While all my friends back home are exploding Instagram with gaudy illuminations of the Sydney Opera House for the Vivid festival, Paris has taken the less-is-more route, preferring to make its most visited modern monument simply disappear. The massive photographic mural superimposed on the glass panels of the Louvre this month melts the imposing pyramid into the Baroque palace behind it, a trompe l’œil that has been delighting and confusing tourists and locals alike.
You’d have been forgiven for wondering why 300 twenty-something hipsters were queuing impatiently outside the non-existent Louvre entrance at midnight on Saturday, at a time when many Parisians in their age-bracket would be lining up for a sticky-floored nightclub. But this sold-out, all-night concert was far from just another Saturday at the iconic museum. This was the first time I’ve wiled away the wee hours from midnight til dawn reclining under the vast expanse of sky glimpsed through glass, all the while lullabied by two world-renowned electronic music producers improvising six hours of minimalist trance: Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds.
Despite their impeccable reputations, I’ve always been skeptical about these two pianist-composer/synth-knob-twiddlers, particularly the Berlin-based Frahm. I always assumed it was soft-core experimental classical music to recommend to people who blurt out they like Philip Glass. And as for Arnalds, isn’t all music coming out of Iceland good – and isn’t it all good in the same way? I went along to confirm my suspicions, hoping – as a long-suffering insomniac – to at least nod off from boredom as the repetitive loops turned my brain to crême brûlée. (Hated Max Richter’s eight-hour Sleep album, by the way.)
I have to admit I looked at my watch a few times throughout the night. Here’s how it all unfolded.
12:36 “I’ve seen Nils three times,” a French fan boasts to his friends behind me. Everyone in the queue is dressed the same and roughly the same age. We shuffle into the disappearing-act pyramid like 300 Alices through the looking glass. I enjoy the otherworldly experience of descending the spiral staircase into the darkened underground lobby of the Louvre while it’s devoid of tourists frantically seeking out the Mona Lisa. An army of striped Paris Plage deck chairs greets us, along with disc-shaped floor cushions. I count no fewer than twelve keyboards (including mellotron, Fender Rhodes, Roland, pump organ and toy varieties) for the two performers, crammed on a small makeshift platform. I’ve come straight from an orchestral concert at the Philharmonie and am already fading. ‘Wake me up if anything interesting happens,’ I instruct my date, though it’s hard to shut my eyes with the magnificent rococo palace looming over us, etched on the inky sky – so peaceful just hours after eleven people were simultaneously struck by lightning in a Paris park. (That happened, by the way.)
01:01 The usual wash of delicate piano and electronic fuzz. When organ clusters take over the enveloping chords, I’m drawn in long enough to open my left eye and observe the two boyish soloists; Arnalds with his backlit blonde halo and white t-shirt; Frahm in black, blending into the shadows.
01:42 ‘We didn’t really know what to do tonight, so we’re just playing together,’ Frahm addresses the crowd. The crowd approves. Musically, it seems to be about treading water, conserving energy for later. I’m not hearing anything particularly engrossing – some of it even sounds suspiciously new age, like in those guided meditation CDs – but I admit I do feel uncharacteristically relaxed as I sink into my canvas chair. Every time I’m about to drop off, applause bounces sharply off the marble surfaces, ripping me out of my reverie.
02:14 The sound I like best so far is the security patrol’s walkie-talkies sporadically blipping along with the gentle whirl of synths. Relieved I was only semi-conscious for some sort of poetry reading. I mumble to my date: ‘Just imagine if Ben Stiller were here.’
02:33 I don’t think this is what people refer to as ‘deep listening’ exactly, but I notice there’s a point I stopped tuning out and started tuning in.
03:19 A hypnotic slow groove brings me unexpectedly to my feet and compels me towards the stage. I tiptoe through the bracken of skinny hipster limbs along the floor. Up close, standing and swaying in a trance bubble, I realise just how riveting Frahm is in live performance as he moves decisively between Juno synth and Steinway, instanly banishing the stereotype of steely German techno nerd.
03:44 I appreciate the contrast of sock-dancing on marble and the abrasive clink of Heineken bottles on marble.
