Brexit through the gift shop: in Paris, the show must go on. British choir Tenebrae at Sainte-Chapelle


This blog is named after the Morrissey song Throwing My Arms Around Paris. Curiously, I couldn’t find any public commentary from that sharp-tongued Mancunian about this week’s dumbfounding news that Britain is set to leave the safe, loving arms of the European Union. So I mentally rifled through his catalogue. Panic [on the streets of London] is somehow comforting; National Front Disco rather worrisome, and Your Arsenal downright chilling- “You wonder how we’ve stayed alive ’til now…We may seem cold, or we may even be / The most depressing people you’ve ever known / At heart, what’s left, we sadly know / That we are the last truly British people you’ll ever know.” And let’s not forget that Moz is a drape-himself-in-the-Union-Jack kind of guy.

In the end, I think Gilbert & Sullivan got it right in 1878 and not much has changed since. Topsy turvy indeed.

With all my expat friends (on both sides of the Channel) reeling from the morning’s referendum results, I reminded myself that there was nothing stopping me from throwing my arms around Paris as usual. Brushing Morrissey and G&S aside, I opted for solace at the breathtaking medieval Sainte-Chapelle, where the superb British chamber choir Tenebrae were to perform under bewildering circumstances.

Sainte-Chapelle is the place in Paris that reminds me, perhaps more radiantly than  any other, just why I traded Bondi Beach for Haussmann’s boulevards; and why I’ve fought so hard for my place in Europe. You hardly need to set foot on the distinctive coloured tiles of the Upper Chapel to fall under the spell of the vaulted blue ceiling with its gilded constellation of regal fleurs-de-lys. Or bask in the light of soarng wall-to-wall stained glass windows, the oldest in Paris.

At Sainte-Chapelle, the London-based choir Tenebrae and their director Nigel Short were the first Brits I came face to face with in the aftermath of Brexit. And they had prepared a glorious feast of Renaissance and contemporary music from countrymen Henry Purcell, Thomas Tallis, Gustav Holst and John Tavener. (All this around the central work on the programme, the Allegri Miserere mei, and the in situ premiere of Eric Whitacre’s work Sainte-Chapelle, inspired by and named for this very church.)

Photo by Jérôme Prébois

Photo by Jérôme Prébois

Rather than facing the audience to begin, the 16 singers and conductor positioned themselves behind us, directly underneath the ornate circular ‘rose’ window. This freed up our eyes to drink in the splendour of the light catching the intricacy of every glass panel as the harmonies of Alonso Lobo’s Versa est in luctum enveloped us.

Choristers were sweating. You could hear the church bells and the sirens. But the stress melted away along  golden threads of polyphony. For the Burial Sentences of William Croft and Henry Purcell, they solemnly processed down the aisle to the front of the nave. I wondered if the end of an era and an uncertain future weighed heavily on them, casting darker shadows on such tragic music? If it was with heavy hearts that they sang ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away’? It was all very dramatic, anyway.

Throughout the lead-up to Brexit, the questions that plagued me had been of the self-absorbed variety: “Will there still be Marks & Spencer in France? Will I have to compete with a flood of English girls looking for a marriage of convenience?” But it was in this gothic church that I felt more acutely than ever before the true impact of this unfathomable turn of events and the sense of loss, shame and alienation many of my expat friends have expressed.

This deeply moving concert was presented by the Festival Paris Mezzo, whose founder Michèle Reiser certainly made the British guests feel welcome in her opening speech: “We understand more than ever now in Paris that a concert is an act of resistance,” she affirmed. “Concerts are about living in harmony together.”

Good luck Britain, from Paris with love.

The full concert was filmed for and will be broadcast Wednesday 29 Juin, 8.30pm.




All-night trance at the Louvre: Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds in Paris


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.

‘Hopefully we’ve laid out calculations correctly for our idea to play with the sunrise in Paris,’ Arnalds announces as the first light grey strains of encroaching morning goad the musicians on for the final sprint.
An abrasive drone oscillating between F and F-sharp builds to a roar; delicate organ chords creep in with the first rays of light. Even the groggiest struggle to our feet for a standing ovation/sun salutation. Staff promptly inform us that breakfast is served – for those who reserved and paid extra. We shuffle out and rug up against the chill morning air of the deserted square courtyard. I hardly spoke to anyone the whole night but somehow feel I became friends with them all through the power of shared experience and the clear musical rapport and close friendship between the two soloists – not for nothing have they released a film entitled Trance Frendz documenting their prolific collaboration. (I would have called it TechnoBromance, maybe volume 2?)
I calculated a maximum of two hours and fifty minutes’ uninterrupted shut-eye before a yoga class I would almost certainly fall asleep in. Guess whose music I played as soon as I got home to help me nod off?





