Jean-Michel Blais, composer

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

I’d say a collection of people and events: my parents’ love for music, my encounter with ‘pots and pans’ when I was five, the family organ, meeting my first piano teacher, playing my first piano, then later, entering conservatoire in Canada, escaping from the conservatoire in Canada. This, plus ten years of non-music, travelling the world (Guatemala, Argentina, Berlin, Eastern Europe).

Who have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

It’s a mixed list: Nana Mouskouri, Radiohead, Bach, Céline Dion, Sigur Rós, Chopin, Backstreet Boys, Bill Evans, Debussy, Justin Bieber, Taizé chants, John Cage, Rachmaninov, Chilly Gonzales, Indochine, Glenn Gould, Philip Glass, and of course, Ravel.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

To be honest, it’s been quite an exciting journey so far. At first, what was challenging was the drastic shift away from the 9-to-5 day work. I somehow had to re-learn how to be free and through this, noticed how society had in some ways alienated me. From a more musical perspective, my two fears were the lack of creativity and the boredom of repetition by touring. Looking at the amount of music I composed since I started and how I integrate improvisation and electronics in my live concerts, I think I have found solutions to avoid these. I nonetheless never know if I’ll still be doing it in few years from now – that’s a risk I’m willing to take if it means I can follow my dream.

As a composer, how would you describe your compositional/musical language?

There’s a tendency (I believe, wrongly) to refer to modern classical music as ’neoclassical’ – I say wrongly because this term refers to a separate, clearly-defined musical movement in history. I think labelling music in this way is problematic; defining it in hindsight misses many of the innovations and nuances of composition. Certain influences help to understand music’s origins though, mine being from pop culture to electronic underground, passing through classical music, romanticism, impressionism, minimalism, and music by living composers. The most important thing to me is connecting with people, integrating elements of technique and more conceptual ideas.

What are the particular pleasures and challenges of composing for film?

Music written for motion picture should serve the image, and not the other way around. The question is therefore how to compose music of substance, without losing your signature style. In the case of my score for Xavier Dolan’s film Matthias & Maxime, the pleasure was mainly during the compositional process, when I met with the director and improvised music around the script, with or without images, creating an emotional language that reflects the characters on screen. There is a sense of freedom when you write music based on someone else’s direction, extending and evolving his intention.

As a composer, how do you work?

For me, everything starts with improvisation. When I allow myself time, I sit in front of a piano and let my fingers rediscover those same good ol’ 88 notes. Sometimes it’s hard to believe my hands will find nothing new, nothing interesting, but then I might find a golden thread, which I follow over minutes, hours, days, then forget, then remember again, wrongly, slowly shaping its structure, recording it, processing it, and so on. I also like to see my compositions as skeletons of the finished thing, meaning that recordings are merely a sonic representation in space and time of it, which may differ from one show to another, from the sheet music too. Music is a living thing and I feel it’s a responsibility of mine to keep it alive.

Tell us more about the soundtrack to Matthias & Maxime…..

The whole soundtrack is a set of variations on Schubert’s piano sonata D845’s second movement. Schubert had been chosen intuitively by Xavier, certainly for his enchanting sense of melody, but also for the ambiguity surrounding his own sexual orientation – musical historians have speculated about his sexual identity, which is analogous to the main character’s struggle in the film. Therefore, this theme becomes on one hand the hypocritical wanted life and, and on the other one, the ideal life of purely assumed love, featuring in the meantime a series of transformative declinations.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

My composer side would say constant renewal, merging concepts and feelings, around an effective idea. The performer in me would love a full room, might it even be 20 people, where something happens, hitting the zone, sharing a unique, different, ephemeral moment. And my personal side would say success has already been reached in the sense that I’ve never thought living from my music in my life – never. But looking at the future, I’d be more concerned by the idea of authenticity, remaining oneself within the hectic, ostentatious and exhausting world that music industry can be.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians/composers?

It certainly depends on the person. Some people simply part from their personal experience. Other people come up with more abstract concepts which challenge traditional forms and bring the music to another level. I’ve always appreciated books that work at several levels, just like Homer’s Odyssey, the Bible, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, or even Joyce’s Ulysses, which can be read over and over and understood from many points of view. Inspired by this as an ideal, I always try to incorporate something both accessible and intellectual, loveable and geeky, cheesy and ironic.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Ironically, I’m somehow finding out that happiness is there when I don’t seek it out! It’s more an inner state of mind, heart and body, than an idealistic goal. I’m too often sad to observe people’s infinitely unsatisfied quest for happiness (myself first), often exploited by aggressive capitalism, while on the other side I meet people with the biggest and most honest smiles who live a fairly low key life. In my case, there’s a profound correlation between music and happiness.

What is your present state of mind?

I guess it’s doubled-sided. On the one hand, 2019 was quite an empowering year: touring the world, releasing an electronic remixes EP, my first soundtrack and signing with a major label (Mercury KX, a division of Decca/Universal). On the other side, I have no clue where I’ll be in a year from now, and that’s kind of beautiful.

Jean-Michel Blais releases a new album on Universal’s Mercury KX label in 2020. His soundtrack to Xavier Dolan’s ‘Matthias & Maxime’ is out now on MKX.

Jean-Michel Blais is a composer and pianist from Québec, Canada. He currently resides in Montreal. His music is influenced by a range of composers and pianists such as Frédéric Chopin, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Maurice Ravel, classical minimalists, and modern composers such as Chilly Gonzales and Yann Tiersen


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