Perched in mid-career, David Starobin has a resume that brims with achievement. The guitarist came of age in the late 1960’s, a time when his instrument was leading the assault against earlier forms of popular music. He picked up the guitar as a small child and experimented with rock bands during his teens, but David Starobin would find his initialt success as a young master of the “classical” guitar.
Established on the concert stage by his mid-20’s as an exponent of the much beloved but limited concert repertoire, Starobin became a champion of new music. In 1981 he and his wife Becky formed Bridge Records. Devoted to new music, this still thriving label is now a family enterprise; both Starobin children are active in the business. Bridge releases have received 26 Grammy Award nominations, and received three (Best Contemporary Compostion, George Crumb’s “Star-Child” (2001), Best Classical Vocal Recording, the Lorraine Hunt Lieberson/Peter Serkin performance of Peter Lieberson’s “Rilke Songs” (2007), Best Solo Instrumental Recording, Garrick Ohlsson’s Beethoven Sonatas, Vol. 3 (2008), Adam Abeshouse, Producer).
Starobin remains active on the concert stage and in the classroom. He is currently head of the Guitar Studies department at the Curtis Institute of Music.
You grew up in the halycon days of British pop and soul music. Did you play in rock bands when you were a kid? If so, did any of that music make a lasting impression on you?
David Starobin: Between the age of 12 and 14 I was lead guitarist in a band. Our glory days included an appearance at the 1964 World’s Fair, captured on a film clip that has provided much mirth to my children over the years. All of my musical experiences contributed to who I am as a musician. My most recent guitar recording just happens to be as an electric guitarist, playing playing a 1964 era electric guitar-very much like the one I played back then (The $100 Dollar Guitar Project: BRIDGE 9381A/B).
Is the chasm between pop and “serious” music greater than it’s been in the recent (or distant) past?
DS: I think the chasm has been shrinking steadily. We are now at the point where a lot of good music can not be categorized as either ‘serious’ or ‘pop’, so blurred are the boundaries. The breakdown of the “chasm” has had many contributing factors,but mostly it’s the inexorable march forward of communications media. Most good musicians keep open ears. Exclusion of musical influences because one is trying to keep one’s art “pure” is a fairly dead horse at this juncture.
Can you maintain your technique without practicing six hours a day?
DS: I almost never practice six hours a day. When I do put in long hours on the guitar now, it’s to learn new repertoire. Come to think of it, that’s always been my modus operandi.
Has the posture that a “classical” guitarist has to endure caused any physical problems for you?
DS: I’m very fortunate. About 25 years ago I transformed my playing position after watching the great Joe Pass play. He had the most beautifully fluid technique I had ever seen. So, I copied it, began playing with a strap, and have not had physical problems since then.
The 1950’s experienced serialism, there was then a reaction against it; multiple waves, from the “third” on have altered the course of contemporary music. Is there a lingua franca in modern music?
DS: The lingua franca might be Esperanto. The educated ear demands that our artists have a working knowledge of what came before them. No matter what materials an artist chooses to employ or reject, the weight of history demands decisions that are based on literacy and familiarity with our shared heritage. When art is naive, it generally is ephemeral. There are exceptions, but I believe they are rare.
Is an audience necessary?
DS: I’m sure there may be some great work that has been created in a virtual vacuum. For many artists who create or perform, interaction with an audience is inspiring and therefore, essential. I really can only speak for myself here. I do my best work when I know someone is listening.
How does Bridge fit into your artistic life? Why go through the trouble!!
DS: Even on the worst days, I’ve never questioned why we go through the trouble. Bridge has become my life. My wife and I (AND our son and daughter) all work for the company. Our closest friends are the composers who write for us, and the performers who record for us. Our travels revolve around the company. There is never enough time in the day to accomplish what we need to do. I’m very proud of our catalog, and excited about upcoming projects. Trouble? Nah, it’s an adventure.
Do CD’s have a future, or will downloads be the exclusive delivery model in the future?
DS: I don’t have a clue. Both are doing well, with no let up in CD sales.