04:03 Arnalds seems to contribute more delicate touches to the duo’s sonic identity, but when they’re both on keyboards the energy builds in waves; it’s easy to understand why they have collaborated together so intensively. Dripping with sweat, Frahm takes a break from block chords to towel his face. The white stairs behind the stage have been transformed into a rippling light show – when did that happen? ‘It’s getting a little crazy,’ Frahm pants into the mic. ‘We’re going to calm things down a bit…But we’ll get back there later,’ he assures us.
04:17 ‘Nils is taking a break; he’s sweating too much,’ Arnalds jokes. A more reserved performer than Frahm, he dedicates a solo number to his grandmother who, he explains, insisted on playing him classical music when he was all mixed up in death metal bands. It was only after her passing, he recalls, that he truly started to discover what she had encouraged him to listen to, nurturing his signature austere strings-and-piano sound.
04:33 My date departs. Pause pipi; no one even tries to sell me Ecstasy or similar. It’s the best classical rave I could have hoped for. No one tries to dance with me when I’m sleeping. And who needs glow-sticks when we’re just waiting on the Parisian sunrise refracted through a giant glass pyramid? Chilled trance prevails.
04:58 I hear dozens of white Stan Smith Adidas sneakers slapping marble and am persuaded to open my eyes. What brought on this sudden deck-chair exodus? As it turns out, the duo are brandishing the white toilet brushes that have become quite the party trick in Frahm’s live shows. The crowd knows what this means. Arnalds and Frahm proceed to strike and scrub the strings of the grand piano, their shadows writ large on the walls.
05:23 A chord change provokes wild applause for some reason.
05:26 Even in the most repetitive material, as in Hammers, Frahms varies his pianistic touch from staccato jazz attack to gentle caress without losing steam; his face is contorted with concentration as he sings along. A fresh towel materialises.
Derelict for years, the 18th-century French chateau where the maverick rocker recorded two of his albums may yet relive its glory days.
“David Bowie est un fantôme.” These were the words that opened the solemn voiceover of a documentary aired on FranceTV last Wednesday 6 January, eerily, just days before the shock announcement of his death. The programme, titled Bowie, l’Homme Cent Visages ou Le Fantome d’Hérouville (The Man with 100 Faces or The Ghost of Hérouville), explores a curious idyll in his prolific recording career, two stints in a sprawling manor or ‘gentilhommière’ in the French village of Hérouville, 45km outside of Paris.
The composer Michel Magne purchased the Château d’Hérouville in 1962, and transformed it into one of the first, pioneering residential recording spaces, known as Strawberry Studios.
The rooms that once received Chopin and George Sand on their romantic trysts began to resonate with a different kind of sound; the walls shook as straggly-haired musicians from the likes of Pink Floyd, Iggy Pop, Grateful Dead and Jethro Tull flocked to the French countryside to take advantage of the seclusion and bohemian ambiance. Elton John even named his 1972 album Honky Château after the place in which it was recorded.
Bowie recorded his Pin Ups cover album there in 1973 (sampling Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in the song ‘See Emily Play’). He returned, a recovering cocaine addict, in 1976 for Low – the first in the Berlin trilogy was in fact recorded in France – a masterpiece and his most avant-garde album up until that point.
In the documentary, Dominique Blanc-Francard, a sound engineer working on the 1973 sessions, recalls: “When he looked you in the eyes it was like he was piercing you with lasers, it felt as though someone was rummaging around in your thoughts…Out of all the clients we had at the chateau, he was the coolest. For that time, he had such a bizarre look, really like an alien. One couldn’t imagine him being human.”
Bowie is said to have complained about the diet of rabbit and potatoes during his sojourn. Far more troubling, according to his collaborators on Low (Brian Eno and Tony Visconti), were visitations by a ghost, and a bedroom Bowie refused to sleep in, believing it was haunted.
Strawberry Studios closed its doors in 1985, a year after Michel Magne’s suicide. The chateau remained derelict for almost three decades, eventually put up for sale in 2013 with an asking price of €1.29m (£1.12m) and some serious renovations to be done. Happily, a group of sound engineers has since taken up the challenge of restoring the honky chateau to its former glory, and are seeking investors: it is tipped to reopen in 2016.
The piano used by Elton John on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road has been tucked away in the attic for decades. If Chopin’s ghost is lurking around, he must be pleased.
