Summer Issue 2000
by Dan Warburton
In his liner notes to the Potlatch release of Kristoff K. Roll / Xavier Charles' "La Pièce", Chris Atton offers a touching aside on his listening habits: "As I get older I get out less. This is largely the result of having small children and many domestic duties.[...] Staying in - listening to music mostly on headphones in snatched, private moments - renders the music private." As a journalist working in similar territory, and seemingly deluged (not complaining) with releases of improvised music, I can well sympathize. The latest Marc Ribot and the recent wonderful Soul Jazz Jackie Mittoo compilation are OK for family consumption through the speakers, while releases such as those under discussion here can only be listened to either through headphones or, as is more often the case, when wife and child are either out or asleep. Which, as Atton says, reinforces the intimacy of the music, its pointillistic and fragmented surfaces, its delicate interfacing of sound and silence.
This is difficult music, make no mistake, in that it demands a level of engagement on the part of the listener only comparable (perhaps) to that required in tackling contemporary "classical" music (the hardcore New Complexity stuff, not the bloated angst-ridden symphonics of Gorecki or the vapid post-minimalist trash of Nyman). No surprise then that several notable composers (Richard Barrett, Mathias Spahlinger..) are also keen improvisers. That said, whereas the disjunct brittle polyphony of the Darmstadt avant garde can be accessed more easily by the listener if he/she is familiar with its antecedents (Schoenberg, Webern, Varèse, Messiaen..), "getting into" improv through free jazz (which I suppose would have to be considered as its most logical precursor in terms of its extended techniques and its progressive dispensing with "traditional" concepts of rhythm, harmony, texture and structure) is by no means easy. You may thrill to Don Cherry and find Axel Dorner completely unlistenable. These releases on Jon Morgan's new and excellent imprint Meniscus represent a real challenge to listeners - myself included.
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John Butcher MUSIC ON SEVEN OCCASIONS MENISCUS MNSCS 004
John Butcher is widely regarded as the foremost exponent of the saxophone in British improvised music since Evan Parker (not that the mighty Parker is by any means in retirement - far from it), and "Music on Seven Occasions" documents his work in duo combinations with a host of (mainly American) improvisers, though "a few short solos have crept in" too. These are by and large short pieces (the longest track, "Anomalies in the Customs of the Day", with analog synth whiz Thomas Lehn, clocks in at just over seven minutes), which itself is notable: Butcher, like Mats Gustafsson, is a master of the small form, and knows when to stop. His jagged multiphonics mesh well with the percussive intricacies of Gino Robair and Michael Zerang, while on soprano with bassist Alex Frangenheim he reminds me at times of Lol Coxhill, not so much due to his sound on the horn but his total openness to explore radically new directions as and when they present themselves. While the duos with pianist Veryan Weston and trombonist Jeb Bishop force him into a slightly more pitch-oriented mode (though not for a minute abandoning his plethora of extended techniques), it is the four solo "Singularities" which are revelations for this listener (I wouldn't have complained if the entire album had been a solo project). A bit of a strange response perhaps to a duo album, but when the saxophonist is free to stretch out and let his ideas develop without the terse punctuation of a playing partner, he proves himself to be every bit as exciting as the venerable Coxhill and Parker. Though "1st. Singularity" (on soprano) sounds at times like an angry young Steve Lacy, yapping and snarling all over the horn, most of these performances sound like nobody else you've ever heard. Of the duos, I have a special (probably irrational) preference for his tracks here with John Corbett and Terri Kapsalis, perhaps because they remind me of Butcher's sterling trio work with John Russell and Phil Durrant.
