Sunday, August 30, 2009

Why does France like the piano?

I have never given this much thought until the first night I was living in Paris. My wife, little girl and I went to Bistrot Amelot, almost across the street from our new 400 year-old apartment. We picked this restaurant because they had confit de canard and homemade sorbet but I soon noticed that it also had a 1920’s upright piano on the bar-side. When I asked about it, the waitress, who is also one of the owners, invited me to play it. This was incredible luck. I had found a regular place to play within 2 hours of moving to Paris.

So now that I have been in Paris for one month, I have made the Bistrot my own salon, where I play almost daily, take my daughter for snack and get to know my new neighbors. I could write an entire book, a kind of Damon Runyon of Le Marais tale of the regulars of the Bistrot but that will wait.

One aspect of conversation that always surprises me is how much the clientele love the piano. Everyone has a favorite piano player, piano style, piano composer, and even, in some cases, piano maker. The French pride which causes them to buy Renaults and Peugeots religiously also gives them an unquestioned loyalty to the Pleyel. This shouldn’t be a surprise to me when I think of French music history. Chopin, the most famous piano composer in history, though Polish-born, composed most of his important work in Paris. He was more than welcomed here along with Liszt, also lived in Paris. They were arguably the most sought after artists and social figures in Paris. Within one hundred year, Paris had Debussy and Satie, both innovators on the keyboard who are still respected, performed and taught throughout the world. Other examples are Messian in contemporary classical music and most recently the pianist Pierre Aimard who is so famous in the classical world that he played at the Cleveland Orchestra and Carnegie Hall in the same week.

So why do the French like the piano? I have an idea, which is so much a guess, that I am not even sure why I am bothering to write it. France has a long history of Salon life, especially in upper-class and artistic societies. This is not uniquely French, but it is famously French. Though it is hard to point to the beginning of this movement, we are certain that it is at least as old as the 17th century. I am currently writing this while looking at a house that once belonged to the writer Madame de Sévigné. She chronicled some of the most important Parisian salons, where along with food and gossip, music was served and respected.
By the time Chopin was living and composing in Paris, the salon was the primary place for musical entertainment, competition and experimentation. While Chopin didn’t much like public performances, he did thrive on salon playing. Often, Liszt would be in the same room and the two of them would replace each other at the keyboard to both try out new composition and to improvise on themes suggested by other guests. Witnesses from these salons say that the Chopin improvisations were more impressive even than the formal compositions. This continued throughout the 20th century. Even the famous art salon of Gertrude Stein had a Pleyel where both Satie and Stravinsky played while everyone from Proust to Picasso listened. Later in the 20th century, the presence of the salon and the piano were reduced in importance but some of the residual feelings remained. For one thing, the French tend to spend hours together at home, essentially around a meal. Even when a meal is finished, family and friends entertain and challenge each other with stories, jokes and even music. Some of my wife’s finest memories of childhood are late evenings falling asleep to her parents and family friends singing and playing instruments in the salon.

There is a big difference between salon music and concerts. It is of course more intimate, which may be why the French have a more personal connection with this type of music. It is hard to imagine a contemporary equivalent. It just doesn’t seem the same to have Béyoncé performing in our living rooms, though some of us wouldn’t mind.

Two nights ago, I was watching an amazing television show called “La boite à musique”. This program is 2 hours of classical and contemporary music with modern culture thrown in. There was a prodigious and creative jazz pianist, Yaron Herman who played on the show. Before the program had even ended, I had requested him as a Facebook friend and sent a message that I was also a pianist living in Paris. We are planning on soon meeting to play maybe at the Bistrot or maybe at a home. For me, this may be as close as I can come to the excitement of playing in a Parisian salon. It might also help provide more people with an introduction to the piano.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Adversely Creative

Ever since I have arrived in France two months ago, I have been increasingly impressed by the French appreciation of jazz, and of science. This is very encouraging for me, since neither of these things is particularly popular in the United States at the moment. There is so much truth in this that I am beginning to wonder why we still have some of the greatest innovation, and some of the best music coming out of the States. Quality of innovation is subjective, so any point I make is arguable. Still, while I don’t have any agenda as an American, I would like to figure this out as a professor and an improvisational musician. Like most positive things there seem to be an equal amount of negative. The negatives I am referring to may even be the cause of the creativity.
Last month the guitarist Les Paul died at the age of 94. My family and I had seen him perform twice just in the last 2 years, which was a pleasure from an entertainment and historical perspective, but I never really thought about it beyond the music. I of course knew that there was a Gibson guitar called the Les Paul, and that he must have somehow been involved with the development of this instrument. It was only when I heard a rebroadcast of 1992 interview of him, that I realized how much Les Paul himself straddled the worlds of artistic and technological innovation, and how much his contributions were in part due to the personal obstacles he overcame. Les Paul invented the process of multi tracking, for instance, in order to be able to continue a recording session even after his bass player left the room. He invented extended sustain and looping, because of the immobility in his hands due to extreme arthritis. With these techniques, he could play slower and less notes at the same time, while achieving a sound that was more complex than he was able to achieve when he had perfect fingers. Les Paul also told a story of a time when he was in his late 50’s and could not get a gig. He volunteered to play on Monday nights at Fat Tuesdays in New York, because the club was closed on Mondays. He even worked for door money alone. All of this is to say that his contributions came from adversity.
As I write this, there are protests all around the United States about the proposed health care bill which is being debated in congress. Regardless of what stance people take on this particular plan, there is one thing that seems very obvious from here in Paris. That is that the United States has adversity. There is a very small middle class. More babies are dying than in the rest of the western world (we are ranked 33rd in the world in infant mortality), and the country’s poor are living in fear of bankruptcy due to health care bills (over 60% of personal bankruptcies in 2008 were due to health related issues). Though France has its problems, access of health care is not even discussed here, as the problem has been essentially solved by a proven government run system. Like most things that we get used to, it is assumed that this is a universal status quo. Health care is just one example of this. When my daughter was 4 days old in Brooklyn, we took her to the pediatrician for her first check up. As any new parent knows, this is an anxious time, when you have no idea what you are doing. We waited in the lobby, and were not allowed to enter for the appointment because we had forgotten the health insurance card at home. We have health insurance. I can’t imagine how parents without manage. In France it is forbidden to even ask, before taking in a patient. Other examples of this are pregnancy leave which is 4 and 1/2 months in France (for the first child, more for subsequent children), and universal Pre-K, which starts at 2 ½ years old.
My French wife and friends will point out that France is not the Utopia that I make it out to be, and certainly they are right. I am new to France, and already I have seen how the famous French bureaucracy can lead to frustration, or apathy, while perhaps discouraging entrepreneurship. While this is no doubt true, it doesn’t address the lone talent, who has a vision for composing, painting, or even inventing. While government is a hassle and a help, the society in general is left healthier and more educated than in America.
So how these two stories relate, may answer some questions that could help us learn on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps America’s adversity, like adversity faced by Les Paul, has brought about innovation. Perhaps this feeling that Americans have a positive ambitious creativity is simply out of necessity. A kind of creative survival of the fittest. This is scary, as this will leave out most Americans. For those that do survive however, they may produce some great art and technology. This should not be good enough for us Americans. We should realize that not everyone needs to be a Les Paul, and that everyone does need to have health care. Here in France, the situation is reversed. While the French appreciate art and science, they need to take more risks. In a society that gives as much as France does, it becomes necessary for the artist and scientist to step back from the comfort of that, and recognize what personal shortcomings they may have despite the luck of being born here. When they do that more people will be able to see that their own immobility, like Les Paul’s, may be their greatest asset.