Du monde au Balcon: Pierrot Lunaire at the Théâtre Athénée

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I was nervous about this one. An ensemble of twentysomethings staging Pierrot Lunaire sung in French by a man? Would the Sprechstimme sound like Serge Gainsbourg? And could a young troupe like Le Balcon, led by suspiciously hip 27-year-old Maxime Pascale and making their debut as resident ensemble of the Théâtre Athénée, really shed new light on this dark and twisted masterpiece?

The changes they made to language and voice type are apt: Pierrot is a sad creepy French clown after all, and the German texts Schoenberg chose for his 1912 atonal melodrama are translations from the original French poems by  Belgian symbolist Albert Giraud. The male transcription that replaced the usual shrill soprano recitations allows Pierrot himself to stand before us in all his grotesque glory. And so Damien Bigourdan donned the wig, daubed his face with a bit of Rorschach-inspired fluoro warpaint, squeezed the teats of his trannie vest and leered at his audience, all the while singing in a plangent, haunting high tenor.

As if that wasn’t disturbing enough, there were the spookhouse-gone-too-far projections of Colombian video artist Nieto for him to interact with, both on stage and on the large white orb hovering high over the musicians. As part of this nightmarish trompe l’oeil with its occasional black humour, Pierrot ripped open his torso to reveal beating heart, viscera and spleen (the symbolists did love their spleens); grumbled when his head was impaled on a cello spike; smoked a pipe made out of a live bird skeleton, and lurched into the orchestra pit to terrorise the quintet with a handycam, which he shoved into the conductor’s mouth, gleefully extracting a tooth.

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La lune malade really was sick as they come, reflecting by turns an all-seeing eyeball, a nipple, flowing blood mingled with a dash of red wine, the ‘pallid drop of blood [that] stains the lips of a consumptive’… All writ large on a full moon to make you froth at the mouth. And I for one couldn’t look away.

The rich yet intimate interior of the rococo-meets-art-nouveau Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet was the perfect fit for such a richly decadent vision. At interval from the comfort of my private box, while smokers crowded onto the ornate balcon, I frottaged every surface I could: red velvet railings, thick velvet curtains, velvet-upholstered doors, velvet ropes and velvet seats. Wisely, Le Balcon followed the eerie sensation overload of Pierrot Lunaire with Morton Feldman’s radiophonic Paroles et Musique (Words and Music) to sparse text by Samuel Beckett, with the musicians and voice actors (Bigourdan and Éric Houzelot) hidden behind a screen until the very last moment. Apart from a few major themes like paresse, amour, âge and visage, I missed a good chunk of the stammered French translation, eventually closing my eyes and resting my head on something soft (I think it might have been velvet?) as each austere, repeated musical gesture washed over me in surround sound.

Pierrot Lunaire plays until Saturday 28 September, tickets from €7. Photos by Meng Phu.

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Heart of Glass, Heart of Gold: a festival the French can’t quite pronounce

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Now that I’m here in Paris, I never want to leave. But believe it or not, I occasionally I get wind of something going on somewhere in the world outside of Paris that’s tempting enough to travel for. I hate it when that happens. It’s usually with a heavy heart that I board the outbound TGV.

Not so for Heart of Glass, Heart of Gold, a new alternative music festival tucked away in the Rhône-Alpes’ medieval village of Ruoms with a line-up of more than twenty artists including Efterklang, Au Revoir Simone and even a Kiwi, Connan Mockasin. With access exclusively for those who book one of the in situ bungalows housing groups of four, six and eight, this three-day indie music idyll is for hipsters who love the vibe of an outdoor festival but don’t like getting their ripped jeans dirty pitching a tent (or, as in my case, don’t know how), and prefer to queue for waterslides than for portaloos.

