Saturday, May 16, 2009

Back on the Farm: Applebaum's Concerto for Florist and Ensemble

Photo courtesy of Stanford LivelyArts.

The word "interpretive" should be banned from the list of words allowed to describe art. It's vague, cliché, and the ignorant viewer's scapegoat attempt at summarizing an event.

That said, today I witnessed the first ever Concerto for Florist and Ensemble. Or as the composer himself described, "the world's best concerto for florist ever...and the world's worst concerto for florist...ever." Needless to say, I was excited to see what would come from this collaboration. If nothing else, I wouldn't pass up a chance to see Charlotte. She was wearing a fluffy black jacket and pink shoes, adorable as ever. The piece took place in the courtyard of the Cantor Arts Center, at Stanford, where the setting sun cast a Tuscan glow over the audience that spilled to the limits of the space.

After the usual Mark introductions, comedy laced with a minor diatribe about support from the music department, the ensemble began their stopwatches with Mark's conductive gesture and a downbeat of silence. This movement initiated the beginning of the piece, as well as laughter from the audience that would embody its own melody, adding an extra layer the polyphonic composition. That is-- if one could consider the music to consist of recognizable melodies at all. Nevertheless, the piece did feature several paradigmatic musical elements. The elements, however, were produced using typically "non-musical" artifacts. Notions of repetition were provoked by a ritualistic cutting of a white chain-link strand by each member of the ensemble. The ensemble also performed the equivalent of pedestrian "sampling" as one musician removed a new package of socks from a basket and the next musician changed into the socks a few minutes later. One man typed a letter, another stamped it, the man returned and shredded it. In this way, the ensemble worked synergistically, each member drawing on an unconventional motif that another member established.

In contrast, there were few points of synchrony between the florist and the ensemble. In many ways, the florist provided the visual accompaniment to the aural landscape created by the musicians. I was somewhat disenchanted by the lack of observable relation between the florist and the ensemble; yet, I was reminded of Mark's roots in Dadaism and his various allusions to the Cunningham-Cage relationship. Beside the choreographed end where the Florist sipped his readymade martini and cut a final branch from his arrangement in time with the ensemble's final note, the two artistic entities created separately.

Most notably, I never realized the abrasive nature of floral composition. The florist, James Delprince, decapitated roses and skinned artichoke hearts with a short handled blade before piercing the florist foam with the freshly cut stem. Delprince carried a furrow in his brow and a deterministic pace throughout the performance. His gestures stood in stark contrast to the Japanese art of ikebana. His creations traisped along the border between precision and improvisation much as the music itself did. Furthermore, the work as a whole spoke the constant dialogue between the industrial and the organic. The flowers, the hardward tools, the instruments, and the tools of domesticity. A balance of masculine and feminine in less gendered roles. The infamous drum beats against what could only be described as "scaticolo," Terry Longshore's mesmerizing mélange of scat and picolo. As Delprince performed the equivalent of de-spining a long stemmed calla lily only to plunge it into plastic pipes--I couldn't help be feel a visceral gutting myself. There was something violent about taking the life out of this source of "beauty" and "purity."

A letter was stamped and sent, a chain meticulously measured, and a martini mixed. I contemplated Paris Applebaum and Stanford Applebaum, always ready to mediate the line between discipline and creation as shown by his publicity photo that recalls Botticelli's Venus, straight out of the clam. Priceless.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Une Comedia Crude… and lacking order

Although I realize that the Moulin Rouge show Féerie is supposedly an artistic cabaret performance, it was actually one of the funniest comedies I have ever seen. I laughed throughout the entire show because of its ridiculousness. I cannot believe that the show sells out nearly two shows a day to please a total of 1700 viewers. Although there are definitely aspects of the performance to compliment, the dancing and the singing are horrible!

The stage is spectacular. The backdrop and stage itself change often and smoothly. The stage is layered; people fly on invisible strings, descend from the ceilings, and appear from the sides on moving platforms. The backdrops are colorful and extravagant. There is even an aquarium that emerges from the floor.

The costumes and props are equally elaborate and beautiful; for the 100 performers, there are over 1000 costumes. The women are constantly covered in colorful feathers. Many outfits glow in the dark. They sparkle. They are covered in jewels and beads, ruffled undergarments, thongs, and wigs.

The plot, however is not so impressive. According to my online research, the show is split into four acts. However, unless my French comprehension is horrible, I am pretty sure that there is neither a plot nor a clearly defined “act.” At one point there are Siamese twins singing about how they do not ever want to separate, and a minute later there is a couple singing about tainted love. Two scenes later, pirates bombard the stage. Then there are clowns, mini ponies that appear randomly for two minutes on the stage without doing any tricks, an Egyptian-themed dance, a woman swimming with snakes, and a French can-can. Thus, the performances do not relate to each other at all, and I started laughing at the nonsensical acts just after the first song.

The singing and dancing are also poorly executed. I am pretty sure that the performers lip-sync the entire time, as their lips often did not match up with the lyrics. The song choices, like the plot, are bizarre and include American songs such as “I Will Survive” as well as cheesy French love songs. When the dancers perform with the songs, their dance moves do not evoke the feeling of the music. They jump up and down spastically to a smooth-sounding song. They also shake their hips often instead of dancing difficult choreography, and their moves are unsynchronized. They look like amateurs one of the most famous Parisian stages.

However, when the performers are not singing or dancing, a lot more talent shines through. There is a ventriloquist who had me in hysterics as he played with puppets, a real dog, and the audience (though, based on the audience members’ reactions—or lack thereof—, I believe that this part of the act was planned out beforehand). There is a juggler who impressively throws 6 batons at once. There is also a pair of performers who execute INCREDIBLE stunts displaying their flexibility and strength. For example, the man holds his female partner above ground using just his hand. Furthermore, many performers are talented gymnasts, and they impress the audience with smooth triple back-handsprings, 5 aerials in a row, and jump-split landings.

A feminist must not go to the Moulin Rouge show if s/he does not want to be angered. The women are completely objectified and they constantly subject themselves to men. First of all, the female performers are often topless and in a thong, while the male performers never even show bare arms. Secondly, the women always shake their hips and do sexual roll-ups against the men, as if to please the men without concerns about being pleased themselves. Also, the women transform often into nonhumans. They assume the roles of apples, lions, masked figures, and puppets. They wear layers and layers of makeup, and they are all underweight.

The materialism exuded by the costumes, the objects that the women become, and the glamour of the stage really detract from the naturalness and beauty of nudity, and there is nothing sexy about the show. I know that the show is unique and the history of the cabaret itself is appealing, but I have a hard time understanding what attracts so many tourists to the performance. The best part about the show, in my opinion, is the humor in its absurd execution… yet no one but my group of girlfriends was laughing!

A fantastical dream at the Moulin Rouge

If you are intrigued by the thought of attractive topless girls in feathery costumes, a woman swimming in a snake filled pool, or a ventriloquist with everything from puppets to audience members, then go to the Moulin Rouge show before you leave Paris. I have never seen such an extravagant or hilarious show in my life. All of us were reeling with laughter for most of the performance, and Ali and Kai were even wiping away tears. There were so many random, ridiculous scenes and acts that completely defied all of my expectations. There was a man and a woman completely clad in neon glow in the dark outfits who emerged from behind the glistening curtains, suspended from the ceiling over the audience.

As they lip-synched a cheesy French song, the woman came close enough to our table that I could see the orange spray paint covering her shoes and her absurdly thick fake eyelashes. Then there was the ventriloquist, whose puppets included a gangly stuffed animal with bright orange-red hair that was supposed to resemble a lion. Other assistants included two fake birds that would periodically pop out of mailboxes, making facetious remarks at the ventriloquist as he tried to deal with the lion. He also called a little dog that looked like a bischon-frise onto the stage, which paradoxically was extremely life-like and robotic at the same time. Finally, he brought several audience members onto the stage and did a hilarious skit in which he spoke for them while they moved their mouths without speaking. Another solo was a very enthusiastic juggler who skilfully handled up to six flashing glow in the dark batons at once. At one point, he was going so fast that the batons looked like lit up spinning blue wheels. I was especially impressed by a duo of a slim but strong man and an effortlessly flexible girl with carrot colored hair who did many amazing stunts. To conclude their performance, she balanced on his forearm while he turned in a circle.

