Guitarist and lutenist David Jacques has a Ph.D. in early music performance from the Université de Montréal. He studied classical guitar at the Cégep de Sainte-Foy, Université Laval, and the Conservatoire de musique de Québec. His discography consists of 50-plus recordings on the XXI-21, ATMA, Oz, and Analekta labels, several of which have been nominated for ADISQ, JUNO, Opus, and ÉCHO Classik prizes. Jacques has been awarded Opus Prizes for three of his discs: Pièces de guitarre de Mr Rémy Médard (2008), Tango Boréal (2012), and Pampa Blues (2014). 14 Guitars, his latest recording for ATMA Classique, will be released on January 24, 2020.
1. How did music first enter your life?
When I was 7 my parents suggested that I learn to play a musical instrument. At that time, in the little place where I grew up, the choices were limited: you learned the piano or you learned the guitar. Since my dad was an amateur guitarist, it was natural for me to choose that instrument. Music was just one of many activities until my teen years, when I began to appreciate it more and devote more time to it.
2. Who has been your most important mentor, musical or otherwise?
I have always found it difficult to give a precise answer to this question, since I was able to learn from and be inspired by all the teachers I had. I was generally a good student, I believe, in that I was always aware there was something for me to learn. That being said, I think some teachers came along at important moments in my life. The first was Benoit St-Michel in Quebec City, my teacher when I was an adolescent. He taught me to love the classical guitar. I had already been playing guitar for several years before I met him, but he helped me discover the great performers’ advanced repertoire. Then, at the Cégep de Ste-Foy, I knew and became friends with Claude Gagnon. We often spent whole evenings philosophizing about music. It was through François Leclerc, in the same period, that I discovered early music on period instruments. I had been to period music concerts, and liked to imagine that my career could take me down that road. I was also inspired at various levels by all the colleagues amongst whom I found myself. You learn a great deal by listening to or accompanying artists who play an instrument other than your own. Everything that I did not learn in my guitar classes, I learned from these colleagues. There’s so much you just don’t learn at school…
3. Your new ATMA Classique recording features 14 guitars from your own private collection, which includes rare guitars made by the finest luthiers of the past 400 years. How did you start collecting?
I have always enjoyed collecting old things. When I was younger it was Canadian coins, then sports cards, rocks and fossils, etc. I felt I was holding a bit of history in my hands. It was this, by the way, that led me to study early music. As you delve into the subject you learn to understand what drove the evolution of the music and of our instrument. The evolution of the guitar is fascinating! For 20 years I studied and loved this old music, playing it on modern reproductions of early instruments. I never dreamed that it would be possible to work with original 17th-century instruments. For reasons I don’t understand, guitarists rarely play instruments that are more than 20 or 30 years old. After this length of time, they say, a guitar becomes ‘dead’. But now I know that to love old guitars you simply have to put aside modern standards and relearn how to listen. Two years ago I set out to buy an 1829 guitar and boom! My passion for collecting historic objects was rekindled. I then made an important acquisition: a guitar made by Alexandre Voboam around 1665. (I had been playing a copy of one of his guitars for 15 years!). A whole chain of opportunities then followed. I began to dream of a big and completely mad and improbable concert project: presenting, on the concert stage, a collection of guitars made by the makers who have left their marks on history, and playing repertoire chosen to showcase each instrument. Two years later, that is exactly what I succeeded in doing. This project, 14 Guitars, is quite simply unique. It is the result of a rather crazy dream of an enthusiastic musician/entrepreneur/collector.
4. Is there a special, elusive guitar that you’ve been searching for to complete your collection?
The idea is not to have as many guitars as possible; my collection, I should say, is shaped primarily by this project. It may seem contradictory, but I am not all that attached to objects. What interests me more about these guitars is what they represent historically. That is what makes me dream, and directly influences my creativity. For the moment, I am concentrating on pre-1900 guitars. Obviously there are excellent 20th-century luthiers; my 1972 Daniel Friederich is a real pearl! But I prefer the older instruments. If Santa Claus is listening to me, I would ask for a gittern (a 16th-century guitar). There are a few in private collections and museums but, as far as I know, no one concertizes on an original. The gitterns made by Belchior Diaz around 1580 are really handsome! (I do play a copy, one made by Claude Guibord. It is the only copy I will consent to play, as if I know that, one day, it will be replaced by an original…). And now that we’re dreaming: Stradivarius made several guitars, of which six are known to have survived …
5. The title of the new recording is 14 Guitars. What kinds of stories do these instruments tell? How much information do they reveal about the previous owners and makers?