1237971_653163621395369_362065384_nI didn’t exactly have to cross the ocean to get there. A two-hour TGV plus 100km in a big black tour van careening along verdant paths past scarecrows holding bottles of wine, and before too long we were sipping Ricard on the balcony of a wooden hut bigger than my Paris apartment, admiring the sunset daubed across the mountain ranges and joking about how this was ‘le camping sauvage’. In this shantytown of a summer music camp you really got to know your neighbours — my roommate, hitherto a complete stranger, told everyone she had ‘slept with the Australian’, leading to much giggling and confusion whenever I passed by. They tended to be the sort you’d love to meet in Paris, though many hailed from nearby Marseilles, Grenoble and Lyon. (It wasn’t smiles and hugs all round though: a few bungalows were inevitably cased for laptops and smartphones, the more naïve cabin dwellers horrified to discover that bad people could dig good music.)

You also got to know the bands. In the al fresco dining area overlooking the rocky little amphitheatre, there was no such thing as the cool kids’ table — everyone was approachable. The first people I offered to share my mustard and mayo-smothered barquette de frites with turned out to be one of the bands, who reciprocated with two water bottles of smuggled refreshment: one of strong screwdriver vodka orange; the other just plain vodka. The frontman, on 42 days of sobriety, amused himself instead with my hula hoop; as did the tomboyish young daughter of festival founder Melville Bouchard who was wandering the grounds. At a karaoké session that kicked off at 2am, after playing a dreamy set under the stars, Connan Mockasin again took up the mic to wail and whine to Purple Rain. I chose Trenet’s La Mer, sung in spasmodic duet with a German synth wizard who jovially fumbled through the French.

At this inaugural Heart of Glass, Heart of Gold (HOG HOG) festival, the atmosphere was lively but relaxed; the crowd of around 700 was intimate enough that I never had to struggle on tiptoe to view the stage or squeeze my way through a sea of elbows to the front. One reveller took her dog into the pit with her on a leash; they both seemed to enjoy the music. Two balloons bobbed gently along our heads.

With a name like Au Revoir Simone the all-girl synth trio could easily be mistaken for French ingénues, but are in fact all-American sweethearts. ‘Merci beaucoup!’ they cooed demurely after their first song, and then: ‘It’s so nice to be here with you under this beautiful moon’ — can’t argue there. Like Samson’s power, much of their effortless glamour seemed to come from their hair, a uniform of fringe and long tresses that seemed to be the only part of them that moved when they danced. I enjoyed their austere arrangements but occasionally longed for some Andrew Sisters harmonies.

London neo-disco foursome Gramme was just the ticket to shake everyone out of their twilight reverie. As if dancing on hot coals, frontwoman Sam Lynham Taylor didn’t stop twirling and kicking her heels for a moment, and really put her backbone into bashing that cowbell. Energy kept building from there with the duelling drums of French group Zombie Zombie, whose brute-force ritual beats were suffused with Etienne Jaumet’s eerie sci-fi and B-grade horror synth. Around 2am, primed for the festival nightclub, the crowd dispersed.

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During the day, my fellows were either too hungover to explore the village 2km away, or simply content to drape themselves over the deckchairs by the sparkling Hollywood pool-party pool and let eclectic DJ sets wash over them. A few of us banded together for a spot of yoga cosmique, offering up our lazy sun salutations to the golden rays of the Ardèche. On the Saturday morning I sauntered down to the old centre historique — ironically one of only two places I managed to get wifi — to peer into stone medieval cottages still occupied by French families today.

Before the bands started up again at 2pm, it took only a couple of hours of my morning to kayak, mostly leisurely, through the granite gorges of Pradons and Chauzon. Fortunately three singing Belgians (not affiliated with the festival) were on hand in canoes behind me when I plunged straight off the edge of a waterfall, having failed to take advantage of the nifty channel to the far right. This made an excellent adventure story to tell festival folk, who were impressed that I had strayed from the campsite at all.

A few French superlatives for the second sunset viewed from our balcony, and off we went for more music. Efterklang’s synth-pop was over-polished; I admired the pitch-perfect,Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 7.06.02 PM swooping vocals of guest soprano Katinka Fogh Vindelev but longed for the experimentation of early albums, and even when the dapper Danes tried to be raucous it came out too refined. Though Casper Clausen’s bowtie and smile were too tight for my taste, he managed to charm the appreciative crowd.

