February News 2001 New Releases
reviewed by Dan Warburton:
Various Artists: REICH REMIXED
Howard Riley / Barry Guy / Tony Oxley
Radu Malfatti Die Temperatur der Bedeutung...
John Cage: TWO 4 The Works for Violin Vol.3
Kaija Saariaho
Giacinto Scelsi THE PIANO WORKS Vol.1
Marc Sens: FAUX AMI / Makoto Kawabata & Jean-François Pauvros
Paul Steenhuisen COMPOSITIONS
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Various Artists:

Nonesuch 7559-79552-2

Minimal music and pop have always acknowledged each other’s existence as second cousins. LaMonte Young had a “blues band” a few years back; Terry Riley teamed up with (ex-Young sideman and Velvet Underground founder-member) John Cale on the claustrophically weird “Church of Anthrax” in 1970; David Bowie and Brian Eno openly admitted the influence of Phil Glass on the trilogy of mid-70s albums “Low”, “Heroes” and “Lodger” (a compliment “repaid” as it were by Glass with the awful “Heroes Symphony” a few years back); Wim Mertens and Michael Nyman flirted with rock rhythms (both eventually abandoning the keyboards and bass guitars in favor of, er, classical models); and second-generation minimalists Michael Torke and Todd Levin gleefully pillaged Chaka Khan and Michael Jackson. Of the founding fathers, only Steve Reich, working quietly away in his tiny study in his Broadway apartment, has kept his distance - until now. When I asked Reich back in 1986 what he thought of John Adams and Arvo Pärt, his instant response was: “They owe me a lot of money”. Perhaps the good folk of Nonesuch were listening in to our private conversation - “Reich Remixed” certainly seems at face value to be a blatant exercise in “cashing in” (and I’m sure Steve has been generously rewarded): invite a handful of hip DJs and remixers (Coldcut, Howie B, Mantronik, D*Note, DJ Spooky etc. etc.) to do their versions of extracts from the Reich catalogue, throw in a hip liner note by a hip composer (Bang On A Can’s Michael Gordon), and ship the resulting product out in the thousands. I suppose you can’t blame Nonesuch, seeing Reich has more or less dried up altogether when it comes to writing new stuff (barely an hour’s worth of new music since “The Cave” nearly a decade ago). Well-informed readers that you are, you’ll be aware no doubt that “Reich Remixed” hit the streets a year ago. So why am I reviewing it now (what happened to those cutting edge scoops we “journalists” are supposedly valued for?)? To be honest, because I just found it in a half-price sale bin in a dusty bookshop (I knew it would end up there one day, so I decided to wait for it instead of shelling out the full $20+ asking price). Despite Michael Gordon’s claiming Reich as the “original re-mixer” (my vote by the way would go instead to Lee “Scratch” Perry, but that’s another story), the idea of the remix as such dates from some fifteen or so years after Reich’s earliest tape works. In the early days of pre-hiphop electro, a remix was precisely that: the song more or less retained its original form and very little was added to the basic tracks; it was a subtle realignment of components rather than a rethinking of basic structural elements, a remix as opposed to a demix. For example, 1989’s excellent “Life is a Dance: The Remix Project”, where classic disco/funk tracks by Chaka Khan were superbly recrafted as house, techno, hiphop and garage by the likes of Frankie Knuckles, Paul Simpson, Marley Marl. Hank Shocklee’s remix of “Slow Dancin’” leaves Chaka and Rick James well alone, reworking just the rhythm tracks (especially the snare drum) into vintage hiphop beats, while Marley Marl flattens out the funk beats of “This Is My Night” to create a sleek blue-room groove far removed from the almost camp discophonics of Arif Mardin’s original production.

