The classical guitar community is still reeling from the sudden death of one of its most creative, eclectic, inspiring, and vivacious free spirits: Tunisia–born French guitarist/composer/teacher Roland Dyens, who passed away on October 29, ten days after his 61st birthday. He was a prolific writer, composer of dozens of pieces in a wide variety of styles and for many different configurations, from solo guitar to multiple guitars, guitar-and-string-quartet, and guitar-and-orchestra. Some of his works have become cornerstones of the contemporary guitar repertoire, performed and recorded by top guitarists. (Additionally, he penned Les 100 de Roland Dyens, which included short pieces for beginning and intermediate players.) His arrangement work has also been influential and widely embraced, as he’s touched on everything from Sor, Villa-Lobos, and Ravel to French pop songs by Piaf and Trenet, and jazz standards by Django and Monk. Since the founding of Classical Guitar in 1982, the magazine has reviewed more than 60 of his original compositions and arrangements.
As a performer, he was famous for his unpredictability, opening concerts with an improvisation, and dispensing with the convention of providing advanced notice of what he would play, preferring to craft a program as his whims dictated. In a cover story interview by Colin Cooper in the March 1995 issue of Classical Guitar, Dyens noted: “A journalist once wrote that I was ‘a classical musician in the hands, and a jazz musician in the head.’ For me, that is the best definition. But classical music is my house, my family. I love to travel and I love to come back. That’s why I always play Sor in my concerts. I have always been in love with Sor’s music, and this is my way of saying to people, ‘I’m a classical guitarist like you.’ But I have un peu de gourmandise. Je suis gourmand. J’ai beaucoup d’appetit… [“I have a taste for everything. I’m very hungry…”] I feel really flexible. I love every discipline of music. Everything interests me in music. Accompanying a popular singer with my guitar for the first time—as well as playing a suite by Bach and playing in Sweden for the Arvika Festival [where] every night I played with jazz players. For me, that was normal. I never felt forced to do these things.”
In the wake of Dyens’ passing I asked some of Classical Guitar’s longtime contributors and a few others if they had any thoughts or reflections on Dyens and his work, and we’re sharing some below. Feel free to add your own memories, too!
Following these quotes, too, we’re providing links to Classical Guitar’s wonderful 2015 cover story on Dyens by Kathleen Bergeron, a fascinating 2009 cover story interview by Anna Maria Rosado, a 2016 piece by Robert Warren about improvisation in which Dyens features prominently, and a couple of Video Pick of the Week selections with Dyens. All of the feature stories contain video links to performances, as well.
Graham Wade (CG writer): The death of Roland Dyens will be deeply felt throughout the classical guitar world. Maestro Dyens, a virtuoso recitalist (there are numerous superb performances on YouTube), was one of the leading composer/performers in the great tradition that extends back to Sor and Tárrega.
His Tango en skaï became one of the most popular works in concerts and recordings, matching perennials such as Villa-Lobos’s Choros No. 1 or Lauro’s Vals Venezelano No. 3. His most poignant work was the three-movement Libra, which made direct musical reference to his recovery from a serious heart condition. Altogether he left an immense legacy of eminent compositions for duos, quartets, quintets, concertos, etc., as well as a host of uniquely original solos.
Dyens was renowned for the improvisatory pieces with which he began recitals. Further to this he loved arranging jazz standards for classical guitar such as Nuages,A Night in Tunisia, My Funny Valentine, and many others. His ingenuity in integrating these masterpieces within the compass of the six plucked strings was refreshing, sometimes startling, and invariably satisfying.
He will be remembered with great affection for his teaching prowess, especially in master classes. Once again, extended clips of his work with students can be found on YouTube, illustrating his interpretative insights and his sympathetic presence.
The music of Roland Dyens is a hugely significant aspect of the contemporary virtuoso recital repertoire. Yet many of his works have yet to be fully explored. His vast technical resources and unique imaginative powers will continue to inspire recitalists to meet the challenges he set them. The celebration of his great achievements goes on even as we mourn his passing.