Was David Bowie haunted by the ghost of Chopin?


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.

This is the year. No follow-up questions.


This is the year that started out with a squashed heart-shaped slice of baguette and the song Mélissa d’Ibiza.

This is the year I realised everyone who’s met me at a previous party remembers me either as ‘the girl with the glasses’ or ‘the girl with the hula hoop’.

This is the year I failed to achieve my new year’s resolution of learning to play the theremin, for the third year running.

This is the year I learned the word ‘le Schmilblik’.

This is the year I discovered cold-pressed homemade quince juice, and how much I like saying ‘coing‘.

This is the year I laughed in the face of the Frenchman who told me in earnest that he thought I would be his Lady Chatterley.

This is the year more people hit on my bike than on me.

This is the year I took Zinzi on her first vélib ride and she flashed me her lipstick-patterned underwear in front of the Notre Dame, then said: ‘at least I’m wearing underwear today.’

This is the year I lost count of how many times Jean-Philippe has said to me: ‘Bien, ma choute.’

This is the year a guy sprayed beer in my face at my friend’s book launch, looked me in the eye, and said: “I’m sorry, I sneezed.”

This is the year I stopped cringing when I hear Australian accents in Paris, offered two unknown Aussie blokes a bite of macaron, and refused their kind offer of a stash of cocaine they had to leave behind when they flew out that evening.

This is the year I retired as a journalist, until someone lured me out of retirement with an all-expenses-paid trip to Istanbul. So this is the year I became a semi-retired journalist.

This is the year I heard my first muezzin in Turkey and realised they are all pre-recorded.

This is the year I had a Filipino buffet lunch at the San Silvestro church in Rome, in between Caravaggios and vegan gelatos.

This is the year I went to that strange thermal spa/hospital in Bad Sulza and it felt like something out of a Milan Kundera novel.

This is the year a bartender with a scary hairdo forbad me from photographing the menu of illegal absinthes priced €6.66 by the glass.

This is the year I recited Ben’s poem ‘Liebe Banane‘ in a beer garden in Hamburg in front of a schnitzel the size of Ben’s head.

This is the year I fulfilled a long-held dream of cycling 300km through east Germany from Bach’s birthplace to his resting place.

This is the year I attended my first Proms.

This is the year I braved the 8am queue outside the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam, and learned that Anne Frank did not like pickled kale.

This is the year I saw an elf penis and a whale penis in the same room.

This is the year I stopped sending Christmas presents to my brother because he didn’t say thank you for the last two.

This is the year my brother came to Paris and I forgave him for being so lousy at keeping in touch.

This is the year I learned all about phyrgian bonnets, when I was expecting to learn about how to file a French tax return.

This is the year I participated in a soirée where I was the only person not on MDMA, then had homemade crêpes with the hosts for mardi gras the following day.

This is the year I got my first stack of French business cards, with the little é in Mélissa and everything.

This is the year I bought a whole filing cabinet just for my immigration paperwork.

This is the year I started growing my own mushrooms out of a box on my window sill.

This is the year I left roses intended for the Bataclan on a compost heap.

This is the year I told everyone I fell in love in Iceland, and had to repeat myself every time someone asked if I meant “with Iceland”.

This is the year I fell out of love the night of my best friend’s wedding.

This is the year I met Julien Clerc and Johnny Hallyday.

This is the year my dad cried, and then said I looked lovely, when we skyped for the first time, the morning after the terror attacks.

This is the year a shady but sometimes scarily accurate clairvoyant named Stéphane Ghaffour predicted disaster in my future because he was looking at the wrong page in his almanac: 1984 instead of 1986.

This is the year I found beauty again in a guitar album.

This is the year I got all homesick listening to Bud Petal sing out of tune.

This is the year I didn’t wear earplugs to see my favourite French punk band and left the gig covered in bruises.

This is the year the most beautiful punk tattoo artist I’ve ever seen picked me up off the mosh floor, dusted off my skinned knees, and kissed me at the Souris Déglinguée concert at l’Olympia.

This is the year I sat next to Charb in a nightclub listening to Yiddish fado on January 6 and let him scribble on my cocktail menu.

This is the year I had to run to the squash club across the road to have them uncork a bottle of red for my housewarming because I don’t know how to use a corkscrew.

This is the year I spent, by my rough calculations, a total of 30 hours queuing outside the police prefecture for a slip of paper.

This is the year I didn’t have a bike accident despite riding, by my rough calculations, a total of 5,550km.

This is the year I finally found the recorded version of Flow, My Tears I want played at my funeral.

This is the year I stop crying every day in winter.

This is the morning I noticed a woman methodically picking all the brownest, prettiest leaves from the steps of Montmartre.

Mélissa marked herself safe during Paris Terror Attacks

#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.