Sunday, July 11, 2010

Air @ Montreux Jazz Festival, 2 July 2010

I caught Air on the first night of the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Like most jazz festivals today, Montreux interprets 'jazz' rather liberally. Consequently, these slim former academics, both born in France in 1969, whose act can hardly be classified as jazz fit in perfectly. The Miles Davis Hall was packed and the audience revved up when the two unshaven co-leaders dressed in white entered the stage.

The music started with songs from their latest album, Love 2, with fantastic soundscapes created by the duo backed by the black-clad drummer. The first tune was 'Do the Joy' from the new album. The bass and drums laid out the heavy beat against which the Moog synthesizer played the superficially simple but memorable melody. It's hard to describe how good the beat was, but it immediately sucked into the mood everyone in the audience. For the diehard fans of Air (a category I readily include myself in) it hit us in all the right places. The bass vamp melded with the drums in a seamless groove, while the keyboards set the tone for things to come.

Air's music is often classified as electronica, but this is a gross simplification. Electronic instruments obviously do play a central role in the duo's music, but that is not necessarily the point. The point is that theirs is music that crosses boundaries, using elements from rock, pop, electronica and others. Their sound is uniquely their own. I've seen it compared to Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream and others equally wide apart. There is no doubt that the two musicians have had their influences (like everyone else), but they have been quite varied (including the Carpenters, according to the musicians themselves). The music of Air was brought to a wider attention in Sophia Coppola's movie Lost in Translation and the duo gained popularity amongst hipsters. It's equally clear that their music is highly original, unlike anything else that I've come across.

Air (apart from the obvious, the letters are supposed to stand for amour, imagination, rêve) has been around for a decade and a half, since the time the two friends formed the duo in 1995. Nicolas Godin was a student of architecture in Paris, while Jean-Benoît Dunckel studied mathematics. Both had played in the band Orange before. In Air, they were able to create their own sound and vision, which is both intellectual and emotionally compelling. The music is imaginative and the sounds are amazingly strong. The melodies, sung primarily by Dunckel almost effeminately softly , are simple but invariably beautiful and memorable, like in the sweet pop song 'Heaven's Light' they performed in the set tonight.

Some tunes clearly reveal the origin of the duo. Like the experimental instrumental 'Be a Bee,' which despite its steady rock beat and 4/4 bass, somehow sounds so quintessentially French.

What boggles my mind is that still today, in 2010 when everything seems to be about hype and commercialism, a band that plays intellectual music, much of which is instrumental, can command such a following of people from different genders, countries and ages. It does give hope for the future.

'Tropical Disease,' with its complex structure and tempo changes, many layers of keyboards (that Dunckel mastered superbly in a live situation) and the deceivingly facile snippets of melody, is an example of the most unlikely hit song. Yet it completely enticed the audience in the Miles Davis Hall.

The stage setting was highly psychedelic. The groovy light show was reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey with swirling colours and black-and-white kinetic visions. The spaced out impression was further enhanced by Godin using the Vocoder, sounding like Hal, in his vocals (and occasionally thanking the audience, "Merci beaucoup," in between the tunes).

Throughout the concert, Dunckel in his white trousers, shirt and tie stood between his banks of keyboards, consisting of a white Wurlitzer electric piano, a string machine and several analogue synthesizers by legendary makers such as Moog and ARP. He swayed slightly while his hands were playing the keyboards ambidextrously on both sides simultaneously. The set was designed so that the slight man in white playing the keyboards would not be obscured by the instruments. He seemed completely content at filling the centre stage.

On the right side of the stage, the bearded Godin had his own set of period synthesizers (just two of them in a 70s style wobbly stand), which he'd use sparingly. But he focused on his bass and acoustic guitars. Especially as a bass player, Godin is fabulous. With no gimmicks, he would lay the foundation solid on his white Fender Mustang. He is also a highly musical player, who plays the bass guitar melodically and expressively, while never sacrificing the groove.

Both of the Frenchmen acted cool as cornichons during the entire concert. Once in a while, Dunckel allowed himself a small smile that someone might have interpreted as arrogant, but which most likely was just an expression of satisfaction of how well the concert was going and how it was received by the mixed audience. Between the songs, one of the five little American girls, barely 20, I guessed, standing next to me screamed to the gentlemen: "We love you, sexy boys!!!"

