Tickets – Jean-Michel Blais Berlin
Being an accomplished piano player can often be a profoundly lonely experience. Take it from Jean-Michel Blais, the 37-year-old Montreal-based icon of modern classical piano music. He began his relationship with the instrument aged 9, was writing his first compositions at 11, and then went on to release a stream of albums such as “II”, “Dans ma main” and “Matthias et Maxime” – all of which put the piano to the fore and in the process earned him a Libera Award, two Polaris prize nominations, a #1 on the Billboard Classical chart, a Cannes Soundtrack Award and a Time Magazine top ten album of the year nod too.
To be a pianist of such eminence takes dedication and practice, spending four to six hours every day engaged in a solitary dialogue with music. It’s a fantastic privilege to be so ensconced in the world of the piano. But as Blais started to realise in 2020, what if there was more to music than this?
The pandemic had a profound effect on all of us. We each have individual stories of sadness, of strife and of change. For Jean-Michel Blais, it was a time of great catharsis and inspiration that ultimately led to the bold new direction of new album, “aubades”: “What I loved most during that period was running or biking while listening to my demos and watching nature return to the city, while it was so quiet. Nature just went out of control.” Blais is reluctant to catagorise “aubades” as a pandemic album, or indeed a breakup album. “These are things we all experience,” he says. “But at the same time, it was this fruitful moment of creativity for me. We started having hares in the park, beautiful butterflies flying everywhere. It was a time of lots of blossoming, and also a moment when I blossomed from being a pianist into a composer.”
Thus was born “aubades”, an album named after the Middle Ages notion of romantic music written for dawn and daybreak, performed by troubadours under the windows of others. With this new record, Jean-Michel Blais has created 11 aubades for 12 musicians, all of which celebrate rebirth, a season in bloom and the expectation of a new day to come.
Having previously spent most of his career playing, writing and performing music alone, the circumstances of life around April 2020 suddenly put this solitary way of working into stark relief. Despite attending the Trois-Rivières Music Conservatory aged 17, the formalities and constraints of his time there meant that composing for other musicians had never been on the cards for the talented young pianist.
Fast forward to 2020 and Blais found himself “home alone knowing I could either feel self pity, or, use this time to finally start writing chamber music.” As I started, I soon figured out I was writing not for instruments but people. In my head, they were there in the room with me, threading music together, sharing melodies and chords.”
As well as deciding to write for an ensemble, certain other parameters for the project coalesced in Blais’s thinking. “With this album, I was definitely responding to certain trends in modern classical music,” Blais reckons. “For example, the fact that the solo piano tends to sound melancholic. That’s good, but I’ve done that already, I wanted to go beyond that. It was also the first time I’ve ever written so much in major, not minor. I wanted to go there but without being kitsch.”zΩzz`` Jean-Michel was aware of the cliches he wanted to avoid: “Classical music has too often become a generic thing. People say ‘I’m just going to put some classical music on’. It’s become something that gets played merely in the background. ’Furniture music’ as Satie would call it.”
His solution was to return to a more warm and collegiate period in classical composition. “There’s often been this dominant idea in classical music that one instrument is the chief, the king of all the instruments, and the others are in the background merely supporting. I wanted to bring back the ideas of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, where they all shared together and everyone had a voice, as a way of speaking to people’s souls.” It’s quietly revealing that Blais chooses to express his song titles in lowercase on “aubades”. “I love using lowercase,” he explains. “It brings a sense of hierarchy to the words. Likewise, if I was going to bring other musicians into an ensemble to play my work, I wanted everyone to feel like equals.” In explaining his desire for equity across the musicians, Blais is keen to cite an unlikely influence from a surprising corner of the artistic galaxy: 19th Century British designer, poet and activist, William Morris.
“I’m influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and how people like William Morris brought this sense of social democracy to the arts. As musicians on this album, we definitely shared the space together. All the musicians were highly involved.”