#myfuckbuddyandionlytelleachotheriloveyouwhentheresaterroristattackinparis, and it’s a little like that with this long-dormant blog, which was supposed to be dedicated to concerts and the arts.
In Montmartre, it resembles a Sunday morning like any other. I run to Batignolles, I do yoga, I run back to Montmartre, I invite my neighbours over and make us all raspberry-lychee hempmilk smoothies. Tonight’s concerts are cancelled. I pace around my apartment (I moved, by the way, and have room to pace) trying to decide when to go lay flowers out front of the Bataclan.
A reporter friend calls at the right moment to ask if I’d be willing to do this on film and answer a few questions to which I don’t have answers. At least I won’t be alone, and therefore safer, I reason, and ask if my bike can be somehow integrated in the footage – vélo vanity. I stuff roses in my bag and a candle in my pocket, enjoying the touch of the sun and ignoring the sirens as I coast down Boulevard Magenta.
I’m introduced to a British TV presenter who looks and acts like Roger Moore-era Bond, and two other friends-of-friends who agreed to be interviewed, Cécile and Sophian. Bond fixes Cécile with a steely gaze and brandishes a firearm-shaped microphone in her face. “Will you think twice before you go out on a Friday or a Saturday night from now on?” She shakes her hair: “I don’t think so. You cannot know, so it’s better not to think about it,” she shrugs frenchily.
Right on cue, screams. A surge of people fleeing outside. “Move! Move!” I’m dragged down onto the tiled floor of the terrasse. Writhing bodies and upturned tables are rugbied on top of me. I’m slight enough to slither under the red leather bench, trapped. The sound of glass smashing everywhere, more screams, tables flung sideways, pools of chocolat chaud. Nothing deafening, something that could be interpreted as muffled gunfire, but how the hell should I know what that would sound like?
“Melissa, Melissa! I’m so scared!” she’s gasping. Across glass-encrusted mosaic, I try to get a grip on my friend’s hand and on reality. Human tide deposits me inside the café and I stumble down the stairs into the basement storeroom with a dozen or so stunned bodies. Another reporter is filming the baby clutching Papa’s arm, then takes flattering close-ups of my bleeding glassed knees as someone scrabbles behind me for an alternate exit. “Where’s Phoebe? Where’s Phoebe?” I’m whispering to the reporter.
After some minutes, we all agree that it was a false alarm. We sheepishly, shakingly, shuffle up the stairs and out into the chill night air. Répu, less than ten minutes earlier a sea of grieving, heaving, living bodies, now completely deserted. I locate Phoebe as she reassures her father on the phone. The restauranteur barks at us to get the hell out of his completely trashed establishment.
Sophian points out the damage he contributed bashing the glass partition with a table to improvise an emergency exit. “I didn’t see it, but it was very impressive,” I pat him on the back. He leads us to the welcoming Simon’s rather nicer-than-mine apartment around the corner, where several people caught up in the panic huddled around his flatscreen on a spacious Scandinavian sofa to wait for their heartrates to go down. I borrow disinfectant and tweezers and pick shards out of my it’s-nothings. The host shakes my hand warmly as I head off. “Nice to meet you, see you at the next attentat.”
I wonder what happened to the bitty old lady who was sitting at the table opposite me with her dog, and who looked exactly like her dog. I wonder how all those bitty old ladies who look like their dogs are responding to the tragedy and the state of fear that is pulsing through the city. And I wonder what happened to that tea I’d ordered. We never laid our crushed flowers. I glance at Cécile who had declared on camera minutes earlier that she would never be scared to go out and kick up her heels on the battlefield. No comment.
These false alarms will continue happening all over Paris. It’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me, and it wasn’t even real, and thank Hermès it wasn’t real, even if the fear was real. From this disaster simulation machine, I perhaps gleaned some vague idea of how I might react for real. And I’m torn up inside for the people who don’t get the ‘it was all a dream’ ending.
I cycled back to Montmartre in a daze. But pedalling uphill on adrenaline is as easy as clicking my heels three times and I was home free before I even knew it. On the way, I realise I forgot my helmet, and have to stop myself mulling over which death I’d have preferred. A rollerblader cradling his takeaway pizza in its box takes a tumble at the crossing up ahead. What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger?
