The Grapevine

Before Paris Transatlantic, there was The Paris New Music Review, which featured a popular page: the notorious Grapevine. Herewith are some archival quality highlights from Paris, New York, and Wagadougou in the nineties...


Where do I find John Zorn?

An article about the vicissitudes of shopping for new music in Paris...

Anyone who has spent any time and money getting into new music will have had the same problem in record shops: there are always certain styles of music, or even specific artists, who are hard to classify. Take a simple example: Herbie Hancock. You would think all his 60s albums (mostly on Blue Note) would be under jazz while everything on WB, and on CBS up to and including at least Future Shock, would be in the--er--jazz rock bin (or should that be jazz funk, or fusion?), right? Try your local record shop: you might be in for a surprise...
Here in Paris, we nouveaux musicologues go to FNAC Musique [the chic Barnes & Noble of France] if we want to keep abreast of twists and turns in musicological terminology. Did you know that soul, funk and disco are now three distinct genres? And that James Brown, the self-proclaimed “Godfather of Soul”, can be located in each of the three? (Live at the Apollo is soul, The Payback is funk, and The Original Disco Man is, yes, disco.)


Safety tip

Report stolen copies of PNMR immediately.

by Joshua Cody

Obvious, you say. But Aretha Franklin’s 1980/81 albums Aretha and Love All The Hurt Away are filed under soul, whereas Chaka Khan’s Chaka and What Cha Gonna Do For Me? (same period, same label, same musicians, same producer--Arif Mardin) are in the disco bin. So, who’s responsible? Well, probably Thierry or Didier something, if you want to write to the FNAC and complain, but there are implications here which go far beyond the confines of one record shop, even such a well-respected one.

Firstly, there’s the question of “pop” music: an utterly useless umbrella-term, since many areas of so-called “classical” music are now undeniably popular (Pavarotti, Glenn Gould, take your pick), while there are many movements in avant-garde rock that are several hundred light-years away from being easy-listening and, if measured against the brutally objective yardstick of records sold, pretty goddamn unpopular. Clearly, with an ever-growing demand for pop music, especially black music (jazz, soul, funk, rap, etc.), record companies (and hence, of course, outlets such as the FNAC) have been able to stimulate sales by inventing new genres themselves, independent of any objective musicological criteria which might constitute a strict definition of style or genre. Witness grunge (the word came from the fashion world originally) and trip hop (cute play-on-words to refer to slightly more spaced-out and predominantly non-American hip hop), to name but two.

So what, you say?
Well, it’s easy for us contemporary music nuts (be careful: there is now, at least here in France, a big difference between musique contemporaine and musique nouvelle!), aloof and aloft in the ivory tower, to look down scornfully on the capricious ins and outs of the mass market. At least we can find Nancarrow, Nyman and Nunes not too far apart from each other in the same bin.

But watch out! They’re coming for us next! We have already had the problem of minimalism: ten years ago Terry Riley was in progressive rock (all that Rainbow in Curved Air, psychedelic hippy trip stuff, yeah man) while Steve Reich was under jazz (“well, ECM is a jazz label, isn’t it?”) and Philip Glass was just creeping into the contemporary classical bin (opera is classical after all, wouldn’t you agree?).


Nowadays they’re all in contemporary: Riley due to his string quartets played by that--ahem--solidly contemporary group the Kronos Quartet, Reich because people have finally realized that ECM actually stands for European Contemporary Music (and also because that other seriously deep and totally non-pop composer Arvo Pärt is on ECM too), and Glass because, er, well Glass hasn’t changed all that much since Satyagraha anyway, has he? But can you imagine the fun and games we would have if Cage and Copland were filed under new American music while Feldman joined Pärt, Bryars, Tavener and Gorecki in some quasi-mystical new spiritualism bin? Don’t laugh: it’s happening at the FNAC. (Later, musicologists are going to have a great time making sense of all this.)
So, anyway, where do I find John Zorn?
Well, if you’re lucky you’ll be able to find a salesperson who’s actually heard of Zorn and might know where to find him (the latter does not necessarily follow from the former); if not, make sure you have a good hour or so to peruse the shelves. You will have a great time, but here’s a clue: he’s not under musique nouvelle.
(Summer 1998 editorial)

Blow your nose (a highlight from the archives)