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Michael Bisio and Eyvind Kang
MBEK MENISCUS MNSCS 005
An artist as hard to classify as violinist Eyvind Kang (whose output ranges from the country jazz of Bill Frisell to the thrash/death funk of Dying Ground, via the utterly original Tzadik album "7 Nades" and the utterly unlistenable "Sweetness of Sickness" on the aptly-named Rabid God Inoculator (!) imprint) probably wouldn't give a damn for the free jazz vs. free improvisation debate currently smoldering in Europe. The fact that this outstanding duo album with bassist Michael Bisio opens with John Coltrane's "Seraphic Light" (on the "Stellar Regions" album just a few years back) would seem to indicate a closer affinity to jazz however; Kang's violin playing recalls several generations of noble predecessors, from Joe Venuti and Stuff Smith to Leroy Jenkins and Billy Bang, with a healthy dose of Middle-Eastern and Oriental music and downright vicious noise thrown in for good measure. Bisio's big sound (imagine a fearsome meta-bassist synthesizing Oscar Pettiford, Charlie Haden and Peter Kowald and you're on the right track) is the perfect foundation for Kang to build his elaborate constructions on. Elaborate, but never flashy: one of the glories of this album is its refusal to indulge in technical display for its own sake: the music is strong and goes right for your guts. There are several killer violinists around today - Malcolm Goldstein, Jason Hwang, Phil Durrant, Phil Wachsmann - but few who have succeeded in making the hair on the back of my neck stand up as well as Kang does here. Strongly recommended.
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/ Lonberg-Holm / Zerang
Axel Dörner / Fred Lonberg-Holm / Michael Zerang MNSCS 006
As we say in France, pur et dur.. "Claque" - French for smack (not the drug!) - is fifty-two minutes of spiky, muscular playing from three seasoned practitioners. Dörner has got his attacks down in a way that even Wynton Marsalis would (grudgingly) admire, Lonberg-Holm goes from strength to strength with each new release it seems (but even he sounds especially excited about this one), and Michael Zerang's percussion manages to recall both Roger Turner and Paul Lovens (no mean feat). The track titles, including "Bin", "Krug" and "Gifle" (another French word for "slap": these boys are really out for a fight..), are as craggy as the music. The pieces here are just that bit longer than the bijou offerings on the two earlier Meniscus releases featuring John Butcher and Gino Robair respectively, and as a result this disc is more globally satisfying, even if it doesn't showcase the range of musics that Robair's "Buddy Systems" (MNSCS 003) does. Even so, it's a tough listen: if your idea of trumpet playing is Chet Baker and early Miles, you're in for a very nasty claque.
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Deane / Al Faaet
Al Faaet / J.A. Deane: GRAND CROSS ECLIPSE ZERX 024
The accompanying photocopy promo relates a story of Albuquerque NM DJ Mark Weber who was told to "shove [this record] up your ass!" when he played it on KUNM. Funny, the folks I met when travelling through New Mexico some years back were quite peace-loving, adobe characters.. Then again, one blast of "Grand Cross Eclipse" might just be enough to set those aptly- named Sangue de Christo Mountains bleeding for real. The aim of the two musicians is to create a "large ensemble sound" by superimposing myriad electronic effects on the feedback generated from their instruments (Faaet plays drums and Deane trombone), and the overall sound created is as immense and at times intimidating as the desert landscape these guys inhabit. Make no mistake, you can't come up with music like this if you live in a teeming urban jungle - this music belongs out there in the desert with Walter de Maria's amazing "Lightning Field" installation. It's as vast and mindblowing as a Robert Wilson theatre epic (remember, he grew up in Waco, Texas). Deane (dunno what the J.A. stands for) admits he doesn't play "more than a handful of actual trombone notes" (shame, because he's a damn fine player: check out "Burning Cloud" on FMP, and, if you're really nostalgic for New Wave, the old 1981 Indoor Life album on Celluloid), but Faaet gets busy (or maybe it's just looped feedback?). Music as epic as this should be blasted on a speaker system surrounded by two billion year old rocks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Magnificent stuff.
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Review: San Francisco Ballet Mécanique, Conference
Tickets to a Train Wreck: Antheil in San Francisco
Ever bought tickets to a train wreck? Its worth considering. If you missed the June 11th performance of George Antheils Ballet Mécanique in the San Francisco Symphonys American Mavericks festival, your only other chance to hear such catastrophic precision, to feel such raucous adrenaline, and witness such industrial inexorability may be to head on down to your local railroad tracks--in a hurricane.
