Roland Dyens is one of the most exciting classical guitarists alive, although “classical guitarist” is a term that limits him. He plays more than classical music, delving into such diverse areas as tango, jazz, and pop. And he’s more than a guitarist, in that he has written several of what have become key pieces for the guitar and arranged other tunes for guitar not normally associated with the instrument. In addition, he teaches at the renowned Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique in Paris, France. When he was 13, he became a student of the renowned Spanish master-guitarist and composer, Alberto Ponce. Today, he holds the teaching chair that Ponce once held. He has won numerous awards and received accolades from media and his peers. Dyens was born in Tunisia and lives in Paris.
I met him on a bright April afternoon at a small brasserie on the Left Bank, just a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower. Dyens brought along a guitar for the photographs, and when I later started snapping pictures, he improvised a tune on the instrument, to the delight of others in the place.
KATHLEEN BERGERON: Let’s talk about how you often begin your performances: You are famous for opening with an improvisation. That is quite unusual. To many people, this seems like a tightrope walker working without a net. And to do it at the beginning of a concert—when many performers are typically quite nervous—seems especially daring.
ROLAND DYENS: For me, it’s easy. Improvisation seems like something special because it’s in a classical context. Jazz musicians improvise all the time. Sometimes, in a jazz performance, all you hear is improvisation. Oh, and organists know how to improvise. The famous sentence that was written about me says that I’m a jazz musician in my head and a classical one in my hands. It’s true—I do like to improvise.
But for me, it’s not about revealing new things. Really, there are certain parameters that one must work within while performing music. Once you have a good knowledge of those parameters, you can make choices from within them.
Let’s say I have . . . [He looks at the table before him and points out several items: a couple of water glasses, a coffee cup, a writing pen, a pad of paper, and an eyeglasses case. He counts them out, giving numbers to each.] One-two-three-four-five-six—six things in front of me. And so I chose to go with first number two, then number five, then number three. And perhaps that works. The next time, perhaps I chose to start with number six, then number one, then number four. Perhaps that works better. But I know, because I’ve been trained over time, that if I go with number five, then number one, then number two, it would not sound right.
That’s very simplified, but it is basically what we’re looking at—improvising, but within a set system. Sometimes when I improvise it’s very good. Sometimes it’s not so good. Usually it’s pretty good, OK? Improvising is my way of warming up to an audience. It’s just like a business meeting in America. You have a brief, unscripted part of the meeting where you sort of improvise to get to know each other and get comfortable in the setting.
BERGERON: You are a teacher, a musician, a composer, transcriber, and arranger. And you perform many different types of music: classical, of course, but also jazz, tango, folk, and pop. If we were to assign a label to Roland Dyens, what would it be?
DYENS: I’m most complicated to define. But my “homeland” is classical music. I was taught classical from childhood—the jazz part I picked up on my own. So I feel I’m not a jazz player, but a classical player visiting other “places” away from home from time to time. As for labels, I feel I am flexible. I love this word: flexible.
BERGERON: But are any types of music off limits to you? Is there anything you would not want to do? How about punk rock or rap?
DYENS: No, I think I’d try just about anything . . . except flamenco maybe. It is so special. I would not want to do it wrong.
BERGERON: So flamenco is important to you—did you ever get to meet the great flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía?
DYENS: Yes, Paco. We met just once, for about five minutes. We were in Montpellier, in the south of France, sitting side-by-side next to each other in the back of a Mercedes. We were on our way to a concert. He was playing that night. It was quite special. But only five minutes.
BERGERON: Going back to the topic of the various types of music you play: For example, on your 1999 album, Nuages, there is, of course, the Django Reinhardt tune by that name, also several of your own works, and selections by other composers of guitar music. And then there’s a composition by jazz musician Thelonious Monk, “Round Midnight.” So now, can we add bebop to the type of music you’ve recorded?
DYENS: Ha! That selection was a very interesting challenge. There is such magic in this music. I liked the piece, but it was difficult to select the correct tuning. After working with it for a while, I found that the original key was E-flat minor. That is not a key that you will often find for pieces on guitar. I had to find the right key, using the low E string and then work back from there. It took a very long time to put it all together.
That is the thing about the guitar: There are so many different tunings, one can easily get lost, trying to find the right tuning for a piece. I love it when I get lost in the tuning because it is such a challenge to find my way out.
BERGERON: So you like the fact that the various tuning options make guitar so difficult?
DYENS: Oh, yes. There is a guitar that was made centuries ago with little movable pieces of fret along the fretboard, so that you could have different settings, not just for each position—such as first fret, second fret, third fret, and so on—but you could have different locations for each string for each fret. Amazing.
BERGERON: That sounds like it would be impossible to play.
DYENS: Yes, but it is the perfect guitar, you see! Such a guitar would be very special.
BERGERON: How many guitars do you own?
DYENS: Oh, really I don’t keep up with that sort of thing. Right now, I have a small, parlor-size guitar given to me by a friend that I use for everyday work. It’s sort of my “house guitar,” that I use for composing and working up arrangements. This other one here I use for performances. That makes it special, sort of like having a suit of clothes for special occasions. The guitar was made for me by Jim Holler in America [Trinity Guitars]. Jim was an engineer and decided he wanted to pursue his passion, so he went into making guitars. I seem to have a lot of engineers as part of my audience.
BERGERON: I’ve seen some videos on YouTube where you hold master classes or workshops at events at which you perform. You seem to enjoy yourself working with the students. You enjoy having a friendly laugh with them, too.
