“I was nine, maybe ten years old when I received my first guitar. It was a very rudimentary, classical nylon-string guitar—not the worst, mind you but it had been made from some kind of imitation wood. Of course, I was not very demanding at the time. I still have this guitar and it is very close to my heart. I played a bit of piano when I was a music composition student later on, but I play just enough piano as I need—my focus has always been on the guitar.
“In terms of musicians who inspired me, I cannot answer that it was classical players like Segovia. My musical influences were much simpler—mostly French pop singers from when I was very little, about three years old. It was not classical guitar that influenced me but all other kinds of music—jazz, South American, American and French pop songs. I would name the artists but they are not even known by French people as they have all disappeared completely. Harry Belafonte’s music I loved. More than anything, I fell in love with the sound of the guitar at that time.
“I come from a family of artists, so my interest in the guitar did not come as a shock to them. My father is a painter and my uncle is a sculptor in Montreal and nearly everyone in the family was doing something in the arts, so what I was doing with the guitar was not considered at all weird. They supported me and it was great. When I received my first guitar, my intention was to improvise music and find chords and learn it all on my own before I attempted lessons. I was always improvising, just as I do now. And when I start recitals, often it is with an improvisation.
“I was always looking for new sounds and I was a composer already at ten years old. The very first music I wrote was a piece in the style of a barcarolle. I played it to my first teacher, Robert Maison, who was a great man. Teachers like him no longer exist in this world—he seems to have belonged to the nineteenth century rather than twentieth century. He was my master of music. I was not certain what kind of music it was that I was playing for him, and he informed me it was a barcarolle. It sounded so nice to my ears, and that I was able to write a barcarolle on my own by ear seemed great to me. After two years Maison informed my parents he no longer had anything more to teach me, that I needed to find a new teacher.
“Unfortunately, my second teacher turned out to be very bad for me. At that time, in France during the mid-‘60s, the musical landscape was barren. There was nobody who taught guitar. But she was given the position of teaching guitar because at this time violin and the guitar were considered the same. Only my third teacher, Ernesto Ponce, was a real guitar maestro. I studied with him for seven years. It was very rare to find someone who taught guitar in the big cities in France, and there were no guitar teachers in the conservatories at this time either—you had to go to Spain to find a guitar teacher!
“I think the guitar surprises me every day. I have a reverence for the instrument—while it is the most rudimentary instrument, it is also the most complex. I ‘m always amazed by its possibilities. The piano seems a bit more clear as an instrument, yet the guitar has so many elements to it, such as harmonics and the fact that you can have the same note positioned elsewhere along the fretboard positions—it offers an incredible number of possibilities.
“My first performance took place when I was studying with my bad teacher, unfortunately. She took advantage of my skills to tell the audience that I was her student, yet she had not taught me much of anything, and really had no right to take the credit. The piece I played was a bourée by Robert de Visée and people loved it. And on that day, during that particular performance, I had the very first feeling that maybe I could be a professional musician.
“In 1986, I was scheduled to perform in one of the most important concerts of my career at Salle Gaveau, which is one of the three biggest concert halls in all of Paris. As usual, I performed an improvisation as my introduction. Roughly thirty seconds into the piece, I heard somebody’s watch alarm ringing. This watch was playing, “Oh! Susanna” in a sharp, loud, high pitch. I thought it would stop after the first few seconds but it didn’t. It continued to play the entire song. I’d thought it would stop then. But it started over at the very beginning. The owner of this watch had ruined my improvisation. This came as a complete shock. I had to surrender. I had to give up. In my brain, I had been fighting it, wondering if I should continue to play the improvisation or whether I should stop playing. What do I do? What I did in that very moment was play “Oh! Susanna” in duet along with the watch alarm. This became the best thing I ever did in my life. People in the audience were amazed and gave me a big standing ovation. Many people told me after the concert that this particular moment had been great and they wanted to know how I had rehearsed it, but I had to tell them the truth—that this had not been prepared or anticipated at all. I did not know whose watch that had been. It had just happened.
“Years later, I came to learn the identity of that watch owner. He was my uncle. He was ashamed of it and waited to tell me, saying, ‘I wanted to die because I could not stop it.’ To this day I remember how I easily could have stopped playing but something in me had said, ‘No, go on, take it. Go play ‘Oh! Susanna’” because the improvisation I had been doing was ruined now and there was nothing else left to lose. It was the best I had to offer and I did it.
“When it comes to the word challenge and the guitar—I thin it is the key word of my life as a musician because I am a real challenger. I am always seeking difficult musical situations—I hate comfortable musical situations. I am always putting myself under great pressure. When faced with almost impossible challenges, I love that. The fact that I am both a soloist and a composer, not to mention the fact that I am a teacher, makes my life more complicated and trickier but much more fun. I have a lot of fun because, in the classical world, we have a few people who are both soloists and composers. There are many composers but they do not play their own music and do not play well, or we have good players who do not compose. That I am doing both is challenging and extremely important. In the past, it was more common to have composers who were players, especially during the Baroque era. But in this century, there seems to have been a gradual divorce between the two functions.
“To me, a composer must be a whole musician. This is something I wanted to point out because it is what I love in my life, because it allows me to be both the cook and the eater. I find much in common between the profession of cook and composers. When I see cooks interviewed, I always feel they say the same things I do, like, ‘OK, next time, I will try this and I will change my recipe to make it a little more like this or that.’ I love when other people play my music, but I am proud to say I’m both the cook and the first eater of my musical food, and it is a privilege to be the first ambassador of my own music.
–Roland Dyens for My First Guitar: Tales of True Love and Lost Chords
(October 19, 1955 – October 29, 2016)
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