Critic James Baiye, before he relocated to Mongolia to perfect his Tuvan throat singing, submitted this note about the opera The Nose:
"Fifteen minutes into the production of De Neus, it was abundantly clear why no one ever performs this opera. The music (if you can even call it music) is execrable: boring, tuneless, undramatic. How and why, then, did thousands of people pay good money to see this calamity? A simple answer: overproduction. The Dutch Opera spent a veritable fortune on sets, lighting, costumes, special effects, and crowd-pleasing extras: a motorcycle, a camel, a complicated revolving and tilting stage, and who knows what-else.
The Nose blows with a heavy hand, from start to finish. Shostakovich should have left it alone. And what is more, the director should have left it alone. Only about half of the spectacle as we saw it had any relation to the original.
The best commentary on the opera comes from the opera itself: just before the final page of the score, the music grinds to a halt and the curtain rises briefly to reveal a Babylonian press-conference of international critics, all hot and bothered by this botched Boschian production. They heatedly attack it, but I won't quote them here. I hate citing other critics-- especially when they're right."

[Photos courtesey of the Dutch National Opera]

Results of our 1998 reader survey

Q: Would you rather sit through Vexations or a Stockhausen opera?
A: Neither. How about a Merzbow gig?

Q: Have you ever flown a helicopter?
A: Why, are you planning to perform Stockhausen’s “Helicopter String Quartet”?

Q: What’s most useful about the internet?
A: Weather forecasts for Ulan Bator.

Q: How many minimalists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: One-LaMonte Young (but it takes a looooooong time...)



I make sure my bag is shut over my PNMR before walking though the turnstile.

Adapted by Joshua Cody


The Paris New Music Review retracts its statement from a previous issue. Our unintentional implication in a published retraction of the assertion that [powerful politician] "Jesse Helms of the United States is a scum and slimebag, who probably has crushed-velvet paintings of Elvis on his mantlepiece" was that Elvis is associated with the lower dregs of society. The statement was entirely incorrect. (1998)

Angry mail (the best letter we ever got)

From our mailbag in 1996: “A few questions and comments: Why do you consider Paris an active international arts scene, when the only thing interesting that has come from Paris in the last 50 years is their nuclear testing? Moreover, I have yet to hear anything innovative from Europe since the heyday of IRCAM. Maybe you can enlighten me.”
“Why call it new when you interview the old? ...and patronize John Cage? In this day and age when art is old as soon as it is put up, how can we spend any more time rehashing what John Cage did 35 years ago? Your Calendar seems to focus on the well-established (academic) organizations (i.e. orchestras, and symphonies). Don’t you think the symphony orchestra is dead, since all of the major symphonies in America are in debt and the only way they can stay afloat is to cater to the easy-listening crowd (except for San Francisco Symphony which now plays a living composer every program and is running at their proposed budget)? Why is that happening? It would seem to be a interesting subject for the Paris New Music Review. not to mention the difference in funding policies for arts around the world. How is your organization funded?”
--(signed) Wiley Evans

publisher Guy Livingston responded:
Our organization is funded through advertising (20%), subscriptions (45%), and private support (35%). Operating expenses fluctuate depending on our printing demands. From our writers we demand a mix of the conservative and the avant-garde, the well-known and the obscure: a mix which we feel covers a wide range of new music. This mix is readily available in Paris; also in New York and Berlin for that matter. But the food is much better here.
By the way, we will start including a regular column on arts funding, policy, and censorship around the world... No we don ’t think that the Symphony orchestra is dead, even if most of them do look asleep... However, your distaste for IRCAM is shared by many of our staff, who have been frequently lulled to tears by arrogantly boring music. But IRCAM also plays host to a wealth of phenomenal artists and musicians. See these pages for more. Or start your own magazine.

...and a few words from (now-retired) US editor Hugh Livingston:
The Calendar pages (now discontinued) of the magazine included all information sent to us. It happens that the big-budget operations (symphonies and orchestras) are more assiduous in their efforts to reach us with publicity. I do believe that the symphony is obsolete in terms of contemporary art, but your concert-going dollars express that more effectively than we can from these pages. We are committed to a wide range of artistic expression, but recognize the roots of our work as well.
In terms of our world coverage, it is clear from your comments that you are not aware of musical developments in Europe. Providing that information is the reason we exist.

