Archive for June, 2015

On small museums

June 28, 2015

This post picks up on something I wrote previously about the Royal Academy of Music and comes in a week when I went back to RAM for an extraordinary celebration of the work of Erik Satie. It was an impromptu visit; an expected evening with friends having fallen through I was at a loose end between finishing in the library and going to work in the evening. Impromptu often turns into serendipitous though doesn’t it?

Erik Satie. Dude.

Erik Satie. Dude.

Satie is someone whose work most people will be familiar with if only for its overuse by ‘thoughtful’ documentaries. The Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes can become hideously groan-inducing when used to accompany fuzzy slo-mo footage of falling autumn leaves.

Of course Louis Malle was the man who saw the steel below the melancholy of the pieces in using them for the sound track to Le Feu Follet, and I think if you’ve seen the film it’s hard to hear them again without recalling the quiet despair of Maurice Ronet. By contrast it’s enough for one to reach Alain Leroy-like for the service revolver when one hears yet one more hackneyed documentary reaching into the Satie back catalogue for pathos.

But that’s beside the point, the evening on Friday was a joyful one. A wide variety of Satie’s short pieces, accompanied by his very funny, crystalline aperçus delivered by a talented bunch of performers.* The treat of the evening was a showing of Entr’acte, René Clair’s surrealist silent film, accompanied by Satie’s music on piano and percussion.

On the Set of Entr'acte

On the Set of Entr’acte

I’d seen the film twice previously (and you can see it here on youtube) – once at the Man Ray/Picabia show at Tate Modern and another time at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with full orchestra under Charles Hazelwood. The Tate was in a small, dark room with tinny music (as I remember) … it being in the show because Picabia also collaborated on the film (there’s a very funny scene of him and Satie jumping up and down in slow motion).

The Hazelwood was okay as I remember but didn’t have as profound an effect as Friday. A big show at the QEH lacked the intimacy of being right next to the musicians and squeezed into a small auditorium at the RAM. Two pianists sharing one piano with two percussionists performing the score was perfect at capturing the home-made essence of the film, which is a ramshackle series of sketches using primitive special effects that have the paradoxical effect of giving a feeling of modernity.

And the good humour of it! Satie and Picabia bouncing around in middle age and having a whale of a time in a way that really radiated from the screen. Looking at the crowd it reminded me of the scene in Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants where the camera watches the joyfaced schoolboys watching Charlie Chaplin and it made me think that in these days of monster festivals (yes, it’s Glastonbury weekend) isn’t it a pleasure to be able to sit somewhere quiet and companionable for an hour that you didn’t even know you were going to have.

Such surprises can come through music but also in museums. I decided this year to privilege visiting those museums that I’ve never got round to visiting. So much as I love the big beasts it’s the Year of the Small Museum for me. Of which the RAM has an excellent example.** One of the regrets of the Satie evening was that I hadn’t slunk out of the library earlier in order to go to a concert of baroque and classical keyboard music held in the Keyboard room of the Museum.

Keyboard room at the RAM Museum

Keyboard room at the RAM Museum

On my first visit to the museum this was the absolute highlight. But imagine seeing and listening to these machines in action! A selection of instruments that tell the tale of the development of the instrument, and more pertinently to my own work the centrality of London in that development. John Broadwood is probably the most famous of the London piano makers but they have a map there which shows how there were piano workshops all over Soho, Fitzrovia and beyond in the nineteenth century, competing and innovating in a thriving market.

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And it made me wonder if there were a possibility that in this back to the analogue age there might ever be the chance to revive a piano workshop on Great Pulteney Street. Where craftsmen produce bespoke machines to rival the big beasts of Steinway and Yamaha in the same way that small bicycle manufacturers are now finding a niche in their market.

It’s a dream. I want a hipster joanna.

* The individuals are named below …

Cast list

Cast list

** And it’s free

On the less visited things of Paris

June 22, 2015

No, it's not la Sainte Chappelle

No, it’s not la Sainte Chappelle

Having been in Paris for a week, for pleasure with a tiny bit of research thrown in (mostly involving tracking down a statue of a feller that I want to write about (I’ll probably do something about him in a future post too when I’ve actually done some of the work)), this post is to talk about places in and around Paris that merit more attention from the curious tourist. Leave the Tour Eiffel to the bus parties and the pickpockets; the Champs to the consumers and the cars; the Sacre Coeur (the most chillingly sterile blot on any landscape) to the Amelieites.

