Evolution of the Art: Jean-Michel Blais

Longtime Canadian Musician contributor Kevin Young had plenty of leftover material from his extensive interviews for "The Evolution of the Art," his feature story on the past, present, and future of music and production technologies and workflows for our March/April 2019 40th Anniversary issue.

Here's more from his conversation with groundbreaking pianist Jean-Michel Blais.

I had some specific questions for Blais, but we ended up on a tangent discussing the physical world of instruments and the spaces we record in. Blais’ most recent record was recorded in his apartment. The one before that, Dans Ma Main? Largely in a piano shop.

Blais also mentions other artists who have worked in unusual spaces - NYC rapper Prince Harvey, for example, who recorded an entire record, on the sly, at various Apple stores. (Read about that right here.)

JMB: In my case, recording The Eviction Sessions at home was about recognizing the beauty of sounds we never expect to hear - sounds I would’ve been annoyed to have happening around me at one point, but now realize that having the audience right there, and capturing their movement in the room, actually leaves space for unpredictability and randomness.

CM: You’ve characterized your relationship with the piano as being similar to human-to-human relationships. I’m curious, is there any way that you’d like to see the instrument change in the future?

JMB: So much. I think the piano has stagnated since the addition of the central pedal. There’s more to be done. I would want to keep the basic sound, but the piano has many limitations. It’s a weird stringed, percussive instrument, but you’re stuck with the attack, for example. With other "stringed" instruments, you can fade in. I would affect everything - from the attack to the effects that could be used once it has been played.

CM: So you’d add more control to the physical interface of the piano, but retain its acoustic nature – so you could exert more control over the notes played, as you might in a digital recreation, but with a physical add on? For instance, a mechanism that allowed you to pluck the strings, or additional pedals, or something that would allow manipulation of the strings in entirely different ways – essentially so you could play prepared piano, but from the traditional sitting position?

JMB: Completely. It’s not a new idea. Go to any piano or instrument museum and you’ll find interesting and intricate hybrids. There’s so much that’s been done already, but that’s been pushed aside. I think we’re in an era where we should start exploring more and question the instrument itself, if you know what I mean.

There are many models from which to draw on for re-imagining an acoustic instrument – ranging from other stringed and percussion instruments associated with the western classical tradition to instruments used in other cultures. But Blais's interrogation of the piano wouldn’t stop there, he explains.

JMB: MIDI control built into all of the keys, for example – so the sound is analog, but it’s digitally controlled with a computer, for example.

CM: There are many possibilities that would be pretty mind blowing; if there was a way that you could bend the strings or shift your tuning without destroying the tuning of the piano to add microtonal embellishment…

JMB: And I think we need to explore that - explore everything that could be done to augment the potential of the piano. Why not question everything we’re using?

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Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief at Canadian Musician. He is also a co-host of Canadian Musician Radio and NWC Webinars’ series of free music and entertainment industry webinars.
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