Jon Gjylaci’s Journey from Albania to Greece to England Leads to New Musical Spaces
From the Spring 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY OLLIE McGHIE
It’s five a.m. and there’s not a guitar in sight. First up, a grueling running regime. Then, intense firearms-training followed by a drill. Jon Gjylaci has a shaved head and fingernails cut to the quick. The heat in Corfu, in his adopted home country of Greece, is blistering. Make one mistake and his service period could be extended by a day, a week. Don’t excel, don’t dawdle. Get in, get out.
Actually, that scene was from back in 2013. Today, Gjylaci (pronounced“je-latch-e” ) a 33-year-old Albanian classical guitarist, sits in front of me in London sipping his café Americano, relaxing the day after performing and being interviewed on the BBC Radio 3 show In Tune, hosted by Sean Rafferty. It’s hard to imagine him wielding anything other than the white guitar case tucked to his side.
In 2013 Gjylaci’s music career, teaching, and entire life were all put on hold. There had been delays, postponements, and intermittent communication with the Greek Consulate in Leeds (in north England) but finally Gjylaci’s conscription came through. Fortunately, owing to his dual nationality and Greek-living-abroad status, the compulsory nine months of service was reduced by two-thirds. So, after his studies in Manchester at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) with Craig Ogden, and in the middle of teaching at nearby Bolton School, he up and left his life—his small flat in Greater Manchester—to return to Greece for his statutory military service.
“It’s something we all have to do,” he says. “Most people try and do it as early in life as possible. Luckily my time only lasted the allotted three months.”
Last night’s performance included a tribute to Roland Dyens, a musical figure who has been hugely influential in Gjylaci’s life. “I grew up with his music, feeling the connections he made between the worlds of classical and jazz. Though sadly I never met him on the guitar circuit.
“The scores for the Dyens’ arrangements are so detailed that you think the man must have been incredibly strict,” he continues, “but if you watch his master classes online you can see how free-spirited he is. I couldn’t improvise like him. When I’m with my brother [violinist Esen-Nikolas Gjylaci] we improvise together—but it is something that is much more in the Albanian musical tradition. In Miroslav Tadic’s Walk Dance on the album, my brother does a short solo which is very much inspired by this tradition.”
Gjylaci is currently promoting his latest album,Edges of Thought, which is his personal homage to music from around the globe. “The guitar has traditions everywhere,” he notes. “In Greece, we have the bouzouki. In Albania we have the cifteli[a two-stringed instrument, fretted diatonically]. I wanted to draw on as many cultures as possible.”
The album was released in mid-2016, with its unofficial launch taking place during the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Manchester Guitar Circle, one of the UK’s oldest guitar societies. The tracks on the album certainly cover a significant part of the globe, featuring everything from Albéniz’s Asturias to Tadic’s Laments, Dances and Lullabies, Volume 1 and Gary Ryan’s Benga Beat.
“With the well-known pieces, such as Asturias, which have been recorded so many times, I wanted to do something to complement the guitar,” Gjylaci explains.“So I spoke with my brother, who is the director of the Northern String Quartet, asking him if he could do something to complement Segovia’s arrangement with a string accompaniment.” The results are indeed a refreshing arrangement, the quartet swooping in at the right moments heightening the more sensuous passages.
“I did the same with Leo Brouwer’s Un dia de Noviembre. I always thought the texture of it was very thin and needed something to enhance it… Hopefully it has worked.”
Above: Gjylaci plays one of the two Albéniz pieces on his Edges of Thought CD.
Next to Gjylaci sits his distinct Japanese white Karura case, which houses his 2007 Greg Smallman guitar, the same instrument brandished by the likes of John Williams, Craig Ogden, and Xuefei Yang. He tells me it has rosewood back and sides and a cedar top. It’s an expensive and respected instrument. “It has it’s own seat on every flight I take. It’s not worth the agony of breakages,” he says.
Gjylaci’s views of the Smallman are unpretentious and realistic. “Like John Williams says, the projection is a side effect of the lattice-bracing design. It’s a beautiful instrument—the tone is sweet and the harmonics are crisp. Its sustain is so long, a single plucked note can last nearly a minute. Sometimes in the studio you do a recording only to find the bass is still ringing when it shouldn’t, so I look at my technique, the way I’m playing and work hard to correct it. In a studio you’re completely exposed to every nuance; you can’t hide away. You have to spend a lot of time listening to yourself.”
The reason for two violas on Gary Ryan’s Benga Beat (rather than voice, which is written into the score) is that, as Gjylaci says, “I’m really bad at singing! Under the fingers this piece feels so comfortable and I love playing it, so it had to be on the album. Instead of singing we have double violas, which start in unison and then one moves an octave higher to create a sort of chorus effect. It was an escape for me not to sing it, but it also works well with the album as a whole.”
Gjylaci was born in 1983 and brought up in the Balkan country of Albania, which at the time was home to about three million people. “About a million of these people emigrated to Greece, Italy, England,” he says, “and I am one of them.” In 1991, when the borders of Albania started to open up following the fall of communism throughout eastern Europe (sparked in part by the Berlin Wall coming down), Gjylaci and his family moved from Albania to Greece. “This was where I took my first music lessons—first the piano, then the flute.” But the guitar came most naturally to him and he never looked back.
Alongside his performing career he’s a teacher at Bolton independent private school and at Junior RNCM. “Junior RNCM has a fantastic, vibrant department. There’s some real talent there—10-year-olds are hammering out Grade 7 pieces. How do they do that? It motivates us to constantly improve and expand our own techniques. Our generation [those in their 30s] never really had all these techniques available to us at that age.
“I love teaching and performing,” he continues. “In the beginning, I did the teaching to survive, but now I find it so rewarding. Performing is rewarding too, especially when we spend so many hours honing our craft. If you were just travelling and playing all the time, I feel you could lose the passion. Some guitarists do 200 concerts or more in a year. You go into burn-out. Can you really put your heart out there every second day? For me, the balance of teaching and performing works best.”
With Gjylaci working in Manchester I couldn’t resist asking him if he has been influenced at all by the “Madchester” rock bands—the Happy Mondays and Charlatans of the 1980s.
“The popular music scene in Manchester is very strong,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff happening. As a student I went to many popular concerts—from jazz to band nights and rock concerts, seeing many acts, including [American electric guitar wizards] Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. We guitarists tend to be less snobbish about other music genres, compared to some fellow classical instrumentalists. We like to listen to a lot of musical styles. Living in Manchester, you can’t help but pick up these cultural influences. I try to put the same energy into my playing.”
Gjylaci is very keen to promote more British music from living composers. In his repertoire he already has Helen Walker, an accomplished jazz and popular music musician who has written five miniatures in a variety of styles for him (Click here to learn one of Walker’s minatures). Along with new repertoire, Gjylaci is hell-bent on pushing the instrument up onto the main stage with the piano: “It can be just as heavy, some people just don’t notice,” he says, finishing his Americano.