My mission on this trip was to go to places to which I’d never been before – places that might appear in guide books but to which very few people actually go. Places that offer an alternative view of Paris, open up new ideas and resonances, or in the case of the Fondation are brand new. This was also the case with bars and restaurants, and if you want to ask for recommendations (or places to avoid) consult this GoogleMap and get in touch. This post is about things to do rather than things to eat and drink.

We did go to one regular, the Musée D’Orsay, but then it was worth breaking the rules to see this cat …

Bonnard cat

Bonnard cat. Psychologically accurate if anatomically eccentric.

I’ve limited it to five places, we visited others but these are the ones that stood out on the trip and that I think may be readily appreciated by a wide range of thinking people.

1. Fondation Louis Vuitton

FLV by FG

FLV by FG

Ok, so let’s start with the big beast. It’s not exactly obscure, having been the subject of a furious amount of media promotion since it opened. But it is quite new so many people will not have been and may be open to some tips about visiting.

The current exhibition, Les clefs d’un passion, was so good that I actually went to the Fondation twice in the week – once on my own and then once again with family. It’s the perfect exhibition in that it combines what amounts to a greatest hits of the twentieth century (Monet Water Lilies, two of them side by side, 7 or 8 Mondrians that give an overview of his career, first class Picassos, Munch Scream, Kandinsky and on and on) with a smattering of works of equally high quality from less well known artists. With our Finnish family connections the best of these was a sequence of four Lake Keitele canvases by Gallen-Kallela displayed along one wall, side by side. Extraordinary and worth missing the D’Orsay, Beaubourg or any other gallery in Paris to go and see if you’re only there for a weekend.

And how could I forget toe toon Delaunay’s colossal canvas of the Cardiff rugby team! The painting I’ve only ever seen in reproduction before but which encapsulates the ideas behind my writing on the relationship between art, modernity and sport in Britain and France.

The only things in there I wouldn’t have wanted to own were the Picabias. Execrable late period kitsch garbage. Oh well, easily forgotten. I can’t recommend the exhibition enough. There’s a also an exhibition of contemporary art that I wandered past but wasn’t engaged by … apart from Gilbert and George.*

The building itself is also a work of art (and don’t they keep banging on about it) by Frank Gehry. I’d never been to a Gehry building before and was a bit sceptical about his fantastical shapes – they have a certain ‘look at me! Look At Me!! LOOK AT ME!!!’ quality to them when seen on a page that is rather off-putting. This one being stuck in the wastes of the Bois de Boulogne means that it doesn’t really have anything to clash with around it and so works as a sculptural form in a open space. Inside the building is functional, airy and rather delightful – the Olaf Eliasson works really well with Gehry’s use of water.

Fondation Louis Vuitton

Fondation Louis Vuitton

The galleries too are perfect for viewing the art and as the price to get in is fairly steep it wasn’t too rammed on either of the occasions that I went; it wasn’t necessary to queue to get a ticket if you hadn’t paid in advance.

The Museum is a bit of a schlep if you’re going to walk it through the park but there is a shuttle bus for €1 from Nation that looks well worth using. I schlepped because that’s what I do. Entry also includes a visit to the Jardin d’Acclimation, which I didn’t take advantage of but has several eateries if you don’t fancy the pretentious looking café in the Fondation.

I’m not sure if it’d be worth making a detour for if they didn’t have such a world class exhib going on but while it is there it’s worth travelling to Paris just to see it.

2. Meaux

Bishop's gaff, Meaux

Bishop’s gaff, Meaux

Meaux was a serendipitous error. We had been planning to go to Champagne but a combination of holiday laziness, a byzantine automatic ticket machine (‘Do you have a war veterans’ discount?’) and extortionate prices for an off-the-cuff TGV ticket meant that we scoured the Gare de L’Est destinations board for other fare. Meaux (at a bargain €40 return for a party of three) seemed ideal for our purposes.