Bon courage, Paris, je t’aime.
Even the most blasé Parisian would have to leave this major exhibition incensed by the Marquis de Sade’s savage sexual politics, which penetrated the arts from Goya to Picasso.
This article was written for and appears in Atlas Obscura.
Encouraged by the turnout at last year’s blockbuster collection of male nudes, Masculine, the Musée d’Orsay has whipped up a guaranteed succès de scandale with its bicentenary tribute to the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814). The scandal set in before anyone had a chance to see what’s hanging on the walls, thanks to a racy publicity video on YouTube that many have decried as unbefitting Paris’ most revered masterpiece-repository after the Louvre. In the clip, dozens of naked bodies writhe together to spell out the name Sade, the frequently imprisoned writer, divine debaucher and one of the dodgiest Frenchman who ever lived, who gave us The 120 Days of Sodom and the term ‘sadism’.
This provocative exhibition traces the impact of Sade’s banned writings on more than two centuries of art and literature. Although rarely so openly acknowledged for sparking a revolution in 19th-century thought, he liberated perceptions and portrayals of our bodies, sexuality, desire, violence and base human instinct.
Powerful stuff, even if most people will just come to the Orsay to point at the naughty bits. I went along with a young French couple and their three-month-old son. Papa didn’t want baby’s first exhibition to be a corrupting force, so he pushed the pram back to the safety of the Impressionists’ wing. I’d advise squeamish and prudish visitors to follow suit.
The Marquis himself is just a starting point in this wide-ranging exhibition curated by Sade specialist Annie le Brun. The potency of his words jumps out as us from the walls where some of the juiciest quotations have been scrawled, along with snippets by other French 19th-century authors who seized on the same ideas. There are rare illustrations from banned editions, by André Masson among others, and an astonishing surrealist caricature of Sade by Man Ray. That Paris-dwelling American artist is beloved for his brand of iconic eroticism in black-and-white prints, but certainly less familiar is his explicit fetish photography. This side of Man Ray is exposed in stark portraits – a naked female model bound in leather straps and dog collar, prostrate on the ground under the inescapable gaze of the lens (Nu attaché, 1930) – and in a series of six vignettes posing two wooden articulated artist’s mannequins in flagrante (innocently titled Mr and Mrs Woodman, 1927). This last somewhat less flexible than what you’ll find in the Kamasutra exhibition running concurrently at the Pinacothèque. More on that one soon, obviously.
All a bit tame so far, really. What, no viscera? Our good Marquis mused long and languorously over pain, cruelty and ferocity as by-products or even complementary states of carnal passion, exhorting us to strip away corporeal limitations as a snake sheds its skin. To inflict pain as much as to endure it, however, one must first understand the body. To that end, a room of the exhibition is given over to 18th-century specimens of the hyper-detailed wax anatomical figures that fascinated Sade, including some particularly unsettling examples by Honoré Fragonard. Jacques-Fabien Gautier-D’Agoty’s 1754 model dominates the space: a pregnant woman, cut open and splayed out, entrails and foetus ready for inspection. Must have missed that one at Madame Tussaud’s. Rather tongue-in-cheek on the wall (not literally, I should point out), as Balzac quipped in 1829: “A man shouldn’t get married without having dissected at least one woman and studied her anatomy.” Meanwhile, a well-chosen Baudelaire observation likens the act of lovemaking to torture or surgery.
Sade’s ‘no pain, no gain’ policy finds expression in images and objects that demand our unflinching voyeurism, and even compliance. One photograph circa 1900 depicts a young woman, legs bound to a chair, receiving from her matronly captor a brutal nipple-twist with metal pincers. Goya’s most sickening portrayals of so-called inhumane torture, rape and cannibalism get a look-in, as do the usual suspects when it comes to tales of sexual violence: the rape of the Sabine women (Picasso), Salome (Gustave Moreau, Aubrey Beardsley), Judith slaying Holofernes.