Dutch Café

Fans of the second viennese school (of architecture) will find their dream café in the Amsterdam train station. Labelled the 1e Klas Café, it's in a hugely dark and smoky room, through which rays of sunlight (on a good day) illuminate the sumptuous brick, tile and gold leaf columns. Just the place to drink a cup of coffee before boarding the orient express.


Metro tip

Adapted by Joshua Cody


In memoriam

"Wagner did not like the saxophone. He said it 'sounds like the word Reckankreuzungsklankewerkzeuge.'"

-recounted by Nicholas Slonimsky (1894-1995), A thing or two about music.

on British music...

The English highly esteem whatsoever cometh from beyond the seas...
- Thomas Morley

The English public is curious. It can only recognize one composer at a time.
- Parry

British music is in a state of perpetual promise. It might almost be said to be one long promissory note...
- Sir Thomas Beecham


Sunday Brunch 4

Like any other show, yesterday's performance of "Sunday Brunch 4" began shortly after the doors closed and the audience got settled. Except, in this case, the doors were shiny, metal and mobile, and the audience just happened to be along for the ride.

That's because "Sunday Brunch 4" was performed, as were two earlier versions, on a southbound A train in front of a captive crowd of straphangers, many of whom seemed completely mystified by what was going on. They had good reason to be confused.

Created by the actor David Ackerman, this 35-minute piece of performance art consists of a full enactment of a Sunday brunch — including a crisp white tablecloth, spinach salad appetizer and an attentive waiter in a black tuxedo — all performed while the A train works its way from 207th Street in upper Manhattan to Hoyt Street in Downtown Brooklyn. Throughout, the performers, who seemed oblivious to the stares of the other perplexed passengers, chatted amiably about Christmas, exchanged gifts and even signed for a package delivered by a UPS man (played by Rachim Baskin) who entered the scene at the West 34th Street stop. (2004)

Gone tomorrow

Our illustrious, glamorous and bankrupt predecessor, the New York-based EAR Magazine is, according to a news bulletin which crossed our densely-packed desk, "Dead but not gone!" The New York Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center is now the custodian of eighteen years of new music history, as told by EAR. Gluttons for new music can visit them in person at the Library.

Also in the archive of the NY Public Library are 26,000 pages representing 95% of John Cage's lifetime work, acquired through an anonymous donation. The collection includes several unpublished pieces as well as unfinished works. (1998)

Health issues


watch your head
Scientists at the Paris New Music Review Laboratory and Research Institute (PNMRLI), which has recently moved from Milwaukee to New Brunswick, New Jersey, are about to publish a finding that could dramatically change the reception of contemporary music worldwide. As outlined in the study, adults of both sexes who consider themselves "frequent to very frequent" listeners of contemporary music are at less risk of serious heart conditions past the age of 64. The average female contemporary music lover is 1.243 times less prone to heart problems than her countrywomen, As we go to press, the American Medical Association has yet to officially recognize the study. (1998)

Gustav Mahler on a bad day

We Meet the Press

Paris Transatlantic Editor Dan Warburton made the following assessment during a 1999 interview for BBC radio's "Mixing It" : “I think we have to make a distinction between several new music scenes in Paris; making one global judgment is very difficult. The French make a distinction between musique contemporaine, which is composed, avant garde music-Boulez, Ferneyhough, Xenakis, et cetera-and what they now call musique nouvelle, a kind of grab bag which includes everything else, from improvised music to free jazz, Japanese noise, and so on... I think in terms of the musique contemporaine scene right now, it's a pretty... stable situation. There have been some interesting things, but I haven't been absolutely convinced that it's the most "happening" place in the world.
There's a very good electro-acoustic tradition which is coming back into focus because a lot of the younger British electronica acts like Autechre have finally got people interested in musique concrète. There's been a revival of interest in Pierre Henry, they've reissued the "Messe Pour le Temps Présent", plus a lot of Pierre Schaeffer stuff. Luc Ferrari's back in fashion too, which is great news. We can of course talk about IRCAM, which everybody knows... For me, IRCAM has a double function: they're doing very interesting things in terms of software-the stuff which is coming out on the market is very useful. In terms of the music which has come out of IRCAM... well, I've yet to be really impressed. In terms of discs, IRCAM has been quite selective... You've got that series that came out with the composers' photographs on the cover, you know, the "Compositeurs d'Aujourd'hui" series, but very little else.