DYENS: I enjoy it very much. These students come and are nervous, and I try to put them at ease. But I think there is nothing worse than an instructor who makes jokes at the expense of the student or laughs at them when they make a mistake. Our job is to encourage them to share in the joy of music, not make it a burden or something that embarrasses them.
Roland Dyens Performs “June” and “Valse, op. 69 # 2” in the offices of our sister publication, Acoustic Guitar
BERGERON: You’ve arranged and recorded music from a variety of composers, some of whom, no doubt, never thought their work would be adapted to the classical guitar. And your own original compositions have been recorded by many, many other guitarists. Any favorites?
DYENS: I appreciate anyone who plays my music. And I’ll tell you: There’s even a heavy metal band that recorded the third movement of my Libra Sonatine.
BERGERON: That must have been quite an experience to hear. What did you think of what they did with it?
DYENS: Oh, it’s very good. They contacted me first and asked permission. Their guitarist is classically trained, and he’s quite accomplished.
BERGERON: Speaking of that particular piece of music, Libra Sonatine: I understand that you wrote that after having had a heart attack. . . .
DYENS: I’ve seen that written before, and I don’t know where it comes from. I did not have a heart attack. I wrote the music just after heart surgery.
BERGERON: Well, do you find yourself often writing compositions as a reflection of things going on in your life?
DYENS: Yeah, I guess it could be like that. Although I’m not a fan of writing music so that it literally represents something. I had someone come up to me after a performance once and tell me that when I played a particular piece, she could visualize the white horse, coming out of the water. I didn’t know what she was talking about because I don’t do that sort of thing.
BERGERON: Back to the writing process itself: You are a very prolific composer, writing in a lot of styles. How do you go about it?
DYENS: I try different approaches when I am composing. For example, I often change the tuning of the thing I’m working on, from very simple basic tuning to very complicated ones, in order to find something that’s right. And when I am doing this, I’ll play my guitar in all sorts of configurations—in a chair, on a hammock, whatever is comfortable. I never use a footrest at home. In a performance, that’s different, because it looks elegant and it helps the instrument project more sound.
BERGERON: When you practice, what is your warm-up routine? Do you have a set list of things you go through—scales, specific pieces of music, that sort of thing? Do you have a set of finger exercises you do?
DYENS: Well, I know this is going to shock a lot of people, but I don’t practice. I could say, “Oh, I don’t want to give some young student the wrong idea,” but I have to be honest: I don’t practice—at least, not scales or anything like that. My relationship with the guitar is, as you say, “second nature.” Of course, during the composing process, or in working on a particular piece of music, I am constantly working on the guitar. If you call that “practice,” then OK. But not the way many people think of practice—scales and such. Now, of course, when I was young and a student, I practiced every day; hours upon hours. I gave a lot of my time when I was a teenager. But not now.
BERGERON: Somewhere you talked about how important it is to know “the geography of the guitar.” What did you mean by that?
DYENS: That’s what I mean about the guitar being second nature. After you’ve spent many years of your life playing this instrument, you begin to understand all the subtle aspects of it. That’s really the goal of “practice” anyway—to get to a place where you know the geography of the instrument very well.
BERGERON: When you are preparing for a concert, how much preparation goes into that?
DYENS: Since I am not starting from scratch, and I know all of the compositions I may be playing, it doesn’t take that long. So, for example, today is Tuesday. Let’s say I have a concert on Saturday night. I will begin putting together the pieces on Wednesday evening.
BERGERON: When will you know which pieces you will play?
DYENS: I have a general idea, but really, I like to allow for changes based on how the audience is reacting and how I feel that evening. Very often, the people who manage the event come to me weeks before and say, “We need to have a program to hand out. Give us a list of what you are going to play.” But I don’t want to do that because I’m not sure what I will play. But to make them happy, I will put together a list. Although most of my fans expect that it will probably change.
BERGERON: Do you do anything special to care for your nails?
DYENS: I’m lucky; I have very good-quality nails—soft and flexible. I keep the nails of my right hand short enough so that I can play with the fleshy part of the fingers, but long enough to play with the nails, as well. Different pieces of music call for different sounds, so I like to have the ability to play either way.
BERGERON: In a number of your pieces, you slap the guitar. That’s somewhat unusual for classical guitar, isn’t it?
DYENS: Yes, and I know others do this as well, but I may have been the first. It’s another way of making music with the instrument.
BERGERON: Finally, a word about Alberto Ponce, the composer of so much wonderful music for the classical guitar: He was your teacher from the age of 13, and you now hold his chair at the University in Paris. I understand he is ill. Alzheimer’s?
DYENS: Yes, he is now to the point where he remembers nothing of his music, and he doesn’t recognize a lot of his friends and former pupils. He still remembers me, for some reason. When I go to see him, he says, “Roland!” I am glad that he recognizes me still, but it is very sad.
BERGERON: So what’s next for Roland Dyens?
DYENS: I’m working on a project of music by the Argentinian tango master Ástor Piazzolla. He was a player of the bandoneon, one of the concertina-like instruments. I’m working on this with the young French guitarist, Thibault Cauvin.
DYENS: Yes, he’s gotten a lot of the younger guitarists and students excited. He travels quite a lot, so he’s getting a lot of experience. It’s good to see people like him coming up. I remember when he came through the school where I teach. He wasn’t one of my students, but you notice when someone special comes along, and he was very good even then. I’m looking forward to this collaboration.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Classical Guitar magazine.
The issue also features Bradley Colten, Manuel Molina, a special focus on guitar education, news, reviews (CDs, sheet music, and live concerts), and much more.