Do you write as well as play music?
DS: I’m a dabbler. A Sunday afternoon artist. I’m a published composer, poet, and filmmaker. I don’t do any of the preceding all that often, but love to get my feet wet.
Is Fernando Sor still worth playing?
DS: I played Sor’s Op. 54-bis Fantasy for two guitars yesterday. I was doing my teaching at Curtis Institute, and one of my students (Jordan Dodson) and I read through the work. The piece is fantastic-one of Sor’s few pieces in the popular Spanish style. In addition to being one of the great players of his era, Sor as a composer is to the guitar what Mozart is to the piano-his work is full of inspired melodic and harmonic turns and composed with impeccable technique and taste.
How do the responsibilities break down at Bridge Records, Inc.?
DS: As A&R Director I’m largely responsible for the content of our catalog. No decision of mine, though, moves forward without Becky’s (Starobin) approval. As Bridge’s President, she has made a largely classical company, specializing in a very high percentage of new music releases, a going concern. In this day and age, this is a true rarity. Her work in building Bridge has been nothing short of phenomenal. Our son, Rob Starobin (Vice-President) is another essential player. He oversees our digital distribution network, and is point man on various funding initiatives. Our editor is Doron Schachter, and Adam Abeshouse has been the mastering engineer for nearly everything we’ve released during the past 20 years.
Do you produce any of the records you release, or is Bridge primarily a
DS: We’re primarily a production company. I produce a lot (but not most) of our recordings; my work includes George Crumb Complete works (working on Vol. 16); Elliott Carter (working on Vol. 9); Odense Symphony Orchestra (Mozart Piano Concerto series and numerous other releases); Poul Ruders series (working on Vol. 9). In addition, solo artists and ensembles that I produce for are Daedalus Quartet, the cellist Steven Doane, the baritone Patrick Mason. Recently, I’ve produced orchestral sessions in Denmark, Los Angeles, Cardiff (a co-production for the BBC), and Becky and I co-produce a Library of Congress series-restorations of historical recordings. In addition, we regularly work with a lot of independent producers: Adam Abeshouse, Judy Sherman, Silas Brown, David Bowles, Steven Epstein, Viggo Mangor and Max Wilcox, are a few that come to mind.
Where do you like to record? Do you edit in house? If so, who does that work, and do you have a digital audio workstation in house?
DS: I prefer recording most things in concert halls. I made my first record at the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975, and it has always been a favorite venue for solo and chamber music. We record a lot at SUNY/Purchase’s PAC (both Theater A and C), and in LA we’ve been recording in Zipper Hall. In Denmark, we’ve made dozens of orchestral recordings in the Carl Nielsen Hall, and in Warsaw, we use Philharmonic Hall. We edit in house, with Doron Schchter, using Pyramix.
You teach at Curtis and Manhattan School of Music. How does teaching the guitar fit into your artistic life?
DS: Pretty seamlessly. I try to encourage my students to play music that I am interested in, and many of them come to me specifically to study some of the repertoire composed for me. In addition, I try to perform with them, and on numerous occasions have brought them into the recording studio to work in professional situations requiring a good player. I’m fortunate to have drawn superb talent over the years. Many of my former students have gone on to win leading international competitions and pursue successful concert and academic careers.
Is the study of the “classical” guitar different than it was 40 years ago? Has performance practice changed at all?
DS: The guitar has changed radically during the past 40 years. This is mainly because of the increasing requirements of the music composed during this time. When a Britten, or a Carter, or a Berio writes a new work, players need to meet the music with greater understanding and additional technique. History has proven that it is almost always composition that has pushed the art forward.
Who do you feel are the best players of your generation?
DS: My generation? Well, there are a number of very good players who have carried the instrument forward in one way or another. They really are too numerous to list, and any naming of individuals invariably leaves out others who are of equal importance to the guitar’s growth. One generalization I can make with assurance: the players of my generation are easily outstripped, technically, by the players of the next several generations. Current teaching of ‘how’ to play the instrument is light years ahead of where it was when I began as a seven year old.