            A pool swarming with enormous snakes that rose from underneath the stage commenced another individual act. A robust woman plunged into the water and began somersaulting and gliding through the water as she wrapped snakes around her body. I was convinced that they were made of rubber until she came up to the surface and draped one of them on her muscular arms. When I saw its thin red tongue flickering as us, I realized that it was almost undoubtedly real. Interestingly, the snake woman had a much different build than every other Moulin Rouge dancer. The other girls were very slender, relatively flat-chested, and had very feminine features. Although they occasionally executed high kicks or turns, some of them were neither very flexible nor graceful. Their purpose is clearly to display their breasts and backsides to the audience members, especially the men. Women with the most “ideal” bodies and beautiful faces were awarded a place in the front of the stage. I noted that while the costumes of the male performers were usually tight fitting, they hardly even showed any skin, let alone a similar level of nudity as the women. The girls were topless in nearly every act, wearing nothing but tan tights and thongs decked with rhinestones on their lower halves. Their costumes were bursting with overwhelmingly lavish feathers, which are specially prepared by a designer that has been making feathers that come from all around the world for 80 years. The women could hardly have been more objectified, strutting around the stage dressed as dolls, red apples or flamingos that rarely failed to block the view of their bare chests. The hot pink costumes that resembled flamingos were probably the most outrageous of all; I felt like I was watching a modern version of Fantasia. My favorite scene with the girls was the can-can themed one, in which they swished the undersides of their frilly, red, white and blue striped skirts back and forth while they danced.

            Although the dancing throughout the Moulin Rouge performance was mediocre, the absurd costumes and acts really should not be missed. It was disheartening to think about how much the dancers are objectified and how superficially they are judged, and this definitely brought down my enthusiasm a little as I watched. However, the constant craziness was enough to keep me entertained for the whole time.



Moulin Rouge

Spectacular, spectacular
No words in the vernacular
Can describe this great event
You'll be dumb with wonderment

So exciting, the audience will stomp and cheer!
So delighting, it will run for 50 years!
So exciting, the audience will stomp and cheer!
So delighting, it will run for 50 years!

-The Pitch (Spectacular Spectacular), Moulin Rouge!


I would consider that to be a pretty appropriate word to describe the Parisian institution that is the Moulin Rouge.  An overwhelming spectacle of dancers, seduction, costumes, music, lights, colors, performers, even included a snake tank. There was no doubt that it was two solid hours of pure entertainment, though maybe not exactly for the reasons that the producers had intended.

From the get-go, the stage was flooded with dozens half-naked dancers in elaborate costumes, lip-synching to the cheesy lyrics which proclaimed the Moulin Rouge to be the "Moulin of eternal love".  Their dance was suggesting something quite different altogether. Between the flashy costumes and the "seductive" dances of the performers, it wasn't hard to assume that the "love" they were advertising wasn't quite true love.  Nonetheless, judging by the reaction of the men seated around our table, I would say that tiny fact was essentially irrelevant.

After some 60-odd song and dance numbers, punctuated by several other acts such as the juggler, the contortionists and the ventriloquist.  Between the pumped-music, the flashing lights, the glittering costumes and the risqué dances; the audience were barely given a second to contemplate the non-stop performances.  This was intentional on the part of the producers, I would assume, since were the audience given a moment to think, it would become all too apparent that the show in fact had no plot, no coherence and no substance.  Instead, it seemed like a nonsensical mix of dances, designed solely to display as much of the dancers' bodies as possible.

Despite all these flashy and overwhelming numbers, the most popular, and arguably the most enjoyable, was still the traditional French can-can.  Dressed in their relatively most conservative costumes with the customary frilly skirts, this act triggered the loudest applause, the greatest audience participation.  The hall was flooded with the booming uniform clapping in time with the rhythm of the famous tune, and the cheers were deafening.  Despite being the most classic dance which everyone had already seen a million times, despite the dancers being more covered up than during any of the other dances, the can-can was assuredly the star of the show.

Evidently, I did not consider any part of the performance to actually be seductive or even remotely sexy.  The overwhelming mélange of legs, feathers, nudity, was too fake for me, too artificial. There was nothing glamorous about the almost-orange fake-tanned and airbrushed legs, the painted-on stage make-up and the incessant plastic smiles. Put together with the cheesy love songs and the almost sleazy costumes of the male dancers, the ensuing result is an unintentionally humorous, decidedly unsexy spectacle.

Yet I wouldn't write-off the Moulin Rouge completely.  Though it failed to seduce me into its world of "eternal love", there is no doubt that the show was enthralling to watch.  The details were exhaustively astounding, the dances were breathtakingly acrobatic, and the costumes were wildly extravagant.  I wouldn't even consider comparing the dancing to the ballet we had seen at the Opera Garnier, not would I categorize it with the significantly more seductive striptease of the burlesque.  But nonetheless, the Moulin Rouge was a thoroughly entertaining experience, a true spectacle.

Moulin Rouge Wins

When we went to Lido a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t know much about it other than there were ads for Lido in the metro stations and I had heard that Lido competes with Moulin Rouge in terms of the cabaret crowd in Paris. I went to Lido, was duly impressed but somewhat under whelmed, and thought myself fortunate to have seen one of the two biggest Parisian cabarets. Needless to say, when I saw the opportunity to see Moulin Rouge, I leapt for it. What better chance to compare the two leading cabarets in the city of love, competing neck-and-neck. My conclusion: Moulin Rouge wins.

From the moment we stepped through the doors, I knew that this experience was going to be very different. First of all, the venue was packed. Every seat was taken and the room rumbled with excited conversation in at least 8 languages (I counted English, French, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, Norwegian, German and Flemish). When the show started, it just all seemed fresher somehow. The dancers were younger, the colors brighter. The dancers looked as though they were really and truly happy to be on stage performing, as opposed to simply running through the motions even though they were tired and had to cook dinner when they got home. The structure of the show was similar to that of Lido in that there were the main typical “cabaret” acts with feathers, breasts, rhinestones and dancing interspersed with specialty performances. In terms of the specifically cabaret performances, I was incredibly more impressed with the Moulin Rouge dancers. The choreography was more interesting, more up-to-date, and showed off their ability and athleticism much more than the choreography at Lido. When I was watching Lido, I wanted to believe I was watching incredibly talented trained dancers but it just didn’t show. At Moulin Rouge, they used some of the same campy, jazz-hands, I’m-wearing-far-too-many-sequins movements, but they also jumped and spun and did splits and flips. All of it just seemed to have more energy, more pizzazz.

In terms of the specialty acts, I think that they were actually about on par with those at Lido (I was much more impressed with the specialty acts at Lido than I was with the cabaret). However, my favorite act was without question the ventriloquist. He spoke at least English, French, Spanish and Japanese, maybe more. He not only used puppets, but also members of the audience and a dog. I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe and tears were running down my face. There was also a woman who swam naked in a glass tub of water with big snakes, which I suppose would’ve been a lot more impressive if I had a snake phobia, but as it was I was just thinking, “hmm I could do that.” The juggler at Moulin Rouge was excellent but didn’t do anything particularly original and certainly didn’t have the charisma of the Chinese yo-yo juggler at Lido. The final specialty act was a couple that put on a comedic performance involving lifts and tricks and left me feeling like Gumby had been reborn in the form of this tiny red-haired woman because she could fold her body up in ways I had previously thought to be impossible. The man was also phenomenally strong, at one point lifting and balancing the woman on one arm.

To be fair to Lido, there were hardly any people there. Having performed myself, I know that the mood and quantity of the audience in attendance is absolutely critical. But I also know that the performers at Lido (and at Moulin Rouge) are professional, and so should be able to push through whatever mood-setting setbacks there might be. I think if I were to sum up the difference between my experience at Lido and my experience at Moulin Rouge, I would have to say that it was the attitude of the dancers. They just looked happier to be on stage, happy to be performing for us. And that truly does make all the difference.

All that glitters is not gold.

The Moulin Rouge.

