[interviews] An interview with Roland Dyens
(to Sofia Mazi)
An interview with Roland Dyens
“…Finally, the lights go off and people anxiously hurry to their seats. Some last preparations on stage are being made and one is filled with this sweet, unique feeling that you only have when you’re about to live a big experience :”Ladies and gentlemen, Roland Dyens!”
I consider myself very fortunate that my first ‘journalistic mission’ was an interview from the French maitr of the guitar. Our acquaintance took place in a concert during the 6th guitar festival of Konstantinos Matsigkos Conservatory in Arnea, Halkidiki, Greece . Roland Dyens unleashed his virtuosity in a concert that included everything : passion , imagination , spontaneity , intensity ; all these elements blended among a variety of musical styles . From Sor studies to his well-known jazz covers , from Hatzidakis to his own Tango en Skai , Dyens gave as a thorough insight to his musical world , thus to his life point of view . Because music is not just plain notes but a way to see life through another scope , so different than the one of every day’s life and at the same time so utterly connected to it .
The appointment was arranged for a few days later in a sunny beach of Halkidiki . We found him sitting on the sand , surrounded by his students and teaching them like another ancient Socrates . Being casually dressed and feeling very relaxed , he shared some of his thoughts with us , concerning both his music and his personality . As we found out later , his greek roots ( his distant origin is from Thessaloniki) have influenced him more than we could have imagined : for every greek originated word he used , he proudly rushed to point out : “You see? This is Greek too!”
By reading this interview , we hope you agree with us that the words of such a great artist are not mere statements but also some very important thinking material we should all sleep on …
-The element of improvisation is very intense in your original compositions, as well as in your covers of other musical pieces. How important do you think improvisation is to the development of a musician as well as a composer?
It’s a huge question. It’s very important. I always start my recitals with improvisation as far as I remember. I start with something fresh and unknown for many reasons. I use this power, this gift by this way at the beginning just to feel a bit more relaxed; it was a kind of habit and it became a kind of superstition and it was not only to kill the anxiety which is always the case today, to be honest. It was for many purposes: to test the acoustic, to test the people. I feel like an animal when I’m playing an improvisation…I’m feeling a lot of things and what is the most important maybe is a kind of link I’m doing with musicians in the very old past . For example, the lute players: they all played improvisation to start the concert. It’s not Greek by the way but ‘prelude’ in Latin means ‘before playing’. So I’m in connection again with these musicians from the past. I don’t feel like crazy classical. I’m just feeling of being the continuator of something that was very common at the past and some things, somehow broke (I don’t know when, somewhere in the middle of 19th century) with this idea of improvisation. First of all I’m thinking of the cadenzas of concertos that had to be improvised.And some crazy guy once, having poor imagination, begged the composer to write the cadenza. So he false the rule of the game and from this guy (I don’t know who or when) things have changed. From this moment, things became very different in the classical planet…
As a student when I finished my studies in Paris, I played the Villa-Lobos concerto and on the day of my exams I improvised the cadenza and joined, because it was an exam, the written cadenza at one moment. So during maybe two minutes, I played my stuff. A really improvised stuff. Maybe I didn’t tell my teacher, Alberto Ponce, I don’t remember because I love surprises. No…I think I told him.
It’s the way I am. I’m not cheating by doing that, I’m not trying to find how to be different, I’m always the same. In the jazz world, things are absolutely different and also in the organ tradition there are improvisations and this is still remaining.
Now about the improvisation and the composition I think that I’m not expecting something special from an improvisation. It comes from nowhere and has to leave afterwards. It’s the rule of the game of improvisation. Don’t try to catch it like a bird, it’s ‘gone with the wind’. Sometimes when I come on stage I really want to go empty and to start with a note, a single chord, I don’t know…I don’t prepare anything. But sometimes (it happened to me twice) I use a cell, the first cell of a composition in a situation where I feel really inspired. It’s an important part of my life and I do that because I think that I know more (than the most classical guitarists) of the geography of my instrument. The idea of geography is very important. The classical guitarists do know very well about the history but not about the geography of the guitar. From the other side, jazz players or popular musicians know the geography of their instrument. And I, most of all, know the geography of my guitar . That’s why I feel free when I’m playing an improvisation and never feel like it’s a big challenge or that I get lost in the middle of something. No…I know where I am, mostly!
