Jean-Michel Blais on his music,
his Tourette’s, and finding
his Steinway Sound.
By Justin D. Joffe
Photo: John Londono
We have long known about the therapeutic potential of music, but in an age of digital streaming ubiquity and ever-accelerating media consumption, it’s become more difficult than ever for music to help us slow down, to help us be present with ourselves.
It’s through this lens that Montreal–based pianist Jean-Michel Blais, thirty-three, has become the sort of player who records and composes simply because he couldn’t see himself possibly doing anything else. Blais’ biography follows a trajectory of necessity — from learning the organ at eight and the piano at eleven by ear in his hometown of Nicolet, Quebec, to a brief run at conservatory, where his frustration at regurgitating the classical ghosts of a staid classical gentry rendered him an enfant terrible, he’s always been in this for himself.
Around the release of his album II in 2016, Blais questioned whether his music career would take priority over his work with special needs kids, which eventually transitioned into his current day job as a professor, teaching future social educators. Though his closest sonic inspirations suggest Blais hails from the same school of composition as Erik Satie, Philip Glass, or his label’s own Chilly Gonzales, the function of his art has dovetailed with his social work into something equally practical and utilitarian as it is transportive and otherworldly. These are songs that Blais finally records and releases when he overflows. These are songs that cured him of his Tourette’s, and taught him to be in love with the process. These are songs that we’re hearing, now, because Blais has tapped in to music’s great powers of healing, practiced on himself, and decided to share that practice with us now.
Blais caught up with Steinway & Sons over the phone while on tour in Paris, on a brief break from regaling the locals with his dirty Quebecois French. We talked about the moments of performance when learning to pause is therapy in itself, how he cured his own Tourette’s, and why he recorded his upcoming album, dans ma main, at a Montreal Steinway showroom in the dead of night.
How did your own compositions stem from, or deviate from, your classical training?
I find so much inspiration and influence from there. it’s really nice that there are purists doing stuff with classical music, and I love to attend this. But somehow, it’s just wrong and false, philosophically, to try and recreate these past moments.
On “Roses,” I sampled some Rachmaninoff stuff in there like a hip-hop producer. Why not? Lots of material is just there waiting for you to use it, break it down, play with it, and it’s one of many paths. It all started when I would play Haydn and just feel like this chord was so cheesy. So I would start changing chords in there. I remember doing some Bach and thinking, ‘I love this section — why does it only come once?’ then looping it.
When I was studying at conservatory they wouldn’t appreciate my approach, and that’s fine, because that’s their role. I quit at one point because I couldn’t find my place in that system anymore. It’s just weird that I composed for ten years before trusting myself enough to think, ‘Maybe there’s a place for me, I just need to create it somehow.’
What you said about isolating certain phrases that you love is interesting. “Forteresse” has this Radiohead bit that you said was a conscious lifting when I saw you at [New York City’s] Joe’s Pub a few months back.
It reminds us of Radiohead because we’re in the era we are, but we’ve played those same chords maybe a century ago and people would hear some Spanish flamenco or gypsy music sequence. Radiohead took it from somewhere — there’s no beginning or ending in biology. My ancestor was a frog somehow, and there’s no way to know exactly when we went from one step to another one. It’s the same way with music.
Your influences get mentioned a lot, particularly Philip Glass, and as a practicing Buddhist, his repetition of phrases stems from a desire to elicit feelings of constancy and resolve. Knowing that you’ve worked as a special-needs teacher begs the question, what your intentions are with regard to therapy and self-help?
It feels like in the show, there’s always something happening. A three-year-old kid just came up beside me and wanted to play the piano. Sometimes, someone coughs. Someone faints. Someone leaves; someone sings. Things happen that allow us to be more present, and that’s how I can tie it back to meditation and Philip Glass. This sense of the ever-present that we’ve completely lost — especially in Paris or New York, where we just run toward whatever. We have the capacity now to do more things per day, but we have the expectations to do more things per day, so that doesn’t change anything. To pause a little is a therapy in itself.
At Joe’s Pub, you also mentioned using the rumble of a subway below you in your playing while it was happening. Maybe this is the fruit of your practice — remaining impervious to the things that otherwise might ruin our day.
Exactly, and back to this idea of meditation is the idea of accepting. I cannot change the subway we’re hearing now, I cannot prevent people from coughing, but sometimes people cough in time, which is great. I started a show in France a few days ago, and was about to play the first note, and a phone rang in the exact same key I was about to play. So I start improvising with the phone, and started the show that way. This never happened before. What’s the chance? One out of twelve, or twenty-four if we include major and minor keys, that the phone is in key with what I’m about to play. That’s crazy.
