Eliot Fisk on the Greatness of Jewish Culture

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Guitarist Eliot Fisk (Photo by Keitaro Yoshioka)

Guitar virtuoso Eliot Fisk is the latest artist to be spotlighted in our series of interviews with several of the remarkable talents contributing to the Milken Archive’s first 30 years. The timing of this interview could not have been more propitious as the annual Boston Guitar Fest founded by Fisk, is set to launch virtually this June 28 – July 1.

How did you get involved with the Milken Archive to begin with?

My most vivid memory is as a result of my almost lifelong friendship with the wonderful composer Bruce Adolphe, who I met when we were each 15 years of age at a magical music camp in the foothills of Vermont called Kinhaven.

Bruce Adolphe and Eliot Fisk
From left: Composer Bruce Adolphe and Eliot Fisk (Source)

We've been great friends ever since. And he's written a number of works for me beginning [when] we crossed paths again at the Aspen Music School in 1974 and he wrote a short piece for me. And then I recorded his Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering, which were written for Lucy Shelton, the soprano, David Jolley the French horn player, and guitar. We did those songs and then worked together a number of other times.

Describe your experience with Jewish music prior to your involvement with the Milken Archive.

Right at the start of my career, one of my first and most wonderful gigs was accompanying the fabulous Spanish soprano Victoria de los Ángeles. I met her because the 92nd Street Y in New York, the YMHA, was presenting Victoria. And one of the things she was doing was a set of Sephardic songs for flute, voice, and guitar set by the Catalan composer Manuel Valls. In fact, Bruce used a couple of those same tunes in his Ladino Songs. But I was aware of those pieces from working with Victoria. And I think, you know, people say that the flamenco also has certain Sephardic roots, and just Spanish music in general has got Sephardic ancestry, heritage mixed in there. So that was my main contact to what we could call, I guess, Jewish folk tunes.

Update us on your career since working with the Milken Archive. What are you working on today? What are some of the highlights or accomplishments you're particularly proud of?

We've been restructuring Boston GuitarFest, which I founded in 2006. This year, because of the pandemic, we decided not to ditch it but to restructure it basically from the ground up. We've turned it into a virtual event that will span 15 or 16 times zones, live! And we'll have students and faculty from four continents.

Eliot Fisk previews Boston GuitarFest 2020

It's an immense undertaking. We don't have any pretensions of being able to offer the perfection of a concert hall experience. But what we do hope to do is link people who still love music, who still care about music and who still believe in the family of humankind. Link people across 16 time zones and four continents and every race, and try to keep the enthusiasm going and keep our spirits up.

How might your experience with the Milken Archive have impacted or influenced your career?

Well, I think it's wonderful that such an organization exists. It's a beautiful thing to connect an ancient culture such as Jewish culture, and to try to really uncover the human commonality that Judaism at its best expresses.

My late father was born Jewish, although he became a Quaker as an adult. But certainly, his sense of humor was always the sense of humor of a New York Jew and his intellect, a probing mind, his hunger for debate, his passion for seeking the truth and his ability to rejoice over simple things in life and his ability to meld people together. In his retirement community where he lived the last 20 years of his life, he was an absolute icon. And when he passed away, everyone said, "This is the end of an era."

Like America, I think the Jewish people are greatest when they are the most international and the most universalist and the most embracing of all of humanity. That is when the Jews have had their most wonderful moments, I think, outside of certain heroic efforts at survival, which we all admire.

How do you think the Milken Archive has impacted the field of Jewish music in general? If you work outside of Jewish music, do you think it has had an impact on the music world more generally?

I think, in a way, the Milken Archive and institutions like it are what keep civilization going. It's very well known within the musical community. It's well known in the Jewish community.

Eliot Fisk plays 12 Etudes by Heitor Villa-Lobos

The amazing immigrants who were chased out of Europe and made America culturally rich for a couple of decades, had children who didn't always share their enthusiasm for this wonderful rich culture, this incredible wealth of culture that was brought to America by a whole generation of magnificent immigrants. That makes the continued existence of the Milken Archive even more important, because the people who used to support cultural activity, now are perhaps turning their attention to other things. So anytime you've got an organization doing this faithful work of preserving music through recordings and archives of important works, that's a really profound thing.

Do you have a favorite recording (audio or video) from the Archive's collection? What is it and why?

Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering. We had a great time recording this and performing it and in fact, thanks to this piece, I met another great composer, originally from England, Nicholas Ma, who was a great fan of Bruce Adolphe. Nick wrote an immense and very important solo guitar work for me called Music of Memory, based on a theme by Mendelssohn, a well-known Jewish composer1. So it kind of comes full circle.

Composer Bruce Adolphe on the genesis of Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering

Listen on Spotify:
 Milken Archive Presents: Eliot Fisk

1 Felix Mendelssohn, the grandson of the Jewish philosopher and “father of the Haskalah,” Moses Mendelssohn (1729–86), was born Jewish and converted to Protestantism by his parents at age seven. The extent to which Mendelssohn identified with his Jewish heritage and how this may have influenced his music is a matter of ongoing discussion.

Explore Further 

Eliot Fisk's Artist Profile Ladino Songs of Love and Suffering


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