If there’s something I’ve learned about Paris after 8 weeks of surveying its cultural happenings, it is that Paris really does love its appearance, and for that reason, a show, a happening, and an event are all a “spectacle.” That is to say, poor technique and poor performance quality can be covered up with enough glitter, feathers, neon lights, and the buzz of a half bottle of champagne you can’t help but guzzle.

As the four arms of the Moulin Rouge spun outside lighting the main boulevard of Pigalle, images of grungy burlesque women tinged with a vintage sepia hue stomped around in my mind. I longed to see the dirt in the fingernails of a dancer straight from a Toulouse-Lautrec with an air of green about her as she soaked up the exhaled absinthe from her voyeurs. I romanticized the pressing urgency of performance that was so disorienting in the film “Moulin Rouge” that I wanted to vomit from motion sickness. Much to my disappointment, the contemporary dancers of the Moulin Rouge were polished clones without the grunge, the heart, nor the performance flare. They were placed far from the laps of viewers and caged in the dimensions of the stage. The show was like any other variety show you could see in Vegas, especially the parts in English.

The appeal of the Moulin Rouge used to be its sense of danger and excitement that existed despite the tucked in collared shirts of the Parisian exterior. And perhaps it is the fault of pervasive sexuality in the media, but topless women prancing around in sequins is not enough to keep my attention. The show has now turned into an expensive tourist trap. I could not tell one dancer from the next as legs flew up in every direction. The Can Can section was filled with squeaks that seemed to come from trampled chipmunks rather than gutteral shouts, yells, and exclamations that accompanies traditional Can Can. Bent knees, and hunched upper bodies paired with grimaces due to lack of flexibility were indiscreetly covered up with feathered boas in the shape of sea urchins. Even the lip-synching was well, unsynchronized. The show was divided into thematic sections—and true to the movie, the show contained sections of exoticism featuring a Russian dance section, and costumes from what appeared to be Egypt, South Asia, and a non-descript location in the Middle East. I do not mean to say that I supported the exotification of these regions nor that I expected to see a real version of the Hollywood movie. I was just looking for the performance spark that makes a performer, a performer, the special “je ne sais quoi” that the French are supposed to possess. The show was a poor rendition of what I could see at a drag karaoke bar in the Marais for the mere price of a cocktail.

Nevertheless, there were some redeeming factors that kept me tuned in. The dance sequences were divided by a juggling act, a contortionist couple, a ventriloquist, and a naked woman doing tricks with snakes in a pool. I really felt as if I was making my rounds at the town circus and that soon I would come across a two-headed man. But that was just it—the disjunction between the intermediary acts in which the “other” really was put on display versus the dance sequences when airbrushed legs only posed as being the exotic “other.” There was a sincerity to the performance of the contortionist couple—an extremely skinny woman with a dreadlock and her buff manly companion—that when they balanced on poles, or did flips in a split position, or merely shared a coat sleeve that led me to buy into their act. There was a cute factor in the oddity of the couple, a certain pizzazz that made them unlike other couples I had seen. This was not the case for the other dance sections.

Now, one could argue that I am fairly more versed in dance than I am in contortionism, however there are still performances that literally evacuate the air from my diaphragm with it’s creativity. Mainly, Le Parc, a ballet choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj for the Paris Opera. A pas de deux between dancers wearing little more than nightgowns that managed to captivate and paralyze me not with numerous turns or virtuosic leaps, or bare legs, but rather in the quiet commitment to a single brush of the back of a hand against a cheek. A commitment that the dancers of the Moulin Rouge, regrettably, lacked. At the very least, Opera dancers have a place to retire to once they weigh more than 100 pounds, are over the hill at the age of twenty-five, and have lost their "umph".

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Louvre Lovin'?!

8.5 million visitors in 2008. 35,000 objects of art. 60,600 square meters. Can you guess what I’m talking about? Of course, because you’re a foreigner! The Louvre has the simultaneous ability to attract and repel, with its size, importance, and reputation as a tourist trap.

Still, the Louvre was not what it is today. First, the history of the building itself. Built in the 12th century by Philippe II, le Palais du Louvre was originally intended to be a French fortress. Some of the remnants of the original building still exist, but most of the building has been altered through the ages. But it was the French revolution that transformed the Louvre into a public museum. On August 1793, the doors of the Louvre were opened to the public, and free entry was granted three times a week. In the early days, artists lived in residence, paintings were hung without labels, and the organization of the building was debated.

Today, the building has changed. The large glass Louvre pyramid designed by I. M. Pei presents a juxtaposition of old and new architecture. The galleries are immense, well organized, and well-curated. Admission is not free – except for a specific day of the month. The French government owns the Louvre, but since the 1990s it has become more independent. Tons of tourists visit the Louvre each year.

But what I found more interesting is my own conception of the Louvre that has changed. I first visited the Louvre when I was 8, on a class field trip. What I remember and what I keep dear to me, was my own fascination with art. I also thought the building was just another large, belle-époque institution that held art inside. As a French élève, I took for granted that my admission would be free.

Now, returning to the Louvre as a Stanford student studying art history, I feel that my conception of the Louvre has changed. I disdain the Asian tourists that take massive amounts of photos of pictures that they have not learned the history of. I detest the large crowds that cluster around famous pictures. I consider the Louvre as a tourist trap that is over-rated and over-visited. For me, there is less of an attraction.

But I can understand how others can find the Louvre such a seductive museum. Walking around the exhibits, I overheard a telling conversation in English. “Wow! Look at that painting! It’s Napoleon 1er!” Others maintain a fascination with the history that the paintings represent; the Louvre and Paris are two ideas so inextricably intertwined. To get at the heart of the matter, the Louvre is something uniquely French that defines Paris. One would not be able to go to another museum in the world and have the same satisfying feeling of saying that “I went to the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa.”

This experience of visiting the Louvre buys into the mystique of Paris and the idea of consumption of this experience. The museum medium facilitates politically-driven exchanges of culture and ideas between the objects that it houses and museum-goers. Museum goers go in, look at artwork, take pictures, buy replicas of art work in gift shop, and leave. Bien sûr, materiality is intimately linked to this phenomena. Despite the fact that museum goers cannot touch the objects themselves, they consume them them in the way that they can – with videocameras, cameras, and gift-shop replicas.

Perhaps that is what bothers me the most about the Louvre – that I believe that most museum goers go to the Louvre to consume and not to experience the art to be inspired. But my negative impression does not detract from my own fascination with the Louvre in its massive, touristy glory.

Le Louvre et l’exception francaise

Last week I spent a few happy hours in the Italian and Spanish Paintings section of the Louvre. I gazed at statues I had never heard of and gawked at the huge crowd gathered around the face that launched a thousand paperback bestsellers. Unless you too have joined that crowd at some point over the years, I promise you the Mona Lisa is much smaller in person than you think it is.

It struck me later that perhaps, for a course on art in and of Paris, actual French paintings might have been more appropriate. It’s possible that closing my eyes and choosing the section of the map my finger landed on was not the best strategy for navigating the museum, overwhelmingly large as it may be.

There is a reason that the prominence of foreign art in the Louvre initially drew no surprise from me, however. “L’exception française” is a diplomatic name for what many people think of as typically French arrogance. Strictly speaking it refers to the French tendency to favor domestic arts and goods over foreign ones, as with public funding for French cinema and better market conditions for French cheeses; as with so many cultural concepts, however, it means much more than that.

Modesty and humility are fine virtues, according to l’exception — for other countries. It is silly to pretend, out of what could only be misguided politeness, that France is not special. Better. France can no longer claim a concentration of the world’s power, but it holds on to its reputation as the center of the world’s (really the west’s) culture. France simply is the center of everything, and naturally Paris is the center of France. Mockery of this mindset comes easily, especially as an American with one’s fair share of national arrogance, but the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of this concept’s power.

Paris has long been the destination for artistic and personal development for everyone from lost-generation artists to eager students with terrible accents .(I myself am guilty of the latter, but I hope to parlay my Californian-Sinaloan-Parisian hybrid voice into a career as a glamorous Cary Grant figure with the attendant unidentifiable origins.) If the cliché question to pose to someone who’s taken time off is, “Did you find yourself?” then Paris is the place where that cliché seems the most likely to be fulfilled.