Everywhere there are reminders of man’s bestial nature, from Picasso’s rarely seen doodles of a reclining nude pleasured by a cunnilingus-trained fish; Alfred Kubin’s dark, psychosexual images of naked women devoured by giant monkeys, tigers and boas or undoubtedly the most loveable exhibit: Jean Benoît’s 1965 bondage sculpture of the sexually depraved, bloodthirsty bulldog from Isidore Ducasse Lautréamont’s 1869 prose poem Les Chants de Maldoror: decked out in leather, covered in broken-glass spikes and equipped with a life-size human penis for a surprising take on ‘doggy style’.
Jean Benoît, Le Bouledogue de Maldoror, 1965, Collection Pinault.
Tackling religion is a must, since Sade’s stance on the Church undoubtedly a major factor in why he was always evading imprisonment, revelling in acts of sexual violence as he decried the very belief system that would condemn him for it: “The idea of God is the sole wrong for which I cannot forgive mankind.” Within these walls we find scenes of papal rape, cavorting nuns and a photograph of a female S&M offering strapped to a crucifix… The wrong way round. But for me, the theme is most elegantly summarised in Man Ray’s 1930 photograph Prayer.
The exhibition is a little light on Sapphic content: the penis reigns supreme, especially towards the final rooms, by which time it’s all degenerating into something carnivalesque. Engravings of allegorical penises from the 1760s, titillating female acrobats astride the erect members of her two urinating spotters (Carl Schleich’s Pièce acrobatique, 1820). Finely wrought pewter phalluses, complete with piston mechanism, marked ‘providence of widows and nuns’, circa 1800. And my personal favourite: penis phenakistiscopes – coloured, patterned discs that spin to form an image, for which no imagination required. Reproductions would have sold like hotcakes at the gift shop.
Maybe not a great first-date exhibition, depending on what signals you want to send; but definitely a conversation starter.
Sade: Attaquer le soleil runs until 25 January, 2015, but will almost certainly be extended due to popular demand.
It’s not too often you enter a museum and re-emerge feeling like you’ve had the time of your life at a carnival. But that’s more or less the raison d’être of the Musée des Arts Forains (Fairground Arts), a vast space formerly one of Paris’ oldest, largest wine warehouses. It still has a bacchanalian feel about it, a sense of glee and discovery hanging in the air along with strings of fairy lights in the long, cobblestoned courtyard (le Théâtre de Verdure) intersected by a disused tram track.
This eight-hectare, leafy pavilion in Bercy is little known even to Parisians: a private museum founded by eccentric actor and collector Jean-Paul Favand. It can usually only be visited for functions and guided tours reserved in advance. But over Christmas and New Years’ the doors (and even the old rides) are open to some 70,000 members of the public, so that this magical menagerie from the Belle Époque comes alive during the museum’s Festival du Merveilleux.
It lives up to its name all right, somewhere between a tour of Willy Wonka’s factory (there is actually a preserved shop-front from an old candy store) and trip to a Coney Island funhouse. This is the place to take a fellow traveller complaining that they don’t like museums. As you walk around the exterior towards the entrance, dozens of plaster caricature busts grin down at you — mostly legendary old actors who give new meaning to the concept of ‘celebrity heads’. Once inside, you won’t know quite where to look first. I took in the original Mortier organ piping away in one corner, the piano-playing unicorn in the other and the elephant ready for liftoff in the ornate hot air balloon of the Théâtre de Merveilleux. ‘Am I in a David Lynch movie?’ I pinched myself, passing a row of distorted mirrors — like I needed to appear shorter than I already am.
Surely this is the only museum in the world where the sound of shrieking children on the loose couldn’t bother me — where it even adds to the magic of the place. (There were collective squeals of delight as a magician showed off his tricks.) Woody Allen discovered his inner child here in a scene from Midnight in Paris, during which his wide-eyed American protagonist had travelled back in time. And sure enough, it feels like we’ve turned back the clock to this era between 1850 and 1930, when carnivals thrived and from which date most of these theatre props and costumes, cabaret curios and Music Hall intrigue.
Not least because every inch of the place is covered in old-timey frescoes or draped in brocade. You can actually feed the open-mouthed clowns and take a spin on the ancient, creaking rides, all painstakingly restored. (One ‘attraction’ is included in the price of admission.) Try the Manège vélocipédique, a bike-powered carousel created in 1897 back when bicycles were still a novelty. Or opt for the smoother gondola ride in the opulent Salons Vénitiens. Perhaps the most titillating diversion is La Course de Garçons de Café, where you get to race wine-toting Parisian waiters — something I’ve always wanted to try out with live waiters in Paris.
