if you build it, they will come
Pianist/composer Jean-Michel Blais started his serious pursuit of musical study at a conservatory in Trois-Rivières, Quebec. Feeling restricted by its course of study, he took a step back for several years, moving around the world and devoting himself to social work and teaching. Yet he never lost his desire to play, and after settling in Montreal, he spent two years writing his 2016 debut album of piano improvisation pieces, II, which was named one of Time magazine’s best albums of the year.
His third solo album, aubades (rough translation: “dawn serenades”), comes from an entirely different place. “It was lockdown, and I was in the process of getting a divorce, alone at home after spending two-and-a-half years on tour,” Blais tells Apple Music. He began taking early morning runs, and he learned Russian and orchestration. What resulted from that process is “ultimately a collection of essays,” he says. “What emerges from all these compositions is predominantly the notions of ‘light,’ ‘spring,’ and ‘strength.’ It’s a form of therapy I wrote for myself, rather than succumbing to loneliness.” Here, he talks us through each of the album’s compositions.
“It’s an old, very minimalist piece, which could sound a bit like Philip Glass. It evokes an awakening, the start of the day, but also a kind of change. It’s still morning, but it’s another morning. Each instrument introduces itself, comes and says hello, and the piece slowly builds up. We placed a mic in front of each instrumentalist, so you can clearly hear the sounds they make while they play, their breathing, etc. Because behind every instrument, there’s a human being. The flute isn’t just a flute—it’s Myriam! ‘murmures’ is my way of introducing each of the individuals who make up the ensemble.”
“It’s obviously from Debussy’s ‘Passepied.’ I love how he’s reclaimed that old Baroque tradition. It’s a bit like what we do in neoclassical music, taking up earlier concepts and reworking them in a more modern style. I thought it would be bold to start off with a piece without piano, because the listener’s going to wonder, ‘But where’s Jean-Michel?’ And that’s who Jean-Michel is now—not just a musician who improvises on his piano, but someone who also composes for other instruments.”
“I was at a cottage with friends and there was a little girl, Nina, there. I was playing piano, but I couldn’t play too loud and that inspired me to write something delicate. In this case, the dawn serenade is not simply a composition to be played at dawn; instead, it’s music that salutes the morning of life. The title is written in lowercase, like all the others, because we’re all on the same level. Here, the oboe is just as important as the double bass, for example, and to me, that brings a certain gentleness and takes away any form of rigidity.”
“It’s sort of a nod to Chilly Gonzales, with a pop and even slightly jazzy sound, which I’m not in the habit of doing. Unlike ‘passepied,’ which is probably the most classical, this one is relaxed and nonchalant, almost sensual. It’s the flâneur, as Baudelaire would have depicted him, wandering the streets of his city during the pandemic and discovering amazing things.”
“During my most recent tour, I had the chance to do a residency with Yann Tiersen, who lives in Ushant, France’s westernmost island. I was struck by the beauty of the landscape, its rocky headlands, the towering waves, the power of nature, or rather the helplessness of humans. In it, there are a few hints of the theme song to the series The Office, which I was watching at the time, my imagination that’s wandering in Ushant, my heart that’s in the Andes, and my roots that are anchored in the traditional Quebec music that courses through my veins.”
“if you build it, they will come”
“There’s a double reference here, first to the movie Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner, and second to what God supposedly said to Noah when he was wondering how he’d bring together all the animals in his ark: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ For me, it means that we mustn’t wait, that we need to take things in our own hands and build our ark; in this case, it’s the album. I composed the pieces; it attracted musicians and created a whole. In fact, that’s the entire philosophy behind this project.”
“It’s a waltz, the dance that opens a ball or wedding. The piano dances first with the strings, then they are joined by some of the woodwinds, and then together they welcome the brass instruments. There’s this desire to bring others into the dance, continuously, and I think there’s no greater sign of love than that reception, that integration.”
“We had one of Yanni’s CDs at home when I was little and it’s thanks to him that I discovered orchestral music. He often composes in 7/8 and I adopted that time signature here in his honor. It’s something that’s slightly kitsch, and larger than life, like the Egyptian pyramids, but it’s also vulnerable.”
“A dawn serenade is not always associated with the start of the day. It can also be at the end of a very long day, after an evening that has stretched on until sunrise. We’ve got a bit of Felix Mendelssohn here, but also Joe Hisaishi and even Chopin, and it’s lilting, like Barbara. It’s that sort of mixture, something that’s somewhat indescribable.”
“I’m thinking here of Satie, who is the precursor of this type of neoclassical music that people listen to today. Like on ‘absinthe,’ there’s an atmosphere that takes us back to Paris in the early 20th century. In the first piece on the album, everyone is there, but as it progresses, the musicians start leaving, one after the other. So, here we’re left with only the piano and strings, and they interact in a melody which culminates with an enormous embrace in B major. It expresses at once naivety, simplicity, and beauty.”
“‘doux’ is the initial break, the one that most resembles the ‘old' Jean-Michel—melancholic and alone at his piano. There are woodwinds, but very ethereal. In fact, the piece evokes the breakup that set everything in motion. You think to yourself that this masquerade of happiness, joy, and spring is all very well, but occasionally you get tears in your eyes, and you realize that there’s maybe a small wound beneath the surface, an underlying sadness to it all, one that you nonetheless contemplate with optimism, with a willingness to turn it into something positive.”