The multiple Italian nationalists who have tried to steal the Mona Lisa away from France disagree that Paris is a natural place for Spain’s and Italy’s artistic heritage. Of course they do; they’re bitter that they aren’t French. Aren’t we all? Just as the United States may lose its economic superiority but not the iron grip in which American English and MacDonald’s hold the world, France’s collapsed empire enjoys an afterlife in minds all over the Occident.

The image of cultural knowledge and power outlives the political clout that created it to such an extent that a few days in a single museum in Paris can lend a person enough credibility to bluff through decades of cocktail party conversations. L’exception française has taken me in thoroughly enough that, at least on first glance, that fact seems only right.


Le Showcase is a boîte de nuit off the Champs Elysées, highly recommended by exchange students and Parisians alike for its lively ambiance, fashionable crowd and good music. The venue itself it great, tucked underneath Pont Alexandre III, right along the Seine. The interior of the club is fully decked out with neon industrial lighting and framed by giant arches and floor-length windows, such that (theoretically) no matter how immersed in the music or caught up in dancing you may be, you'll never forget you're in Paris. Imagine my total and utter disappointment when we showed up on Saturday night to a pretty much empty boîte, with a few guys dressed as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum running around to the somewhat bizarre live electronica band. Maybe les Français and I have a different idea of what constitutes a good time?

The club was divided into several sections, with the main dancefloor in front of a stage. About half an hour in, more people started showing up and the band started playing on stage, so feeling more hopeful, we made our way to the dancefloor hoping for the best. Unfortunately, the 'best' was not exactly what we got. (On a side note, I should add that somehow, by the time we made it to the dancefloor, about a third of the guys in the club were dressed in this ridiculous Tweedle Dee costume.) Bizarrely, despite all the strobe and neon lights, the band playing could only be described as "emo". Whiny lyrics, depressing guitar solos, shaggy hair...the whole nine yards. The Tweedle Dees looked content doing their obligatory head bobs, of course, but we, looking for something more, sick of swaying along mindlessly to the repetitive and sappy melodies. Luckily, they were quickly done with their set, and the next band started setting up on stage.

I was feeling more optimistic about this band, which played something with a greater semblance to dance music while setting up. But alas, yet again another letdown. We quickly realized that the "hipster-esque" band who emulated a (bad) American Apparel ad would not live up to our expectations either. They were playing electronica; it had a decent beat and people around us were actually dancing (beyond just moving their heads up and down), but there was something off about the band. Maybe it was the way the band felt compelled to shout out seemingly arbitrary English words randomly during their songs. Or maybe it was the way that everytime the music picked up and you could start dancing the bass would suddenly stop or change. Or maybe it was the way the lead singer spent the entire time playing on his Nintendo DS on stage.

(The Tweedle Dees)

(The lead singer playing on his DS)

Needless to say, it was an "interesting" experience...though not at all fulfilling. We had gone to Showcase under the impression that it was a dance club, not a live music venue with no dancing. Other than the interior and the location of the club, I was pretty disappointed on all counts. I've been to, enjoyed, and danced to live club performances of electronica before, but at Showcase, watching the lead singer bash away at his Nintendo DS just didn't do it for me.

Paris: The Night-life Glimpse

I spy with my little eye: green and red flashing lights. I hear with my little ear: abrasive techno music. I smell with my little nostrelle: lots of sweaty people dancing. I taste with my little organ that I use to taste: a vodka sprite. I feel with my little skin peel (i.e. the palms of my hands): a black marble counter top. (Pause now if you plan on guessing the subject of this latest Paris Arts Review post) At Showcase nightclub, I experienced those five sensations in order of the strength of the effect they had on my impression of the club, yet none of them were very striking.

As I’m sure you might have been able to guess (if you tried), these sensations all point to my being in a nightclub. However, if you were asked to determine the exact nightclub, the description might not have been detailed enough, but I think the lack of unique detail is Showcase’s fault, not mine. At Showcase, I felt as if I was in just any other nightclub that one can find in any considerably large city. The music was mediocre, the space was average, and the drink I ordered was pretty uninspiring. Feeling rather unimpressed, I turned toward analyzing why it was that I didn’t like the place, was I just holding it to an unreasonably higher standard because it is in Paris, and I therefore felt it should be the best nightclub I had even been to? Is it unfair to think that a nightclub, just because it is in Paris, should be one of the best in the world? Should we expect everything in Paris to be the best in the world? How unfair is it to harbor such an attitude?

In my last couple of reviews on Lido and a jazz club I found myself under whelmed for, I think, similar reasons. My expectations might have been just too high because I expect more of places in Paris. So, in an effort to remove the “Paris Bias” from my analysis I decided to focus on what a nightclub is trading on.

I think nightclubs trade on three main elements: entertainment appeal, reputation, and any special theme, for instance is it a salsa club etc. Showcase did fine, but not spectacularly on the first element; the space and the music were adequate for a nightclub. Its reputation I really can’t attest to other than I imagine it is decent because of the number or young-ish, seemingly stylish people in attendance. The reputation is I am sure very important for getting people in the door, it allows for one to know what they are getting into; are the drinks expensive, is the music good, is it crowded, are the people attractive, etc. By establishing a reputation it makes people more likely to pay a cover charge, because they know more about what they are paying for before entering. As for a special theme, Showcase fell short. I think a special theme is an important element to trade on as a nightclub because you need to distinguish yourself from other clubs, however the former two elements are more important, so you I don’t fault showcase for lacking a special theme.

After thinking about how I would value a nightclub I began to rethink my original criticism of Showcase. Maybe nightclubs don’t need to be particularly amazing, distinctive, or unique to be successful in Paris. Everyone might want to dance at sometime or another, and it doesn’t matter if it is in Paris, Detroit, or Rio. The uniform, commoditized nature of nightclubs across the world might even add to the exchange value of a nightclub so the customers have the right expectations, unlike myself, when going to the club.

Perhaps Showcase does just what it needs to make enough money to pay its Parisian rent, but I still have one complaint about going to a nightclub in Paris. The metro closes way to early!!!

Dagobert and Marie Antoinette

As I walked through the halls of Versailles with my dad, I couldn’t stop thinking “wow, someone lived here.” And the cool thing about being at Versailles was that you could look around at the walls and the figureheads and the statues and see exactly who had lived here, or at least who had visited. I remember standing for the longest time in front of a portrait and just trying to figure out her skirt. The artist had really done it justice. It was blue and silky in nature, covered with ribbons and curls and puffs of fabric. It took up almost the entire lower half of the painting. I think that historians focus too often on the architects of buildings, the painters of masterpieces, the sculptors of marble. I found myself wondering, as I walked through room after room of portraits, who had designed and brought to life these gowns. Not only was the ever-present French attention to detail plainly obvious, but I was awed by the mere structure of the garment. How had they managed to support all of the ribbons and accoutrements? How had they achieved such girth and still allow for basic movement? I suppose that the women who wore dresses like that were simply not expected to move around much, which is quite understandable. A dress that size must have been dreadfully heavy considering the fabric alone, without any structural support.

The size of the skirt also invites the mind to wander beneath it. Not necessarily in a dirty way. But, for example, could you fit your children under your skirts? I imagine a rich noblewoman at Versailles attending an official dinner where there were no kids allowed, but sneaking her 5 year old daughter in under her skirt. It wouldn’t be too difficult to do, after all she wouldn’t be expected to move around much so the girl could just watch the party through one of the ribbon-holes. I wonder if spies were ever smuggled in underneath someone’s skirts. Now that would create all kinds of problems involving skirt searches before official events. But in all honesty the potential for creativity with these outfits is nearly limitless.