Twenty minutes later we’d left the tourists behind and were in a mid-sized provincial French town with a beautiful mediaeval core. Gothic Cathedral, Bishops Palace, art museum, local museum, smattering of shops and restaurants and all a 5 minute walk from the station. The architecture of the Cathedral and its complex is stunning, and in the summer they have outdoor concerts and theatre in the evening. But there’s more to Meaux than that.

Both museums being shut the guy at the Tourist Office told us to head to the fromagerie to see how Brie is made. We’d hit the motherlode! We’d been planning on a champagne tour but instead we had a cheese feast. Forty minutes tootle round followed by a dégustation of Brie de Meaux (mild) and Brie de Melun (spicy), washed down with some local cider (not authentic but it was free so I wasn’t complaining).

Don't take a wrong turn

Don’t take a wrong turn

Don’t let the sign put you off … it was charming. Outside the fromagerie there’s a curious cemetery with many WW1 graves from all sides of the conflict – British, Belgian, French, German, Moslem, Jewish, Christian. A very moving (and unexpected) thing until we remembered that the Battle of the Marne finished right here in Meaux (they have a museum about that but that was shut too). So Meaux – perfect for a day out of relaxation, thoughtfulness and face-stuffing and I didn’t speak English the whole time I was there.**

3. Longchamps

Longchamps

Longchamps

One of the biggest drawbacks of living in north London is that there isn’t a racecourse that doesn’t take you half a day to get to. I’ve been to Folkestone, Kempton, Sandown, Newmarket and Lingfield, they all involve multiple changes of train or a car journey. And who wants to drive to the races? In Paris there are two courses in the same park!! That’s a superior civilisation. Go to the Bois, we did Auteuil and Longchamps in three days. Of the two Longchamps was my favourite.

The place is set up for the Arc. As you can see from the photo there are colossal, elegant stands geared up for five figure crowds but to go there mid-week lunchtime … well, that’s a bigger treat for the holidaymaker. Because at that time you only see people who are there for the racing – either the wealthy owners, pros (jockeys, trainers, members of the press) and neer-do-wells who know that slinking off to the races when everyone else is working is some form of heaven.

It’s five euros in and for that you get eight races of very good quality. You can walk there if you’re feeling energetic or get the bus with your fellow punters from Porte Maillot. Beer is warm and out of a can but you really shouldn’t be here for the booze (in fact we should have taken our own, everyone else seemed to) … you’re here for character and atmosphere. The atmosphere is smells … horsey smells and grass, faces in the almost exclusively French crowd of ravaged old gamblers, sharp-looking young gamblers, industrially renovated-ageing wealthy old bags and roués, with the odd middle-aged couple having a picnic lunch. Trackside the sound of six horses striving, bloodbursting and winninglosing. The ritual round of newspaper, paddock, Tote (no on course bookies in Paris, alas), track and win/lose is hypnotic until you’ve won enough or you’ve had enough losses.

And all the time Degas in mind.***

Auteuil races ... note the Tour Eiffel in the background - the view from the top of the grandstand is stunning.

Auteuil races … note the Tour Eiffel in the background – the view from the top of the grandstand is stunning.

4. The Commando Museum

Musée Nissim Camondo

Musée Nissim Camondo

Well, not really, that’s in Portsmouth … this is the Musée Nissim de Camondo. Just off Parc Monceau in a very expensive part of Paris and barely a soul in there when I visited. For Downton fans there’s plenty of kitchen-scullery stuff to gawp at. The art is not really to my taste (although they do have a lot of prints of Chardin’s works) but again this place is about atmosphere and backstory. The atmosphere of a perfectly preserved mansion straight out of A la Recherche. And the backstory of a Jewish family raised to the cream of Parisian society by hard work and making the right connections laced with much subsequent tragedy that it’s best left for the individual to come to in their own time.

