Roland Dyens

The French guitarist Roland Dyens has been astonishing audiences around the world for decades with his approach to classical and jazz music . His creativity on a delicate six-string instrument, once seen and heard, is unforgettable. A performer, composer, arranger, a teacher, he connects seamlessly with audiences of any age or culture. He communicates clearly and gently. Mutual understanding is guaranteed. This September the guitar magician Roland Dyens will finally make his way to Vancouver, where he  is eagerly awaited by the local guitar community.  In anticipation of his visit, Vancouver Classic Guitar Society has approached Roland with some questions that may interest music lovers of all levels.

 Dear Roland,

Welcome to Vancouver! You are what one calls a musician's musician. What musical influences did you have from family members? What composers and performers were your inspiration?

My family was not "musical” professionally, but both my grandmothers sang quite well.  However, my father was a painter and my uncle a renowned sculptor who was awarded the 1st Grand Prix de Rome in 1963. The rest of my family have always been in a strong proximity with arts in general. As a matter of fact, both my sons are musicians and my oldest daughter is a theatre actress.

As far as I remember, my very first inspiration came from pop songs of the 50’s and Brazilian popular music, as well as Django Reinhardt.

You always have such natural musical expression combined with fascinating technical effortlessness. For a lot of us, learning a musical skill can be a struggle sometimes, especially at the beginning. Did you have the intuition and ease when you first started learning guitar or did those come later in the process?

Yes, I did have both the intuition and ease for the guitar as I started to study it. I surprised my first teacher with my fast progress and also by beginning to compose quite soon. The guitar was my instrument indeed, as it fits perfectly with my personality. In fact, the guitar “made” me as a man, the individual I am now.

You are a prominent and sought-after composer of our time. What was the first piece you wrote, and what inspired you?

My very first so-called composition was a Barcarolle. Quite an original name, isn't it? It was entitled Baracarolle actually. I was ten or eleven years old then.

You have a special interest in Brazilian music, among other styles. What sparked it?

The soundtrack of a movie called Black Orpheus. This movie became quite famous after it was awarded the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) at one of the world's most prestigious festivals, Festival de Cannes in France, in 1959. Some know that it was a French film based on the myth about Orpheus, telling a love story which took place during the Carnival of Rio. And a handful of people also know that the soundtrack to the movie was composed by Luis Bonfa and a certain Antonio Carlos Jobim (Felicidade came from this movie). This was definitely something that sparked my passion for Brazilian music. I was four years old when Black Orpheus was shown in the cinema.

You are a great communicator on stage and connect with audiences instantly; it is obvious that you love your instrument and are extremely delicate with it. Who or what do you play for when you are on stage? What are your sensations? 

I definitely play for my audience. The sensations are not exactly describable, to be honest - they are somewhat too intimate. It could sometimes be a “painful pleasure” or an “enjoyable pain” to play on stage. It’s an unique feeling anyway, and all performers would agree with this description.

What runs through my brain when I’m performing? All kinds of things, including the wonderful NY Steak I’m going to devour after the concert. We can't be poets 100% of the time!

You teach at the Paris Conservatory and have given numerous master classes in many countries. What values do you instil in your students?

Both regular students of mine in Paris or an occasional one at a master class anywhere in the world will receive the exact same advice from me: patience, accuracy, honesty and to be demanding of themselves. Then I will try to “infuse” their Body and Soul with these same values. I love teaching. 

What, in your view, makes a true musician?

The essentials, the foundation must be present, of course. That is, even before the student begins to learn a piece. But what happens after is another story. Work, work, work.  And work, no doubt. This is an unavoidable element. However, even when the above is meticulously done, one doesn’t automatically become a “true musician,” as you call it. I personally know non-professionals who are more “true musicians” than some professionals. In other words, there are quite well-identified “recipes” for making an outstanding instrumentalist, but no recipe for making a true musician. If I believed in God, I would say that being a true musician would have something to do with Him. Maybe...

The classical guitar circles, both professional and amateur, are quite narrow in the global modern society - compared to other instruments and styles. How, would you suggest, does one spark interest and educate an audience about classical guitar?