Maurice J. Summerfield (CG founder/editor emeritus): Sad news indeed. I am lost for words. Roland was a unique musician. I knew him for over a quarter of a century. I was captivated by his music and virtuoso playing in the early 1990s. So much so I was instrumental in bringing Roland to the 1995 West Dean International Classical Guitar Festival, which I believe was his first appearance in the UK. I still remember the magic of his improvisation at the beginning of his concert on the opening night—so very, very special. For him, there were no musical boundaries as long as it was ‘good’ music. Roland loved his week at West Dean and often asked me about the possibility of a return visit. This I was able to arrange in 2010. It was at this West Dean festival that he told me he had a heart attack not long before. He loved his cigarettes, and despite the heart problem, at that time he had not given up smoking.
Even with the knowledge of his health problems I still find it hard to believe Roland is no longer with us. We can at least take some comfort in knowing his spirit will live on forever through his many wonderful compositions, arrangements and recordings.
Below: Ben Verdery, Dyens, and Maurice Summerfield at West Dean festival, 2010.
Chris Dumigan (CG writer, composer): The sudden passing of Roland Dyens has left a hole in the guitar world that will never be filled. He was a complete one-off, the master of his art, which extended from playing to writing, arranging, and every other possible facet of the guitar and all its complexities. His opening improvisations at every concert he performed were legendary, his compositions were many, varied and often of great intricacy, although the minute detail that he put into every manuscript left players in no doubt exactly how he wanted it to sound. Yet he could also produce 100 little pieces for the less talented players to have a go at, as witnessed in The 100 of Roland Dyens, published by D’Oz. Sixty-one is absolutely no age to go from the world, but there is such a huge body of work by this man, that in decades and centuries to come, his name will still be there among the greatest our instrument ever produced.
Russ de Angelo (Dyens’ North American manager, producer of La Guitarra California Festival): Roland and I were friends first and business partners second. I lost my dear friend, but I am more saddened that our instrument’s most unique musical voice has been silenced, and much too early. Roland was a special ambassador for the guitar, a tremendously creative composer and a very kind human being. A musical genius like a Roland Dyens comes around once in a lifetime, if we’re lucky. I was honored to know him. He will be greatly missed, but his music lives on.
Tim Panting (CG writer): Roland Dyens had a captivating and engaging personality that drew you in, enveloping you in a world of warmth and generosity, with a sparkling wit, constantly creating new shapes with words; intricate punning weaving through sentences delivered with humor and often ruthless honesty. I am in the majority of people who after meeting him were left spellbound; such meetings resonating for days, months and years. His untimely death is a bereavement the guitar world could well do without.
To follow his meticulously annotated compositions and arrangements is to enter a world beyond your wildest imagination both technically and musically, yet with the surety that if followed precisely you will step into a magical garden of possibilities leaving you exhilarated with a newly exalted sense of one’s own musical prowess. His two volumes of Chansons Françaises (Editions Henri Lemoine), which he also recorded, are in my opinion, unequalled contributions to the world of the guitar; jewels among his vast repertoire, where the guitar cajoles us with equal amounts of mischief, sadness and beauty.
Steve Marsh (CG writer/composer): I never got to meet Roland Dyens and only saw him perform live once. He seemed a very singular, individual character and I came away being impressed with his performance in that particular concert. Over the years I’ve reviewed a lot of his material and always thought that he was a highly remarkable and fascinating writer for the guitar. In fact, out of the 2,000-plus reviews I’ve written for Classical Guitar magazine, one of the most notable ones was Dyens’ arrangement for guitar and string quartet of seven of Fernando Sor’s Etudes—sheer magic!
Richard Patterson (guitarist, producer of Omni Dynamite Guitars concert series): Roland’s passing was very sad. I first met him in Martinique at Leo Bouwer’s festival there in 1991. I was accompanying a Russian mandolin and balalaika virtuoso. I had a solo in the program and had selected Roland’s piece Tango En Skai. It was not well- known at the time, but I had been given a copy by the German guitarist Hubert Käpple. I was very nervous, but Roland sat down with me and went over the piece to make sure I had it correctly. That began our friendship. I invited him to perform on our series here in the San Francisco Bay Area and it was his United States debut. I am very proud to have done that. He was a true romantic in his approach to life and music. He was scheduled to perform in the Omni series on November 11, 2017. Many people have told me that his last concert here was one of the best concerts they had ever seen. We will all miss his probing intelligence, sly wit, and his beautiful way with our instrument. He was a guitar star!