Throughout the album, the original songs are never far away, allowing the listener the simultaneous double pleasure of discovering the new and rediscovering the familiar. Jump forward a decade, and the world has sure moved on. Nowadays anyone with a bit of cash and a head for instruction manuals can set up a kickass studio in their bedroom, slip a CD into a sampler or a computer and perform all kinds of experimental surgery on it with ProTools, Sound Forge or whatever the state-of-the-art software is these days. So, to take a famous example, a remix project like Can’s “Sacrilege” (1997) is a radically different proposition - the guest mixmasters can and do actively recompose these slabs of vintage krautrock into something quite different: Carl Craig’s “Blade Runner Mix” of “Future Days” becomes a towering edifice of Detroit Techno (and a very good one) far removed rhythmically and harmonically from the 1973 original; Bruce Gilbert’s version of “TV Spot” will have you racing back to Can to find out exactly what (if anything) he decided to retain; only The Orb and A Guy Called Gerald have the innate good sense to keep (some of) the original kickass Jaki Liebzeit drumming. It’s obviously a credit to the original group that their work could stand being tinkered with to such an extent (and they were all, apparently, very happy with the resulting double CD). Now, quite what Steve Reich makes of the same hi-tech reworking of his intricate and long-labored-over compositions I’d like to find out. For my money, only Michael Kandel’s “Tranquillity Bass Megamix” raises a smile, with its neat overlayering of sumptuous strings (culled from “Three Movements”), delicate percussion (“Clapping Music”) and Pat Metheny’s gentle guitar figures from “Electric Counterpoint” (this last piece by the way was very effectively sampled by The Orb on their cool chill out classic “Little Fluffy Clouds” way back in 1991). Hats off to Kandel for spotting the funk in the San Francisco preacher Reich recorded back in 1965 for “It’s Gonna Rain” - find the right loop and hey presto, you got Jaaaames Brown! Elsewhere, Andrea Parker loops a plaintive violin line from “The Four Sections” to atmospheric effect, D*Note treats “Piano Phase” with utter respect (not surprising since everything he does under his own name sounds like sub-Reich to start with), and Nobukazu Takemura deftly messes up the dreary “Proverb” with strategic glitches and stutters. So much for the good stuff: Coldcut sabotages “Music for 18 Musicians” (how the hell can you remix a piece that lasts over an hour into six minutes, goddamit) by adding a totally gratuitous Ninja booming bass, Howie B (hardest working man in triphop?) throws rhythm tracks like steel girders into the delicate pulsing mechanism that used to be “Eight Lines”, Mantronik relegates the xylophones of “Drumming” to mere background, and DJ Spooky vandalizes the already dodgy “City Life” beyond all recognition. Perhaps I’m just being a bit primitive here, but one of the things I used to like about remixes was being able to relate what I was hearing for the first time to what I already knew - could I recognize the original from listening to the remix? Spooky (aka Paul Miller) comes up with something so far-removed from “City Life” as I know it in terms of tempo, thematic material, structure and atmosphere that I wouldn’t call it a remix at all - rather an original work that chooses to sample Reich (hey, I got an idea: why don’t we reissue Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance” as a remix of Parliament’s “Let’s Play House”? It’d be just a legitimate as this..). Of course, tons of special effects backed up with pseudo-philosophical bullshit and gratuitous quotes from the likes of Baudrillard and Derrida are in these days.. but let’s just see if Mr. Miller or any of his aliases are around twiddling knobs in ten years’ time.

I guess this album joins a whole list of “products” including fridge magnets (remember their origin in dada/surrealist poetics?), Vasarely bedspreads, Lichtenstein tee shirts, Mondrian handbags and the like as yet another post-Cageian example of (high?) art crossing over into (low?) life, and that I’m perhaps being overly stuffy (maybe it’s called aging.. I remember I used to like dreadful things like Malcolm McLaren’s “Fans” for the same dubious reasons), but the oeuvre of Steve Reich, at least up to and including “Different Trains” (strange that none of our PowerBook guest stars didn’t go for that piece - how do you sample a sample? I’d have thought Miller would have enjoyed “reconceptualizing” that one..) is too well-crafted, self-contained and consistent to deserve such butchery, well-intentioned and pretty though it may be. And if Steve himself rubber-stamped this, then I can only conclude that either his judgment is seriously lacking (which I’ve suspected to be the case since I saw the overhyped boredom of “Hindenburg”) or he really is strapped for cash.

