Dans ma main finds Jean-Michel Blais pushing the solo piano forward by fully engaging the medium’s past.
In 1985, the inimitable Jean-Michel Basquiat sat down for a rare interview. The full document of this particular conversation undoubtedly exists in an archive somewhere, but it seems only snippets have survived for YouTube consumption. The footage is grainy and overlaid with a persistent tape hiss. In it, Basquiat sports a black turtleneck and appears either nervous, or frustrated, but probably both. The interviewer, nearly drowned out in the wash of analog noise, asks, “Is there any anger in you?” Basquiat responds definitively: “Of course there is. Yeah, of course there is.” The interviewer jumps on Basquiat’s affirmation the way an angler emphatically yanks on their lure to set the line: “Talk about that. What are you angry about?”
It’s here that Basquiat pauses, considering his response. A few seconds pass. He lets out a delicate “hmm”, and his face breaks into a subtle laugh before snapping back to a look of measured contemplation. He looks up into the camera with a wry smile and calmly says, “I don’t remember.”
I’ve thought about this exchange a lot lately, ever since I heard it sampled on “outsiders”, a song from Jean-Michel Blais’s new record, Dans ma main. What I find compelling is the ambiguity of Basquiat’s response, and how its potential meanings speak not only to his work but Blais’s work as well.
On the one hand, Basquiat is merely stating that he can’t remember why he is angry. To me, this suggests a shape-shifting, multifaceted anger that colonizes every aspect of the mind to the point where any singular “why” becomes obscured. It’s anger that he spilled out onto the canvas and transfigured into images of arresting beauty and biting truth. On the other hand, or perhaps additionally, Basquiat could be saying that he is angry because he can’t remember. So much of his work reads like a laborious effort to reclaim a more-perfect sense of memory. He used a wide array of styles and techniques, enmeshing “high” and “low” art forms to make a profound mess of history. He sought to scramble it up and strip away the dominant power structures and narratives that rendered it superficially palatable. So much of late-modern/post-modern art concerns itself with appropriating and repackaging historical memory, whereas Basquiat’s art was a struggle to truly remember and reflect with a fresh set of eyes.
All this is to say that I feel Jean-Michel Blais’s choice to utilize this telling little interview snippet was a good one. I can’t speak for his exact intentions, but the potential meanings of Basquiat’s “I don’t remember” provide a useful starting point for understanding what Blais is trying to do with Dans ma main.
Like Basquiat did with the time-honoured duo of brush and canvas, Blais tasks himself with the challenge of innovating within the context of a long-enduring medium: the solo piano. If your chosen instrument immediately conjures images or ruminations of the past, then how are you supposed to experiment and move it forward? For Blais, it’s not enough to neatly re-package elements of the classics, evoke a specific movement or period, and slap a “Classical” or “Neoclassical” genre tag on the results. That is a kind of nostalgia, but it’s not remembering in the way that Basquiat frustratingly yearned to through his work. Blais’s brilliant performances on Dans ma main play out like desperate stabs at tapping into the emotional memory of the artform — a memory that is messier, non-linear, but intrinsically tied to deeper truths. He disregards musical history’s rote, structural ordering and allows the past to communicate with itself across imagined divides: “roses” blends melodic references to Radiohead’s “The Pyramid Song”, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Concerto No. 2”, and classical strings in a disorienting swirl of eras and mental states; the title track plays with a staccatoed melody and a repetitive, pop-like structure before Blais builds in lines reminiscent of Philip Glass. Throughout the album, Blais delves deep, molding his conceptions of the piano’s past into new shapes in order to see it, and remember it, anew.
What strikes me most about Dans ma main is the sheer depth and efficacy of the emotion: sporadic, ever-shifting, exorcised in fluid bursts of desperation and empathy. Pockets of cold darkness are punctuated with shots of warmth, tenderness, and optimism, but nothing ever truly settles. Blais’s compositions, like Basquiat’s paintings, are tempestuous and riddled with disparate fragments. On his last record, 2016’s Il, Blais captured dynamic shifts in emotion through improvisation. On dans ma main, the more fleshed-out compositions achieve a depth of feeling through Blais’s use of other technical means: creative recording techniques (“god[s]” sounds as if your listening from inside the piano; the audible weight of the piano keys on “sourdine”), his heartbreaking falsetto on closer “chanson”, and the pronounced electronic arrangements on songs like “blind” and the IDM-heavy “igloo”. These elements only serve to bolster the heart-swelling effect already inherent in his piano playing. Like Basquiat, Blais obscures his technical proficiency behind a palpable layer of raw feeling so as to dissolve any hierarchical remove between artist and listener. Everything works in the service of translating emotion, memory, and shared experience.
Dans ma main takes its name from the opening lines of “Monde irrémédiable désert”, a poem by French-Canadian poet Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau. The line translates to “In my hand, the broken end of all paths.” I like that line a lot. I see a hand clutching an uncountable quantity of string, frayed ends amassed together in a tangle of colour and texture. Each of these strings is a unique memory, a string of events — a history. To suggest that any of this can be parsed out linearly, or ordered into an overriding narrative, is absurd. If anything, it’s an inhibitor against any nuanced understanding. We should be wary of it, and recognize that the effort to do so is the primary reason why we often “don’t remember” in any profound sense. To scrutinize and appreciate the coagulated bevy of these frayed ends is to undertake the same task that Basquiat did with his work, and that Jean-Michel Blais does with Dans ma main. They disregard and move past nostalgia as an artistic tool; instead, both men wrestle the past out of a rigid continuum and react with renewed vigor to the resulting chaos.