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

Rue de Noël IlluminéeIt’s not too often you enter a museum and re-emerge feeling like you’ve had the time of your life at a carnival. But that’s more or less the raison d’être of the Musée des Arts Forains (Fairground Arts), a vast space formerly one of Paris’ oldest, largest wine warehouses. It still has a bacchanalian feel about it, a sense of glee and discovery hanging in the air along with strings of fairy lights in the long, cobblestoned courtyard (le Théâtre de Verdure) intersected by a disused tram track.

This eight-hectare, leafy pavilion in Bercy is little known even to Parisians: a private museum founded by eccentric actor and collector Jean-Paul Favand. It can usually only be visited for functions and guided tours reserved in advance. But over Christmas and New Years’ the doors (and even the old rides) are open to some 70,000 members of the public, so that this magical menagerie from the Belle Époque comes alive during the museum’s Festival du Merveilleux.

La montgolfière à l'éléphant du théâtre du MerveilleuxIt lives up to its name all right, somewhere between a tour of Willy Wonka’s factory (there is actually a preserved shop-front from an old candy store) and trip to a Coney Island funhouse. This is the place to take a fellow traveller complaining that they don’t like museums. As you walk around the exterior towards the entrance, dozens of plaster caricature busts grin down at you — mostly legendary old actors who give new meaning to the concept of ‘celebrity heads’. Once inside, you won’t know quite where to look first. I took in the original Mortier organ piping away in one corner, the piano-playing unicorn in the other and the elephant ready for liftoff in the ornate hot air balloon of the Théâtre de Merveilleux. ‘Am I in a David Lynch movie?’ I pinched myself, passing a row of distorted mirrors — like I needed to appear shorter than I already am.

Surely this is the only museum in the world where the sound of shrieking children on the loose couldn’t bother me — where it even adds to the magic of the place. (There were collective squeals of delight as a magician showed off his tricks.) Woody Allen discovered his inner child here in a scene from Midnight in Paris, during which his wide-eyed American protagonist had travelled back in time. And sure enough, it feels like we’ve turned back the clock to this era between 1850 and 1930, when carnivals thrived and from which date most of these theatre props and costumes, cabaret curios and Music Hall intrigue.

collection de Sculpture de têtes en plâtreNot least because every inch of the place is covered in old-timey frescoes or draped in brocade. You can actually feed the open-mouthed clowns and take a spin on the ancient, creaking rides, all painstakingly restored. (One ‘attraction’ is included in the price of admission.) Try the Manège vélocipédique, a bike-powered carousel created in 1897 back when bicycles were still a novelty. Or opt for the smoother gondola ride in the opulent Salons Vénitiens. Perhaps the most titillating diversion is La Course de Garçons de Café, where you get to race wine-toting Parisian waiters — something I’ve always wanted to try out with live waiters in Paris.

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I wandered outside and noted approvingly that a group of street performers had disguised themselves as a giant Gollem that lurched around the courtyard trying to eat children, with acrobats and accordionists joining the fray. I had my photo taken in the old painted head-through-the-hole booths, cherishing the one of me on the toilet. There was no magician on hand to wave a wand at the typically French system of purchasing meal coupons to exchange for some barbe à papa and vin chaud and turn three queues into one.

Einstein beached on the Paris Plage

PHOf61d8cc4-7851-11e3-be87-e16971b4b8a2-805x453It’s generally considered a faux pas for concertgoers to fall asleep mid-performance. Certainly most composers would be offended to catch you napping as their opera plays out on stage. But most composers aren’t Philip Glass.

Even he could be forgiven for losing track of time in his marathon 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach, which received its premiere in France at the Avignon Festival. “We didn’t even actually know how long it was,” the world’s most imitated living composer thinks back to the first performance 37 years ago. “The first night, it turned out to be about five hours!”