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Howard Riley / Barry Guy / Tony Oxley

Emanem 4044

Though the early releases on Derek Bailey’s Incus label can be tracked down with a bit of effort and some patient surfing, this reissue of 1973’s Incus 13 on Martin Davidson’s excellent Emanem imprint is most welcome, especially as it adds a previously unreleased 18 minute track, “Runes”. Curiously, the music sounds both alarmingly modern and yet clearly belongs to the heyday of 1970s British improvised music; the reason for this apparent paradox is quite simply that a whole generation of younger improvising musicians have rediscovered the marvels lurking away in the back catalogues of Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Phil Wachsmann, John Stevens and Tony Oxley, and are recontextualising their innovations in new and exciting ways (and of course, all the above - with the exception of the late and much-missed Stevens - are still very active as performers). However, while titanic piano bashers such as Fred Van Hove are still exerting a great influence on young pianists, Howard Riley has, it seems, been unjustly overlooked. To be sure, his occasional flamboyant volleys of clusters can sound somewhat dated and expressionistic in the context of today’s at times rather frosty scene, but his delicate fingerwork and impeccable sense of timing and interval have always moved this writer more than Van Hove. It’s easy to forget the close links that British improvised music forged at the time with mainstream contemporary music - Barry Guy, for example, was (is) also a composer of talent and a first-class interpreter of the modern bass repertoire, and with soprano Jane Manning has been at the forefront of many daring boundary-breaking projects - this music seems to come more from Wolpe, Boulez and Pousseur than from the gutsy testosterone of the New Thing (that said, it’s not hard to hear why Cecil Taylor loves playing with Guy and Oxley). Riley is undoubtedly correct when he says that the trio were “evolving a distinctly European sound”, but the almost painterly use of texture and space is already, in 1973, quite distinct from the muscular drink-you-under-the-table attitude of Brötzmann and Bennink (and Van Hove). Despite his occasional bursts of violence, Riley has much in common here with John Stevens and his Spontaneous Music Ensemble. To quote Art Lange out of context, you can “hear him listening to himself” (Lange was writing of Misha Mengelberg, but the remark applies just as well to Howard Riley). This album is a rare and rich pleasure to be savored like a fine wine.

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Radu Malfatti
Die Temperatur der Bedeutung / Das Profil des Schweigens
Edition Wandelweiser Records
EWR 9801