This most famous of Antheils works was a fitting culmination to a weekend-long celebration in the Bay Area of his 100th birthday. The commemoration was organized by Charles Amirkhanian, Executive Director of Other Minds and curator of the Antheil archives. Events began on Friday morning with a two-hour music broadcast including an interview with Amirkhanian on KPFA Public Radio Berkeley, followed by a CD release party for the new realization of Ballet Mécanique at Docs Clock on Friday night. The homage continued with a film, panel discussion, and exhibit at the S.F. Main Public Library on Saturday afternoon, and concluded with the concert on Sunday night. While the San Francisco Symphonys performance of an all-Antheil program was the focus of the weekends proceedings, the other activities gave us valuable perspective on the composers life and legacy. Unfortunately, our accommodations in the city must have faced the wrong direction, because the KPFA transmission was overpowered by disco salsa soon after we tuned in, but otherwise we stayed on genre.
The CD release party presented an opportunity to meet Paul Lehrman in the casually funky atmosphere of a Mission District pub, where he filled us in on his role in the reconstruction of one of the most infamous pieces of the 20th century. In case you dont know the story, two years ago G. Schirmer, which acquired the publishing rights to Antheils manuscripts in 1992, called Mr. Lehrman, at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, with an offer. They had found themselves with an unrealized version of Ballet Mécanique from 1924, intended originally to accompany a film of the same name by Fernand Léger, Man Ray, and Dudley Murphy. Orchestrated for sixteen synchronized player pianos, they thought it should at last be technologically feasible, and with some assistance from Yamahas Disklavier division, hoped to mount the first-ever performance as written. The catch? Someone would need to transcribe the massively complex score into MIDI, the Musical Information Digital Interface that is todays equivalent of the punched piano rolls specified in the piece. That meant entering tens of thousands of discrete events for an instrument that no longer exists, not unlike typing up a manuscript while simultaneously deciphering a lost language and translating into English--truly an effort of equal inspiration and perspiration. At least the handwritten version had already been converted into a computer-engraved score by freelance editor George McGuire in 1998. Lehrman jumped at the opportunity, and the rest may be destined for the history books. The complete account in Lehrmans own words can be found in the November 1999 issue of Wired Magazine or online at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/7.11/ballet.html. The work received its premiere in Massachusetts in October of 1999, finally performed the way Antheil imagined it, 75 years after its inception. In an appropriate technological twist, it was also simulcast on the Internet to a worldwide audience, one of the few developments Antheil probably hadnt imagined. Following the concert, the work was recorded in that same space in Lowell, resulting in the freshly released disc. Alas, we had to leave before the official CD presentation to attend the Mavericks tribute to Duke Ellington. So much for staying on genre--but what an inspired festival to honor Ellington and Antheil in the same weekend. Of course, we grabbed a copy of the CD on our way out, and merrily abused our poor rental cars stereo with it.
Between concerts we went to the S.F. Main Public Librarys gorgeous Koret Auditorium for the North American premiere of Michael Meerts documentary Bad Boy of Music and a panel discussion with Charles Amirkhanian, Paul Lehrman, and composers Benjamin Lees and David Raskin. Upstairs was a small exhibit of pictures, books, letters and scores from various periods of Antheils career, most notably an unpublished manuscript labeled Piano Concerto the library recovered from a storage truck in 1992. The documentary was an eclectic blend, interspersing serious narration by Amirkhanian, silent portrayals of Antheils life from the fictionalized viewpoint of his wife Böski, actual news footage of the riot caused by Antheils first Paris concert, and even genuine home movies of the couple and their son. The films multiple personalities mirrored Antheils own. He was first a composer of avant-garde music, then a Hollywood film composer. By all accounts devoted to his wife, he also had many affairs throughout his marriage, the last of which resulted in a child, now in his forties, with us in the audience. He wrote a mystery novel, gave advice to the lovelorn in a newspaper column, and studied an array of disciplines, including endocrinology, criminal justice, and military history. His most renowned extra-musical pursuit involved collaborating with Hollywood icon Hedy Lamarr, to develop and patent a frequency-hopping guidance system for long-range missiles during World War II. This concept, originally implemented using punched pianola rolls, is now a component of a wide range of wireless communications technologies, including many cell phones.
