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Julien Brocal: Music Finds a Way

Julien Brocal: Music Finds a Way

December 5, 2020

Behind every great piece of music there’s a fascinating story about its creation. Sometimes our most beloved music emerges out of life’s serendipitous twists, difficult circumstances, and unforeseen pitfalls.

Producer and narrator: Zachary Patten
Mixing Engineers: Jim Ruberto and Monte Nickles

Julien Brocal plays Ravel

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00:03 ZACHARY PATTEN: For every great piece of music, there’s a fascinating story behind its creation. Sometimes those stories tell us, for better or worse, how a chain of events plays out; the successes, the failures, the serendipitous twists, and the unforeseen pitfalls. These stories enchant us and pull us more deeply into the romantic ethos of the music. But how many great pieces were never completed, or were lost, or never even written at all, because of an unfortunate chain of events? On the other hand, how much of our most beloved music came to be out of desperate circumstances?

00:46 French pianist and composer, Julien Brocal, is a familiar face at Tippet Rise. He has championed some of the genuinely iconic piano repertoire by composers like Ravel, Debussy, and Mompou; and he’s performed his own original compositions in the Olivier Music Barn. Recently, Julien was invited back to Montana for a three-week residency. The plan was to spend the first two weeks immersed in the creative process; spending time on the land, in the Beartooth Mountains, and listening carefully to the ebbing and flowing of nature’s sounds. In the final week, before the ink was thoroughly dry, a session was planned to record the new compositions, which could then be shared with the world.

01:29 As fate would have it, Julien’s entire residency and the creation of his beautiful piano music almost didn’t happen. Time and time again, roadblocks appeared and circumstances almost proved impossible, but music finds a way.

01: 52 By 1905, Maurice Ravel had four times been rejected from the coveted Prix de Rome prize. The Prix de Rome was a French scholarship which allowed art students to live and work in Rome for three to five years, at the expense of the state. Originally established in 1663 for visual artists, the prize expanded in 1720 to include architecture and music in 1803. Being selected or not for the prize had polarizing effects. Painter Jacques-Louis David considered suicide after losing three years in a row. Although in the 1920s and 30’s Ravel would be hailed as the greatest living composer in France, his consistent rejections for the ultimate prize in composition were no doubt disheartening.

02:42 Julien’s story parallels Ravel’s 1905 experience. This is a modern-day version of rejection. It deals with country borders, visas, and unlucky events which can overwhelm the creation and flourishing of music. In part one of this two-part podcast, Julien talks about his experience and how the opportunity to musically embody the Montana environment, and share that music with the world, was nearly canceled.

03:11 JULIEN BROCAL: This residency at Tippet Rise has been planned for, let’s say almost a year now. I’ve been looking forward to this residency because in my regular life I don’t have free time to just sit and think of creativity. So I was grateful to have a space and a time frame to dedicate to that project. The next thing that happened is that I was invited to have concerts before this residency, which made even more sense to come over for work, first, and being in this place.

03:55 ZP: When did you arrive in America for your concerts?

03:58 JB: On the twenty third of October, in Indiana. Before New York, we had a concert with Camie Toma at Purdue University in Indiana.

04:08 ZP: When you first flew into Indiana, and talked with the customs agent, what happened?

04:13 JB: That’s when I found out that my business visa was ending on the thirty first of October. There was another date that wasn’t matching this, which said that my visa was ending in 2024. That’s why my manager and I thought we were good to go, until 2024.

04:40 ZP: So your residency was planned through November 19, but according to the fine print on your visa, you were supposed to leave on Oct. 31st. How did you feel when you were told that you needed to leave the country really before your artist residency would begin?

04:54 JB: It was quite a shock after a twenty six hour trip from Belgium to learn that I would have to leave the country.

05:04 ZP: What did you say to the customs agent?

05:06 JB: I didn’t let go. I told the U.S. patrol that I needed to stay for a month because I had this residency, in which everything was set up. There were people coming to help out and to make this recording good. So, I did fight to stay more, and the guy gave me until the 10th of November.

05:40 ZP: Was that just a random date?