I was also struck by the clothes worn by kings throughout the ages. And in this case I’m not talking about Louis XIV, although he was famous for his sense of fashion. I’m talking about back when kings were kings and kings were named Dagobert. Yes, Dagobert was King of the Francs back when dates had three numbers. There’s a hall in Versailles that is nondescript except for the line of marble statues and figureheads placed at regular intervals. Each statue is a king of France and each figurehead is a famous philosopher, writer, etc. But as you walk down the hall and father back into French history, you watch the shirts become longer, the armor more evident, the details slowly disappear. By the time we walked all the way to Dagobert, he was wearing a long floor-length robe and cape with a gilded belt at the waist. He wore a simple crown and held a staff and looked ready to face anything that might threaten his people. When you compare that to the ridiculousness that was Louis XIV in the center of the hall, Louis just looks like a dandy with too much time on his hands. I think that back in the time of Dagobert, people probably did not say that the clothes make the man. That was probably something Louis himself invented to vindicate his personal preferences when it came to vêtements.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Live music at Showcase: a failure

I would like to preface this by letting you know I was really excited to go to Showcase. It’s a club, or boîte en français, that I had heard a lot of really good things about, found nestled underneath Pont Alexandre off the Champs-Elysées. A group of us had been looking forward to this night of dancing for a while and were very disappointed when we arrived to find music not at all suited to our dancing mood.

We went in early to avoid paying the 15 euro cover charge and expected the club to be relatively dead for another half hour. What we didn’t expect was to feel dead ourselves, but that’s the feeling that the music induced. A male singer whined onstage, vaguely in time to depressing drumbeats and somewhat in tune to mediocre guitar. Perhaps I would feel more charitable to this emo band had I not been so anxiously waiting for some music that would make me feel like dancing. Farah and I tried to sway to the music and attempt an optimistic outlook on the situation but it we sat down after a bit after we realized it was hopeless.

When the band finally finished their set we perked up and were again optimistic that something good would come on, but the dudes (they were dudes) who got on stage next were even worse. They were three guys who clearly loved American Apparel and strived for the tragic hipster look so popular among 20-somethings in New York. They played live electronica that was neither exciting nor agreeable, and that in fact made us want to flee the club. The main dude mostly messed around on some kind of touch pad that controlled some aspect of the mixing. He was going crazy with it but his enthusiasm on stage was in now way mirrored on the dance floor, which was uncomfortably empty. To add insult to injury, he would occasionally yell out, “One, two, three, four,” in English, seemingly without reason that was jarring to our American ears.

I think the dude working the electric keyboard was worse. He was wearing a deep v-neck t-shirt with gratuitous chest hair peeking out the top. He would raise his arms periodically, showing off nasty armpit sweat stains. Not hip. We could have forgiven this unsightly gesture if the sounds emitted from their set weren’t ear-splitting and thoroughly un-dance worthy. We honestly tried to make our bodies move to the erratic beats, but unpredictable screeching didn’t do the trick.

It’s hard for me to tell how bad the music truly was from an objective standpoint. If it had been a stand-alone concert at a different venue, I may have felt indifferent toward it, or maybe even liked it since I do like some emo music as well as electronica. Their presence, however, in a dance club that had been hyped up, was thoroughly unpleasant and felt flat-out wrong. In the setting of a dance club, the music needs to reflect the purpose of the club and fulfill the wishes of the people who go there. Jen astutely surmised that since it was winter vacation for most French university students, Showcase may have been having an off-week. This is possible. It is unfortunate that we were there to witness the off-week and I don’t know if I’m willing to give it another go.

To summarize the live music experience at Showcase, I would use two words: tragic mismatch.

Haute Couture at Versailles

This past weekend I went to Versailles for the first time. That place certainly lives up to its reputation as an enormous orgy of gold, embroidery, extravagance, symmetry, and grandeur. Seeing the physical space helped me understand how Louis XIV had used Versailles for the consolidation of absolute monarchy. He designed the grounds and the Versailles lifestyle for that explicit purpose: to make the nobles obsessed with gossip, etiquette, and procedures of social rank; to tire them out with lots of walking followed by entertainment day and night; to require that they spend months here out of the year to sap their regional power. Obsession over fashion was in fact central to Louis XIV’s consolidation of power.

At the time, Versailles was definitely the center of European haute couture. Fashion begun at Versailles quickly spread throughout the ranks of European nobility. Louis XIV kept his nobles under control by constantly having new accessories or decorations added to the royal wardrobe. By necessity, each development caught on (a) because people basically worshipped him (b) because people demonstrated their social standing based on what they wore. In fact, one had to follow the latest fashion just to retain one’s rank! Because fashion was expensive and frequently changing, some nobles were driven into debt by living at Versailles. Then, Louis XIV would have even more power over them because he would become their creditor. It almost seems like one big psychological conspiracy, like Big Brother in guise of Disneyland for rich people!

Most people nowadays would find the fashion at Versailles extravagant to the point of absurdity. The men really liked their ribbons. They wore ribbons on their high-heeled shoes, at their knees, on their vests and coats. But why did anyone need over 250 yards of ribbon, gathered in bunches, on one vest? The women really liked big dresses… but dresses so big they couldn’t fit through doors, or do anything but walk and sit? The women also really liked their wigs. At Versailles, women’s hairstyles grew higher and higher until it was over 3 feet tall, supported with wire frames. They would decorate their wigs with flowers, plumes, models of ships and farm animals… and they would also not wash their hair for months at a time (a.k.a. head lice). But no worries, a fashionable solution to a fashionable problem! "Back scratchers" were invented to relieve the itching when the vermin became too active.

Ridiculous, right? Yet as I explored the grounds, I could not help but think how elements of crazy French royal fashion still reverberate in our society today. How does the craze of trends today resemble the craze of trends back then? Do trends sweep through society the same way? If they do, are they as exciting, as nonsensical, as extravagant, as beautiful and as ugly… and, ultimately, as ephemeral? These are big questions that I invite you to think about, and that I only ruminate on a little bit.

Provoked by these questions, I started taking pictures at Versailles of something I’ve been seeing a lot of this season: the boot. I don’t know what this boot is called. I don’t know anything about it or its origins. All I know is that this boot is everywhere. It has a low heel. It often has a decorative buckle at the top. It has a rounded toe. Hands down, all fashionable girls sport this boot this season, along with the necessary accessories: the colorful belted wool coats, the skirt or dress or long shirt that goes to the hips, stockings or tight dark blue jeans (no flares, those are totally out of style) tucked into the boots, and, last but not least, leather or faux-leather pouch-like shoulder bags with lots of straps. I don’t know what any of these things are called but the full ensemble is obvious and ubiquitous. For tromping around Paris in the winter, it’s actually quite practical. However, as we saw at Versailles, fashion knows little practicality. Sure enough, I hear that the Stanford Business School is the epicenter of the boot this season as well (Stanford as in Stanford, California. Yes, you read me right, because people really need knee high leather boots to go through the occasional drizzle). I also swear to you that this type of boot will be obsolete by next winter. Will next year’s fashionable winter boot be pointy? Will it be square toed? Will it lace up?

In spite of my satiric tone here, I should make clear that none of us live unaffected by the world of fashion. All of us are affected, and all of us partake in it, whether it’s at Barneys NY or the sales rack at GAP. Haute couture trickles down and permeates the wardrobes of even the most fashion-senseless.

Meryl Streep expresses this point powerfully in the movie The Devil Wears Prada. Playing Miranda Priestly, the editor in chief of Runway magazine, she says to Andrea (an intern who snickers as she watches Miranda equivocate over two belts, one turquoise, and the other… turquoise), “This... stuff? Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St. Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical to me how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.”

Therefore, even the most plebeian of us have no right to criticize.

(By the way, haute couture at Versailles still lives on, albeit anachronistically. Just in July 2007, it was used for a runway fashion show featuring renowned designers such as Chanel, Givenchy, and Dior. Just an interesting aside.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Modern music in a Medieval setting

         After hearing about the jazz bar that Heimunn attended with her host family, I was anticipating a chic club with fancy cushions and elegantly dressed Parisians while on my way to a jazz concert at Caveau de la Huchette. However, when I turned onto a lively street in the Latin quarter, I realized that it would probably be a little different. After escaping from a drunk guy who asked me if I would go to a club with him, I found the entrance and followed the sound of the music that was coming from the basement. I entered a room that was supported by aged stone walls and stone arches that reached almost halfway from the ceiling to the floor. There were some slightly dusty lanterns attached to the walls and rows of long wooden benches extending from the bottom of the curved staircase. A possibly unintentional addition to the cave-like effect was the echoing sound of water droplets leaking from a pipe. The scène looked like it was built in the middle ages. Indeed, I found out that the room has been kept in its authentic state since the around the 16th century, when it was used as a meeting place for the Rose Croix and the Templars. Two secret passages led out of the cave during the Revolutionary period, when it was transformed into a courtroom and site for exécutions. In the 20th century, it was the first place where jazz was played and became the known as the most popular jazz bars in Paris.

