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.
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.
There is a wonderful moment in Olivier Py’s new production of Dialogues des Carmélites that sums up the composer Poulenc’s approach to music — and to life. While the stern young Sister Blanche scrubs the floors of the convent, her more carefree yet equally pious companion Sister Constance blows bubbles from a bucket of soapy water. Francis Poulenc, an openly gay yet deeply spiritual man who returned to Catholicism in his thirties after the traumatic death of a friend, was once described as moitié moine, moitié voyou (half monk, half rascal) and you get glimpses of this duality in his later vocal music: austere harmonies grounded in medieval chant, enveloped in lush orchestral sound and leavened by pungent, playful details.
The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées marks the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death (overshadowed outside of France by the bicentenaries of Verdi and Wagner) with this stark yet elegant production of his second opera, which recounts the tragic history of the Compiègne nuns executed in 1794 as enemies of the French Revolution. Far from an obvious choice for a libretto, it lacks romantic interest and consists of long, sombre meditations on matters metaphysical. But its sense of encroaching doom, the conquering of fear and the acceptance of fate are universal themes, treated at times with unexpected, whimsical tenderness, as when the novices wonder if their Mother Superior was accidentally dealt too painful a death for someone who had served God so faithfully, like someone being handed back the wrong coat from the cloakroom.
Poulenc created the role of the high-born Sister Blanche for regal soprano Denise Duval, but would have been thrilled with the current French line-up, with the swooping, ethereal tones of Patricia Petibon’s volatile Blanche, Véronique Gens’s steadfast, velvety mezzo as the new prioress, the agonised death throes of Rosalind Plowright’s Mother Superior; although an indisposed Sandrine Piau’s Sister Constance was taken over by Anne-Catherine Gillet, I didn’t feel at all short-changed by the latter’s sparkling soubrettish tone, which provided much-needed lightness.
The interplay between light and dark guides Pierre-André Weitz’s bold, stylised staging, in which the nuns use simple props, during Poulenc’s musical interludes, to enact striking religious tableaux including The Last Supper. In the powerful, tour-de-force death scene of Act Two, Madame de Croissy’s bed is suspended vertically against the wall, casting sharp shadows, so that we see her suffering writ large like a crucifixion. And in the final scene, the fifteen singing nuns, clad in crisp white, stride single-file to their deaths — the unison voices cut off one by one by the chilling slice and thud of a guillotine in the orchestra pit — against a black backdrop illuminated by stars.
The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées celebrates its centenary this year alongside the Poulenc anniversary, and has mounted an exhibition in the opulent art deco foyer of Poulenc’s association with the venue, from his days as an enfant terrible in the group of French composers known as Les Six. The selection includes posters from their 1920s concerts, Poulenc’s contract for the commission of Dialogue des Carmélites, a manuscript of the work with music that never made the final cut, and the last known photo of the composer.
Poulenc said of his 1956 opera, “You must forgive my Carmelites. It seems they can only sing tonal music.” One can imagine him unburdening himself thus at the confessional booth, with a glint in his eye.
It’s not too often you walk into a museum and the girl at the counter presents you with ribbons that read What The Fuck, l’Anarchie and Do It Yourself, along with a wet sponge to daub on fake tattoos. (‘Not to worry, I brought my own.’) But the Cité de la Musique is going through its rebellious teens with the new exhibition Europunk, launched at a packed vernissage Monday night.
This is a journey through an explosive musical, artistic and political movement with a lasting influence, from its raucous underground beginnings in England circa 1976 (this year being the 35th anniversary of Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols) through a short but intense burst of activity to the post-punk/new wave days crowned by Joy Division in the early 1980s. In between there’s all manner of French, German, Italian and Dutch punks making their hoarse voices heard — most of which I heard right here for the first time, having arrived on the scene a decade late on completely the wrong side of the world.
Putting aside the issue of whether displaying punk ephemera in a major government-sponsored institution legitimises it culturally or simply strips it of its street cred, the first question that might come to mind for those on the other side of the world is: why separate the American and European scenes? Head curator Éric de Chassey argues that society seemed more closed in, the urgency of creative expression as anti-establishment statements even greater. The Berlin Wall was in their backyard; the scars were still fresh from events like the student uprisings and wildcat riots of May 1968 in France; and ongoing trials for war criminals meant the stain of the Holocaust had spread to the next generation. The result, he says, was more defiantly counter-culture than sub-culture:
‘On a du mal à imaginer aujourd’hui combien la société de l’époque était fermée, combien le contexte politique et social pouvait sembler bloqué. Cela paraît déjà très loin… En Europe, les punks ne veulent pas faire de l’art, la question de l’anonymat est centrale.
‘Les Américains, eux, se posent en permanence la question de l’art. Les chanteurs se prennent pour des poètes, les musiciens recherchent des cautions esthétiques… Le punk européen présente également la particularité de se penser comme une contre-culture, plutôt que comme une sous-culture. La contre-culture, c’est vouloir tout changer. La sous-culture demeure dans une niche.’
This is very much the message put forward in more than 500 original DIY pieces crowding the walls: fanzines, record sleeves, posters and flyers; Sex Pistols collagist Jamie Reid parodying the French Revolution, a fat sow decked out in the crown jewels, Vivienne Westwood chemise that looks suspiciously like a concentration camp uniform bearing the scrawl ‘Only anarchists are pretty’ and ‘Subversion: it’s fun’.
The French collective Bazooka certainly thought so. These ‘graphic commando’ heirs to the Dadaists — Kiki Picasso, Loulou Picasso, Electric Clito and Bananar — emerged from the prestigious École Nationale des Beaux-Arts ready to fuck some shit up, launching their own zine, taking over art direction of the leftist paper Libération, and illustrating album covers for Elvis Costello and Iggy and the Stooges. Theirs is some of the most striking, even shocking work featured in the exhibition.
My man-bag for the evening, and one of the most heavily inked guests at the opening, was street art photographer Alex Tassot. Together we ran amok through the two halls of the Cité de la Musique until they kicked us out, listening to loose spandex-clad German girl bands like Kleenex, turning our noses up at the throbbing gristle served in the food truck on site, and peering in the window of the supervised DIY studio where you can flail wildly at a drum kit or eke out the three chords required to form a punk band. (Children, thankfully, not allowed). A grumpy attendant machine-pressed my DIY badge for me.
Outside, properly hands-on and grimy in the true spirit of DIY, tattooed man-bag and I fixed the rickety mudguard on my vélo with a bit of wire we found outside the metro. I rode home feeling proud of my inner punk.
Europunk runs riot at the Cité de la Musique until 19 January, 2014. Programmed events in October include concerts from old punks (the Buzzcocks, PiL) and new punks (Cheveu, Holograms, Kap Bambino), and onsite cinema screenings.
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.
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…’