‘I started composing at a time in my life where I couldn’t talk about issues I was having. I was a teenager, so many things are going on, and piano became my confessor.’
Did you really cure your own Tourette’s?
Yeah, it’s true. it’s interesting. It started when I was very young, noticing that when I would play, all my tics would drastically stop until the last note then come back. It’s an observed phenomenon now. There are many theories on how this works. So, at one point in my life, I just went to a psychiatrist and asked what was going on. Tt explained so much about OCD and anxiety.
I studied psychology, and feel this must be a cause or consequence of other, deeper complex problems in the psyche or subconscious. OK, I have Tourette’s and I can take pills to fix that, but it’s a plaster. You’re not fixing the wound or why you’re wounded. But that’s a different story that I’ll keep for myself.
I asked the psychiatrist everything I could do to not take pills. Basic stuff — eat well, do your sports, and do music. Now, if you meet me, you’ll just see little things sometimes when I get nervous. I got to a point where I accept and even like it now. It’s helpful — when I get tics, it’s because something is going on. I’m stressed out because I haven’t slept enough. It’s a nice barometer.
These signifiers happen all day, but we don’t seem to slow down enough to be aware of them.
I started composing at a time in my life where I couldn’t talk about issues I was having. I was a teenager, so many things are going on, and piano became my confessor. I was expressing myself through it. It’s so hard for me to fix a signifier when music speaks so much easier. It’s broader, it’s fluid. The expression and self-curing by composing, by improvising…. I have improvisations that come from me being upset, being in love, dropped, all of this together. Then you recognize it a little. It’s a great journey now; it’s great to open.
Where do these swells of electronics on the new record fit in? Many avant-garde new-music venues are looking for new ways to fuse fresh sounds into classical music atmosphere, and you seem to have tapped into it.
The album came mainly by the introduction of Ableton in my life. I’ve always been an improviser and piano composer, but I had a four-track recorder as a kid, so I was playing with that, putting in layers, and it was not enough. I would play with two hands at the same time, so I could double and have eight, but it was always super limited.
Now that I write with Ableton, it’s the feeling of infinity, nursing on your mom’s milk forever until you’re fed. I can’t see how Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and all those dudes wouldn’t have used it now. Now, when I play and something’s inspiring, I just capture it. I think roughly I may have composed everything in more or less one week, because I couldn’t sleep.
What effect did that have on the music?
The record is really night-oriented. In the night, curiously, that’s where you can be in Berlin for the best electronics, then walk a bit and be in the forest where you just hear your footsteps. I think all those worlds live side by side, and in the night, those boundaries are even more blurry. Is that someone, or the shadow of a tree over there?
It brought me back to this moment when you go to bed as a kid and you’re anxious: you turn out the light, it’s dark, and in this moment you fall asleep. We also have this as adults — you think about the real things and how do you face them? That’s when people pray, when you think about your day. All those things that come out in the darkness are what I try to encapsulate.
‘It was the first time I tried different Steinways side by side, and I could then tell there was a world of difference in the Steinway sound from the other pianos I had tried.’
You have this synthesized music here that seems to fill in the spaces between the breaths of the analogue piano. How does your acoustic relationship with Steinway instruments fit into it?
Before all this started two years ago, I’d played on ten pianos. I couldn’t tell the difference between a Yamaha, Steinway or a Kawai. We decided to record at the main Steinway dealer in Montreal, Pianos Bolduc. They are so cool, so open-minded, and the manager of the showroom does techno remixes when he has time. He’s a big fan of analog synths.
So I befriended this guy, and the showroom. It was the first time I tried different Steinways side by side, and I could then tell there was a world of difference in the Steinway sound from the other pianos I had tried. It was in Queens that I visited the Steinway Factory, and of course they’re all different because they’re all handmade! It’s like a hospital — it seems like it’s a heaven of perfection, but it’s all human made. All of this working together to create a sense of purity.
After a few weeks of research we just went to Pianos Bolduc and recorded. The sound was so good. We’d hear the street when we wanted it, but the guy said we had to come at night. So that’s where the night idea came, too. The whole album was created, recorded and composed at night. We went there eight nights in a row, trying every Steinway to find the one that had the right character for the piece.
They’re all good, but they’re all different. And that’s what suits what I’m trying to do. Each show is different, each moment is different. Each instrument is different — on “Outsiders” you hear the pedals so much, but it feels like percussion, like someone is playing a snare in the back. That becomes part of it, too.