Trombonist Radu Malfatti was born in Innsbruck in 1943, and lived and worked in Holland and Britain in the 1970s, where he encountered and played with the pioneering spirits of European modern jazz and improvised music, including Chris MacGregor, Paul Rutherford, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Misha Mengelberg, Fred Van Hove and Tony Oxley (to name but a few). In recent years Malfatti has concentrated increasingly on composition, or rather the interface between composition and improvisation, and has become a leading figure in the ultra-minimal “Berlin school” (though he currently lives in Vienna). He has also worked with fellow Austrian Werner Dafeldecker in the group Polwechsel, whose first album dating from way back in 1993 has become something of a landmark document since its reissue on Hat(Art) a year or so back.
This album, dating from 1997, consists of two Malfatti compositions for, respectively, solo trombone (played by the composer himself) and string quartet. Each piece lasts exactly 2000 seconds - a parallel with the painting inevitably springs to mind: it would seem that Malfatti has chosen this duration in advance, in the same way that a painter selects the canvas before setting to work, therefore having certain given variables regarding the works’ eventual size and scale. What is remarkable about these two works though has nothing to do with such pre-determined considerations (if indeed pre-determined they are: in the absence of textual clarification on the part of the composer, that is just my assumption based on their particular duration of 33’20”): what is extraordinary is the extreme, minimal austerity of Malfatti’s sound world. Quite simply, even the most delicate late chamber piece by Morton Feldman sounds as opulent as a Mahler symphony in comparison with this: “Die Temperatur der Bedeutung” specifies nothing more than particular methods of blowing into the trombone (at particular angles, or with certain “specified shapes of the mouth cavity”), while “Das Profil des Schweigens” calls for the four string players to bow on pegs, tailpieces and other parts of the body of the instruments, rather than the “normal” contact point on the strings between bridge and fingerboard. (It seems, moreover, that the four instruments were recorded separately on different dates and the recordings superimposed later; I’d be curious to see how Malfatti chose to notate this music, since such recording circumstances would seem to indicate that precise coordination between the performers is not necessarily required.) At no stage in either composition are there any clearly discernible notes whatsoever, nor any metrical regularity nor rhythm in the accepted sense of the word; there is blowing or bowing (“blasen-klingen” or “streichen-klingen”, to quote Antoine Beuger’s well-nigh untranslatable liner notes), interspersed with silence. And that’s it. Or rather that’s just the beginning of what turns out to be a really thrilling sonic adventure: we know now, thanks to John Cage of course, that there is in fact no such thing as silence. In optimum listening conditions (I recommend on headphones in the middle of the night), one is aware here not only of all the tiny sounds that the musicians make in the studio environment which are inevitably captured by ultra-sensitive microphones (breathing, occasional creaks and clicks of chairs, and the ever-present and ultimately acoustically rich audible hiss of the recording itself - these works must have been an absolute nightmare to perform, and especially to record), but also the plethora of sounds that occur outside the confines of the recording - even through good-quality headphones I became increasingly conscious of distant traffic sounds (as heard through closed double-glazing at 5.30am!), the rumbling of water pipes (several floors above my apartment), not to mention the myriad, tiny creasing and rustling sounds of my own hair on the back of the chair I was sitting on, as quietly as I could.
To draw another parallel with the visual arts, one thinks of Duchamp’s “Large Glass”, where the viewer cannot see the artist’s distinctive shapes and surfaces without also perceiving the “real” world beyond through the transparent material. With Malfatti’s music, changing the context of the listening experience modifies the whole perceptual mechanism of the work: out of curiosity I took this album into the streets with me on a hissy audio cassette in the trusty old Walkman: in over a decade of using public transport I can honestly say I’ve never been aware of how aurally fascinating it can be. Of course, I seriously doubt whether Radu Malfatti ever intended anybody to listen to this music in noisy underground stations, but be that as it may: in the sense that they lead us to appreciate the all-too-often ignored sonic richness of the world around us, these two compositions work better than more notorious pieces such as Cage’s “4’33” and La Monte Young’s “Poem”, for the simple reason that Cage’s legendary work by definition provides nothing for the listener to use as a reference sound with which to “measure” the other elements of the surrounding “silence”, while Young’s sounds, though interspersed with long stretches of “silence” are themselves so raw and distinctive that they continue to resonate in the listener’s mind long after they have ceased to exist acoustically, thereby imposing clear and memorable structure upon the work. Malfatti’s sounds, on the other hand, are sufficiently neutral in terms of their pitch and rhythmic identity so as not to interfere with our perception of the inexorable passing of time; as sounds they are both instantly discernible and instantly forgettable; they are either there or not there; when they are there we listen to them (sometimes, especially in the string quartet, the long continuous passages are so acoustically rich that one can be fooled into thinking this is some complex electroacoustic work), and when they’re not there, we don’t miss them. There are other sounds around us to listen to instead, more than we could ever have imagined. Thank you to Radu Malfatti for cleaning out our ears.

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John Cage TWO 4
The Works for Violin Vol.3
Irvine Arditti / Mayumi Miyata / Stephen Drury

Two magnificent versions of Cage’s late duo work, Two4, one with the Japanese sho, the other the piano, and both (of course) featuring the exceptional talents of Irvine Arditti on violin. It must be said that, apart from mastering a range of microtonal inflections, this piece doesn’t stretch him technically in the way that a Ferneyhough or Xenakis piece would, but its difficulties are more subtle and no less challenging - Stephen Drury’s excellent notes are some the clearest I’ve come across in their lucid explanation of the nuances of Cage’s time-bracket notation. The violin’s sustained tones - sul ponticello and without vibrato - are crystalline and slightly jarring, and meld with the sho and the piano in radically different ways, and yet the “identity” (Cage’s term) of the piece is clearly preserved in both versions. This is fantastically beautiful music performed with loving care and attention - quiet and restrained as ever, though quite distinct from the hushed carpet weaving of Feldman, to which it has often been somewhat unjustly compared. Another fine addition to Mode’s ongoing Cage collection.