          Today, Le Haveau de la Huchette is still considered among the best in the city, and its likely the favorite among many Parisians. I discovered throughout the performance that the setting was a major part of the overall experience. The music was amplified by the reflection off of the stone arches, and everybody was close enough to the band to catch every detail of the performance. I watched the bassist and guitarist when they held their ears near the instruments to tune them between songs. I could see the pianists’ fingers moving adeptly around the keyboard, playing mostly relatively simple chords with his left hand and a lively melody in the right hand. He finished his solo with a sequence that traversed the higher octaves of the piano and came back down near middle C. The audience applauded after each of the musicians’ solos, which were good but not outstanding. Similarly, I enjoyed the songs that the band played over the course of the performance without being overwhelmingly impressed. My criticisms are that I couldn’t hear the pianist very well except for during the solos, and one of the solos was accompanied by the drummers’ sharp pattering rhythm that was a little distracting.

         During the last song, a couple got up and started to swing dance in the large open space in front of the band. They skillfully spun and glided around the dance floor, bringing more engery to the animated ambiance. Overall, the music provided a relaxing break from all the work I’ve had recently, and I was excited to be in a jazz bar for the first time. I was thankful for the opportunity to go out and listen to music on a Monday night, when I would normally be working on an Econ problem set if I were back at Stanford. Also, it might be difficult to find a jazz club in California in a cave dating from the middle ages. 

Le Caveau de la Huchette

Now I know what made my previous jazz experiences subpar: never before had the jazz taken place in a medieval dungeon.

Le Caveau de la Huchette in the effortlessly chic neighborhood of St. Michel fills this void. Its building is one of the many in Paris that benefits from what a few students have taken to calling the Harry Potter effect. In one of the Potter books, the characters camp out in tents that look modest from the outside, but within are magically manipulated to be able to accommodate the population of a small town. Likewise, Le Caveau’s street-level façade gives way to a cramped, narrow bar, with concerts held downstairs, in the magically expanded dungeon.

From the moment the Nicola Sabato Trio began to play, their music resonated to fill the entire room, including each person in the audience. With the warmth of every sound, from drum solo to applause, the wine or beer that many audience members held seemed redundant.

Having previously been to jazz concerts that placed the audience in stadium seating or at small café tables, the profound effect of Le Caveau’s layout surprised me.

1957 photo by Willy Ronis

I sat where in the photo above a woman in a white dress and white high heels is sitting, behind the dancing couple, looking straight ahead at the band across the small dance floor. From there without turning my head I had a view of almost every audience member, except for those in the alcove behind me. This perspective kept my impatient mind occupied, for I was not alone with the music I knew I grasped imperfectly at best; I was part of a kind of salon full of friends and strangers, all there to enjoy separately yet together.

The audience members smiled, kept the beat with tapping fingers on their knees or toes on the floor, occasionally chatted, and directed almost tangible appreciation toward the musicians. The band featured virtuosic soloes shamelessly targeted at audience approval, as well as the periodic fixed gaze of Sabato himself as he played the double bass. He stared from time to time at a space just past the microphone, a few feet from the ground. I would have thought he was referring to the sheet music, except that there was nothing there.

Le Caveau de la Huchette makes an American art form quite natural in a Parisian context, turns a fragmented audience into a living, breathing whole, and would admirably house an enemy to the throne. Situated between the Shakespeare and Company bookstore and half a dozen crêpe stands, around the corner from the Notre Dame cathedral, it offers jazz performances in an impossibly cool and potentially revelatory setting.

A Human Look at Paris and The Americans

Swiss photographer Robert Frank’s exhibit “A Foreign Look: Paris/ The Americans” is a fascinating collection of photos at Jeu de Paume definitely worth seeing before it ends on March 22, 2009. The exhibit displays two sets of photograph series by Frank, “Paris” and “The Americans,” side by side.

His “Paris” collection consists of photographs that Robert took while in postwar Paris from 1949 to 1952. As the title implies, most of the photographs concentrate on the streets of Paris, and people or objects often fall in the background. There is a recurring image of flowers throughout the collection of images. This series is a compilation of snapshots of Paris, and it doesn’t tell a fluid story. Frank seems to spontaneously capture the moments on the move.

“The Americans” series, taken by Frank from 1955 to 1956, is quite different. Unlike the “Paris” collection, this series does tell a coherent story, a story of racism, financial inequalities, and change that the country was going through at the time. As this title implies, most of the images include (and concentrate on) people. Under each photograph is a description of where the photograph was taken (eg. Chattanooga, Tennessee). The images are political. The images bring about many different emotional reactions from viewers. Like in his “Paris” series, Frank also captures the photographs from “The Americans” while on the move. It seems as if the Americans being photographed did not realize that they were on camera. Many say that this series “changed the history of documentary photography.” It is that strong.

The major messages in Frank’s two series are quite different. For example, “The Americans” emphasize race as a major cultural issue. The strongest photo that expresses this matter, in my opinion, is one that shows a bus with, from the front to back of the bus, a white man, a white woman, a white boy, a white girl, a black man, and a black woman. The white boy assumes the exact same body position and facial expression as the black man, but the boy confidently holds a pole of the bus, whereas the man drops his hand over the bus, almost as if he is saying, “I give up.” “Paris” does not emphasize race as an issue. In one photograph, a black man holds a white woman’s hand, and in another a white and black man talk and walk down the street together.
Although clearly different in depictions and political messages, similar important and deep messages permeate both series. In my opinion, putting these series side by side helped to highlight these messages.

Frank clearly rejects materialism and the elite in both series. In “The Americans,” he photographs a woman from Hollywood, as he clearly marks below the image, who is draped in feathers, jewels, and rich fabrics that go well with her perfect hairdo. She is beautiful, and I cannot help but think of how lucky she must feel, especially when comparing herself to the woman shown two photographs later, who is also from Hollywood but working in a fast-food diner— her head down, he facial expression of boredom— and wearing an ugly white uniform. However, Frank clearly changes my opinion of the luck of the Hollywood star when, towards the end of his story (the series) he shows a woman resembling the first Hollywood woman, still dressed fancily. This time, however, there are many people in the photo who seem to be dressed much more humbly and not a single person watches her; it is as though she is unimportant. She looks distressed and stares downward. In the “Paris” series, Frank also seems to make a statement against extreme wealth. He captures a moment in which a woman dressed in silk and covered in pearls is at a fancy ball with men in suits and indoor columns. This is one of the only photographs in the collection without flowers in it, perhaps suggesting that the elite are not well connected with the rest of world.

In both series, Frank also conveys problems of financial inequalities that exist in America and in Paris. In “The Americans,” he shows Butte, Montana, a horizontal photograph that emphasizes the low, dark buildings that are poor and breaking down. The following photo vertically depicts a New York City shiny building that seems tall and modern with colorful magazine stands in front of it.

In “Paris,” Frank similarly reminds the viewer of wealth inequalities that exist in the world. In one picture, he shows a man selling single flowers in the middle of the street to cars in order to make money to eat, while in another picture he shows rich folks buying bouquets of flowers at a store.

Furthermore, Franks images side by side reminded me of my tiny size in this colossal world. In “The Americans,” following the image of the New York City tall building, he shows a small Los Angeles businessman leaning against a huge building with a magazine titled “Awake,” as if to tell me that the businessman needs to wake up and realize that his role in the world is not as powerful as he thinks it is. The way that Frank depicts large open spaces occupied by tiny people also reminds me of my minor size. In one ironic photograph, he shows people walking away from “Rue de la Sante” between a huge wall and gigantic trees. I interpreted this photograph as if Frank was telling me that even though the humans in this photograph were symbolically rejecting “health,” it did not matter, since health, as represented by the street, was a lot larger (and more powerful) than them anyways.