Connan Mockasin, by warm and welcome contrast, grinned Connan Mockasin 204sweetly from under his shock of albino hair — a magician on guitar as he toyed with the structure and mood of his psychedelic love-ins. That fey, shaky little voice of his gave the fluid sensuality of the music a vulnerable core, and endeared him to me almost as much as his Kiwi-speak (sitting down at the edge of the stage to ‘goss’ intimately with the audience, then launching into another song after ‘stuffing around’– gems I hadn’t heard since moving to France).

IROK 230Wisely, they saved the most energising and uncivilised for last. I.R.O.K (Intergalactic Republic of Kongo) is the kind of musical collision that could only have come out of London: a swarthy part-Moroccan pirate of a frontman, a Eurotrash keyboardist who would have thrived in Klaus Nomi’s band, a bassist channelling the cowboy from The Village People, a cockney-as-they-come drummer, plus an African drummer for good measure — Rage Against the Machine meets Fela Kuti might just about cover it. Thrashing about under the strobe, the manic Mike Title invited the audience to climb up on stage with him for the customary crowd surfing, shouting breathlessly that we should be equal to the band. Two minutes later he was ordering us all to sit the fuck down. You could say they were one big mixed message. And that is no bad thing.

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The next day we cleared out our bungalows, lolled by the pool declaring we didn’t want to leave, delayed leaving as long as possible, and eventually left, though not without a song or two in our hearts. The covoiturage I rode back in took twice as long as the train — a full six hours on the road — but in the company of new friends it seemed like half the time. They delivered me to my door at exactly midnight, just in time to watch the bulbs of the Eiffel Tower sparkle in a paroxysm of delight at my return. Paris was just as I had left it; maybe even a little brighter.

Band photos by Vincent Arbelet. Other photos by Yasmine Ben Hamouda.

Secrets of the Palais Royale: doll fetishes & heritage moustaches behind closed doors

It started like any other weekend in Paris. A glimpse of sky through lace curtains and a rumpled descent from my attic abode to the boulangerie below to check for the rare banana tart they like to trot out just when I’ve given up hope of ever seeing one again.

But I hadn’t even made it as far as the cobblestones when something out of the ordinary came into my stuporous line of vision: a dapper gentleman and his entourage of lookie-lous politely requesting the access code to my building. From under his cape he produced a black-and-white printout photo of my sleepy little block of flats. (I’m not making this up; he was wearing a cape.)

Somewhere between bemused, confused and suspicious, I pressed him for more information.

‘Pourquoi?’
‘Because it’s famous. You’re very lucky to be living here, mademoiselle!’
‘I’d be happy to show you the courtyard, but why would I give you my door code to see it?’
‘C’est la Journée du Patrimoine, bien sûr.’

I never did find out why my building was of particular interest to this odd little Frenchman, but he did turn me on to the Journées Européenes du Patrimoine, when for one weekend a year the city’s major heritage-listed sites fling open even their heaviest, creakiest doors to reveal chambers, dungeons, backstage corridors and other areas usually off-limits to the public. In its thirtieth year this September 14–15, the proud tradition drew 12 million visitors to hundreds monuments in and around Paris.

My daily run from Montparnasse to the Louvre was dotted with crowds and security guards at even the most seemingly unremarkable street corners — though I’m starting to suspect that there is no such thing as an unremarkable street corner in Paris. But how to choose which queue to join? The most popular seems to be the one outside the palais présidentiel de l’Élysée, where a three-hour wait in the wind and drizzle might earn you a handshake from Monsieur Hollande himself. Somehow the prospect just didn’t appeal.