There isn't a "recipe" for that either. Whether it is sparking interest for classical guitar or jazz trombone, it depends solely on the charisma and the “sense of public” of the one who is on stage. Public relations, literally! To me, Leonard Bernstein remains the best illustration for that so far.

Roland, you are known for a vast repertoire of arranged music. Who are your favourite non-guitar composers?

There are a lot I love among the “normal” (non-guitar, that is) composers. First rank are Bach and Chopin, and then most of the others (Granados, Albeniz, Ravel etc.).

Do you have a special connection with any composer for the guitar?

I have always felt extremely close to Miguel Llobet, a famous Catalan composer, arranger and soloist of the early 20th century.  History conceals whether he was an improviser or not, but I’m convinced that he was. I share many of his dynamics, fingerings, and musical options – as if they were my own. As a matter of fact, there are two composers for the guitar I never “touch” the music scores of: Miguel Llobet and Fernando Sor. On the other hand, I "touch" many other composers' scores, changing either their fingerings or dynamics, and even their notes sometimes!

I also have a connection with some of my contemporaries - my “colleagues”. Sergio Assad and Nikita Koshkin are in my thoughts about that. An adopted Vancouverite and originally Brazilian, Celso Machado is on that list as well.

Does anyone else in your family currently play music, compose,  or pursue music as a career?

My eldest son, Emmanuel (Manu) Dyens, 26, is now an outstanding and famous young drummer playing in various well-known French bands. In addition to this, he is a gifted song-writer, singer, and video maker. You can find his videos on Youtube (Manu Dyens se coupe en 4, Un été avec Manu Dyens).

What does it take, in your opinion, to establish a fulfilling musical career?

I think there is a possibility for many musicians to establish a fulfilling musical career. Especially if “fulfilling” means being happy with music on your side. The fame – I mean, the real fame – is not a condition for that, in my opinion. Nowadays, classical guitarists have the chance to play in a duo, quartet, or an even bigger ensemble (be it with other guitarists or not), and there is plenty of teaching work if they choose to teach. I know a lot of people who are quite happy with that kind of balance in their life. They may not be outstanding solo players, but they have numerous opportunities to play with others and make the public happy, as well as to make their students happy by being great pedagogues.

On the other hand – I’m sorry to take my own example but it’s the one I know best at this moment – I do have the feeling that my musical career is fulfilled. I am at the same time a soloist, a composer/arranger, and a teacher in one of the most prestigious conservatories in the world. Moreover, my music is played a lot all over the world and is the most recorded today, among the living composers. Would it be indecent to complain about such a destiny? I’m blessed but most importantly, I am aware of this blessing. And even when I use the word “blessed,” I owe much of this to being a hard worker. Magic wands don’t have anything to do with that.

Would you say that being a musician is a way of life, a culture, a religion - rather than a profession?

I agree that the being a musician is a “way of life”. I would add to it the word “philosophy,” but even more so,  the idea of a “mission.” It is absolutely not a profession, in my opinion. But maybe the fact that I am a composer, in addition to being an interpreter, makes me emphasize the concept of “mission” in my mind.

You have played concerts all over the globe, for all kinds of audiences. Do you have any special memories about the cultural diversity of audiences in the countries you have visited?

Two cultures, the Slavonic and the Hispanic, have left the biggest trace in my memory as a musician.

The Venezuelan and Chilean public were so warm and excited that, as I came on stage, they were the first ever to give me the incredible feeling of the concert being already over. Standing ovations are supposed to come at the end of a performance, right ? And usually if you deserve them. But not in these countries and with this audience. The “not very good” thing about this is that it puts huge pressure on your shoulders! You then have two sets to be as good as the level of the applause! Quite challenging, it was.

The other thing that had me overwhelmed happened in Moscow. In Russia, performers are normally used to receiving a bouquet of flowers at the end of the performance. And even if you didn’t play fantastically – well…the flowers got purchased anyway and are waiting for you. 

But I never experienced receiving bouquets of flowers throughout the concert, every two or three pieces I played! Therefore, I received about six or seven different bouquets playing at the famous Tchaikovsky Hall! And not only from guitar fans but from “normal” people as well! How rewarding this recognition was for an artist like me!

Et voilà! See you in Vancouver!

Roland Dyens