Planning ahead

"We look for new sonorities, new intervals, new forms. Where it will lead, I don't know. I don't want to know. It would be like knowing the date of my death."

-Pierre Boulez

Our Checkered Past

Before Paris Transatlantic, there was The Paris New Music Review. For information on Moscow and its extremely unusual new music scene, tinged with Mafiosi, former spies, and stockpiles of unbanned scores and recordings, order PNMR special issue number 6-7: Russian Music, our most notorious issue ever. (Summer 1994)

Monostary on Moscow's Golden Ring

Whither the cd?

Will the recording industry collapse as a result of the CD’s permanence? Or will new technology (DVD) replace the audio CD? Will market saturation force out the smaller independent labels, or will customers who already own the Beethoven Symphonies begin adding Stockhausen to their collections? The New York Times continues to decry the collapse of the classical music establishment, alternately casting the recording industry as victim and villain. This season, French venues and publications are turning increasingly towards world music to sustain audiences and compete for ever-more-elusive government funding. Amsterdam and New York (see grapevine four) musicians continue to lead the improvisational forefront, but almost their producers are on the brink of extinction.

Mapping,a dance performance in Den Haag, 1997

As popular music continues to dispose of huge sums of money to produce extravagant shows and videos, it is no wonder that classical musicians either seek work in restaurants or in the case of Yo Yo Ma, present equally extravagent (and slightly dubious) video collaborations with dancers, film-makers, and other artists. Ma's work maintains a high standard even when commercialized, but other recent multimedia and crossover successes such as the laughable album “Mozart the Egyptian” (which sold more than 100,000 copies in France in four months) are lamentable. Meanwhile, in contemporary music, selling 2000 discs is considered a huge success. So read our reviews, and buy these discs, if you can!

(oddly enough, this editorial, written in 1999, is still valid today)


The Rise and Fall of a New Music Festival

The following material on the Tanglewood summer contemporary festivals (part of the larger 8-week Tanglewood summer season) is excerpted from the PNMR archives:

Tanglewood 1994

Robert Black, whose approach to the instrument should be an inspiration to us all, took on the heady challenge of Tom Johnson’s Failing, a seminal performance art piece in which the player delivers a monologue discussing his own performance. It is an amusing and cathartic experience for the audience, and of the utmost sincerity when it comes from an artist like Black.

Reinbert de Leeuw’s afternoon marathon included some undeniable masterworks (Ives’ The Unanswered Question from 1906 and the Varèse percussion melodrama Intégrales from 1924). The new Seiji Ozawa hall proved a good environment for Oliver Knussen’s opening Fanfare with trumpets in the distant second balcony--and for the underground strings in the lves. There is not a bad seat in the house.

It was a pleasant surprise to hear John Adam’s The Wound Dresser, and the program notes did it justice by pointing out its terrific contemporary relevance. The Walt Whitman text speaks of the horrors of the Civil War wounded and the experience of life and death. Thomas Meglioranza projected a strong and determined baritone voice that effectively brought forth the words of the poet.

Tanglewood 1995

Leon Kirchner’s emotional and narrative Piano Trio no. II was a highlight; paired with the coloristic Romancero (Mario Davidovsky, 1993) its Iyricism contrasted the alternately shimmering and angular painting of Elliott Carter’s Quintet for piano and winds and the extroverted Evocation No. 2 (Ralph Shapey, 1979) for cellos, piano and percussion.

Seldom heard in the US, but the “bad boy” of new music in Europe, Mauricio Kagel was represented by an entire concert of his often wacky music. His piano trio combines dance rhythms, melodies, and ostinato frenzies. Notable is the contrast in instrumental color provided by separating as much as possible the timbres. The American premiere of “...den 24.XII.31”, a clamor of multitudinous bells and a rubber-gloved percussionist touching electrified jumper cables to produce sparks was fun noise.

Tanglewood 1996

Performance highlights were the conducting of Reinbert de Leeuw, Robert Spano and Stefan Asbury, and the late-night performance by professional Stockhausen interpreters Ellen Corver and Sepp Grotenhuis of Mantra (a 1970 composition revolving around 13 pitches most of which are A--and the ratios 13:53), and the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, a conductorless group that shows what state money can do for performance.