The artist also uses death to emphasize the insignificant nature of humans in the world. In “The Americans,” a dead man lies in a tomb while those at his funeral look beyond him as if to indicate that they have already moved on. Similarly, in “Paris,” Frank photographs people walking by without paying attention to a memorial with flowers around it. Another photograph shows plastic flowers with a sign that reads “Remember your loved ones: 69 cents,” suggesting that those memories of loved ones are not worth much.

In a few instances, Frank catches similar objects on camera and portrays very different scenes to being about the same emotion in me. For example, in “The Americans,” he shows six adults, all around the age of 80, sitting on two benches back to back. Not a single one talks to another person. I feel sad because their facial expressions seem so lonely and bored, yet they are not friendly with one another. In “Paris,” on the other hand, Frank shows one adult sitting on a bench with a sign that expresses that he wants to help people move in and out of houses. This adult also looks lonely and bored, and I feel sad because no one is reaching out for his help.

The many similarities illuminated by these two exhibits side by side serve as powerful reminders of how connected each human is to each other. Whether through financial hardships, struggles of loneliness, episodes of sheer joy and love, feelings of insignificance, or simply through sharing a space on a street, each person can connect to each other. Since Robert Frank delineates such a wide variety of people and places in America and Paris, I think that each person can intimately relate to at least one of his photographs. A French mother with three black girls cutely expressed to her children how they could relate to an image of young, rich white boys, “Ils ont une mamon comme vous.” I hope that the mother realizes that she would have found many more similarities between her daughters and those in the photograph if she had just spent more time absorbing the messages that Robert Frank was delivering.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Jazz in Paris

I hadn't realized it at the time, but Le Caveau de la Huchette is one of the jazz clubs in Paris, at which the greats such as Lionel Hampton and Count Basie had played regularly. The building itself is fascinating; a 16th century building on one of the tiny windy streets in the Latin Quarter, rumored to have a been a meeting place for the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons. Later on, during the French Revolution, the extremist Jacobims had conducted trials and executions in the cellar. Naturally, the sense of intrigue was evident as we made our way into the dark club, then down the winding spiral staircases into the cellar.

The medieval cellar itself was interesting, with the walls and low ceilings of a typical French cave, but different levels even within the basement. Several tables were tucked away in the corners up a couple steps, while there was a big empty space on a slightly lower level surrounded by seats in front of the elevated stage. I was initially dubious about this layout; not only had we arrived too late to grab seats with a view of the stage, but I found the empty space in the middle of the room to be extremely awkward; I would imagine most other clubs would have filled this space with tables to create a cozier ambiance. Furthermore, despite the dim lighting of the bar upstairs, the basement was surprisingly well-lit, almost too bright for what I would have expected for an 'underground' jazz concert.

Soon after we arrived, the quartet featuring a pianist, a drummer, a bassist and a tenor saxophonist started to play. They opened with 'There Will Never Be Another You', which I took to be a good omen - after all, you can't go wrong with a Chet Baker standard, right? Unfortunately, the band did not live up to these expectations. Their solos were not impressive, and though by no means offensive, the rest of their set was ... comme ci comme ça.

However, the ambiance of the club more than made up for that shortfall. As soon as the second song started, a brave couple made their way to the dance floor and started dancing, quickly joined by others. The movement of the dancers filled up the empty space and helped to create the cozier atmosphere which had initially been missing. Together with the smaller tables tucked away at the back, partially-shielded by the stone walls, this created a unique intimate setting for the group without feeling like you were intruding into someone else's private space. In fact, it managed to placate my earlier concerns about the awkwardness of the empty space, and the lack of intimacy.

This was in stark contrast to my first Parisian jazz club experience at the beginning of the quarter, when my host parents took me to see a jazz trio at the Jazz Cartoon in Montmartre. Though it was also underground in a similar cave, and the songs being played were similar (albeit by, dare I say, better musicians), Jazz Cartoon created its own sense of intimacy by squashing in as many chairs into the basement as possible, keeping the lighting extremely dim with candles on each table. Despite everyone feeling as though they were being squashed onto someone else's lap, the darkness and the layout of the tables made it easy to focus on the music, and I quickly found myself mesmerized. In a somewhat conflicting manner, I felt wholly submerged in the music and almost oblivious to my surroundings, yet still conscious of the crowd around me who shared exactly the same state of mind.

Rather, at La Caveau de la Huchette, the emphasis was clearly on the ambiance of live music, rather than on the music itself. This was made apparent by the dancing, the mediocre band, the ongoing conversations throughout the evening and the layout of the cellar. It was definitely not at all the experience that I had expected, but I finally came to terms with that fact, and it was nevertheless still a highly enjoyable evening of jazz.

Jazz, 'Round Midnight

We went to Le Caveau de la Huchette with no idea of what to expect. We were looking for jazz clubs online and this was one of the few that we found in the Fifth arrondisment that we were going to scope out. All we had was the address. It turned out to be a great success.

I’m a relatively accomplished musician. I’ve been playing various instruments since kindergarten, including (in chronological-ish order,) the violin, mandolin, bass, clarinet, tenor saxophone, trombone, guitar, piano and ukulele. I played jazz trombone throughout high school, and I am now a member of the LSJUMB (which I wouldn’t consider one of my greater musical achievements). All that said, I think I have a pretty solid appreciation for music, particularly regarding jazz.

I’m still not sure who was performing when we went to the club. It was a four-man combo—tenor, piano, bass and drums. They started their first set a little before eleven, just after we arrived, with a song I recognized but have thusly forgotten. By my first impression I was not impressed. It seemed as though the front man (tenor sax) had not warmed up and his tone was quite atrocious. As the set progressed, he mellowed out, but I can’t say I was a big fan of the harsh tone.

Personally, I’m used to clubs like Yoshi’s and Jazz at Pearl’s, where the point of going is to see the musician. You could tell from the set up that this club was not about the musicians. When we went downstairs (where the band was performing), I was surprised to find that the greater part of the club was taken up by a dance floor surrounded by cushioned benches along the walls. Oddly, though the club was piping in swing through the speakers and the benches were relatively crowded, nobody was dancing. From my experience, this was somewhat strange. Typically, if there’s a dance floor, people are dancing, otherwise there’re tables taking up the space. It felt somewhat awkward, because the space immediately in front of the riser was completely empty. It seemed to me that the put more focus on the dance floor than the band. This became clear when couples flooded the dance floor in the long breaks between sets.

What I realized after a few songs was that we were not at a jazz club to appreciate virtuosic musical performance. One couple started dancing on the second song, and from that point on, there was almost always at least two or three couples on the dance floor. It seemed pretty apparent that people went there for the atmosphere and the live music. Le Caveau de la Huchette had a particularly interesting atmosphere because it’s in a really old building that (according to the website) used to be a courtroom, prison and execution chamber. It was a great place to go to hang out and listen to some live music and have a few drinks and chat, but it was not at all what I would consider a concert hall.

The thing that interested me most about Le Caveau de la Huchette was the different focus. I feel like when people go to listen to live jazz in the Bay Area, it’s to listen to the band. People sit at their tables and whisper tidbits of conversation while the band is playing, and clap politely after solos and at the end of songs. From my experience in Paris thus far, live music is for the audience, not the musicians. It’s a nice change of pace.

Jazz Underground

This week I went to a small Jazz club by St. Michele Metro Station called Caveau de la Huchette, and as the name of the venue would suggest, the music was played underground in an old cellar. JW made the plans to go to this particular jazz club, so I actually didn’t know that the music would be played in a basement. Thus it was quite a pleasant surprise when we were directed from the bar down the customarily steep and winding stairs into the cellar. When we reached the bottom I found myself looking at a basement where the low-hanging stone arches and the musty smell reminded me of a cathedral’s crypt (of which I have seen my fair-share so far in Europe). This time, however, instead of feeling obligated to appreciate some variety of historical site I was thrilled to be taking in some jazz in such a different setting.