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Instead I called in at the Odéon, one of the five national theatres of France, a neoclassical marvel opened in 1782 and tucked away behind the Jardin du Luxembourg in the 6th arrondissement. As with many of the smaller venues airing their dirty laundry over the weekend, turns out the Odéon’s guided tours of 30 people apiece were completely booked out as far back as July. (N’inquiétez vous; larger sites around town from the Lido cabaret to the Hôtel de Ville are more-the-merrier and don’t require reservations.) Luckily, some theatrical batting of eyelashes got me into one of the plush velvet seats directly under the abstract plafond painted by André Masson in 1965. The charming guide pointed out the private box from which Marie Antoinette failed to comprehend the revolutionary undertones of Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro at its 1784 premiere. It couldn’t have helped that hers was one of the theatre’s most restricted views of the stage — likely she was too busy admiring her own bling to notice.

From there I rushed to the Comédie Française in the 1st arrondissement – where again I was disappointed to find their visites guidées booked out weeks in advance. ‘Maybe next year!’ the concierge said chirpily. Since I was already in the neighbourhood, I joined the queue snaking around the gardens into the adjoining Palais Royale.

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2013-09-15 13.42.47The labyrinthine 17th-century complex once home to cardinals and kings is now home to a whole lot of French bureaucrats from three major organisations: le Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, le Conseil Constitutionnel and le Conseil d’État. The French certainly know how to do bureaucracy in style (presumably there was a memo about keeping their desks tidy for the weekend’s mass viewing), with little excuse for Monday-itis under baroque chandeliers and the perennial blue sky of a frescoed ceiling.

In addition to an exhibit of medallions given to chevaliers de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (don’t get too excited; Shakira has one), the Ministry of Culture seemed to have borrowed some Proust manuscripts for the weekend and stationed a librarian from the Bibliothèque Nationale at the display case to answer any burning questions.

We filed through 38 areas usually closed off to tourists, including a lavish chapel, a salle à manger where the president of the Conseil Constitutionnel can listen in on actors rehearsing at the neighbouring Comédie Française while he sups, and the recently restored Salle d’assemblée générale with its immense, gold-lined murals by Toulouse-born impressionist Henri Martin, gilded angels spreading their wings over tableaux denoting areas within the purview of the general assembly, including Beaux Arts, Finances and Code Pénal. With issues as important as mariage pour tous on the agenda, it’s encouraging to know the legislation-changing discussions take place in such inspiring surrounds.

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While everyone was oohing and ahhing over the trompe l’oeuil  of the Grand Escalier d’Honneur, I was assuring this very obliging attendant that the camera loved him and his mo.

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2013-09-15 13.54.11My favourite room, though, was the office of Jean-Louis Debré, president of the Conseil Constitutionnel, whose collection of heroic female dolls (or mariannes) from the French Revolution to the present has to be one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen presided over by security guards. ‘Mais il n’y a pas de Brigitte Bardot,’ one of the watchmen told me regretfully.

All patrimonied out for the day, I headed back to my 20msq studio in an apartment block whose claim to fame I still haven’t worked out. (Apparently Marguerite Duras lived next door briefly?)

But at least I didn’t have to queue to get in.

Fatoumata Diawara: Jazz (et environs) à la Villette

Fatoumata Diawara par Samuel Nja KwaFrom Montreux to Melbourne, festival curators these days are treating jazz as more of a gateway drug than a main event. (And who knows what John Zorn was imbibing when I saw him here in Paris last weekend.) If we revisit the mummy mascot of Jazz à la Villette, we see that the names streaming from his grisly gauze to prove that ‘le jazz n’est pas mort’ colour our cadaver shades of afro-funk, soul, electro, blues and pop. The only concession to sepia-toned jazz à l’ancien comes from an unlikely source: Bryan Ferry, British rocker of Roxy Music fame.

I guess that’s how I came to be dancing atop my seat at the Cité de la Musique salle de concert watching Paris-based Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara whip her beaded braids hypnotically around her head in a frenzied musical trance. Like her album Fatou, the gig began intimately enough, with solo acoustic guitar and gentle, plaintive vocals in the statuesque Diawara’s native Wassoulou language. Only the bold colours and traditional patterns of her off-the-shoulder dress — coupled with soon-discarded pink sneakers — hinted at the seismic force she would unleash along with her band of guitars, keys, kit and conga.