5. Maison de la Radio France

Maison de la Radio France

Maison de la Radio France

I had a ticket to see Jean-Bernard Pommier for my final evening in Paris but he cancelled. No in fact he didn’t cancel he postponed the concert by two days, which is a curious thing to do.**** But undeterred I hunted out another concert going on that evening at M de la RF, which came in at 40 euros less expensive.

First, the building is a treat. Is this foyer out of a Eurothriller from the late 60s? Possibly starring David Hemmings and Romy Schneider … it’s a stunner anyway and not a bad place to while away the time waiting for the doors to open. It would have been substantially improved by having a bar mind but you can’t have everything.

Radio France. Exhortations over the PA to save the coughing for later were sadly ineffective.

Radio France. Exhortations over the PA to save the coughing for later were sadly ineffective.

The auditorium perfect and then on with the show. It’s nice to know that some things transcend cultures (i.e. inappropriately timed coughing fits and fidgety kids) but this was a very French evening despite the first work being a string quartet by George Onslow. I’d assumed he must be some contemporary Brit or Yank but no, he’s from the Romantic period (‘the French Beethoven’) the son of an exiled English aristo and an Auvergnat inheritrix who grew up in France and despite being renowned in his own life-time has now fallen into obscurity.

The Quatuor Danel are trying to rescue him from musical oblivion. I sympathise with their aims but fear that he’s too anodyne compared to contemporaries Schubert and Beethoven. Sometimes there’s a reason people stay out of fashion. Just ask Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. The real meat came afterwards with a Fauré piano quintet that was hot and dreamy in a way that made my head pound, my soul sing joy and my heart ache.

And who doesn’t want that? All of these places can deliver it.

* I once did a guided tour of Spitalfields that coincided with the G&G retrospective at Tate Modern. Outside their former house I gave a 5 to 10 minute take on their origins, career and current position in the market to a group of largely disinterested teenagers and one grinning group leader. Grinning because unknown to me Gilbert and George had been posing side by side behind me throughout pretty much the whole talk. When I turned to go to the next stop they silently turned round too and strolled off. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole.

** Best of all was a motor-mouthed sports shop salesman in Star Momo Sport, a charming and determined individual who had covered over all the ‘Inter Sport’ logos with a ‘Momo’ label on his Marseille shirts because he didn’t wish to give publicity to a rival. Alan Sugar would approve.

*** That’s ‘Duh-ga’, not ‘Day-gah’. Major irritant.

**** In his publicity he’s claimed to be the most renowned French pianist outside of France. I’d like to know what François-Frédéric Guy, Pascal Rogé, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Anne Queffelec, Alexandre Tharaud (I could go on) think about that. Or if he’s actually been out of France to ask anyone.

On chanson

June 7, 2015

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This week promises a trip to Paris during which I hope to catch up with some research that I didn’t have time to do during the course of my thesis. One of the people I wrote about in my chapter on sport in France was the sportsman-journalist, Franz Reichel. A joy of researching can be coming across unexpected little stories and fragments of archive that don’t really fit into what you’re writing on at the time but that you know may prove to be useful at some point in the future. Having finished a piece of work for a book on South African cricket this week it’s now perfect timing for me to look into the statue of Reichel that was put up after his sudden death in 1932.

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But this post isn’t really about Reichel, as you can tell from the title. I’ll save him for another post, maybe when I’ve got back from Paris. The nature of his death does give him something in common with the man whose picture is at the head of this column. Reichel died of a heart attack at his desk at Le Figaro and Boris Vian, pictured playing quite an unusual cornet, also died suddenly at the premier of a film adaptation of one of his own novels.

Vian was more than a trumpeter. He wrote novels both foul and elegant, under many different names. He was a thinker, a translator, a jazz man and a great songwriter who wrote one of the most eloquent anti-war songs of the twentieth century (‘Le Déserteur’) and a song that expresses the joy and sadness of drinking (‘Je Bois’) better than any other work of art that I know. I could write about Vian a lot.

