The Two Ends of the Spectrum

by Mark Greenberg
May 2005

Solo guitar recitals by

Roland Dyens
American Youth Hostel, April 3, 2005
Long Island Guitar Festival, April 9, 2005


John Williams
Zankel Hall, April 11, 2005


An earlier article discussed “introspective” and more “extroverteds” types of classical guitar style. Two rarely-seen soloists in NY — the divine R. Dyens, and wonderful (and legendary) J. Williams provide examples of supremely accomplished approaches that could scarcely be more different.

Roland Dyens is perhaps better known as a composer. As a player, if Verdery represents the Tibetan Buddist school of guitar, Dyens hails from the Zen campus. Less is more. Or, to paraphrase a Dyens-ism: to play loud, you have to play soft. Slow demands fast. And, ultimately, to be heard, one has to be not heard. At least, one has to be very, very, very, very quiet.

And surely he is. Oddly, though, no matter how quietly he plays, he somehow remains audible. It is one of the anomalies of time and space that the guitar, though seemingly a very reserved instrument, carries long and far into the night. (Watch out for neighbors!) In addition, there is something calculated about Dyens’s approach and the ear of the mind may anticipate what Dyens is getting at, and fill in the occasional aural gap.

All this is, of course, eccentric. In fact, Roland Dyens is another example of an artist about whom specifics— how he played this piece, how he played that piece — are pretty much irrelevant. One does not so much watch him perform as watch him exist. One gets the feeling that he is simply a genius of a human being with strong opinions about pretty nearly everything, and he would do equally well on another guitar, another instrument, or even another medium. I would be willing to eat a Darryl Perry guitar if this guy doesn’t occasionally paint or draw; his books and conversation clearly show talent with language.

A few words now have to be said to give a better sense of Dyens’s sound. First, compared to other guitarists, he has a far greater range of dynamics and tone-color. Dyens never gets very loud — I imagine harsh sounds make him wince — but when he plays softly, he gets to the threshold of audibility, and then some. There are times when he may or may not be producing sound. Only he knows, and it is very much part of his sense of humor not to let you in on the secret. He impels (rather than compels) you to listen.

As far as tone-color, Dyens uses far more flesh than the average classical guitarist. On the other hand, he often plays even inner strings, even the 2nd string, with his thumb. In fact, Dyens can beautifully mimic the sound of either an electric or steel-string guitar. He can also provide a wide spectrum of special effects. I guess we’ve all fooled around with the tight stretch of strings above the nut. The difference is that for Dyens, they are a regular stop. Presumably he can tell you their pitch.

On this subject of pitch, Dyens is (I hope he will forgive me for saying so) a bit of a crank. If your concentration is not good, you do not want to play for him in a master class. He will retune your guitar, even if you are in the middle of the Bach Chaconne. Even if you are in the middle of the runs in the Bach Chaconne, he will retune your guitar. Not that he is a mean person; he is extremely warm and kind. I simply think he cannot bear to hear an out-of-tune guitar, and his ear demands that he administer an instant remedy. Had Dyens lived at the time of Bach, I think there is little question of where he would have stood regarding the issue of equal temperament. In fact, even in this, the 21st Century, he is distinctly a relativist and, in fact, Dyens’ book, 20 Letters, provides a specialized tuning regimen for the main intervals of each piece.

Of the two recitals that I heard, though there was an overarching structure, there was no specific program. Each Dyens recital starts with an improvisation. Do you think, though, that he plays more-or-less the same thing? I assure you, the two I heard were widely varied. The first, at the NYCCGS recital, was a nearly classical and extremely beautiful extended tremolo study. The Long Island improvisation was a jazzier number, composed of chords and runs. Next were Sor variations, nicely done but very, very quiet. Three waltzes completed the first halves of both programs. Dyens’ affection for Chopin is unsurprising. An equally subdued player of similar subtle sensibilities, Chopin reportedly said “Nothing is more beautiful than one guitar, save two.” But then again, he never heard Dyens. It is difficult to imagine any other guitarist transcribing Chopin more sensitively or playing such music with greater refinement or delicacy. Apart from the exceptional palette of colors used, Dyens has a sense of rubato that transcends that of most modern musicians. Though he once told me he did not like photography because he likes to live in the present, the logical extension of Dyens’s thinking is that to live in the present, one must live in the past and future. Of this, he is in fact a master.

If there is one weakness to his playing, it is also its strength. Everything Dyens touches turns pretty much to Dyens. Barrios, Sor, Villa-Lobos all end up more-or-less assimilated into Dyens/Barrios, Dyens/Sor and Dyens/Villa-Lobos. Even those who have played the V-L Prelude #5 for decades will come out of a Dyens concert wondering if what he played were the same notes they’ve had under their fingers all those years.

But who can complain? Dyens’s performance practices are riveting and hold your attention completely. As suggested, much of his art happens inside his head; it is, in a way, conceptual, and as such, Dyens is fairly unconcerned with the physical realities of time and space. He takes big chances in performing suicidal feats of speed and change of hand position and, as he is a genius at calculating the odds, they always pay off. Frets? Who needs frets? If need be, he skates right off the neck of the guitar, into the clear void above the soundhole, still maintaining hand-position and obtaining his own odd tonalities. Though subtle and refined, Dyens is also a showy and exciting performer, who can (and does) get his audience to its feet. His arrangements of jazz standards that took up the bulk of the second halves of both programs included “Take the A Train” and “Over the Rainbow”; what Dyens does with these pieces has to be seen (and heard) to be believed.