But when I nervously joke that he could have faded out at the 180-minute mark, he retorts that “the point of writing music and experiencing music isn’t to make people comfortable necessarily.” That said, audiences are permitted to zone out, nod off or take a breather outside as part of this immersive theatrical odyssey, which just finished its six-day run at the Théâtre du Châtelet for the Festival d’Automne, reminding Parisians that the doyen of American minimalism had what he describes as a “formation française” here under the strict tutelage of Nadia Boulanger.

In four-and-a-half hours, then — give or take — this iconic opera unfolds in hypnotic sensory overload. Rarely performed because of its length and the resources required, Einstein on the Beach was staged in Paris in the revival of Robert Wilson’s original blazing production. (The legendary director’s body of work was a linchpin of this year’s Festival d’Automne à Paris.) “The thing that brought us together,” says Glass of his collaborator and fellow iconoclast, “Bob,” “is that we experienced time, space and movement in a very similar way.”

Just don’t go expecting anything as conventional as a plot. One wonders what would happen if Einstein’s theory of relativity were applied to Glass’ and Wilson’s behemoth. The chorus intones endless strings of numbers; amplified instruments pulse with nervous energy; as the music hurtles through time, Lucinda Childs’ freeze-frame choreography creates the sensation that time might stop altogether. Einstein himself appears onstage as an amateur violinist sporting a curly grey-haired wig and cardigan, sometimes portrayed by a woman.

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But how does this extended meditation on life, the universe and everything fit in with the operatic tradition? “That’s a good question, and I’ll give you the truthful answer,” Glass explains: “We had no idea it was an opera!

“You could call the piece anything you wanted to, but the only place we could perform it was an opera house. People began to talk about it as an opera. It was a discovery for us as it was for everybody else.”

Glass did eventually turn to more traditional forms, including an opera about Ghandi, Satyagraha, in 1980, but “the people who liked Einstein were upset because they thought it was going to sound like Einstein. I disappointed them with Einstein and then I disappointed them again!” he chortles.

The most disappointed witnesses to the notorious 1976 premiere were “some older people who were really unhappy,” Glass recalls. “That’s a normal state of affairs. The younger people embrace it; the older people are kind of terrified that this was even allowed into a theatre.”

At 76, he’s now reached the age of those elderly complainants, observing how the work has evolved in the public consciousness. “It had a big effect, but the funny thing is that the reactions of the audiences today are not that different. And partly that’s because the rest of the world of opera didn’t change very much. People thought this was going to change the world. Well, it didn’t.

“The demands of the piece, I can see now, must have been very great on the players, on the performers, and on the audience. It must have been like crossing a bridge through a country that is unknown. We didn’t know where the piece was going – we were too much a part of it.”

No longer part of it as a performer, Glass finally has the luxury of relaxing and watching – if one can call it a luxury. “I was in the orchestra pit playing the piece every night. I never sat in the audience and looked at it. That happened to me very recently.

“And you know what? I really liked it!”

But try as I might, I can’t get him to admit to falling asleep.

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

 

Einstein on the beach au Théâtre du Châtelet

Soaked to the bone: a not-strictly-legal descent into the secret Catacombs of Paris

Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort”

1602104_10203116135248469_848792991_oIt’s just as well my new year’s resolutions don’t bar me from taking part in silly and slightly dangerous high jinks around Paris. My proper French hangover had hardly worn off after le réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre when the first harebrained adventure of 2014 presented itself: a formerly dreadlocked acquaintance invited me to join his five vigorously dreadlocked friends on their nocturnal crawl through a forbidden section of the catacombs.

“D’accord!” I chirruped, without a moment’s pause to think about what such an expedition might entail. “Just a leisurely stroll around the Empire of the Dead,” I told myself, happy to forgo a long queue in the cold outside the carefully maintained public face of Paris’ sprawling underground ossuary. With construction commencing during the 1780s in disused quarries as a solution to the irksome sanitation problem of overcrowded cemeteries, the catacombs comprise a 321km labyrinth of caves and tunnels housing the remains of six million people — half the population of the City of Lights thriving directly above.