Before I knew it I’d succumbed to a hypnotic beat; the human kaleidoscope on stage had traded her acoustic for an electric; somehow, like one of those snake nut cans bursting open, the red and yellow turban popped off high into the air to reveal those dancing medusa braids. Every other part of Diawara danced too, as she twirled, stomped, gyrated and kicked up a voodoo can-can around her bandmates, blowing into a whistle at full volume to martial her audience.

With rhythms as infectious as her constant smile, it was easy to comply. Helpfully, Diawara offered a lesson in traditional African dance: ‘à droite, à gauche…shake it!’ Simple enough that the septuagenarian couple in front of me could follow the steps while wildly groping each other, the monsieur’s suspenders scandalously slackened.

In between dedicating songs to young African women subjected to genital mutilation and cries of ‘Je suis fière d’être touarègue!’ she checked in with the audience: ‘Est-ce que ça va? Vous n’êtes pas trop fatigués?‘ Stoically we summoned the last of our stamina, no match for her untameable energy and charisma.

What’s jazz again? Who cares. Shut up and dance.

Jazz à la Villette finishes tonight, Saturday 14 September, with slightly more jazzy fare. Photo of Fatoumata Diawara by Samuel Nja Kwa.

Dream team of screams: John Zorn in Paris, Jazz à la Villette

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While most Australians were downing chilled beers with an eye on the vote-count, awaiting the anointment of our next Prime Minister, I found myself thrashing about in a former abattoir-turned-arena in Paris, listening to Mike Patton screaming for two hours straight. A timely alternative to following the federal election back home.

The late-night screaming match came towards the end of a marathon trio of concerts celebrating the 60th birthday of John Zorn, a major event at this year’s Jazz à la Villette. The festival’s logo is a mort-vivant, a mummy in motion — rushing to a concert, judging by the names of musicians printed on the bandages streaming behind him. The slogan is borrowed from Frank Zappa: ‘Le jazz n’est pas mort, il a juste une drôle d’odeur.’

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Zappa’s words ring true for his successor Zorn, the New York saxophonist/composer who wears his free jazz as loose as his army cargo pants. Over six hours, braving queues several hundred metres long at the Grande Halle de la Villette, audiences were subjected to the full force of his schizophrenic acid-bop, with its fits of death metal, psychedelia and chaotic klezmer.

The first of the three sessions, kicking off in the Cité de la Musique at 4pm, exposed fans of this hardcore Zorn to his softer side (though no less potent or complex) as avant-garde composer. Nice to open these Parisian concerts  with a French connection: Illuminations for piano, bass and drums is an atonal jazz tribute to Rimbaud, from Zorn’s 2012 album named for the symbolist poet. The Holy Visions featured Australian soprano Jane Sheldon in an a cappella female quintet, each singer armed with a discreet silver tuning fork to navigate harmonies that slip from Hildegard von Bingen into Berio and back again via the occasional doo-wop detour. The group ended not on a chord or cadence, but on the gesture that usually opens a vocal work: a collective drawn breath – here a self-contained, silent rhapsody; a feather on the breath of God. The Arditti Quartet maintained this meditative mood in The Alchemist, with that special blend of impassioned abandon and pinpoint-focused sound that places them among the greatest interpreters of contemporary music for strings. For their efforts, founding violinist Irvine Arditti earned an appreciative kiss from the composer atop his Einsteinian shock of white hair.