At both programs, Dyens served up an encore of the newest of his ravishing works: the “Angel Waltz” (composed in a green room in LA). At the Long Island concert, there was a very charming moment when Roland forgot what came next, put his finger to his head like the proverbial absent-minded professor, and after only a second, his face lit up, and without breaking stride, he completed this most lovely Lauro-like piece. (Dyens/Lauro, of course.)


John Williams, you can say, takes up where Dyens leaves off. The softest sound that Williams produces equals Dyens’s loudest. Dyens is relaxed and casual. Williams is wound tight. Dyens arrives barehanded and borrows a guitar. Williams is loaded for bear and has a Smallman, a mike and two speakers. Dyens compels, or impels, you to listen. Williams orders you to listen (sometimes quite literally). Dyens requires (and gets) a noiseless audience. Williams’s audience coughs, sneezes, and in general makes a hell of a racket. Greenberg’s law: Artists get the audience they deserve.

In general, John Williams does not believe less is more. He believes more is more. And, in general, so does the world in which we live. Don’t believe me? Check out the cable. And since we live in such a world, Dyens represents a specialized taste, whereas Williams represents what the classical guitar has become and where it has had to go to make its place (however small) in today’s music market.

Like Glenn Gould, Williams is known mainly for his superb legacy of recordings. Of many of these, you may never have heard. Some albums, like his recording of the music of Theodourakis, are staggeringly beautiful. Other albums, for example, his very trippy late 60’s foray, Changes, are exceedingly odd. But in every album, he plays with rare consistency and commitment. Amazingly, all, even the oddest, withstand repeated listening — especially such masterpieces as The Seville Concert. The simple fact is that Williams has shaped the direction that classical guitar has taken more than any guitarist since Segovia; arguably, to a greater degree than even his duo partner, Julian Bream. Bream was a magnificent guitarist, and played the lute wonderfully with his consort. But did he jam with Peruvian pipers, Sufi mystics and African percussionists? I don’t theeenk so. Nor would he have done spacey headtrips to the tune of Canarios or accompanied jazz stylists. Peggy Ashcroft reading Shakespeare, yes. Cleo Laine singing funky ’70s hits? Not bloody likely. But all of these things — Williams’s interest in what we would now call “World Music,” Williams’s interest in what we would now call “fusion,” Williams’s interest in what we would now call “crossover,” are (quite literally) on the record long before such terms ever even existed. All of these were essential if the classical guitar was to make its way past the millennium.

But now we must resume our seats in Zankel Hall. The only other time that I saw Williams was in 1971. He was a young kid with long hair, a flowered hippie shirt and John Lennon glasses. In fact, he looked like Lennon, or maybe John Denver. Now? Now he looks more like John Glenn or maybe Dick Cheney. He looks corporate. Back in 1971, Williams played the Chaconne (magnificently) as the major work on the first half of his program. Now, Williams plays Koyumbaba (magnificently). Domeniconi is in the audience. (J.S. Bach was not in the audience in back in 1971. PDQ Bach, maybe.) Another difference: Williams also plays Williams — not that John Williams, but in fact this John Williams. That is to say, he has written some music of his own, and very lovely music it is. He has a real melodic gift.

I have always loved Williams’s sound, though I’ll admit that there are some who don’t. The quality of a Smallman guitar is perhaps flatter than that of the traditional Spanish guitar. It has great sustain (Roland Dyens would have a fit trying to mute it!) and is superb for consistency. It woofs, and such a sound suits Williams perfectly. Live (though with mikes and Godzilla-sized speakers port and starboard), he does not sound appreciably different from his recordings. Harmonics project superbly, and slurs cannot be differentiated from plucked notes. True, playing sul ponticello on a Smallman is not much. But, on the other hand, vibrato also works superbly. A Smallman can sing all right. Williams’s pieces, called From a Bird (no jokes now), are lush with ripe melodies and idiomatic arpeggios with much use of overring. While perhaps not the most complex music you can find, they are quite accomplished and presented beautifully.

The second half of the concert contains much of the material on El Diablo Suelto, and Williams performs it with his patented propulsive energy (dig his performance of the Dowland Fantasie sometime, and you will get what I mean.)

These are dances. Plenty of Lauro, Lopez, Carillo. El Diablo Suelto is a fine album and this is a fine performance. There is no need for rubato, and indeed there is little or none. There is only need for fantastic technique, driving as heavy rock. Barrios’s La Cathedral is performed with stupendous momentum. The audience loves it. Williams’s tremolo on “L’Ultima Cancion” is out of this world — unbelievably even and sustained.

At the end, Williams (like Dyens) plays a single encore, a farewell. The exceptionally noisy audience is on its feet, claps noisily, and takes its farewell, as must we all. In summation, John Williams is pretty much what he always was. You can’t have too much of a good thing — or a great player. Yes, more can be more. My four budgies and I eagerly await the new recording with Williams’s birdsongs.