A ‘cataphile’ is not somebody with a loyalty card for the Café des Chats, but a passionné who frequently makes the journey between the worlds of the living and the dead. In doing so, they risk being caught by a police task force charged with patrolling underground (something I wasn’t aware of when I took the plunge, scout’s honour). Some devotees make amateur maps to distribute within an exclusive community, some dig their way into hidden sections; others organise secret film nights or even flame-throwers’ parties, turning these subterranean dungeons into their personal playground. Some respect the space; others don’t.

My cataphiles were of the respectful variety, leaving not so much as a cigarette butt or breadcrumb behind (yes, we ate down there), and insisting that they would never add their own tags to the long stretches of graffitied rock face crowded with leering skeletons and SpongeBob SquarePants. The team came well prepared, I noticed as I glanced at the photographer strapping on her thigh-high military combat boots, then looked down sheepishly at my own rainbow children’s sneakers and yoga pants. Oh well, allons-y, I guess.

1559502_10203116131088365_668358842_oFrom our rendezvous at the 14th arrondissement Alésia métro — after nightfall, of course — we scrambled down to an abandoned railway and marched along the track until the group leader (who prefers not to be named) pointed to a rocky hole in the ground. My heart sank a little when it became apparent that I would be spending most of the evening wading down narrow passageways up to my knees in cold, cloudy-brown water, but we remained in high spirits despite grisly surroundings, greeting every other explorer we stumbled upon with the customary “Bonne année!” My non-dreadlocked companion fixed me with an intense look and pledged that he was responsible for my life, moments later splashing me with mud as he raced ahead. Even at under five feet, easily the shortest in the group, I often had to Quasimodofy as I stooped and squeezed my way through uninviting openings.1518673_10203116137288520_454846250_o

Long corridors led to chambers equipped with stone tables and benches. At each one we wiped our hands on dry patches of clothing and ripped into the supply of baguettes and beer (bon appétit), pointing headlamps under our chins to tell jokes and ghost stories — a strange yet comforting camaraderie. A visitor long before us had chiseled the outline of a skull into the wall and set tea lights in the eye sockets; thankfully not the most romantic candlelit dinner I’ve had in Paris.

An hour after our initial descent, already deep inside the belly of the beast, and we had yet to see any real human remains. Unlike the restored 2km segment of the catacombs accessible to the public, where bones line the passageways in patterned formations, most of the skulls here have been stolen, our ‘guide’ explained. I was just starting to feel disappointed when we were ushered through a crawlspace; suddenly I found myself on my hands and knees atop a sea of femurs. Tastelessly, a member of the group clacked two together like a heavy metal drummer; another picked up a brainpan and suggested it would make a good ashtray, before gingerly placing it back on its bed of bones. A few femurs had been brightly painted and stood upright, macabre totems.

2014-01-03 21.37.13 2014-01-03 21.47.14The mood and purpose of one space could differ vastly from the next. We went from a cavernous, film-themed graffiti room to what appeared to be an eerie shrine for a young girl who left us too soon; a flawlessly pretty teenager smiled up at us from a photograph placed next to a preserved rat floating inside a beaker. The entire randonnée took around five hours. But according to one cataphile within the group, people camp down here for days on end — some to get high, some to immerse themselves in silence, and some to commune with the dead.

I got nervous each time the guide, who has been exploring the catacombs since he was a teenager, stopped in his tracks to look at the map (the Paris street names directly above us are etched onto the walls) or herded us back the way we came after taking a wrong turn. We piped reggae and rap (what else?) through mobile phone speakers to keep energy levels high, facilitate a swift exit and avoid getting separated, at last clambering out just before midnight. On a whim, the group decided on a different route back to civilisation, jumped a stone parapet and narrowly missed the police who, we later discovered, had been stationed along our original path. It felt good to take in the crisp, cool air. And even better to take a bath.

Photos by Claire Narkissos. Un grand merci to the group that allowed me to infiltrate their field trip.

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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