-So you think that improvisation is only a gift or can you teach it as well?
Excellent question. I tried to for many years. I was asked to lead an improvisation class. I wouldn’t say it was a disaster but it was very tricky, very hard, very complicated. You cannot improvise an improvisation, I would say. You have to know about this famous geography of the instrument. Improvisation is not just playing any notes or pizzicato Bartok, everybody can do that. But if you want to do something coherent with structure, ritornelle, and thematic you have to know about the instrument. I’ve seen so many people coming to this master class about improvisation like crazy but unable to play Re minor. So I gave up quite soon and I changed a bit my mind with that and started teaching about arrangements; and even that requires a lot : harmony, knowledge in geography, positions, the degrees, dominants…it’s like the drivers license: you can’t drive a Ferrari like that, you have to drive a Clio first. It would be demagogic to say ‘ok, I’m leading an improvisation class’. Not to mention the people who don’t have any imagination or are really tensed about trying to improvise. They were afraid by playing or being wrong so I said ‘be wrong, be wrong’. Don’t feel like you have the obligation of playing that many notes. Play two notes but think of them. I know many people having all the prizes of the world in harmony and everything but not being able at a tavern to play a song without a score. I prefer the contrary. People that don’t know how to read music but improvise with their heart. I do prefer them.
-Your jazz influences are very obvious. Would you ever consider the possibility of doing a record with an original jazz band?
No, never. I’m not a jazz player. Otherwise I would have played a jazz guitar with a band and etc. I’m a classical musician, very greedy, very curious and I’m just visiting jazz with my knowledge of a classical musician. I feel the jazz, I think I know the swing, I know the harmonies, the chords but I love to keep my sound of classical guitar. I love to suggest jazz through my guitar and the most stupid thing that had been written once was in a jazz magazine after my ‘Night & Day’ record. They said that I fancied ridiculous. I didn’t feel offended by that but they said:
‘ the double bass is missing, the drums are missing…’ it’s absurd , because I just wanted to suggest jazz by the solo guitar (by playing with the flesh, pizzicato…) and many people said exactly the opposite : that I suggested the orchestra (the horn, the double bass, the drums), but it was not my goal to do that. Otherwise I would have played with a group. I don’t think that the most open minded people come from jazz.
-You think that someone who doesn’t improvise is less competent than someone who does?
Of course. Honesty is one of my qualities… I wouldn’t choose the word ‘competent’, I would say more free in music expression. It’s nothing but obvious to me that one who is able to improvise has a liberty, a freedom in expression. That’s the musician I prefer in the classical world, in the guitar planet. Almost every time I’m “in love” with a student that plays for me , I ask him ‘how many years do you play’ and he says 2-3 years and I say ‘wow!’. 90% of them come from jazz, from rock , from improvisational music in general . They have a real liberty in phrasing, they know what a rubato is, what a ritenuto is … they know exactly. Because they have the pulse from the basement of the house. On the contrary, the classical musicians don’t know how to make a real rubato. Rubato (for them) is like life had stopped. No, no, no, the heart is still beating but you have to “slalom” with that.
-What do you think of the Greek guitarist’s level and do you suppose that they lack in comparison with other countries guitar level?
I think that Greek students (I believe I know them after so many years) are very gifted, musical, sometimes outstanding! The tone sometimes could be improved and the instruments are often not in a high level. Except some (guitar) makers that I love, Pavlos Gypas for example. I really love him. However, to return to the subject, the Greek students are full of desire, passion and appetite for guitar. They really play great and are flexible to any kind of music. The Greek people have a special feeling!
-Are you aware of any Greek guitar composer that you really like? Do you believe that there is any Greek guitarist who has contributed to the guitar the same way like John Williams, David Russel or like you did?
