Paris in a piano
00:03 MELISSA MOORE: Welcome to the Tippet Rise podcast, brought to you from Tippet Rise Art Center, located on a 12,000 acre ranch in Fishtail, Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park. I’m Melissa Moore. At Tippet Rise, we celebrate the synergy of art, architecture, music, and nature, out of which we weave our identities. The Tippet Rise podcast explores these connections. Today’s episode, produced by Zachary Patten, takes us to a conversation between Tippet Rise cofounder, Peter Halstead, and pianist composer, Julien Brocal, where they examine inspiration, the creative process, and Paris in the 1920’s. They also discuss music by composers Federico Mompou and Maurice Ravel, and how Julien approaches his own original compositions.
01:03 [music Federico Mompou La fuente y la campana]
01:07 PETER HALSTEAD: Two central aesthetics, hiding the most vibrant sensibility, under an apparent modesty, using a language whose clarity, nuanced by mysterious shadows, serves the most pure expression. In the Fountain and the Bell, La fontaine et la cloche, the French pianist uses a pronounced slowness, disturbing echoes, notes left in the sound board. Julien Brocal distinguishes himself by his finesse, his control of sound, not far from Arcadi Volodos. And to compare Julien with Volodos is like comparing anyone with Horowitz in the last hundred years.
02:17 ZACHARY PATTEN : Reflections is the title of his second album which vividly transports the audience to the Basque region, the border between France and Spain, where natives Maurice Ravel and Federico Mompou originated and, here, have been smartly reunited by the young composer-pianist, Julien Brocal. In the summer of 2018, at a pre-concert discussion, Brocal spoke with Tippet Rise cofounder, Peter Halstead, about the well received album and the more intimate process of composition, sources of inspiration and being true to one’s art.
02:52 [music Julien Brocal Stainless Stealer]
02:55 PH: The poet, John Keats, said that when he started to write a poem, he would have an idea, and then by the time he wrote the poem, it would be nothing like the idea he had. He would get completely away from the original idea, because the words take you wherever they are going to take you. And it was Ernst Krenek, the theoretician and philosopher, who said that when you compose a piece for the piano, the whole exists before the parts. You think of the whole, and then what you do as a pianist when you reproduce the composer’s thoughts, you simply try to find that whole present again, and you don’t concentrate on the notes. What music is about isn’t the notes, it’s about the feeling, it’s about the mood. It’s about what are trying to convey? So I want to ask Julien, how do you think about music when you compose it?
04:04 JULIEN BROCAL: Well I never decide to compose. I like to improvise, that’s my main passion. Even when I start to practice, like I have this program to prepare, I, straight away, start to improvise from the piece that I’m practicing. And somehow, sometimes, I want to keep what I’m improvising because I’m interested in keeping the ideas and from these ideas, they build up like a puzzle. I don’t decide. It’s kind of a present to the moment. It’s not a choice I make, if it’s coming or not. And if it doesn’t come, then I let go.
05:05 PH: And you were saying also that you don’t second guess it. Once you’ve got it, you don’t try to add to it, or fancy it up.
05:15 JB: I leave it as it is. Like I’m capturing the moment. It was like that, it happened like that.
05:30 PH: And amazingly, I was walking by Stillwater, the cottage up there, last year and I heard this beautiful Ravel coming from the piano in there. And so I opened the door and there was Julien playing. I said “so what piece of Ravel is that I don’t know?” He said “It’s not Ravel, it’s me.”
05:50 ZP: Julien Brocal is a French pianist and composer. His first solo recording, received with critical acclaim, of works by Chopin was released in 2017 by Rubicon Classics. Julien is the student of Erik Berchot and Rena Shereshevskaya and began learning the piano at the young age of five. Today, not only does Julien tour internationally, but he also fosters music education through the Partitura Project, where a unique launch pad has been created to help students master their instruments and deepen their understanding of music. Some of his many performances include Warsaw, Florence, and Tippet Rise Art Center in Montana.
06:36 [music Julien Brocal Souvenir]
06:40 PH: Freud said that we see ourselves the way other people see us. We look at what other people are seeing, and we say “Ah” I see, they are seeing that, so I better be that. I better give them what they want. And so you readjust yourself to that. You play in a hall and suddenly you feel the bloodlust, you feel that the crowd wants octaves, they want speed, they want to be blown away by virtuosity, and suddenly you betray everything you are by playing to a crowd that isn’t you.
07:31 ZP: In the 1920’s and 30’s, composer and pianist, Maurice Ravel was internationally regarded among the great French composers, but it did not begin like this. From age 25-30, Ravel submitted his compositions for a chance to win the coveted Prix de Rome prize and he was rejected all five times. During this period he composed a five movement suite for solo piano called “Miroirs”, with each movement dedicated to a fellow member of the artistic outcast group of Parisian musicians, writers, and artists to which Ravel belonged, called “The Apaches.”