From the panel discussion we discovered another side to the nearly forgotten composer--dedicated teacher. Benjamin Lees touching anecdotes about his former mentor revealed a man who was brilliant and uncompromising, but also unstintingly generous. He would let lessons extend to six hours or more, pausing only to invite his pupils (and their wives) to a homemade meal. He even taught his poorest students for free, keeping a promise to his own teacher Ernst Bloch: when Bloch discovered that Antheil financed composition lessons by going hungry, Bloch waived his fee, on the condition that Antheil would do the same someday. Showing a surprising lack of ego, Antheil never corrected mistakes--he only pointed them out, leaving the student to find a better solution. He believed good orchestration could easily cover up bad music, so he consistently demanded works for small homogeneous ensembles. A masterful orchestrator himself, Antheil devised colorful characterizations for each orchestral timbre. Lees joked that he could never afterwards write for the flute without envisioning an innocent virgin, or for the clarinet without imagining an experienced whore. The film and discussion brought Antheil to life with a depth and complexity in direct counterpoint to his reputation as the flamboyantly irreverent composer of Ballet Mécanique and his self-anointed status as the bad boy of music.
The morning of the much-anticipated concert, we had the privilege of sitting in on the final SFS rehearsal of Ballet Mécanique, and must express our gratitude to Susan Key for letting us peek behind the scenes. Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) displayed an infectious eagerness, wonder, and enthusiasm for the piece. Attired all in red down to the soles of his shoes, and listening intently to the metronomic beats coming through his headphones, MTT was completely in command of the ensemble. One might imagine trying to fight against the click track, to inject interpretation into this almost brutal mechanization of music, but MTT and the rest of the symphony members seemed to revel in the challenge and groove on the relentlessness of it. We feared the xylophonists might go into seizures from playing such rapid repetitions with mallets, a valiant effort since in Antheils day the instruments could be fitted with keyboards for a less virtuosic workout. The overall atmosphere was light, with smiles all around. Sensing the uniqueness of the event, the musicians surreptitiously took cameras out of their gig bags and snapped photos during extended rests. During the final pianola cadenza, they all hopped offstage to get a full view of the impressive array of sixteen Disklavier mechanisms in action. The only tension seemed to lie with the computer operators. They appeared to wince every time MTT started at a new measure, or asked for volume adjustments to balance the ensemble. Programming a MIDI velocity change is far more involved than scribbling a dynamic marking on a page, and they seemed to feel responsible for holding up the rehearsal when asking for extra time to complete the revisions. As computer musicians ourselves, we know the pressure they must have felt--by concert time, most of the work is done, and you mainly just hit the button and pray. Unlike any other performer up on stage, the computer isnt amenable to constant minute adjustments, and last-minute modifications can result in unforeseen disaster. Once the machine starts, its essentially out of control, and no doubt Antheil had precisely that quality of an unstoppable juggernaut in mind when he wrote the piece. Done right, everyone--including the audience--should sweat a little.
Balancing the gigantic sound was a real challenge, requiring crisp playing at all times to avoid muddying such a dense layering of rhythms. MTT asked the bass drums to play with dead strokes on repeated eighths, had amplification of the acoustic pianos ultimately turned off, and told the xylophonists to simply play as loud as humanly possible, their brightness actually cutting through the din with remarkable clarity. This piece could easily turn into complete sludge, and its a testament to the ears of MTT and the skilled SFS musicians that so much detail remained discernible. The din was astonishing--the performers all wore earplugs and with the first downbeat we understood why. In our twelfth-row perch the sound mass was almost corporeal. The hand-cranked siren and computer-triggered electric bells soared above the ensemble, imbuing the pounding percussion with a wonderful factory-like quality. Our only criticism of the balance lay with the sounds of propellers. Originally Antheil specified real airplane props, often substituted by large fans, but the SFS decided to use prerecorded samples provided by Lehrman. Even though there were three distinct samples, played as independent point sources through three separate speakers, they still didnt emerge into the space as intentional elements, instead sounding more like background noise or even low-level distortion. Lacking a visual cue the low volume was even more problematic. An audience member revealed in the post-performance question-and-answer session that he hadnt even noticed the propeller sounds. Since everything else had such bite, the propellers were disappointingly lackluster by comparison.