As I looked around the cellar more, I could imagine anything from a group of monks in prayer to an aristocrat’s wine collection filling the space. Additionally, the space had a very three-dimensional feel because of the number of different levels of flooring in the room. I counted six small sets of stairs throughout the entire basement that led to little nooks and throughout the larger room it had a number of small tables and chairs. It allowed for each separate group to have a very intimate feeling with their own group, but my only complaint was that there was a somewhat large open area with no tables directly in front of the stage. I felt that that took away from the intimacy of the basement, and that the audience could have sat much closer to the band. However, once the first fearless couple pranced onto the dance floor, the space appeared to shrink in size and I felt like I was closer to the band.

Not only did the cave-like feel of the basement venue add to the ambience, but I also really liked how the music sounded. It seemed to cascade into your ears from all directions, and the saxophone, in particular, sounded more robust than I think it otherwise would have. I thought about the IRCAM concert hall, where they can rotate panels in the walls in order to achieve a certain acoustic effect, and I wondered if it would be able to simulate the intimate feel of the basement. My romantic side wanted to say no, that technology couldn’t come close to replicating the feeling, but the more technically oriented side of my brain was already ruminating on how it could be possible.

Luckily, before I got too caught-up with theories of acoustics, of which I am acquainted with to a trivial extent, I realized that my head had been slowly rocking to the music while I had been thinking. So, if you’ve been wondering up to this point about the music I will start by saying this: it was “head-bob worthy”. Like I said, I found myself doing an absent-minded, slow head-bob. You might think “head-bob worthy” sounds like a non-committal, clumsy, or overly creative way of saying “good”. I am, however, going to stand by my use of “head-bob worthy” because I feel that it appropriately conveys what I thought about the music. I thought the music was tepid, inexpressive, and mild, although each performer had the chance to play a solo or two, they all lacked a feeling of connection with the music or an effort to express emotion. The music was good, the musicians were professionals, but in an effort to make the music dance-friendly and audience friendly I think it came out flat. Of course, the musicians might feel obligated to put on a show that would appeal to the widest audience possible, but I suppose I had been looking for more. Thus, as someone who cannot dance well, I found the music to be worthy of a good head-rock, but not rich enough to keep me from pondering the acoustic properties of the basement's low stone ceiling.

Spontaneity through Metro Music: A Brief View of the True Heart of Paris

Upon disembarking from my train at the Chatelet metro stop, one of Paris’ busiest subway stations, lively music met my ears. As I drew closer, I could see a group of men and women set up against the wall in the station on the walkway between line 1 and line 4. Their diverse group of instruments including the marimba, cello, violin, drums, shakers and flute, succeeded in creating a diversion for the throngs of people walking by. Although I have seen many talented single artists play in the stations, a violinist at the Louvre-Rivoli, a guitarist at the Place d’Italie, the atmosphere generated by this group was unique.

Perhaps it was the bohemian, Jamaican style piece that provided the exotic touch needed to infiltrate the minds and hearts of the Parisians. There was an incredible energy in this group’s movements as their shaking, dancing and swaying added to the liveliness, despite the character of the chill and laid back piece they were playing. A twinkle in each of their eyes and the enjoyment that showed on their faces led me to believe that they were playing for more than just the coins that were being thrown in their empty guitar case.

Upon hearing the music, I felt a bubble of happiness rise within me, and I could tell that I was not the only one on which this music had such an effect. Not only were these musicians musically talented, their art completely transformed the metro station, creating a relaxed atmosphere and bringing to life the dimly lit walkways. In our orientation, we were told that it is culturally taboo to smile at those we don’t know, and this philosophy has been evident upon viewing the straight and focused faces of the Parisians on the metro. Yet, this group caused each and every individual who walked by to smile and even pause for a minute to enjoy the scene that was unfolding around them.

Although this group didn’t make use of the common musical devices such as crescendos and tempo changes normally deemed necessary to create an artistically divine piece, I did not feel that this was the time and place to do so. Compared to other performances, this music was all about touching people in the few seconds that they walked by. The volume, rhythm and beat of the piece provided a stark contrast from the rush and constant murmur present in the metro stops, and it was this juxtaposition that succeeded in capturing my attention.

To me, this music was just as exciting because of the reactions it elicited as it was because of the artistry that the musicians exhibited. It represented the "real" Paris, a vision that is often not consistent with the tourist and guidebook definition, but rather, one that emphasizes the diversity, energy, and vitality that contributes to the true heartbeat of Paris. The beauty of it was the spontaneity of the moment and making the most of the opportunity when it was least expected.

Caribbean Music in Paris’ Metro (?!) : A Dreamy New Yorker’s Reality Check

I will begin this response by reminding my audience, as is my unintentional now-made-intentional habit every time, that I am a native New Yorker. As such, I grew up with an urban subway system. Gritty, dirty, and rat-infested as they are, they form the backbone to any large city. The subway was an everyday part of my existence commuting to school and around the city, so I saw all sorts of public space music. Performances ranged from Chinese guzheng to classical Western violinists, from Latin American wooden windpipes to hip hop that blared from boom boxes surrounded by somersaulting break-dancers in silver suits. Colorful, right? Diversity was assumed. New York is a melting pot and its subways performances are melting pots too.

But for some strange dreamy reason, I expected to hear nothing but accordion music in Parisian metros. Not just any type of accordion music, mind you, but accordion music just like Yann Tiersen’s compositions for the soundtrack for the movie Amelie. Maybe because I absolutely that movie and have watched it many times over, I have come to regard that and only that music as quintessentially Parisian public space / metro music.

Indeed, I lived happily in that illusion for quite a while. Before my arrival, I took care to upload the Amelie soundtrack on my iPod. The first thing I did when I arrived was drop off my bags at the hostel and immediately go out for a walk with my iPod. I wandered over to the Siene, crossed the bridge, and walked to Notre Dame, all while listening to that soundtrack. It was perfect. It was so… Paris. I was so excited. I could hardly believe my eyes and ears. It was a long anticipated dream come true. I was such a romantic.

Slowly, however, I realized that Paris is not a one-dimensional-accordion-music-everywhere city, but a multicultural and diverse city. Opera singers replaced accordion music in the metro. Ok, I said to myself, this is still quite European, I can still deal with this. I’ve certainly never seen opera singers in New York subways, so it’s different enough to still be “Paris”. Opera singers were then replaced by sad-looking violinists and somber-looking cellists. I do see them sometimes in New York, but not quite as often as other sorts of performers. So, I could still deal with that. It was still “Paris”.

Then, for this response, Aleema wanted to write about a Caribbean band that she kept seeing in Chatelet between Lines 1 and 4. We had been excited to write about metro music since literally Week 1, but had never talked about exactly what type of metro music. I didn’t have the heart/guts to push, “But why not do something more Parisian?” (a.k.a. accordion music! Like, duh!) After all, her group is also Paris. With that, my Parisian accordion dreams were shattered.

…It was a large group, the largest band I have seen in the Paris subways thus far. Music from the marimba, wooden flutes, and drums echoed off the tile walls, filling the metro hall with heady flavor. The musicians’ energy radiated onto the audience. I’m not knowledgeable enough to identify the exact genre- was it Caribbean but also with some Latin American influences? At any rate, it was all so vibrant and so alive, quite different from the sad violinists and lonely opera singers I have seen, whose music makes the metro seem empty rather than full! As I watched and listened, entranced, my thoughts began to wander. This music sounds like something I would hear in a big subway station in New York, such as Union Square, Grand Central, or Times Square. Then it struck me: wait, Chatelet is the Parisian equivalent of those stations -- it’s one of the biggest Metro/RER transfer stations in the city. Oh the parallels! Oh wait- did I just feel like I was back in New York City? Was I just, ever so slightly, kind of homesick?

Thus, this Caribbean band has led me full circle. For a brief moment I forgot that I was in Paris. That brief moment made me realized that Paris is more similar to New York and other cosmopolitan cities than I had wanted to believe. This is a theme Mark had mentioned in class, but only now do I fully understand what Mark meant.

I still have some more questions though. How far away can we really get from a world cosmopolitan culture then? How diverse is Paris, exactly? I’m still trying to figure this one out. Is it a melting pot just like New York is? No, it can’t be AS much as New York, for historical, political, and geographical reasons… and also because I still haven’t seen my hip-hop blaring boom boxes and somersaulting break-dancers in silver suits. When I do, maybe I will reconsider that New York statement.