The orchestral commission offered to a former fellow of the TMC went to Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez (San Francisco) whose Girando, Danzando shows a great awareness of instrumental sound meshed with a perfect ideal of the use of the orchestra.

Tanglewood 1997

The contemporary season, while good in spots, was marred by speculation about the abrupt firing of long-time TMC/BMC manager Richard Ortner. BSO Conductor Ozawa's comments and attitude were off-putting, and in the shakeup that followed, Gilbert Kalish, another institution at Tanglewood, tendered his resignation in a heated open letter to the New York Times.

Tanglewood 1998

This year's repertoire included only the merest nod at modernism. With virtually no composers left in residence, and morale at an all-time low among the faculty, 1998 was an undistinguished season.


The New Music Week remains a shadow of its former self today. Will Tanglewood regain the cutting edge its founders envisioned and promulgated? Or will it remain mired in conservativism?

Feldman Quotation

Do you think I don't know how to cadence? If I cadence I'm dead. It's like Sheherazade.


Pilobolus Dance Theater at the Joyce Theater
(New York City, July 1997)

Elysian Fields opens and closes with a silhouetted still-life of the four Pilobolus dancers, a sculptural treat which is almost a signature of this much-beloved dance company. Intertwining strong muscular bodies are used as visual art, not just a choreographer’s raw material. Their shows are sexy and funny. More recent dances tend to stray a bit from the dance as sculpture motif, into other realms, with mixed success.

Still from The Rogue Tool, in Den Haag, Winter 1997

John Harbison’s music, never that daring, is at its most banal in Elysian Fields. His Olympic Dances are scored as if for high school band. Dancing is tentative, and not as gutsy as one might hope. Costumes resemble but are not body paint. It’s under-rehearsed and vague. But the rest of the program, old classics of the Pilobolus repertoire, continued to shock and enthrall.

A solo from the Empty Suitor (1980) was marked by pratfalls and lunacy. Its acrobatics suggested the style of choreographer Joseph Nadj, himself inspired by Buster Keaton films.

Walklyndon (1971) is a funny classic, a la Woody Allen’s bananas. It’s an afternoon in the park with hurried by hilarious New Yorkers.

something fishy

Day Two (1980), is a smash hit, and one of the classic Pilobolus dances of all time. Scored to music by Brian Eno, David Byrne, and the Talking Heads, the dancing is tight, and complex. The scenario is based on an action-packed creation of the world in stark and sexy scenes.

Philippe Decouflé

Choreographer for the Compagnie DCA
PARIS: World premiere

Music by Joseph Racaille
Costumes by Philippe Guillotel
Sets by Pierre-Jean Verbraeken

Anticlimactic is the operative word for this circus, tremendously exciting in many ways, but not what one would expect from a sophisticated dance company with considerable talent and a large budget. Ironically enough, given the rich French traditions of mime, circus, and cabaret, this extremely French circus never managed to break free from a heavy consciousness of time and place. Découflé’s company had all the trappings, the essential accouterments, the silly accessories, the huge tent, the bright lights, and the freak sideshows. But it was all too slow, too cautious, too scripted, too careful. The sideshows on the other hand, were goofy, dumb, and comic and well worth the trip out to the bleak suburb of St. Denis.

The very fact of a big top heightens one’s childlike expectations to be dazzled, perplexed, to dissolve into gales of laughter over clowns and be frightened by tigers. Découflé made a clear decision to skip those elements, but he had little to replace them with. The actual dancing seemed a bleak and abstracted reflection of a circus, one with fitful starts and stops, and no sense of timing: the enchainements were clumsy and amateurish.

Audience reception symptomatic: on the one hand all the Parisian intellectuals were shushing and trying to concentrate on the abstract beauty of the show, and on the other hand, all the St. Denis teenagers were laughing and joking and having a ball, as if they thought it was a circus!
The costumes merit special attention: in a range of burnt sienna colors, they were beautiful, inventive, funny, way more sophisticated than the dance itself.
The music (we are primarily a music magazine) was horrendous, however. Performed live on a synthesizer. It was intensely disappointing, disjunct, and criminally repetitive. Not minimalist. Just repetitive. For a lot less money, they could have hired a Gypsy band from the subway to energize the dancers. Would that have worked? I think the public would have been on the edge of their seats.