Anarchy dans le Musée: Europunks storm Paris at the Cité de la Musique

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

i-hate-french-cooking-jamie_medThis 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’.

PHOb19b4690-34d1-11e3-95fe-3bac7a191126-300x400The 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.

Advertisements

Nuit Blanche 2013: Paris past your bedtime. (Let the wild rumpus begin!)

nuit_blanche_2013-d6a09Sometimes being an insomniac in Paris can be lonely, especially since all my French peers have respectable jobs and turn in at a respectable hour (except for one oddball composer who texts at 3am just to see if I’m awake at my desk). Even the snootiest waiters untie their apron strings around half past one, as the épiciers are switching off the radios that pipe exotic music into their empty aisles.

But there’s at least one night a year, it seems, when I can count on all of Paris to keep me company. On Saturday October 5, the entire city was buzzing for its annual Nuit Blanche: a ‘white night’ or all-nighter in which galleries, museums and concert halls stay open round the clock to present special one-night-only events — the stuff of dreams and the stuff of nightmares.

Rather than barhopping or traipsing from one vapid club to the next (the Saturday-night ritual of the masses), you go culture-hopping, with hundreds of venues to explore from the Canel Saint-Martin to grungy Belleville and Ménilmontant; the labyrinthine streets and courtyards of the Marais to the banks of the Seine. It’s basically a pop-up arts biennale squeezed into Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum.

A little flexible planning before setting out will hold you in good stead, in case you arrive at a chosen destination and find it too crowded, get disoriented in the billowing fog installation at République, or run into a friend who urges you to check out the giant transparent tunnel full of snakes and centipedes (Carreau du Temple) instead of the robotic surgery (Hôtel de Ville), to take a few examples from this year’s offerings.

At 7pm all the bells in the four main hubs of activity started clanging to signal the start of a long night. In fact we were already watching one of the main events, and certainly the most expensive to produce: the major Paris premiere of Stockhausen’s Helicopter Quartet. After the excitement at Pont Neuf had died down a bit, we called in at the artists’ studios at 59 Rue Rivoli — already a rather eccentric spot day to day, on this occasion completely run amok with a male bellydancer, black-lipsticked electronic musicians, naked poetry recitation and an androgynous creature painted all white, handing out crushed fortune cookies. (Mine read: ‘Une bonne conscience est un doux oreiller,’ ­or, a clear conscience is the softest pillow. Is that why I haven’t been sleeping well?)

At Café La Perle, word got out that Scarlett Johansson was skulking around in big dark sunglasses to take in a bit of interpretive dance followed by a bit of candlelit John Cage. By 1am my French companions were yawning; I realised I had the upper hand. They toddled off beddy-byes while I pressed on, towards the sound of raucous brass. This led me to the fountain at Place Stravinsky, where a sousaphonist was peeing against the wall of IRCAM while his bandmates played a Britney Spears arrangement, the crowd practically on top of the musicians. I still haven’t figured out if this was an official Nuit Blanche performance.

There was an official one inside, however. As the fireworks everyone is talking about were going off around the Seine, I was deep down in the basement of the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique watching a pale bald man in a skirt, Thorsten Streichardt, scribble on a huge strip of Möbius paper twisted around a metal frame. With paper and pencils closely miked, every movement and ambient sound was amplified and processed to create a delicate microcosm of sound. He’d been at it a while, judging by the markings on the paper — and the observers asleep in the corner.

As I zipped around on my bike feasting at this all-night buffet, the French were dropping off like flies. Circa 3am in the hip Gaîté Lyrique media centre, I hula-hooped to the electro soundtrack accompanying a trippy film projection. The Grande Salle felt like a nightclub, except that groups of revellers were slumped or stretched out on the floor, with one asleep upright against the wall. Over to the Théâtre du Châtelet (‘Qu’est-ce qu’il y a ce soir?‘Une surprise!’), where I skipped up the stairs to motivate anyone more bleary-eyed and bushy-haired than bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. ‘Vous êtes magnifique!’ the doorman called out, at least. Meanwhile, visitors dozed in the red velvet seats of the auditorium as an obscure documentary rolled on.

Crawling into bed as the sunrise wiped away the chaos of all these nocturnal festivities, I felt sure I’d be dead to the world well into the afternoon. But even without coffee or an alarm set, like it or not, I was somehow on my feet again at 10am for a leisurely Sunday run to the markets. For the rest of you mortals, I suggest a good long nap before you set out for la Nuit Blanche 2014.

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.

2013-10-05 18.55.19

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…

Du monde au Balcon: Pierrot Lunaire at the Théâtre Athénée

pierrot-accueil-siteOK

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.

LeBalcon-Pierrot-24

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.

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

1233400_653163651395366_1185185042_n

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.

741227_646131765431888_123900657_o

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.

Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 7.07.48 PM

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.

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

jazz_la_villette_affiche_2013_500

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.’

1001439_4831512685702_26842843_n

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.