The guitars tell all kinds of stories. There are the stories about the various owners who followed one after another. For example, Antonio de Torres made the guitar numbered SE109 for his children’s nanny, and gave it to her, in 1887. It stayed in the young woman’s family for decades until I became its owner. There are stories about the luthiers and the context in which they lived. Consider, for instance, the story of my 1776 Pracht. Though he could sign his name with a fine flourish, Pracht was probably more or less illiterate. When he went to a printer in Lyons to order labels to affix to the interior of his instruments, Pracht asked that they describe him as a fabriquant de guitar, a guitar maker. His accent was such, however, that the printer only understood him phonetically, and made labels identifying Pracht as a fabriquant d’équitards – without enquiring as to the meaning of this meaningless term. The luthier was not aware of the error and so, to this day, the guitar has this label. Finally, the guitars tell stories about music. When, for example, you perform Fernando Sor’s music on an 1835 Lacôte guitar, knowing that the composer played on this same luthier’s instruments — well, one imagines all sorts of stories, and these mental images inform your creativity.
6. Is there a particular piece you dream of performing or recording in the future? (It can be either a transcription or something written specifically for guitar).
I’ve been following the same routine for a long time. Every day, I spend 30-40 minutes reading through repertoire from the musical archives. I never know what I’m going to find. I discover composers and music that most people don’t know exist. Almost every day I find at least one piece that grabs me and that I would like to record. What’s more, I do pretty systematically record my finds, and share them publically on my YouTube channel. So, given this context of continual discovery, I cannot say that there is a ‘cult’ piece that I would like to record or play. I like to constantly change repertoire and dust off forgotten pages. I’m a bit of a musical archaeologist!
7. As a teacher, what is the single, most valuable piece of advice you offer to your students?
I really like a quote attributed to John Lennon that says something like, while others think about it, I do it. Music schools are full of thinkers and of artists with ideas. But few dare to put their ideas into action, to take the risks involved in realizing their dreams. Another thing I find essential is to know how to specialize while remaining versatile and open-minded; open in terms of musical styles, but also in terms of the projects proposed to us.
8. If music had not been possible as a career, what would you most likely be doing now?
I’m interested in lots of things. I could imagine practicing any of a range of professions, none of which have to do with music. What I studied at university, in fact, was law, accounting, finance, management, and teaching. Moreover, I have taken courses in mycology (the study of fungi). I would also like to have studied archaeology, history, and geology. Curiosity, I believe, is what links these diverse interests. I am curious; I like understanding the world around me and being able to discuss it with some minimum of knowledge.
9. What upcoming projects are on the horizon for you?
This CD, 14 Guitars, is a continuation of the concert program Histoires de guitars that I premiered two years ago. The spin-offs from this project have been pretty crazy, well beyond my hopes. In a short period of time I have performed the concert some 100 times, mainly in Quebec. I would like to bring it to Ontario, to the Maritimes, and to the Northeastern states. Obviously, transporting 14 guitars makes very long journeys quite complicated, hence the choice of target regions. But there is a good deal of international interest in solo concerts on one or two of the guitars in my collection. I am organizing a major tour of Australia and New Zealand for 2020. As well, several concerts in Europe and the US have been confirmed. To diversify what I have to offer, I am now working on modifying the project so that I can offer orchestral or chamber music versions. I am also developing a version in the form of a musical tale for children. Finally, I would also like to adapt the concert for corporate events. In short, the goal is to reach as large an audience as possible within a geographically limited range.
10. Anything else you’d like readers to know?
A) I am the type of artist who, while knowing that there is always room for improvement, is able to be proud of his accomplishments. When I look at the photo in the booklet accompanying the 14 Guitars CD, when I listen to the different timbres of the different guitars and to the repertoire that, for the most part, I discovered recently, I am proud. I’m a rather obsessive type; I like exceeding the goals I set myself. Initially, I wanted to record on 4 or 5 guitars; that would be just unbelievable, I thought. But finally, there are 14 guitars on this CD! It’s a really fine disc and a unique concept which will, I’m sure, please both amateurs and professionals.
B) Rémy Médard, a 17th-century composer and guitarist, wrote in the foreword to his 1676 Livre de pièces de guitares: “Those who like noise won’t find what they want here.” I find this quote formidable. This disc, 14 Guitars, is full of sweetness. The slowest pieces allow enough time for the ear to appreciate the sound of the instrument. There are more lively pieces, but I tend to prefer slowness.
Interview by Luisa Trisi, Big Picture Communications.
Translated in English by Sean McCutcheon