Sometimes, as Blais reveals, this approach confounded the general orthodoxies of his ensemble’s experiences of classical music: “I tried to give a moment to every instrument, like solos or bring outs. For example, I did things like giving the Second Violin some moments on their own too. Usually they are there to support and accompany the First Violin, but when the Second Violin player, Nadia, came to look at the music she thought there was a mistake. She was the only violin playing. I’d have to tell her ‘It’s not a mistake, it’s your time to shine’.”
The initial seedlings for “aubades” and its fertile blossoming date back to Blais’ last tour, which saw him criss-cross the world for over two and a half years. “When you tour,” Blais considers “You only really have access to a piano during soundcheck. So during those, I would always have my phone with me and I would record whatever ideas I had, often linked to the people I was meeting along the way.”
By April 2020, as the world went into lockdown, Blais’s improvisational ingenuity had resulted in a bewildering 600 different recordings. Where do you go from there? Well, in the spirit of opening up his music, first he enlisted a pal. “I slowly went through them, down to 200, then 100, and then I had my friend Devon Bate – who I call my tastemaker – help me select some raw ideas before working with me to decide exactly what I wanted to express with the album. That’s when we noticed there was a huge amount of joy, strength and empowerment in the music I was working with.”
But how to flesh that concept out? Well, after learning orchestration by himself via a book he bought online, Blais enjoyed collaborating with Brooklynite Alex Weston, who had previously worked for seven years as a musical assistant to Phillip Glass. Weston worked to technically develop Jean-Michel’s ideas and challenge him in equal degree by asking: “Where do you want to go with this idea?” or “What do you want to express here?”.
And then, things got real. “The day the musicians came in was one of the most challenging of my life,” Blais recalls. “Suddenly I had 11 brilliant, trained musicians in front of me, plus a conductor, Nicolas Ellis (assistant to world-renowned conductor and pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin). I couldn’t have been more artistically vulnerable than in that moment. Even playing piano in front of them and exposing my own vulnerability as a player was so hard, let alone being a composer for the first time too. But, of course, they were so nice and kind. Hearing live music after almost a year made my brain burst and my eyes cry. Hearing something I’d worked on for a year coming to life was incredible. Almost everyone there hadn’t played for a year themselves. There was so much love and joy in that room at that moment.”
Blais recorded all the musicians with close-up microphones, in contrast the the reverby single mic traditions of most booming classical music. The goal: to give the sound a much-needed dose of humanity. “At the end of one song,” according to Jean-Michel “you can hear the double bass just snapping and fuzzing, on others you can hear the players breathing just before they play. Other times you hear the creaking of instruments and the mechanics of a flute or oboe. It all speaks to the human behind the instruments. Sometimes we hear some chairs creaking, or some people whispering, stuff the mics just happen to capture. It’s a nice reminder that there are actual human beings behind the instruments.”
It certainly succeeds. In time, Blais looks forward to – somehow – taking “aubades” on tour. Because it is in unconventional, off-stage moments that he gets to truly feel a connection between his music and his listeners. “One of the things that prevented me doing this as a career initially was that it felt too egotistical,” thinks Blais. “I had the grades to become a physician, for example. By contrast, being a musician sounded shallow and meaningless. But when I started off, I could feel the connection people were able to have with music almost instantly.”
“After shows, I’ll always stay and talk to people. I never used to like signing autographs, just because I never liked the narcissistic thing of people hanging around just to see me. But it helps people connect, especially if they’re shy, when there’s an objective to it, like signing an autograph. And I hear things like ‘My dad just passed away from cancer and the music helped so much’, or ‘I listened to your music while I was giving birth’ or ‘We got married to your music’. Music has this ability to create a time and space and a place where people are able to heal themselves. This album bears a lot of joy and hope. I think I was writing my own medication and self-therapy, writing the joy that I needed at that particular time. I can’t wait to share it with people."