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpgIn the 7pm session, The Dreamers explored Zorn’s distinctive take on Jewish jazz with excursions into surfer rock and Sephardic melody. Like a volleyball coach seated on the sidelines, he directed his eccentric septet with wild gestures, excessive spirit fingers and eyebrows dancing well above spectacle line. You could almost see the resulting live wire pass fiercely but playfully from him to vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen (mallets flailing in a blur), to guitarist Marc Ribot as he whiplashed his head about in rhythm, to drummer Joey Baron, whose explosive energy came tumbling out on the toms. Zorn at last picked up his saxophone in the Acoustic Masada quartet, duelling in close combat with trumpeter Dave Douglas. ‘They told us to stop at 8.15 but we’ve got too much music to play! We’re gonna go til 10!’ he yelled out extravagantly. In other words: it’s my party and I’ll jam for as long as I want to.

In the final concert’s Electric Masada, Ikue Mori’s computer and synth textures (she’s listed mysteriously in the French program as playing machines) and the spectacularly bearded Jamie Saft’s swirling keyboards created an eerie intensity that was still buzzing in my ears as I descended into the métro at 1am. If extreme crooner Mike Patton sounded at times like a squealing pig led to the slaughter, Zorn on sax often looked and sounded as if he was trying to strangle a flamingo that had no intention of becoming foie gras at the birthday dinner.

Throughout the three concerts, the quality and diversity of collaborators demonstrated that this is a true musicians’ composer. He may be 60, but Zorn is as hyper and innovative as ever. Jazz isn’t dead; it just smells like teen spirit.

Jazz à la Villette continues until September 15. Australians can catch John Zorn’s 60th birthday program (isn’t it always the case that touring composers celebrate major milestones over two years instead of one?!) at the Adelaide Festival in March 2014, tickets on sale October 29.

The eyes have it: the Pinacothèque’s musical journey through l’Art Nouveau

If you’re not a fan of art nouveau, Paris is perhaps not the place for you. Everywhere you look, elegant tendrils and vines have a wrought iron grip on the city of lights, from the ornate flourishes that line Pont Neuf, to the lavishly gilded interiors à l’époque of restaurants I can’t afford to eat at, to half the métro entrances of Paris, garlanded in green.

With all that art nouveau just lying around, no one in Paris seems to have thought it necessary to hold a retrospective devoted to l’art nouveau français since 1960, until the Pinacothèque — Paris’ first private museum — mounted its current exhibition, now in its last week. With the 12-euro entry, steep for a small gallery, visitors are immediately immersed in an instantly beguiling aesthetic of naturalistic yet elaborate forms winding their way around more than 200 examples of prints, sculptures, posters (every ad for JOB rolling paper was a work of art; the cigarettes électroniques in Paris these days are admittedly rather less chic), furniture, jewellery and objets d’arts.

Plenty of examples from the maître des métros, Hector Guimard, whose serpentine green creations we take for granted all over the city every day. And there’s practically a whole room devoted to the greatest muse of the era, legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Most shocking to me was a small selection depicting morphine addiction, corruption and death – it’s easy to forget that such Berthon-CourtisanesCelebres-1898 salomé www.enchantedgal.combeautifully soft, stylised forms could stray from flowers, nymphs and shepherds back into the real world. Georges de Feure’s La Mort is a particularly harrowing apocalyptic image, despite its gentle pastels.

tumblr_mncxaeWLMl1rrzeubo1_500But it was the nine musicians who met my gaze throughout the exhibition that moved me the most. Paul Berthon’s sepia and gold-tinged lithographs depict classical beauties playing lyres, mandolins, small viola da gambas and pipes in tranquil forest settings. But unlike the ladies poised at the keyboard or guitar in the paintings of Vermeer three centuries earlier, eyes demurely downcast in the company of their male teachers and chamber music partners, Berthon gave his turn-of-the-century women unsettlingly intense stares – of concentration, of awareness of the viewer looking back at them and the seductive power of the syrinx. None is more brazen, though, than his (slightly double-chinned) Salomé, a courtesan strumming at her lyre, sweetly serenading the head of John the Baptist.

The exhibition also featured a single, charming moment musicale at the cello from Berthon’s mentor, Eugène Grasset. I went straight back home and practised accordion, hoping it would help me get that enviable wavy-art-nouveau-hair look too.

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Art Nouveau, la révolution décorative runs until 8 September, 2013

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