08:10 [music Maurice Ravel Une Barque sur L’Ocean]
08:13 PH: So even though we see ourselves through others, this is the point that Ravel was trying to make with his “Miroirs”. Mirrors suggest the mirror of other people. But maybe what he’s trying to say is that these mirrors of ourselves are actually not real because Ravel believed he was a craftsman. He worked at it like he was making a desk and there it was. So he felt he was a little cynical of what he was doing. He was trying to paint the picture of a barque on the ocean, but maybe he was being a little tongue and cheek also of how he did that with his technique. Because someone said it’s not a boat on the waves, it’s a barque on the ocean. It’s an old fashioned mystical, metaphysical 18th century boat. It’s not a modern row boat. And it’s not on the waves, it’s on the ocean. This is a big sensation happening here. Ravel invented technique for what he wanted to do. He started with Liszt but then he made a technique that was so difficult, to do things that went beyond Liszt. They were onomatopoetic to capture the sound of birds and the sound of water. He made a technique that is so difficult that very few people can play these pieces. You don’t hear a lot of American pianists playing Ravel, interestingly. Do you think the technique is that scary or special?
10: 28 JB: I think all the notes that are written don’t matter in the end. What matters is what’s behind them. And the way to forget them is to - it’s like they are water themselves. They are not music, they are water, they are the birds.
10:57 PH: I think it was someone like Ravel who said “notes are the enemy.” They hide the piece, the piece is behind the notes.
11:08 JB: There is a secret door.
11: 14 PH: And if you’re stuck on the notes, because it’s so difficult, you can never get to what’s beneath it.
11: 23 ZP: This third movement of Miroir was written for the French painter, Paul Sordes, and it was at his studio, on saturday afternoons, where the group gathered to discuss art and culture. Undoubtedly, these interactions were infused into the work of each of the members.
11: 42 PH: At the end of Une Barque sur L’Ocean there’s supposedly a monster on the cliff - the growls and roars. Do you think there’s a monster there?
12: 00 JB: Loch Ness? I don’t know. That went into the ocean? I don’t know!
12:06 PH: Do you think of that when you play or is it that the ocean gathers in intensity?
12:11 JB: Probably that, yes. Maybe the darkness of the ocean. When you see the water reflects the sky. It’s very bright or dark, depending. It can be terrifying to express the darkness and the deep. And also, all the parts that are shimmering, it’s like the light that is onto the water, you know what I mean?
13:20 PH: Yes, it’s like when Monet paints light on water, you say to yourself, how does he do that? It looks like the real thing, and yet there is a technique in there somewhere. And yet if you just concentrate on the technique you miss that fact that it’s light and you have to step back and forget.
13:39 ZP: Exemplifying the spanish influence of Ravel is the morning music of the Jester and is dedicated to Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, the music writer and critic who also promoted the music of Liszt and Mussorgsky.
13:48 [music Maurice Ravel Alborada del gracioso]
13:54 PH: Now the Alborada del gracioso is like a harlequin. It’s like Figaro in a way. He’s a servant and he’s a clown, but he’s also very mischievous in a way that’s maybe not good. And he’s the servant of a master that’s maybe not very smart. So this is his portrait and this is one of the great virtuoso pieces of all time. But there’s a lot of humor and, of course, antic mischief to it. Do you get into the feeling of Figaro when you’re playing?
14:42 JB: Yes, I didn’t think of that but now that you say it. There are a lot of characters inside this piece. You know, at the same time, it’s very simple, very enjoyable, and also, there is something very deep in the middle part. But I don’t know if it’s deep in a way - maybe it’s a joke? Like when he says (singing) it’s charming, but maybe it’s not too serious. Because straight away, there’s (singing).
15:42 PH: Yes, so maybe he’s always aware of that kind of post-modern sense, he’s aware of himself that here is Ravel imitating a Spaniard.
15: 55 JB: Yes, completely.
15:58 PH: Some would say “the French Ravel of Spanish Origin.” His mother was Spanish and he loved flamenco dancing and he loved castagnettes and the loved the whole Spanish thing and it’s here, in the gracioso.
16: 27 JB: Actually Ravel spent four months in America, he did a huge tour ninety years ago, exactly. He had this interview for an American newspaper and it was about his origins. He said my first memory, my first musical formations, were from my mom, because she was singing to me songs from Galicia, where she was from.
16:59 PH: It’s interesting that the sculptors, Ensamble studio from Madrid, they’re from Galicia. So they have that same Ravel spirit, that same Catalan kind of feeling.
17:15 ZP: Tippet Rise is the home of three Ensamble Studio sculptures. Geography and place can serve as inspiration for visual art, as is the case with these sculptures which were cast from the land and emerge from the earth like a visceral manifestation of nature. And sometimes visual art can be equally inspirational for music.
17:35 PH: If you look at someone like Jan van Eyck, there’s the very famous painting where you see the painter in the mirror looking back at you. Velasquez would do that too. He would put other people in the mirror so you’d see who else was in the room. And, in a way, he was a great influence on Ravel and the fact that Velasquez was so big on mirrors, and this piece is called Mirrors, makes you think that maybe Ravel is thinking of Velasquez and that the mirrors are a subtle commentary on the music that there’s an irony there. We’re not the surface of the pond, we’re not the barque on the ocean, but we’re what’s below the ocean, we’re what’s behind the notes, we’re what’s behind the mirror. So, it’s not just mirrors, but it’s what mirrors mean.