So the fact that he was omitted from the BBC’s ‘Story of French chanson‘ typified the cack-handedness of the show in trying to present a compelling subject to a supposedly intelligent audience. It wasn’t that it was a terrible show, it did after all have some wonderful archive and interviews.** With such material it would be impossible to make something completely without value. It came across, however, as a sixth-form project with a BBC budget. It was too often shallow, when it wasn’t being outright dishonest. 1940-44? Yeah, that didn’t happen because it didn’t fit in with twinkly old Trenet and tragic Edith. But of course the Occupation was fundamental to Vian, Barbara and all those left-bank singers. And it underplayed the influence of America while not even bothering with German cabaret (because only the French did cabaret in the twenties apparently) … flamenco … tango … Africa etc etc etc***

Elsewhere on the BBC there’s a short clip from Jonathan Meades’ series on France that shows more imagination, more intelligent analysis and more interest in script and pictures (isn’t that what tv is for?!) in 1’51” than ‘The Story of French chanson’ does in an hour. What it made me realise was that the story in the documentary was told very much from an anglo point of view. It pretended to insider-ness but in fact was a history of French music as it was received in the UK. It wasn’t genuinely interested in the genealogy of the genre but merely on its product as consumed this side of the Channel. Hence the focus on Trenet, Piaf, Gainsbourg. And also the neglect of Vian (too obscure), Distel (too cheesy for the snobs of BBC4 when in fact he was a very fine jazz musician before he ever became a housewife’s favourite) and numerous others.

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And yet, and yet. While I was feeling all smug about trashing the show at the same time it provoked a certain amount of anxiety about my own work on France. A feeling that was reinforced this week after reading the first piece in Richard Cobb’s collection of articles, Paris and Elsewhere.* Cobb describes how he came to study France almost by accident. In the year between leaving school and going to university he had first gone to stay in Austria, intending to learn German. But finding the place unsympathetic he came home, found a family to stay with in Paris and lived the rest of his life as a man who could pass between England and France and appear a native of both.

The grounding for his life’s work was that initial year when he was completely immersed in the life of Paris. The depth of experience of the culture, the magisterial view it gives when looking at the archive, is somewhat awesome. After reading Cobb’s book I questioned whether I could ever aspire to write a decent piece of work on France (in my case sport and culture in the Belle Epoque) with the result more likely that I might turn out something just as trite as the BBC4 documentary. Or worse! Self-doubt is a crippling thing when you’re trying to write. So how to overcome the fear of being a phoney, say when writing about someone like Reichel? And I write this in the light of Cobb’s own piece.

The most important thing of course is to be as comprehensive as possible in analysing sources and footnote everything. As a historian you’re not expecting to give the absolute definitive version of something, just a version that is grounded on solid research. That way your opinion as a historian can be questioned but not your integrity. 

Then of course there is the fact that my grasp of what a middle-class Parisian journalist like Reichel was like is only marginally less secure than that I have on the nature of the man I want to compare him with, C. B. Fry. The fact that I’m English doesn’t really give me a privileged insight into who Fry was; his background and upbringing was entirely different to mine. So really, all history is a research into the unfamiliar. In fact it’s better to look sceptically at events, people, places and to remain aware of your fundamental ignorance in order to base what knowledge you have on sound sources and extensive secondary reading.

And finally to let the mind wander around the fringes of what you’re researching, to let the unexpected more easily be stumbled upon. Unexpected things are often the basis of originality, sparking fresh ideas, fresh lines of research. While the internet is amazing for showing us what we want it’s not very good at showing us what we didn’t know we wanted. Which is why the archive will always trump the database. In the archive you stumble across the most amazing things – like the picture of the statue of Reichel, which I found in a bundle of papers in an archive. The story that goes with it may not come to much, it might only make a paragraph of an article or chapter, but until I’ve chased it up I won’t know.

So the first task in Paris is to find the statue.

* R. Cobb, Paris and Elsewhere: Selected Writings (London, 1998). I can’t recommend this book enough.

** I don’t want to mention P****a C***k. I assume the producers had no choice but to let her front it because they were being blackmailed.

*** I guess we should be grateful that the documentary was made at all in this Eurosceptic world. It was while watching this extraordinary video by Falco that the impossibility of any English broadcaster ever making such a film about German pop brought a little sadness to my heart. Most English people have heard of Rock Me Amadeus but Der Kommissar was really his masterpiece.

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