learn a lot myself. I sometimes trade someone else’s ideas with my own.

Why not!

Why not! I have been known to misread wrong notes and I can find that it’s in a class that I get the notes right! I enjoy a class because I can talk about other things than music. Music is a way of life, music has fashioned the way you think about things. Some students are a little bit intense. I’m all for seriousness, I absolutely approve of that. But I think there’s an intensity where they’re not looking at themselves from any vantage point and preparing what they’re doing. I can talk about other things which can yet relate to the music and help them to relax a bit more. Because it is a hard thing for students to get up there and go through their pieces in front of each other.

Maybe they’ve got to divest themselves of such inhibitions, and just learn to give.

Perhaps. And I get a little bit melancholy about the prospects for some of these players; the standard has improved tremendously in the last 10 or 15 years, and I don’t know where we’re all going to earn our bread—to put it in a nutshell. There are some very fine players about and it is just sad that at some point they’ll realise they can’t realise their ambitions professionally. At least they’ll have had a go, and there’s fulfilment in that. It’s a hard life, a hard profession. You’ve got to be tough, particularly now when there’s so much competition in a rather small fishpond.

Are you giving any masterclasses now as you travel around the world?

Not many, just the odd one. I want to wait some years yet before I start teaching in any serious way. Yet I know it’s a good thing to impart what experience you’ve had, particularly towards the end of a life. Because I’ve had a marvellous life and I do want to convey things, and I will. But I’m still learning, still experiencing, and I want to keep that, keep playing…

What changes do you observe in the guitar scene as you’ve known it? How was it when you were a boy, then a young man, then at 40, and how is it now?

I can answer that. When I was a boy there was no possibility professionally speaking, to make a career with the classical guitar. When I was 20 there was a distinct possibility; when I was 30 the possibility had become an actuality, and when I was 40 my career had taken off and I was making a lot of records. I would say that at 50 my career had reached its zenith, professionally speaking. Nowadays there’s not so much interest in the guitar among the general musical public. But at 60 I would say that my career is flourishing as well as ever.

What do you think are the reasons for the present eclipse of the guitar?

I think a lot of younger players’ programmes are, not exactly boring, just not very well planned as musical entities. I also think there’s a higher priority given to technical brilliance than to musical evocation. And I think that what moves people is the interiorisation of music that is distilled and then projected. This age is not exactly a poetic one in any case, so you can’t blame these artists—they are of their generation and made by the environment in which they live. They work very hard and their technical achievements are important and can sometimes be exciting. But finally technical achievement must be the servant to the musical achievement, and that is a very hard thing to manage in this climate. People still require that certain spirituality of music from their performers. And I just think it’s in short supply. Funnily enough, countries that have been deprived of the technological society and the mass hysterical materialism that we’ve indulged in—I refer to those countries that were formerly communist—those countries actually produce better musicians by and large because they’re not cluttered up with the coldness of materials and the calculated business of owning things. Our whole thing is geared to “achievers” and when you’re a musician you’re not an “achiever.” You have to have a sense of humanity, and humility. Because you know you’re never going to achieve “it.”

Because there’s no end?

Exactly—it doesn’t end.

So—we got to 60. What about the rest of your time, what are you looking for? Where are you headed!

Oh, I should think for the grave!

The conversation collapsed in laughter at this point, and seemed to have run its natural course. We talked briefly about cars before I left—mine modern, sleek, fast and indistinguishable from thousands of Cavaliers like it; Julian’s an ancient Morris Traveller over which he enthused glowingly. It seemed to encapsulate some of what he’s about. I pulled away, watching this very human person playing with his dog on the lawn, looking forward to the Test match, waving farewell, and I have to say he looked his own man. Different. His individuality was painted everywhere. I even managed to carry this with me onto the motorway, plunging into its faceless competition. Bream at 60—an inspiration, actually. An easygoing conversation, and I felt buzzed up, I felt good. Bream at 60, tough but warm. The thing is, the man’s an artist through and through, he can’t help it, and it comes at you in waves. If the world could drown in them it wouldn’t hurt.