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…’
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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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, 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 sweetly 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).
Wisely, 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.
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.
From 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.