18:26 [music Maurice Ravel “La Vallée des cloches”]
18:34 What about La Vallée des cloches?
18:38 JB: Well, it could be here, you know? When I recorded it I thought it’s the perfect place to record that. And on the recording, you hear the birds, apparently they liked it! Richard King, the producer of the album, asked “Do you want to remove them, because we can?” And I said, “No, they are in the score, don’t do that!”
19:10 PH: Yes, I think that’s very important. People always want to cut out the sounds of nature, which are responding to what you’re doing, which is so important. Somebody said that La Vallée des cloches is like all the bells in Paris striking at the same time.
19:27 JB: Yes, it’s exactly the church in the middle of Paris, Notre Dame cathedral. And he sat there at noon and all the bells were ringing, all of them in Paris. He heard this mix of tones and he closed his eyes and imagined himself in a valley because it sounded like that somehow.
19:58 PH: Debussy wrote the Sunken Cathedral which is the idea of a city sinking beneath the ocean, and you still hear that lone bell ringing in the steeple, because it’s the last thing to go under and yet it rises every so often. It rises from the deep. And you hear those bells ringing on certain moonlit nights.
20:26 ZP: Although the recent fire to the Notre Dame cathedral engulfed and destroyed the spire, fortunately, the two bell towers survived, and will hopefully continue to inspire many more composers and artists in the future.
20:40 PH: Mompou was a bell maker. He bought an actual bell foundry.
20:50 JB: His grandfather was a bell founder. Federico Mompou has a lot of similarities with Ravel aesthetics. But there is a very interesting story I was told a few weeks ago, because my fantasy was, did they meet - Ravel and Mompou? Because Ravel knew every work of every composer of that period of his time.
21:20 ZP: Known as “the crazy years” the 1920’s established Paris as a major intersection of art, music, literature, and film.
21:30 JB: So they met in Paris, a night in the 20’s, by the Seine river. Mompou wanted to have a discussion with Ravel about inspiration in music. And Ravel said there is no such thing in art. You can’t leave to chance. You have to make a choice, you have to work, because Ravel was a worker, really an artisan, as you said. He wouldn’t leave anything to chance. We don’t know how he did it because he burned all the sketches. He was so obsessed with reaching perfection that we don’t know how he did it. Mompou has a different way of doing things, but they meet in the middle, you know?
22:30 [music Federico Mompou Carros de Galicia]
Tonight I will play Carros de Galicia, the carriage of Galicia, which is the region where the mother of Ravel comes from, and you can relate this work to Miroirs. It’s like the continuation or it’s reflecting Miroirs.
22:48 ZP: Federico Mompou lived until 1987 and was known for a delicate or intimate style and, like Chopin, he often performed at small, private gatherings.
22:58 JB: The fact that Mompou’s roots might come from Debussy and also from Chopin, that’s why tonight, I’m playing the Chopin Variations. It’s variations on the shorter prelude of Chopin, the seventh, that does (singing).
23:16 [music Federico Mompou Chopin Variations]
23:22 JB So, very simple. There are just three lines of these preludes. And then he thought, ok, I want to do variations on that. So he goes in the style of Chopin but using the mazurka flavor or the waltz flavor or go into his own world also, translating to his own imagination. That’s really an interesting work and for me, it’s the most important piece in Mompou’s repertoire.
23:56 [music Maurice Ravel Sonatine II Mouvement de Menuet]
24:00 I was lucky because, in Belgium just a couple of days ago, before heading to America, I met with someone that knew Mompou very well. He came to the house, he was a close friend of the family. He offered manuscript, because for him, it was just a piece of paper, not to forget what’s written. It was note “sacral”, something you should put in a vault, you see what I mean? It should be opened and find its own space. So that’s really precious.
24:40 ZP: Whether it be nature, culture, the freedom of improvisation, or the metallic sound of bells, inspiration comes in many forms. Like Paris in the 1920’s, Tippet Rise Art Center hopes to serve as an intersection of art, music, land, and sky, to provide an environment where conversations and exchanges can take place to inspire new ideas and creative forms of expression.
24:56 [music Maurice Ravel La Vallée des cloches]
25:07 PH: It’s interesting because you think of Debussy and you think of Ravel with the bell at the end of La Vallée des cloches, the Savoyarde, the biggest bell of Sacre Coeur, at the very end of the piece. Then you think of Mompou as the biggest of the bell ringers in his life and what he did. He just wanted to make bells and he was a failure when he bought the foundry and he tried to make a go of it. But he was not a failure in his music where he really made the bells. Also, he loved children on playgrounds, playing. He loved the sound of Paris. He loved the sound of spring. He really is like Paris in a bottle or like Paris in a piano.