Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Florent Ghys @ Noguchi Museum, 13 June 2010

As the rain was nearing, the performance was moved inside from the lovely sculpture garden. It was probably better for the music anyway.The main room with Isamu Noguchi’s works is wonderful in its own right. The Noguchi Museum is one of my favourite places in New York and it was the perfect setting for this afternoon’s concert with the French composer and bassist Florent Ghys. The young man was a new acquaintance to us, but being a part of the adventurous Bang on a Can collective was enough of a recommendation for Yoko and me to take the bus-subway combination to Queens. A decent sized crowd had gathered at the museum for the event, lounging on the floor between the sculptures.

Florent Ghys stood in the corner of the spacious room alone with his bass and laptop computer. The bass itself was a stripped down version of a double bass, electrically amplified without the wooden body. Florent, who is classically trained and has played with the Paris Opera Orchestra, would today play his own music, which combines elements from contemporary music, rock, jazz and electronic. For the following 70 minutes we, together with the entire audience, would sit transfixed by the enticing sounds of Florent Ghys.

While the bass was naturally in the leading role, the composer used it in a very interesting way. In many pieces, Florent Ghys would set up an ostinato or a pattern that he would play on the bass, either bowing or picking the strings, while recording it on the laptop. He would then let the computer repeat the recorded piece while he would lay over textures or a melody on top of it. Many of the melodies he created were truly beautiful. As a highly skilled bassist, he would play them high on the strings making the big instrument sound like a cello.

In between the pieces, all of which were clearly circumscribed and never extended beyond their predefined extent, Florent would communicate with the audience in a shy and friendly manner. He would tell a few words about the pieces and express his joy at playing in this beautiful place.

Not all of the music was instantly played and replayed on location. Some of the background tracks had been recorded in advance by the composer himself. They contained mainly percussion and some bits with guitar. On several tracks he used voice samples. These were mostly in French (for which he modestly apologized to the American audience) but one was in English and another one in Japanese. Apparently, he was not sure what the Japanese text was about, so he asked whether there was anyone in the audience who could tell. A Japanese woman with short spiked hair and big white-framed sunglasses said it was about bad news, which again brought out a ‘sorry’ from the composer. (According to Yoko it was actually about local elections, which may or may not be bad news.)

One of the best pieces included an American weather report as a voice track around which Ghys had composed the music. According to Florent himself, weather reports (alongside things like hair dryers, numbers, girls and blinkers) are amongst his interests. The melody he bowed on top of the music and the weather report had a melancholy beauty that was quintessentially French.

Perhaps the most interesting moment to me was rather early on in the concert. It was a composition built around a sampled French woman’s voice. In the middle of the piece when the woman continued speaking all other music stopped and Florent followed the melody and rhythm of her speech on the bow. The effect was unique and demonstrated both the tonality of the French language and Ghys’ impeccable ear.

There was a surprising variety to the music. Some tunes were rather avant-garde exploring the harmonies of the strings. Others had a pulse that made you want to tap your foot, even if the time was not always straightforward. One of the last pieces combined both. It was, the composer explained, the first piece ever in which he had sampled a speech that had a political message (as opposed to, say, a weather report). This one was about closing down of factories and consequent lay-offs plaguing France.

What a delightful event this was. The music was both captivating and innovative. Florent Ghys is a composer and musician whose explorations I am sure to follow in the future.

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