05:42 JB: Yea, he said, “I’m going to give you ten more days.” I said, “But, I need to stay until the 19th. Ten is not enough. Why don’t you give me until the 19th and we’re good?” He said, “Don’t you think I’m already being nice by giving you ten more days?” And I accepted because he gave me idea to get a tourist visa, to drive to the Canadian border and come back into America under the tourist visa. He explained to me exactly how to do it. I thought it was a bit crazy but, I have a day off after my concert in New York, so let’s do it. I’ll rent a car and drive, I’ll do it.

06:35 ZP: So while you played concerts in Indiana and New York, in the back of your mind, you knew that there remained this issue that you had to leave before the end of the residency.

06:44 JB: For me, I had part of the solution in my mind, so everything was clear. I would get the papers done before coming to Montana, in order to have the three weeks with a mind free of any troubles.

07:06 ZP: That makes sense. You wanted to be able to focus on the inspiration of the land and compose this music without any other distractions. So the customs agent suggested that you drive to Canada to try this. What were you thinking about the night before you drove?

07:22 JB: The concert in New York was recorded and filmed. After the concert there was signing session of CD’s and it took quite a long time. Then, we had to do some audio patch for the recording and filming.

07:42 ZP: But you knew that you had to wake up and drive to Canada.

07:45 JB: Yes, very early because the trip to the border is a twelve-hour drive.

07:51 ZP: After a long day of performing, filming and recording, you finally make it to your residence.

07:57 JB: The next day, on my planned drive to the Canadian border, the idea was to also make a stop at Storm King Art Center in order to visit the place that inspired Peter and Cathy Halstead to built Tippet Rise Art Center. It was important for me as a first step before coming back to Tippet Rise, to witness where the inspiration and source. The plan was to rent the car at 7 am and I went directly to bed - no party, nothing! I have a mission tomorrow.

08:48 ZP: Following the years of rejection by the judges of Prix de Rome, Ravel decided to take an extended vacation to Belgium, Holland, and Germany. He was invited to accompany his friends Alfred and Misia Edwards for a cruise on their yacht. Even though Ravel had been rejected four times by the directors of the Paris Conservatory, his compositions were still in demand. Before he set sail, he was approached by the Erard piano company, who provided pianos and harps to the Paris Conservatory. Ravel loved the pianos produced by Erard. He even wrote to the company director, Albert Blondel “I have chosen, out of all the admirably diverse instruments, the one with velvet tone and with bass strings like deep flutes. To take pleasure in the sonority itself, I would play it all day, only perfect intervals, if it were not for my fear that I would lose my reputation.” In the three days leading up to the cruise, Ravel worked non-stop. He pushed so hard to finish the commission before the trip, that on the day of his departure, he was exhausted and hurried to gather his belongings, which included the manuscript of the new piece.

10:05 ZP:That morning, what were you feeling as you made your way to get the rental car?

10:07 JB: It’s like I was late for everything in the morning. I figured that I was already delayed by thirty minutes for the rental car, so I thought I would get a cab to get there. I got a cab and arrived at the rental station. They asked me for the credit card with which I reserved the car. I opened my wallet and my credit card was missing. Of course I forgot it in my concert jacket from the previous day. I didn’t bring the concert jacket with me, it was at the apartment. Because the plan was that I would rent a car, then go to the apartment to get my suitcase, and it was in the suitcase, of course. I have another credit card, but it’s a debit card and they don’t take it. So, I had to drive back to the apartment in a cab. I asked for the driver to wait for me and I tell him it’s not going to be long. I got my suitcase, just in case I forgot something else. I got back to the rental station and said, “OK, I have the credit card, everything should be in order.” I have to hit the road soon because I see the time and I’m already delayed by an hour in my schedule. The problem is that the amount I can spend during the week on the credit card is maxed out and I can’t make a deposit for the car. I tried to call my bank for a solution to extend the amount on the card. The thing is that on Mondays, the 28th of October was a Monday, the banks are closed in France. I couldn’t figure out a solution for it and I tried the assistance call. The only thing they could do for me is to block the card, but they can’t get the amount increased. So I’m thinking there’s no solution and I can’t rent the car. I figured the amount I can spend on that day was 190 euros, but the deposit was $250.00. So, I was almost there. I explained the situation to the person and the desk saying, “Look, I have to go to the Canadian border in order to get back with an ESTA, a tourist visa, and if I don’t do that today, I’ll be in trouble and I will be deported. I would be grateful if there is a solution.” Already my day was troubled; I forgot my card, I came back and can’t get the car. So they said, “Today, Julien, we are going to be your guardian angels. You’re going to make this trip, everything is going to be well, and we will look after you because you have to get the car back at JFK before your flight to Montana, tonight, so we’ll make sure everything is good for you.” They reduced the deposit cost to exactly what I had on the card, which was 190 euros. So, I felt blessed! These guys cared about my situation, which could get me in trouble. I could simply not get the car and be stuck there.