I’ve heard very interesting pieces from Fampas, he wrote very nice dances. I find Giorginakis really interesting. Boudounis also writes beautiful things that Elena Papandreou played. I’d love to say Hajidakis but of course he wasn’t a guitarist. My knowledge is not enough about greek composers but I’m telling you just what really attracted my attention. You have many guitarists in Greece: Elena Papandreou, Kostas Kotsiolis, Antigoni Goni, the young generation has many good guitarists. Some of my students used to come to France to my master classes. I had a group of greeks who became very good teachers and outstanding guitarists. And of course Evangelos Asimakopoulos and Liza Zoi. They belong to the Presti-Lagoya school, they were their students. I owe them my first appearance in Greece and I’ll never forget that. But I heard many, many good students in Greece all these years.
-Maybe more than you expected?
Yes, maybe more than I expected at the very beginning, to be honest.
-What are your influences in classical music in general?
I love so many great composers. Bach is to me (I don’t believe in God), the one who made me doubt His existence. I love Chopin, he is not only the composer for little girls, I love Ravel, Debussy of course, the French school…I love that. Stravinsky, Schumann, Villa-Lobos, not only his guitar pieces, Ģilhaud. They all “built” me… I’m not a great fun of Beethoven, to be honest. In the guitar world I’m not very fond of Mertz, I love the 19th century composers but Mertz never convinced me, never!
-When you are at home and you want to relax, what kind of music do you listen to?
Any kind. It could be Indian music (I love Indian music), maybe Chopin, Mozart, it could be Brazilian or Argentinean songs, Bulgarian voices, all good music. It is very difficult to give a definition of what bad music is, but it is most certain that there is.
-You most obviously have a personal musical style and aesthetic. But my question is: did you ever have the concern to create a personal musical language like J. Hendrix, Ch. Parker?
No, to be honest, never. Until you asked me this thing had never come to my mind. Maybe just one thing : a certain touch. A touch in the instrument more than in composition. My taste for the colors making a kind of fusion, but not a collage. It’s more difficult to make a good fusion without collage. By the way, bad music for me is collage: the rock part, the Indian part…when they say ‘Hommage to Piazzola’, for example, it is a kind of soup of Piazzola music, it’s fake and bad Piazzola. You have to find enough to make the idea of Piazzola through the piece but they do it in a very disgraceful way. If I’m to let something, this would be the trace of somebody who tries to make a good fusion, a tasteful fusion. My language is a kind of melting pot in my way. I can tell you that when I’m composing I’m trying to be absolutely honest with myself. It’s not so easy to remain honest all the time. You have to face all kind of little dictators: first of all, the dictator of contemporary music, if you want to write contemporary enough. It’s difficult not to fall in this trap, it’s a big trap, an intellectual trap and I’m a victim of that, too. Finally at the end of the story my real nature is overcoming all the time, you cannot cheat with that. I’m unable to write music I can’t feel. When I’m writing music I think of what I like, I’m dreaming of the audience listening to that, what would be more emotional for the audience because I’m a composer and soloist. I’m both. We are not so many that are both of these, in the world. We have many composers that are not players and we have great players that never wrote two notes in their life. I noticed that those who compose and play are my friends. I’m thinking of Sergio Assad, Duçan Bogdanovic, Nikita Koshkin… we are in connection, we understand each other a lot, we don’t only talk about the strings we use. We share a lot and we mostly speak of many other subjects than music.
-In an previous interview you said that it’s a stupid idea to make a division among composers and performers. Could you explain that?
In my inner thoughts I would respond with a self-question. I’m always and still wondering how and why a soloist or a player doesn’t compose. I will answer your question by another question, it sounds like a mystery for me. The sculptors are creating sculptures, the painters create paintings .But what about the musicians? Most of them in the classical world are like vampires able to suck the blood of others. They often say ‘we create by reproducing other people’s pieces’. It’s not the same, that’s not creation. Creation, first of all, is a kind of emptiness, a blank page. I always have this feeling, I’m doubting all the time. They say ‘ we are creators too’. I’m sorry…not exactly. We recreate Schumann, we recreate Sor, but it’s not the same. But my inner mystery is how is it possible that a musician is not complete, after all. A musician is only part of something all the time. He is not a full artist if he is not able to improvise, to compose, to analyze what he’s going to play. It’s a big challenge but to me sounds so natural.
-In the same interview I read that your goal as a composer is to make an emotional impact, upon the non music specialist listener with a well-crafted art. Have you achieved that goal?