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Kaija Saariaho
Cendres / Grammaire des Rêves / Solar / New Gates Champ d’Action / James Wood

48-year-old Kaija Saariaho gazes serenely out of the back tray photograph, gently fingering a beautiful scarf in a gesture both elegantly feminine and protectively determined. The music likewise - seductive and sensual at first listening, it reveals itself gradually to be built on strong, dependable foundations. It’s a bit out of fashion these days to toss out words like “beauty” and “elegance” - they never sounded right in the context of the brave new world fashioned by the Darmstadt serialists - but Claude Debussy wouldn’t have objected to them, and neither should Saariaho. What’s curious about this music is that it seems to have stepped out of time: musique spectrale today- a tendency Saariaho’s been associated with for some time, for better or worse, by dint of her presence in Paris no doubt - doesn’t sound all that different from what was produced more than two decades ago. Compare “Solar” to Grisey’s “Partiels” (1975) or Murail’s “Treize Couleurs du Soleil Couchant” (1978), and the same musical concerns are present, albeit articulated in different ways: a clear idea of “harmony” (in the sense of spectral coherence, absolutely the right notes), an ear fine-tuned to the specificities of the instrument (either alone or in the context of an ensemble), and a command of large-scale form that immediately situates the work in the corpus of European classical music since Beethoven. For once, the label “classical” seems to mean something: I suspect that Saariaho will still be writing music that sounds like this in 2020 (which may not, depending on your point of view, necessarily be a comforting thought, though it’s perhaps unfair to expect contemporary instrumental music to display the year of its creation as overtly as electroacoustic and other new musics do). These four works, taken as a whole, form a 50-minute arch from trio to large ensemble and back to trio (the one fault being, sorry to quibble, the mistake on the CD tray: “Cendres” is scored for flute, cello and piano, not flute, harp and viola) and a ravishingly beautiful listening experience to boot, impeccably performed and recorded by Champ d’Action. Happily, more Mode releases are in the pipeline featuring this fine ensemble.

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Giacinto Scelsi
Louise Bessette

This is a most welcome release which shows clearly that Giacinto Scelsi di Ayala Valva (1905-88) didn’t just beam down to planet Earth from Saturn like Sun Ra (who didn’t either, as it turns out) but in fact grew organically from the compositional soil of late nineteenth-century Romanticism like so many others. Scelsi was in the habit of recording his own improvisations and subsequently having them transcribed by assistants (though to what extent this practice was already the case back in the late 30s and early 40s when the first Piano Sonatas were written is not clear). In describing himself as a mere “vessel” through which music passed, he also aligns himself with that quintessentially Romantic concept, inspiration (a much-maligned word nowadays, sadly) - late Liszt comes to mind (compare Scelsi’s sonata slow movements with the Abbé’s “Nuages Gris”..), but also Beethoven. The second movement (“Lentissimo”) from the Suite no. 9 “Ttai” with its resonating major chords recalls in no uncertain terms the finale of Beethoven’s Op.110, though whereas Beethoven incorporated such moments of “Ur-Musik” (in the sense of the term as employed by Busoni) into a rigorous formal scheme including two extended fugues, Scelsi tends to let his imagination run wild, thereby blowing the form wide open and anticipating the intense meditative style of his later works. It remains open to question whether a more conventionally disciplined “composer” would have fashioned this magma into a cool marble sculpture, but as this is just Volume One of a projected Scelsi cycle on Mode, I await further elucidation with great interest. Strongly recommended listening for fans of Scelsi and Beethoven alike.

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Janek Schaefer
Fat Cat FAT-SPO2

After a live CD on K-RAA-K and a split 12” on FatCat in 1998, “Above Buildings” is Janek Schaefer’s first full-length studio work, in which the architect-turned-musician puts aside his Tri-phonic turntable (a triple-armed monster allowing a vinyl to be manipulated in a bewildering number of ways) in favor of some painstaking old-fashioned studio time. His source sounds are diverse, ranging from cranky old organs to Vegas slot machines and electrical storms and solar eclipses, but if I didn’t tell you that you’d probably never guess (I only learnt it from the Press Release): these field recordings are lovingly transformed into expansive and colorful musical landscapes, austere at times but utterly compelling. (Next time I drive across central Nevada, this is going in the car stereo.) Unlike much contemporary electronica, which tends to sprawl aimlessly across seventy-minute CDs as if the mere novelty of its sound could ever compensate for lack of a strong sense of structure (it can’t), Schaefer really knows how to handle large-scale form - that’s what comes from studying architecture. “Above Buildings” is strong, satisfying and sensual work from someone we’ll be hearing more of in years to come.