In a recent interview with Electronic Musician, Godin and Dunckel talked about their new own studio and their music. They observed how Love 2 is more natural, using more acoustic instruments (and of course analogue synthesizers) than their earlier efforts. This was obvious also in Montreux. The electronics played a key role, but the music never sounded pretentious or cold. On the contrary, the beat was real and the sounds naturally appealing.

One of the key strengths of Air is that they have an impeccable melodic sense. So often in today's pop, the musicians are skilful at their instruments, the sound is excellent and the production flawless. But the songs just don't cut it (perhaps it's understandable: after all, there are only twelve tones in the Western scale). That is not the case with Air. Some of the songs are rather simplistic ('Sing Sang Sung'), but still somehow smart; others are just simple, but masterly so. All are carefully crafted, melodically natural, and pleasing without exception.

Towards the end of the concert the mood intensified. When after 1.5 hours of non-stop ecstasy the show was over, there was no way the audience would allow the musicians to leave the stage. They didn't and we were treated to an ample serving of more of the good stuff.

When I finally exited the hall into the balmy night, it was close to midnight. It was impossible even to think about sleep right now, so I joined the thousands of others who had crowded into the lakeside park. The night by now was dark, the Alps looming gloomily in the background as the lights from the numerous stalls selling anything from Thai noodles to tattoos, from Tarot cards to wine from neighbouring vineyards, reflected on the lake's calm surface. I felt like walking on water or, rather, air.

Monday, July 5, 2010

In defence of decency

At midnight I walked back to my hotel through the darkened city park. On this July night, not even the lights here and there could lighten up the quiet and verdant place by the lake, mostly because the lindens and other trees were covered in thick foliage through which the lamplight hardly could penetrate. It was lonesome although I was not alone. There were shapes lurking in the shadows. Mostly lovers embracing each other, but also small groups taking advantage of the balmy summer night. I could see the shapes of wine bottles as they were lifted to thirsty lips. It never crossed my mind that I should be worried that someone might try to rob me (or worse). I was in Geneva, Switzerland, a place known for its safety and decency.

When you talk with people who 'have been around', Geneva, and entire Switzerland for that matter, often come up in discussions as a 'boring' place. Yes, it's beautiful, but so dull and regulated. Pedestrians wait for the light to turn green before they cross the street, even if there's no traffic. And when there is, cars stop politely when you're about to step onto the zebra crossing. It's so neat and clean; a real traveller would need some more grit. The trains leave exactly on time, so if you're even 20 seconds late you've missed it.

Horrible, isn't it? How can a creative and free human being live under such constraints? In New York where I live, every self-respecting person takes pride in not hesitating to exercise their rights enshrined in the Constitution. Pedestrians hover halfway through the street when there's heavy and unruly traffic from all directions, thus making everyone a little less safe and a little less efficient. But waiting would show your meekness and respect for rules that someone else created. Completely unacceptable. It would cramp your style, even if it benefitted the society as a whole. Maybe it's a reaction to the fact that your risk of being run over by a rogue driver is highest when the walk/don't walk sign is green at the same time as that of turning traffic from behind. If one runs through red lights, like half of the people who drive in the city, then everyone is alert and avoids accidents.

And isn't it a sign of fascism that trains run on time? That's what Mussolini made them do in the Italy of the 1930s. It doesn't take into account that individualistic and relaxed people have to have some leeway. Never mind that they make others wait. It's their individual right.

The cleanliness must also be some form of fascism. At least it is very bourgeois and thus reprehensible. A society that is so efficient and organized must surely be repressive to the wild individualism that we're all entitled to. My freedom is sacred, even if it tramples on yours. It is my right to mess up the environment in my pursuit of my happiness.

Friends of mine once moved to Zurich. In their apartment building there was a written house rule that, after 10 pm, men also had to sit down to pee. This was so that they wouldn't disturb the neighbours with the sound of the stream hitting the water. They didn't last long and moved back to Tokyo. But hey, wait a minute, isn't Japan also supposed to be a conformist society of uniformed robots? Well, in fact, no. It's another society that allows for the pursuit of individual interests, however nutty or eccentric they may be (think about obsession with cafés where the waitresses are dolled up as manga characters), as long as they do not infringe on other people's freedoms to pursue their own happiness. Freedom with responsibility, such a new and foreign idea, especially to Americans.