It is my goal, absolutely, because I do believe that it’s highly possible to touch a majority of people, to move all of them the same way. I’m deeply convinced for that. Even contemporary music can touch the audience. It depends on the way you approach people, you don’t have to address them. It is possible when you use an unexpected sound or the guitar in a different way from the usual. But the most important thing is when you touch the audience by the way you are, your philosophy at the stage, the way you are on stage…I do my best to approach the people this way and make them feel comfortable and make me also feel comfortable. My pride and my goal is to speak, to touch them in a very normal way. I don’t want to have only specialists in my audience and I’m proud of that. I know that many non specialists come to my concerts.
-Can a listener who is not used to the sound of a solo classical guitar get to love it?
It depends on the one who’s playing. There are some outstanding guitarists that are so boring and are ruining the last chances of making the guitar loved by this new public. The last chances…I’m suffering many times because I know that there are people in the audience who will never come to a guitar concert again because of them. They stay there, bored, sad and they are right. In order to make the guitar a real beautiful thing we have to tell a story with a concert, even short, even brief… but the day after, the people have to remember it. The way of playing is my approach, it’s the way I am and I know that people like that. I think I’m doing my best to touch as more people as possible without being demagogic, without cheating with quality of music.
-Do improvisation and composing go together?
No, no. At the beginning of a composition you start with an improvisation, in a way. When I’m in front of a blank page and I have to do something, I improvise. You take the first cell and you develop it in anything you want. Improvisation and composition are twins, same family. But I know composers who are not able to improvise. It is one of my personal mysteries…not able to improvise two notes and they write so many! Like a poet who is not a good actor in a way…
-When you compose, should we think of you holding a guitar or sitting in front of a piano ?
When I compose I’ve got everything in my head and I use the guitar sometimes for some special stuff…when you have the guitar there is a danger: you have the same thoughts coming all the time, the same prospects, the same arpeggios and the most rewarding thing that can happen to me is when I write something that it’s absolutely unplayable at the guitar and make it very playable afterwards (by using the open strings, by using something unexpected). You would never think of that if you had the guitar in your hands. So, it kills all your habits. You invent something new, a new technique that you would never think of with the guitar cause you always have the same reflexes. That’s maybe my favorite moment in composing. When I’m doing something non-guitaristic which afterwards becomes very guitaristic it is very exciting. And when I’m writing something like a concerto, for example, when I’m writing the guitar part I don’t need the guitar! I go to the piano to listen to the chords, to be sure when the thing is finished. I just want to be sure of everything. I make many changes until the last moment. Then, when the real sound comes, the real vibration comes, you are never sure for the way it sounds really. I don’t know any composer who would tell me ‘ok, it’s finished! I never heard it but everything’s under control’.
-How important is teaching in your life? Do you do it just for making a living or do you actually enjoy it?
I really enjoy that. Since 6 years I’m teaching at the conservatory in Paris, I’ve never been there with this feeling of boredom. It’s reality for me, it keeps my feet on earth, it maintains my own level because my students are fond of me and it’s a big honor for me to offer my knowledge to them. I need the students at least as much as they need me. It’s my contact to reality because a soloist or a composer is flying in another world.
-Are you afraid to tell a student “I don’t know”?
Sometimes I cannot answer, I don’t know everything. I have nothing to hide. That’s my weakness and my strength. I’m a real simple man and I’m enjoying not to know sometimes.
The other day a student came and told me that my hand’s position is a bit different from the usual. I said ‘ I know! My teacher had the same opinion’. So…I’m a kind of rebel! I’m not in the line of my teacher or any of the other students of my generation. I’ve always been a bit of the ‘black duck’ and I had my reasons. I like the ‘wrong’ sound but not when it’s too wrong cause I love clarity and to hear all the voices. Otherwise you have a cotton sound which is nice but boring, sometimes. I’m flexible when I’m playing the guitar. I don’t know what I’m doing but I know I’m not glued on the same spot. We have to be the conductors of the guitar and not her slaves. The guitar is waiting for us, like an animal to tame it. The instrument is the vehicle of music.
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(23/7/2006 Arnea - Halkidiki)