Even without bona-fide aircraft engines, the stage tableau was visually arresting. Four bass drums, a tam tam, four xylophones, eight upright Disklaviers with soundboards exposed, ten digital grand Disklaviers, a scaffold with seven electric bells, and an Apple Macintosh shared the spotlight with a battery of speakers. A video camera trained on one of the Disklaviers projected an image of the moving hammers and keys onto two huge screens flanking the stage. Antheils score called for four pianolas playing four different parts. Lehrman and Yamaha decided to use two acoustic pianos and two sampled pianos on each part for reasons of stage capacity and budget. Using the sampled pianos worked well as reinforcement for the acoustic barrage, but the limitations of sampled grands were exposed in their use by the live pianists. There was some muddiness in the sound from the digital pianos in the lower registers, and thinness in the upper range compared to the acoustic uprights. One might be inclined to indict sampled sounds on this basis generally, and to some extent we would agree that acoustic instruments tend to resonate with more polished richness. In a perfect world, the solo pianos would have been acoustic concert grands, which surely could have generated enough volume to compete with the onslaught from the other accumulated forces.
During the rehearsal run-through, two of the Disklaviers failed, refusing to play or respond to any further commands. We were frustrated to see the same exact problem occur in the concert, especially since the camera was focused on the problematic instrument. The apparent reason for the breakdown was overheated solenoids. The pianos were being driven at 137% of normal operating parameters, eventually triggering an automatic shutdown for safety reasons. With fourteen pianos still thrashing away, the problem was not audible, but the image of the still piano was hard to ignore. Sure, sometimes problems are simply intractable, but not being able to correct a glitch from rehearsal seems like exactly the kind of issue that continues to relegate computers to second-class status as professional instruments. On the other hand, the pianolas of Antheils day were probably less reliable than current technology, so perhaps he would have expected such problems as a matter of course. He might even have hoped for more catastrophic failure, adding real smoke and flames to his own musical pyrotechnics.
The night of the concert, Davies Hall was filled to capacity with an atypically diverse symphony crowd. Grey-haired men in suits sat next to vinyl-clad transvestites, and goth chicks passed by fresh-faced young teenyboppers on the way to their seats. The first piece, Sonata No. 2 for Violin with Piano and Drums was pleasant but unengaging, though the jumping cinematic style prepared us for the delightful jazz symphony that followed. The Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio played the unremarkable Sonata with their usual impeccable finesse, but nothing could rescue the work from its own blandness. On the other hand, A Jazz Symphony was a truly enjoyable ride. We suddenly felt transported to a moonlit cabana, with the orchestra in summer whites and the wailings of muted trumpet above refined syncopations. Catchy pop references caught our attention, then broke apart and were swallowed up, only to reappear in a different form. The musicians had fun with the quirky piece, hamming it up just the right amount. Antheil the expert orchestrator was well in evidence: two banjos enhanced the mix of horns, pianos, strings, and drums with a lively twang. Some critics have called the piece derivative because it borrows so liberally from popular ragtime and jazz as well as Antheils favorite source, Stravinsky, but the piece transcends its referential elements and we understood why Gershwin and Copland liked the piece when they attended the premiere.
Finally, after intermission, the main event. For us, three days worth of suspense was about to be released. Would the crowd riot? Would the piece crash and burn? Antheils visage looked down at us from the video screens and might have given a mischievous wink. At that moment, no possible outcome seemed too far-fetched. As the audience collectively held its breath, Michael Tilson Thomas gave the downbeat and there was no turning back. Almost immediately, waves of crescendi surged and broke. Like trying to watch a wall of televisions, one constantly shifted between attempting to listen to individual elements and struggling to grasp the gestalt. Every so often the unlikelihood of it all triggered a bubble of giddiness deep in the gut, rising into an irrepressible grin. At an astonishing tempo of 115, faster than ever played before, it was a roller-coaster, some primal combination of fear and ecstasy. The drums pounded, the siren howled, the incessant battering of pianos gave no quarter. The eighteen pianos ceased to be separate instruments and blended into a single monstrous beast never heard before. And then suddenly, there was calm. Silence. As the eye of the storm passed over, we all exhaled, and in another heartbeat the onslaught resumed. At the end, the roar from the stage was replaced by a roar from the crowd. The applause and cheers lasted for five curtain calls, and finally we realized it was all over.
