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TRUTH AND MATTER | Tribute To Roland Dyens (1955–2016)

By William Beauvais on November 23, 2016

How classical guitarist and composer Roland Dyens slipped through the cracks and revitalized a generation of guitarists and music lovers.
How classical guitarist and composer Roland Dyens slipped through the cracks and revitalized a generation of guitarists and music lovers.

“…the wind returns here but I never know where it’s been…” Linda Hogan

October 1977 found me in Paris to study classical guitar, and in my first week there I went to a concert featuring the music of Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell. It was at a small theatre featuring Roland Dyens, who at the time was 22 and had just returned from Brazil, where he had spent some time studying this music. It was enthralling to see this music performed live with percussion and bass and I was happy for days having heard it.

A week later I had a rough morning lining up for an audition; the doors opened to the school at 9 am, and all the prospective students had arrived early and lined up around the block. The Ecole Normale de Musique gave us all auditions, and during mine, I noticed Roland at the table of guitar teachers from the school.

At that time, Paris had at least three big classical guitar teachers, and each one of these had a zone of influence. One, a man I will call “L”, was at the Conservatoire National Supérior de Musique. This was the most important music school in the country and L taught a strange way of playing that ruined a generation of guitarists through hand strains. The second zone, where Roland taught was headed by a man I will call “P”. He was widely said to be an outstanding musician, but in concert could never get more than four bars correct before flubbing. It made listening to one of his recitals painful. The other zones of influence included a couple of local conservatoires where exiled Uruguayans taught — I went to one of those.

I cite the above to create a picture of a very stratified system, where a whole lot of control was in a few people’s hands.

A decade or two later, one of my students brings in some very attractive published music composed by Roland. Later, I hear that he is heading up the guitar department at the Conservatoire National Supérior de Musique. I am surprised by that choice because he is a composer and very skilled at some popular music styles.

France has loved the classical guitar for a long time, many of the instrument’s pioneers moved to the city in the early 19th–century, and happily taught to a guitar crazy public. The composer/performer is a special character, listening with a creative rather than judgmental mind. In Roland’s case, he led by concertizing widely and encouraging all those who worked with him. The generation that flourished under his guidance has given France an unprecedented number of fine guitarists.

Roland’s music has sold very well, keeping the French music publishers happy. To contextualize this, here is a note to all the newspapers in France from June 2015 — by the great French film composer Michel Legrand.

‘For 40 years Boulez and his ‘family’ have closed all possibilities for all other composers to be performed. He decided that the musical past would be wiped out and we would start from scratch. He shut the door to all other composers. Composers like me could not have made a living because we had no access to the concert hall.’ 

Roland’s achievements are all the more remarkable considering that letter. His music would never have been “Boulez approved”, but the guitar is a small market instrument. Most guitar concerts are self-supporting or get a bit of regional money. Somehow, Roland’s music slipped through the cracks and revitalized a generation of guitarists and guitar music lovers. Ironic that the small size of the market created the space for some inspired music to grow and grab a significant market share.

Roland’s great gift to the world was his ability to create bridges between musical idioms. His music included funk bass lines, baiaos and brought some of the most beloved French popular music to the classical guitar.

My personal favourite is his book of jazz arrangements. Over the years I have collected many of these, and have always been disappointed. They may be pretty, but if they are by jazz players they are not quite idiomatic, and if they are by classical players they miss the necessary spontaneity and swing. I was thrilled to see Roland’s versions, solo bits that slash through bar lines, tunes that sing easily over well-voiced chords, intros that surprise and set the mood. Roland Dyens was able to cross musical bridges, to come back and write about it and share the immense joy of it all.


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