Paul Fowles (CG writer): Few would disagree that Roland was one of the most influential contemporary guitarist/composers after Leo Brouwer. He was certainly one of the most appreciated. The first guitarist I approached to take part in a Dyens tribute at the Manchester Guitar Circle—Jon Gjylaci—immediately wrote back to ask which of Dyens’ compositions and arrangements we’d like him to play, since he has so many of them under his fingers.
As a performer, Roland was a ‘live’ experience, starting his sets with a free improvisation and eschewing the printed program. He was also more than just a purveyor of his own works, the music of Sor being a recurring feature in his choice of repertoire.
His death is untimely, but it has to be said that it wasn’t entirely unexpected. Despite having undergone heart surgery as a young man, reportedly depicting aspects of this experience in Libra Sonatine (1986), he continued to smoke like a chimney, to the extent that he regularly took breaks from [guitar competition] jury meetings in order to feed his habit. So a long, slow decline in a retirement home was never in the cards.
David Collett (Guitar Salon International): Absolutely shocking news about Roland. When he was at GSI last year, he spent three nights as my guest in my home [in southern California], so I got to spend some great quality time with him—including having dinners, breakfasts, etc.
He was a genuinely, deeply artistic person who was still very busy composing and arranging. While he was staying with me, he was working on some Piazzolla arrangements. There was one piece in particular—I can’t remember exactly which one—that had him stumped and it was really eating away at him. About 15 minutes into breakfast one morning, he stopped mid-discussion with a blank look on his face, eyes glazed over, and he went silent. After a few seconds I had to say “Roland, Roland —are you OK?” I wasn’t not sure what was going on! And he looked at me and said, “The notes! The notes! They’re coming!” Then he abandoned a half-eaten breakfast and hurried upstairs and said he had to write the notes down before they left him! I checked with him later and he said the piece finished itself. That’s the sign of greatness — grabbing inspiration when it comes!
Below: With David Collett of GSI at a concert in Santa Monica, California
Another story : After Roland left, Andrew Lee from GSI was driving him to LAX [airport] to catch a connecting flight—he was flying up to San Luis Obispo to perform a concert at the La Guitarra California Festival—and I got a frantic phone call: Roland was missing his “magic pencil”! I asked what his magic pencil was and he told me it was the only pencil he ever had that wrote notes down on paper before he thought of them in his head. So, given the seriousness of this pencil, I searched my home and my car, and I found it in a crack in the back seat of my car, where his bags had gone when I dropped him off at the office. He was so happy. But then I had to call an Uber car to pick up the pencil and drive it across Los Angeles from Santa Monica to Kai Narezo’s house in Hollywood, and Kai left early the next morning by car for the festival. After this last-second stealth operation to rescue the magic pencil, I received a text from Roland telling me he had been reunited with it. Close call!
One other small but fun detail: his favorite color was purple. He loved all things purple. So for the concert he gave here, he wore all purple – and I mean all purple including a purple leather belt with matching purple leather shoes. Purple shirt, socks, trousers, etc. Even the stitching in his belt and shoes was a matching darker purple.
He had an inexhaustible amount of deep creativity and also had a fun sense of humor . One night at dinner with just my wife and one of her close friends, Roland came back from the bathroom and he was wearing a funny pair of clown glasses with spirals in the eyes. It was really silly, but also fun since he caught us all by surprise.
So, I’m deeply saddened not just for the loss of a great guitar personality—which I haven’t even mentioned anything about—but also someone who I felt was my friend. I’m sure many others who knew him feel this way too.
Below: Paris 2015 (photo: Kathleen Bergeron). Photo at top of page: Felix Salazar