We could analyze Ballet Mécanique, break it down into clusters of this, components of that, or even precursors to such and such a movement that followed, but it wouldnt seem right. This is a piece to be absorbed, to stand on its own as a singular experience, to be valued for its timeless bravado. Antheil may have resented the notoriety of this bombastic work from his youth, feeling like it undermined the seriousness of his later efforts, but the magnitude of its contribution now seems clear. The recording, while faithful, cant touch the thrill of hearing Ballet Mécanique live in its full glory. If youre fortunate to have such an extraordinary opportunity, you wont likely ever forget it. What more need we ask of music?
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discussion with Michael Meert, film director about "Bad Boy of Music," his latest video documentary
Broadcast date: July 5th, 9:45 pm GMT+1
Broadcast on Arte: public access in France, Germany; or via satellite in Holland, Spain, etc.
Production: TV2000 in Wiesbaden
review/interview by Guy Livingston
"Why Antheil? Its a moving story. Its relevant story for us today. I think he has much more importance than he is given normally. He has done something very modern. He wanted to be a star: He became a victim of his own attempts to make himself a star. I really understand him. He was a young guy, who didnt have any means, only his talent."
On July 5th, Arte Television presents a documentary film about the life of George Antheil. Directed by Michael Meert, who has also produced films about Manuel de Falla, Isaac Albeniz, and Pablo Casals, this German-Polish production features Charles Amirkhanian, executor of the Antheil Estate, speaking about the life of this maverick American composer.
The scenes that Amirkhanian describes are illustrated by period footage and by re-creations (using Polish actors) of Antheil's most famous and infamous moments.
The authentic footage includes scenes from the riot at Antheil's October 4th, 1923 concert at the Théâtre Champs Elysées. This was filmed live by the French director Marcel L'Herbier, in preparation for L'Inhumaine, a silent movie about a controversial singer, played by Georgette LeBlanc, a good friend of Antheil's. We see the audience yelling and fighting as George (not shown) plays his violent compositions. Present were Satie, Joyce, Cocteau, and many others of the artistic avant-garde, though it is difficult to identify them on the vintage black-and-white scenes. Says Meert: "In the footage from LInhumaine, we thought we could identify Pound, maybe Satie. Supposedly this was all filmed at the time, during the riot. I spoke with film historians from Paris, and in the cinémathêque française they said no there was no footage of Antheil himself."
Meert's documentary brings to life photos of Antheil and his friends. The camera zooms in on aged photos on the scrapbook pages, which then spring to life. Through it all runs the thread of Amirkhanian's stories of George Antheil, mixed in with the fictitious voice of Antheil's wife Böski, who reminisces about their life together. Keeping with this theme of flashbacks and nostalgic memories, Meert also includes the older Antheil hunched over a typewriter, presumably writing his autobiography and/or letters towards the end of his life.
"The dialog with Böski is entirely invented. Its a narrative method, based on what I know about the biography, what I know and imagine about the relationship. She never gave deeper insight into her relationship [with her husband George Antheil], neither did Mrs. Casals [about her husband Pablo Casals]." After all, "maybe she took much more part in Georges work than he admitted."
The actors are generally excellent, if a little detached. About the shooting, Meert says, "I studied with Krzystof Kieslowski many years ago, and I know the Polish cinema culture very well, and they have very good artists, in every region: costumes, actors, everything; It was a Polish, German, Spanish group, and we spoke at least 5 languages on the set."
The only element that strikes a false note is the portrayal of Antheil as a little bit boring, a little effeminate. In real life, he was short, but stocky and pugnacious. His dandyism was more than a little mitigated by his intensity and ferociously quick temper. This documentary portrays Antheil as something of a wimp. And if we assume that Antheil was really armed at all his concerts, then we should also assume that he knew how to handle a gun.
The only extant footage of the real Antheil is a home movie from the 1940's showing Böski, Antheil, and Antheil's son Peter. As Meert points out, it is "very nice material: you see the authentic person all of a sudden and its moving to see him. The audience thinks this is a fiction film. Its done on purpose like this, it gives a ring to the authentic material. This is a narrative method that I use. Even a documentary film is a fiction film. Then, we make a turn, pointing out of course that this is a real story."
So why is Antheil important? Not only are his film scores important, but "as an American who influenced European art, and then influenced American culture afterwards... he is an important part of American culture."
Meert has made an invaluable and beautifully filmed contribution to musical history with this skillful documentary.
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Copyright 2000 by Paris Transatlantic