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Marc Sens
Shambala Makoto Kawabata / Jean-François Pauvros

In French, “faux ami” (false friend) refers to a word in a foreign language which resembles one in French but in fact means something quite different (e.g. “actuellement” doesn’t mean the same thing as “actually”). It’s a neat title for this debut solo guitar album by Marc Sens, since the power riffs and feedback techniques of rock are here re-contextualised into improv (Thurston Moore, Alan Licht and Bruce Russell inevitably spring to mind), and even the presence on one track of French guitar god Serge Teyssot-Gay (of Noir Désir) never quite manages to pull the album within the boundaries of what could justifiably be called “rock”. It’s too fresh for that. “Faux Ami” is a remarkably honest piece of work, a strong and simple tale of a young man and his guitar (along with its attendant trappings including numerous effects pedals and crackly cables), which neither overplays its hand nor outstays its welcome.
Jean-François Pauvros (who was wailing feedback solos when Marc Sens was still in short pants), a founder member of the mythic group Catalogue, was arguably the first French rock guitarist to move into improv, though he’s always hacked a doggedly individual path through the undergrowth of the French underground, collaborating along the way with musicians as diverse as Arto Lindsay, Evan Parker and Keiji Haino. Fractal Records boss Jérôme Génin here has teamed him up with another amp-melting string-bender, Acid Mother Temple’s neo-psychedelic guru Makoto Kawabata, for a 48-minute stroll through reverberating caverns haunted by Haino and Jerry Garcia, with several dozen bottles of beer as company (if the inner photo is to be believed). It’s both laidback and intense, and being totally improvised has its highs and lows (it goes out on a real high); though hardly as incendiary as Pauvros’s duo album with Haino (1999’s “Y” on Shambala), it’s more enjoyable upon repeated listening. Damn fine artwork and photos too.

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Paul Steenhuisen
Contact: ba@unixg.ubc.ca

Milton Babbitt once famously described an LP recording of Tchaikowsky as electronic music - the record itself becomes an objet trouvé, something to manipulate or even downright vandalize (Cage was, not surprisingly, one of the first folk to realize this, long before Christian Marclay and John Oswald). Nowadays, with today’s music software, one might add that a CD or an mp3 file of Tchaikowsky is just as susceptible to interference. Paul Steenhuisen’s “Bread” (for 13 instruments and soundfiles) confronts the esthetic of Babbitt’s quotation full on when winds and percussion suddenly loop back upon themselves and disappear down an electronic plughole; nothing here but the recordings, as Wm. Burroughs might have said. “Wonder” pits the computer against a full orchestra and a soprano, while “Now is a Creature” for trombone and electronics is one of the most exciting uses of real-time transformation I’ve come across - Steenhuisen demystifies the process and reveals exactly what he’s doing (octave doublings, delays, pitch inversions, you name it) to Benny Sluchin’s athletic performance. Elsewhere the composer abandons live forces altogether for spectacular plunderphonics: “Poland is not yet lost” viciously mangles a choral sample (trying to determine what is rather like identifying a charred body after a train wreck, but I think it’s a snatch of “Parsifal”) with all the digital butchery ProTools is capable of. In this piece, as in the imaginatively-titled “Circumnavigating the sea of shit”, the barriers have come crashing down between “contemporary classical music” and “electronica” - this could easily be the work of Fennesz, Rehberg or those jolly pranksters V/VM. Of course, Steenhuisen’s more conventional (?) instrumental pieces (“MYCENAEAN WOUND”, “Ciphering in Tongues”..) reveal him to be well-versed in straight post-IRCAM techniques, but there’s a freshness here that bodes well for the future providing he doesn’t allow himself to be locked up in a studio next to the Pompidou Centre.

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Copyright 2001 by Paris Transatlantic