And a fun time was had by all: Le Festival du Merveilleux, at the Musée des Arts Forains

Rue de Noël IlluminéeIt’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.

La montgolfière à l'éléphant du théâtre du MerveilleuxIt 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.

collection de Sculpture de têtes en plâtreNot 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.

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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.

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Einstein beached on the Paris Plage

PHOf61d8cc4-7851-11e3-be87-e16971b4b8a2-805x453It’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.

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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.

Readers in Paris can watch the entire performance filmed live at the Théâtre du Châtelet

 

Einstein on the beach au Théâtre du Châtelet

Helicopter String Quartet above the Seine: or, just another Saturday night in Paris

Last year, the Elysian Quartet took to the Birmingham skies in four helicopters to perform Stockhausen’s wildly improbable Helikopter-Streichquartett, in the staged premiere of his even more wildly improbable magnum opus Mittwoch aus Licht. (Thank goodness he decided to leave the defecating camels on terra firma.)

That performance was broadcast live to an audience at the Argyle Works, a disused chemical plant in Digbeth. Bravo Birmingham Opera Company. There’s just one problem with this scenario, though: it’s not very pretty. Depite its thriving arts scene, Birmingham has always seemed a bit blah as a city.

So on October 5, Paris borrowed the same English string quartet for a joyride over the Seine, transmitted onto a ‘giant’ screen (actually rather modest) on Pont Neuf and inside the palace of the Monnaie de Paris along Quai de Conti. Rich 18th-century interior aside, it seems appropriate to present a performance that costs so much to produce from within an institution dealing in coins.

Press were invited to view the event within these gilded walls but I preferred to be among the peasants for the brouhaha on the bridge. There, under the bleak grey sky’s occasional killjoy droplets, I nursed my thermos of tea (and fesses sore from sitting on those little bastard cobblestones), awaiting the big moment.

Say what you like about the late, loopy Stockhausen’s interplanetary pretentions; his most infamous work drew an enormous and diverse crowd perhaps unprecedented in avant-garde classical land. There were old ladies with their hands pressed over their ears, children on scooters, balcony dwellers peering out from sous les toits, and even someone’s parakeet in the front row, released from his cage to get a better view. To my right a bald man in sweatpants played Plants vs Zombies on his phone while he waited; to my left a composer set up her tripod and prepared to measure volume levels: 88–100dB from our location close to the loudspeakers.

The collective excitement of this ‘happening’ was palpable — and powerful, since it’s hard to find a Parisian who isn’t blasé about the endless parade of cultural events on his doorstep. There was cheering when the screen first flickered to life. Cheering when the quartet had liftoff from the launch pad of a military base outside of Paris. (“Ave a good flight!’ the bumbling French compère told them; ‘Quel connard, griped the old chap behind me and my date.) Cheering when the French pilots were acknowledged alongside the musicians as co-performers. Cheering following the gros mots when scrambled images and dropouts caused by the plane flying overhead were resolved, though I personally enjoyed how this transformed the music into spontaneous minimal glitch.

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Cheering, above all, when the tiny specks appeared directly above us, one by one crossing the Seine. In my head I heard a flash of Ride of the Valkyries, but Stockhausen’s fierce tremolos won out as they beat against the rhythmic whir of chopper blades.

It was an historic event, the sixth performance in the world, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Franco-German of the Élysée Treaty signed by Charles de Gaulle in 1963. But never mind all that; people really just wanted to see the hélicos. The crowd dispersed after 30 minutes — as soon as these instruments of war re-purposed as instruments of art had passed overhead — even though the musicians were still sawing away at the strings.

For me, the greatest moment was when cellist Laura Moody, in the top-left corner of the screen, stopped all that intense sawing and looked up from her music. A dazzling smile as she admired the view. Sorry Birmingham: ‘Sous le ciel de Paris s’envole une chanson…’

Footage coming soon.
More official photos here, by Jean-Baptiste Gurliat and Marc Verhille.

This was just the beginning of a very strange night. To be continued…

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.

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.