14:31 ZP: In one of Ravel’s letters, he described his preparation for the cruise while also working on the commission. “A week of continuous work and three sleepless nights.” To take full advantage of the rare vacation, he raced to finish the piece before he set sail. On the day of his departure Ravel hastily gathered his belongings and manuscript. He had to make a quick stop to pick up some shirts he ordered specifically for his trip. He got the shirts and realized he was already running quite late. He ran to the harbor, and searched for his party, only to find that the yacht and his friends had already set sail. In frustration, Ravel took inventory of his belongings and discovered that his original manuscript for the Erard commission was missing. He retraced his steps to the clothing store. The store owner, an amateur musician, resisted at first, but eventually returned the manuscript to Ravel. Ravel then made his way to the neighboring village, where he met up with his friends to begin his much-needed vacation on the French waterway.

15:46 JB: So I got the car and I hit the road and we arrived at Storm King. I spent two wonderful hours there with a curator who explained to me everything about the sculptures. Like the Mark di Suvero works we can see here (at Tippet Rise), there are plenty of them at Storm King. There are some Calder sculptures as well. I was understanding more links and the relationship with Tippet Rise. The season was the fall season in New York and it’s just gorgeous. The colors of the trees are just stunning. So, I forgot about all my problems for two hours.

16:40 ZP: Now did you really forget about your problems?

16:41 JB: I was not in a rush anymore! I was just at peace. That was wonderful and I’m so grateful for this two-hour break from my struggle. Then, they offered me lunch and I could hit the road again. I had almost five hours to drive to the Canadian border. I listened to some music and I was at peace after this beautiful visit. When I arrived at the Canadian border, the landscape had changed so much on the way. You see the trees without leaves anymore the farther north you go. It’s almost winter already.

17:46 I arrived at the border and there was a lady asking me why I am coming to Canada. I am very transparent to her and I said, “I have a business visa ending and I have to come back into the country with a tourist visa.” She asked me for my petition and I showed her my papers. She didn’t understand that the actual business visa was for America, not for Canada, so there was a mistake there. She sent me to the interview room for controls. I parked, went there, and told my story to another person there. I said “My business visa is ending and I need to come back to America with a tourist visa.” He told me that “Canada is not a roundabout where you enter and come back to America.” He gave me a paper saying that I’m allowed to leave Canada. I thought this paper was proof that I entered into Canada and that I was good to go to the U.S. border. So, I made a u-turn and went to the U.S. border. I explained my situation that I am coming back under an ESTA, and they sent me to the interview room. So, I get this nice customs guy and he’s really willing to help and find a solution for me. I explained everything. After twenty minutes of talking he said, “I will ask my manager for a solution.” He called the manager while I waited for five minutes. He asked me to come back and said, “You know what? I had Donald Trump on the phone and he tells me you’re good to go.”

20:20 ZP: Really?

20:21 JB: Really, like that! “You’re good to go.” I said, “Wow, that’s amazing! How can I thank you?” I told him that I have recordings in the trunk and asked if he liked classical music. I have recorded Ravel and French music, and if you’d like, I want to offer a recording to say thank you for allowing me to come back, and for figuring out a solution. He tried to put the new information into the computer, that I’m coming back with the ESTA, and the computer wouldn’t let him override my business visa. He asked for help from another colleague. The colleague arrived and said, “Oh no, you can’t do that. This guy is going to be in trouble. You simply can’t do that because the Canadian guys didn’t put a stamp on his passport. He didn’t actually enter another country, so you can’t help.” I asked, “What’s my solution out there, what should I do?” The other colleague said, “You should leave on the tenth if you don’t want to have any trouble.” I said, “But everything is already settled for me to stay until the 19th, it’s big trouble.” He said, “I’m sorry, but there’s no other solution, or you could try flying to Mexico and try your chance there.” I replied, “But, I’m forty miles from Montreal and if I want to fly from some place, it should be Montreal.” He said, “Well, in that case, you should try again to cross the Canadien border, but this time don’t say that you’re making a u-turn. Say that you have actual business there and a reason to stay in Canada for awhile.”