Another such repressive place, of course, is Singapore. A place everyone with any sophistication loves to hate. Chewing gum is frowned upon, not because it's an ugly habit, but because the chewers have a tendency to stick their chewed globs mixed with saliva in places where other people step or, worse, try to hold onto for balance on public transportation. Anyway, public transportation is for losers, of course. Just look at the lowlife who take the 'loser cruiser,' as buses are called in the States. If you have your own car or SUV you don't have to deal with such petty inconveniences. Unless someone messes with your car.

Several years ago, Singapore had the audacity of caning an American youth, Michael Fay, for running amok in the city and spray-painting cars that had the misfortune of having been parked by their owners along his route. This was barbaric (the caning, that is). Even the then-president Bill Clinton interfered and successfully convinced the government of the independent country that an American should not be so inhumanely punished for just innocently expressing his stupidity. Singapore agreed to reduce the number of the lashes from six to just four, but still the poor lad did get spanked for his offence and could not sit for a lengthy while. It must have been so humiliating and painful. A gross violation of human rights! And for what? Just for some youthful indiscretion and fun destroying innocent people's property on which they had spent hard-earned pay. Everyone does that, right? (Somewhat ironically, just this June a Swiss business consultant, Oliver Fricker (32), confessed to spray-painting a Singapore metro-car and may thus be subject to the same fate.)

Singapore, like Switzerland, is such an oppressive place. The only thing one can do is to go drown one's sorrows on Clarke Quay or one of the other clean and lively entertainment areas by the seaside and join the thousands of other merrymakers for a Singapore Sling and some fabulous fried noodles (guaranteed not to make you sick, because the fascist state has set up draconian health controls on the restaurants that restrict the God-given right of the entrepreneur to maximize his profit). Or go to one of the many clubs for some music and dancing with the scantily clad locals (poor things are not even obese).

It seems indisputable from the evidence of places like Switzerland, Japan, Singapore and, yes, my country of origin, Finland, that wealth and its relatively even distribution, high levels of education throughout the population, and a strong government are good for the environment and well-being of the people.

Back to Geneva. It's a small town, that's for sure. But for its size it's not dead. Just this past Tuesday night I was sitting with my friend Azusa in a waterfront bar by Lac Léman. The place was crowded, but not unruly. Plenty of people were having drinks and mingling with others from different national and ethnic backgrounds in the cosmopolitan town. The noise level was such that one could actually have a discussion. All were dressed well. Not fancily or expensively, but in style. Most women looked quite sexy in their summer dresses. Midnight came and the keepers of the establishment rapidly and effectively expelled us. The closing hour specified in their licence had arrived and everyone had to leave, which we all did in an orderly fashion and without protest. Had we wanted to continue, we could easily have gone to any one of the many bars that have a licence to stay open until 2 am or stay in a nightclub until 5 am. We did not feel the urge, nor did we feel particularly deprived by the fact that we were thrown out onto the beautiful lakeside walk at this early hour.

As I wrote this, the weekend was coming and the lakeside was even more crowded than on that particular Tuesday. Some hours ago the sun had set over France. The recognizable silhouette of Mont Blanc behind the gorgeous lake had faded into darkness. The restaurants in the city centre were still teeming with people and there was excitement in the air: after all, this weekend would bring important matches of the football World Cup in South Africa and the Wimbledon finals. When I headed towards the leafy darkness of the park, the sidewalk bars were still selling drinks and hundreds of people were perusing them. Those who couldn't fit into the seating areas were lounging leisurely on the lawn. The establishments served the beers in real glasses, as opposed to plastic. It was a risk, of course, as common sense would dictate that the glasses would be broken on the grass or on the next guy's head. But these domesticated people didn't do that. They just lay there enjoying the balmy evening in harmony with friends and actually returning the empty glasses to the bars.

They must have felt so deprived. After all, they didn't even have concealed handguns on them to protect their freedom and liberty from each other and the government.