I wandered outside and noted approvingly that a group of street performers had disguised themselves as a giant Gollem that lurched around the courtyard trying to eat children, with acrobats and accordionists joining the fray. I had my photo taken in the old painted head-through-the-hole booths, cherishing the one of me on the toilet. There was no magician on hand to wave a wand at the typically French system of purchasing meal coupons to exchange for some barbe à papa and vin chaud and turn three queues into one.
Tucked away in a forgotten passageway, between the upmarket fashion boutiques of Place des Abbesses and the fall from grace to the seedy strip of Pigalle, you’ll stumble upon one of the most unusual and captivating spaces in Paris: Tombées du Camion. It will seem like you stumbled upon this mystery shop even if you set out intent on going there. From the métro Abbesses, one of the deepest in Paris, you face a dizzying 36m climb up a brightly decorated spiral staircase. The first thing that comes into view when you emerge is an antique carousel, the white whale of the Sacre Coeur looming beyond. Just a five-minute cobblestoned stroll away, hidden treasure awaits.
I pass hour after happy hour behind the counter — miraculously, gainfully employed in France — but never know quite how to sum up what we sell there. To step inside this bizarre bazaar for the first time is to step out of synch with the rest of the modern world. Time stops; I feel a little dirty checking the clock on my iPhone4, by far the newest thing in the store.
So don’t be surprised if it takes a moment to recalibrate as you contemplate this concrete cave of vintage ephemera, illuminated by industrial lamps and lined with old wooden boxes and oversized specimen jars — everything in its right place. Lots of things. Strange things, hoarded from the cobwebbiest corners of factories in secret locations around France. Unused wooden bar tokens, bicycle-shaped sunglasses from the Tour de France, packets of toilet paper circa 1950s, now objets d’art repurposed to have no purpose. Most items are fabrication française, like the Gauloises issued to French troops in World War II (consumption not advisable), a cloud of nostalgia now that everyone in the smoking capital of the world puffs on electronic cigarettes.
Sift through postcards that play an old song when you place them on a turntable; plunge your hand into a beaker of miniature plastic babies. And if you feel hundreds of eyes on you, don’t be alarmed. The eyes are an idée fixe: beady taxidermy eyes, disembodied dolls’ eyes that wink inscrutably from under thick lashes; round ones in delicate blown glass, perennially surprised. And that’s not all. Once you’ve had you’re fill of eyes, you can move on to all manner of mismatched body parts: heads, arms and legs and even white plastic femurs, the oldest items in this macabre catalogue dating from 1900.
You would have to come to the conclusion that Charles Mas, the procurer of this vast array of bibelots, bits and bobs, is a grown man who plays with dolls. When we met for my job interview I was expecting an elderly miser with a pipe. But the guy who drives the camion of Tombées du Camion — enigmatic and intense, never glimpsed without his leather biker jacket — embodies a new breed of brocanteur.
“Je suis un peu maniac,” he warned me at the beginning of my trial. No shit. Looking around the store, improbable combinations of knickknacks in meticulous patterns along the walls, it would be hard to disagree. But it’s also immediately clear that there’s a sense of humour behind the way they are brought together, in harmony or discord, anachronistically, sometimes in poor taste. Like the naked rubber belly dancer (my favourite item to demonstrate) next to glinting crucifixes priced at 33 euros.
Charles is the kind of man who will look you straight in the face and tell you that there’s poetry in a ping-pong ball — a stretch even for a Frenchman. And the strange charm of his concept store is, it’s completely believable. He’s not afraid to get all literary about it either, likening the way people respond to these unassuming artifacts to the madeleine de Proust; how a trinket worth almost nothing (represented by the French ‘madeleine’ sponge-cake) can impart profound joy and trigger memories.
For me, it’s a bit like working in a surrealist supermarket, or in an Escher painting, where every item could repeat ad infinitum. Even though it’s a bit magic as far as first jobs in France go, it’s still a job like any other. There’s a first time for everything, even the banal: cashing my first French cheque, washing French piss off the sidewalk etc.
