Old news, thanks to my being offline for most of last month. Today: the Bang On A Can All-Stars from New York, who were playing in Paris when I visited. Later this week: LA artists at the Centre Pompidou. My next visit to Paris: to see the Rauschenberg retrospective. Is there anything French worth seeing in Paris?
Like Parson Yorick
, I spent several days wandering around Paris in a state of blithe obliviousness, with the consequences just as negligible. Every service I needed just happened to be one not affected by the general strike; and whichever part of the city I visited, the protesters had either moved on or not yet arrived.
I did see some very cheerful students with banners and facepaint walk into a bar in Montmartre for a well-earned drink after a busy day rioting, and was almost approached by a heavily armoured policeman when I was photographing the nice big wall they’d put up around the Sorbonne. That’s pretty much it. If you spend all your time in the centre of the city you’ll mostly meet Americans and other tourists like you, anyway.
By a fluke, I managed to get into the Chatelet to see the Bang On A Can All-Stars
, who restored my faith in a couple of things. Firstly, they played Philip Glass’ Music in Fifths
, one of his most relentlessly single-minded scores. After suffering Icebreaker’s travesty of Music With Changing Parts
I began to wonder if Glass’ earlier music, which rarely specified instruments, could ever be as effective in arrangements other than the composer’s own ensemble of amplified winds and electric keyboards. The All-Stars’ performance was on non-traditional grand piano, clarinet, cello, marimba and electric guitar. It was fast, it was tight, it’s meagre musical material needed no further embellishment to make it compelling listening from start to finish.
(It was only during a talk by one of the musicians to the audience between pieces that I learned there was a strike on. Either my French had really sharpened up after a couple of days in town or he was speaking in English, I forget. If it was the latter then Parisians certainly understand English very well when the speaker is saying nice things about their city. Either that or the audience was full of Americans.)
After the interval, they made me take back a lot of what I’ve said about crossover
*. The second half of the gig featured the Czech singer and violinist Iva Bittová
, who at first came on stage alone, playing with apparent urgency, impatiently slipping and sliding from Slavic folk music to louche cabaret to cod avant-garde
histrionics, violin melody turning to noise, turning to ecstatic vocal gibberish. She’s an exhilarating musician, but the cynical part of my brain kept worrying at what would happen when she was joined by the All-Stars, for a suite of peices she had written for them and herself.
Great, I thought sarcastically, the soloist is either going to have to tone down her natural exuberance, or else look out of place amongst the other musicians. Her music will become stuffy and mannered as she tries to write something with gravitas appropriate to the occasion. The musos will miss the shifts in musical styles and not understand their playing attitude needs to change with them. Stand by for 45 minutes or so of dreary cabaret defanged by the concert-hall atmosphere.
Amazingly, none of this happened. The set of songs and instrumental passages held together: they were fun, and they were moving. Bittová’s performance, part chameleon-like chanteuse, part concertmaster and part ringleader, had the whole audience entranced (although you could tell by their reaction there were a number of converts and diva-worshippers in the hall); her adopted band could both follow and lead her abrupt changes in mood. The sense of the music kept taking unexpected turns, whipping up tumultuous noise before just as suddenly burning out into sullen melancholy; the performers knowing how to shade the slow, unravelling melody to make it bite and not meander in muzak.
It was one of the best gigs I’ve been to for a long time, something I haven’t experienced for a long time, partly because I’ve been jaded and reluctant to expose myself to it: a happy and completely unexpected surprise.
* Not on this blog, just incoherent ranting after one vodka too many after disappointing genre-crossover gigs.