22:32 JB: So that’s what I did. I took the car, I made a uturn, and tried again with the Canadian border. The thing is that I’m almost already back at the border and I forgot about the stop sign. There is a stop sign before getting there and there was a car in front of me. I didn’t remember to stop and I drove just behind the car that was already at the control.

23:04 ZP: So, a traffic violation happens, now what do you do?

23:06 JB: I should reverse and get back to the stop sign! But it’s too late, the car in front of me is now crossing the border. So, I go forward to another lady. She said, “Are you in a rush for something? Didn’t you see the stop sign?” I said, “I’m sorry, I was in my thoughts and I didn’t pay attention, I’m sorry. I’ve been driving awhile, from New York, and I’m tired from the road.” She said, “What is your actual business, why are you coming to Canada?” I said, “I have a dinner in Montreal.” “When you are leaving?” “Well, I’m going back to New York.” She said, “Isn’t it a bit crazy to do a twelve-hour round trip just for a dinner? What are you really doing there?” I said, “Yes, but I’m meeting friends and it’s important for me.” She said, “But, why can’t you stay longer than just a dinner?” “Well, I have a flight tomorrow morning, from JFK, and I’m flying to Montana. So, I’m paying just a visit because I was in New York and I figured it’s close by.” She said, “But still, it’s even crazier that you have a flight tomorrow morning and you’re doing this round-trip. You’re lying to me, what is really your reason?” I just dug my grave more and more. So I took a huge breath and I said, “Ok, I tried to cross the border an hour ago, in a different lane. This is what happened, your colleague gave me a paper saying that I’m allowed to leave, but the U.S. border wouldn’t stamp my passport with a tourist visa, so I tried again. What I need is just a stamp, that’s all, and you won’t see me again - I won’t bother you anymore.” She sent me back to the interrogation room for an interview and this time it was worse. There was the previous woman who didn’t let me in and the new one, and they were talking to each other. They made a point that I shouldn’t try it again and they escorted me back in the patrol car to the U.S. border. I felt really humiliated. For me, it was not a big deal to put a stamp, not as a favor, but to understand the situation there. I’m not putting anyone in trouble, I’m just trying to find a peaceful solution for something that might bring something good. Not only for me, but to everyone. The U.S. border patrol saw me again and they were proud of me trying a second time. They said, “So, Julien, will you try a third time? Will you try to cross it a third time?” I said, “I think if I do that, I’ll end up in jail tonight.” They said, “You’re probably right, don’t do it.”

27:44 ZP: The age limit to apply for the Prix de Rome was 30, and this might’ve been the motivation that the 30 year old Ravel needed to apply for his fifth, and last, chance. Unlike Julien, Ravel didn’t face the potential of jail for his attempt, but when it was discovered that Ravel’s submission didn’t even make it past the first round, the scandal that emerged caused political pandemonium. Newspapers broke the story and there was an uproar within the conservatory. It was revealed that all six finalists were, in fact, students of the judges. Eventually, because of what is now called the “Ravel scandal”, the director of the conservatory resigned. Ravel remained scarred by the experience, however, and held disdain for institutions of art and the Paris conservatory. He would later refuse France’s highest order of merit, the French Legion of Honor. Ravel continued to work at his craft and upon his return from the inspirational yacht trip, which was the first time he had been abroad, he produced masterpiece after masterpiece, including Sonatine, Miroirs, and the Erard commission, Introduction and Allegro.

28:59 JB: And that’s it. I hit the road again, quite desperate, and it was already dark. I knew I had to drive six hours back to New York. I didn’t know if I might get deported, or maybe there’s paperwork I could do to figure out a solution?” I really didn’t know what to do and I was exhausted. I felt humiliated and I just didn’t know.

29:48 ZP: Stay tuned to hear how Julien’s rejection at the border inspired him to place an even greater value on music’s ability to transcend borders and build the bridges of understanding and empathy between cultures. To get monthly episodes you can subscribe through Apple podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts and Castbox. As always, thank you for listening to the Tippet Rise Podcast.