But excursions outside the ordinary are frequent. A typical day will likely bring a woman who buys a brooch in the shape of a sexy stilettoed leg for her amputee friend. Or a Brazilian artist inflating female condoms in-store after squeezing some delicate celluloid babies inside. An elderly man enquiring if we have doorknobs, poignées de portes, disappointed to learn we only carry coffin handles, poignées de cercueils. (I’ve amassed a pretty strange vocab list.) A surprise visit from the boss, who will breeze in for as long as it takes to explain the function of a WTF item (that metal rod is actually for crushing sugar cubes) and assign a task I’ve never been asked to perform elsewhere (polish these rusted antique keys with steel wool — but not too much, or they won’t look authentic).
It’s fun here. The eyes wink at me. And I wink back.
Photos of Tombées du Camion Abbesses by Louise Carrasco
It’s generally considered a faux pas for concertgoers to fall asleep mid-performance. Certainly most composers would be offended to catch you napping as their opera plays out on stage. But most composers aren’t Philip Glass.
Even he could be forgiven for losing track of time in his marathon 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach, which received its premiere in France at the Avignon Festival. “We didn’t even actually know how long it was,” the world’s most imitated living composer thinks back to the first performance 37 years ago. “The first night, it turned out to be about five hours!”
But when I nervously joke that he could have faded out at the 180-minute mark, he retorts that “the point of writing music and experiencing music isn’t to make people comfortable necessarily.” That said, audiences are permitted to zone out, nod off or take a breather outside as part of this immersive theatrical odyssey, which just finished its six-day run at the Théâtre du Châtelet for the Festival d’Automne, reminding Parisians that the doyen of American minimalism had what he describes as a “formation française” here under the strict tutelage of Nadia Boulanger.
In four-and-a-half hours, then — give or take — this iconic opera unfolds in hypnotic sensory overload. Rarely performed because of its length and the resources required, Einstein on the Beach was staged in Paris in the revival of Robert Wilson’s original blazing production. (The legendary director’s body of work was a linchpin of this year’s Festival d’Automne à Paris.) “The thing that brought us together,” says Glass of his collaborator and fellow iconoclast, “Bob,” “is that we experienced time, space and movement in a very similar way.”
Just don’t go expecting anything as conventional as a plot. One wonders what would happen if Einstein’s theory of relativity were applied to Glass’ and Wilson’s behemoth. The chorus intones endless strings of numbers; amplified instruments pulse with nervous energy; as the music hurtles through time, Lucinda Childs’ freeze-frame choreography creates the sensation that time might stop altogether. Einstein himself appears onstage as an amateur violinist sporting a curly grey-haired wig and cardigan, sometimes portrayed by a woman.
But how does this extended meditation on life, the universe and everything fit in with the operatic tradition? “That’s a good question, and I’ll give you the truthful answer,” Glass explains: “We had no idea it was an opera!
“You could call the piece anything you wanted to, but the only place we could perform it was an opera house. People began to talk about it as an opera. It was a discovery for us as it was for everybody else.”
Glass did eventually turn to more traditional forms, including an opera about Ghandi, Satyagraha, in 1980, but “the people who liked Einstein were upset because they thought it was going to sound like Einstein. I disappointed them with Einstein and then I disappointed them again!” he chortles.
The most disappointed witnesses to the notorious 1976 premiere were “some older people who were really unhappy,” Glass recalls. “That’s a normal state of affairs. The younger people embrace it; the older people are kind of terrified that this was even allowed into a theatre.”
At 76, he’s now reached the age of those elderly complainants, observing how the work has evolved in the public consciousness. “It had a big effect, but the funny thing is that the reactions of the audiences today are not that different. And partly that’s because the rest of the world of opera didn’t change very much. People thought this was going to change the world. Well, it didn’t.
“The demands of the piece, I can see now, must have been very great on the players, on the performers, and on the audience. It must have been like crossing a bridge through a country that is unknown. We didn’t know where the piece was going – we were too much a part of it.”
No longer part of it as a performer, Glass finally has the luxury of relaxing and watching – if one can call it a luxury. “I was in the orchestra pit playing the piece every night. I never sat in the audience and looked at it. That happened to me very recently.
“And you know what? I really liked it!”
But try as I might, I can’t get him to admit to falling asleep.