Jean-Michel Blais. Credit: Matt Williams.

Instrumental: Jean-Michel Blais’ Upright Piano Turns 18

In early April, the piano that composer Jean-Michel Blais has been playing since he was a teenager still had no permanent home. About a year prior, in the spring of 2018, Blais recorded Eviction Sessions at his apartment, an EP named for the fact that he’d soon be on his way out of the place, not by any choice of his own. He says a writer for the Montreal Gazette pointed out that it may be the last album of the Mile End era, as the neighbourhood that has so long been an artist haven continues to be gentrified. He lists a sushi restaurant, banh mi spot, a second-hand sports shop, and a café as just a few of the victims.

“Everything is moving away because rent is exploding,” Blais says over lunch on a rainy day in Halifax. “My friends are not living there anymore. Artists are moving away. Yuppies coming in. It’s shifting to fancy, third wave coffees, empty shops with two t-shirts and a pair of sneakers. It’s hard for me. Personally, I’m sad. But from a society perspective, I understand this shift, and part of it’s always been there. It’s just shifting. The question is—where do I go now? I found a temporary spot but I don’t want to stay there for long, because I need to find a new, inspiring, and better spot. I just don’t know it yet.”

Without a new, inspiring, and better spot for himself, he’s also at a loss for a new, inspiring, and better spot for his piano. Blais speaks about the instrument like an old friend, which is really what it is. They grew up together, and it recently reached adulthood, at 18 years old. Blais jokes that they had a big party for it, got it drunk, took it out to the casino. It’s not the best upright piano—really, it’s made for rehearsing. But its potential shortcomings and the life it has developed are what Blais has come to love about it. One doesn’t get the feeling he’s even a bit precious about the instrument, but getting it to its temporary home did strike a little fear into him.

“Moving the piano was a big thing,” Blais says. “It was scary. I’ve taken a lot from it, and now I want it to live and breathe and get older, naturally. It probably won’t happen, but we had an offer to play in the woods, and I was like, ‘Let’s move my piano. Go from my bedroom to the woods. Whatever, if it’s rainy a bit. It’s gonna give life to it.’ I’m at this point.”

He’s not sure what’s going to become of it, yet, or where it will live. But he’s also on the lookout for a grand piano, which is no small decision. “It’s almost like finding a new person to share your life with,” Blais says. “I spend more time awake with the piano than I do sleeping beside the person I love.”

Blais’ upright piano has provided him one of the longest relationships in his life. He’s playing it, opened wide up, on the cover of his debut record, Il, which earned him a spot on the Polaris Prize longlist for its gorgeous, sweeping, but intimate compositions. In a more lonesome mode, it makes an appearance completely covered and ready for moving on the cover of the previously mentioned Eviction Sessions EP. A lot of Blais’ work, both recorded and live, involves an embrace of the ambient sounds that fall outside the piano’s (often gently) commanding reveries. Those ambient sounds include those emanating from the piano itself—not the strings, but the tapping of feet on pedals, the inner workings of the instrument moving around. In many senses, the presence of Blais’ upright piano goes well beyond hammers hitting strings. Its life shines through clearly because it’s never been covered up.

Shortly after beginning his time in the Royal Conservatory of Music, Blais’ professor suggested it might be time to get a better piano than the one he’d been working with. It was probably the first new thing his parents had bought in years, he says, as they preferred buying used and antique items, and he came up with half of what it cost to purchase the instrument. He spent a lot of time with it, talking to it, and putting off other social events like hockey and parties so he could be with it as much as possible, writing music, improvising, discovering sounds, figuring out how harmonies work. The first song he played on it, he guesses, was likely something like Bach. The last song he played on it, curiously, was also Bach. “Bach to Bach,” he says with a laugh.

It still surprises him, sometimes, making new sounds when it’s tuned, or shifting in unforeseen ways when it’s closed.

“Now, my piano changed sound,” Blais says. “Sometimes I feel it sounds like a Rhodes [electric piano]—very weird—when it’s closed. So I’ve experienced a lot of sounds. Sometimes when I play, I don’t know how exactly—heavy techniques, sustained a lot—there’s some friction that comes in a bit, and it sounds almost as if it was something electric, in the dissonance. That’s from where he sits now. It’s alive. It’s changing.”

Despite the offhand anthropomorphizing of his upright, Blais rejects the idea of fetishizing instruments as containing the essence of their players. He points out that Glenn Gould could’ve coughed on a piano and made a noise somehow and someone might construe that as having been a piano Glenn Gould once used. But also, pianists often use many pianos over the course of their careers—Blais himself often finds himself working out improvisations and writing on those provided to him on the road—and need to be prepared to work with what is available.

“I think it’s very different than any other musician who just tours with their gear and knows about it. There’s this danger—what if one day you need to give a show and your guitar is lost. Can you take another one and adapt to it? If you’re not trained to do that, you can get scared and feel like you can’t give a show.”

He equates it to developing a relationship by getting to know someone very quickly: “It’s very much like, you meet a new person, you have an hour and a half with this person, and you have to give a show with that.”

“I remember not much about where I’ve been, but can still feel how the piano sounds in these venues I’ve been playing,” Blais says. “It’s like kinesthetic memory.”

Sometimes, that can mean playing a pristine Steinway in a soft-seater hall; sometimes it can mean working your way through the peculiar difficulties of a jazz club’s beer-soaked ivories. He goes on to again compare the instruments to human beings, pointing out that the jazz club’s piano might be a wonderful instrument—it just hasn’t been taken care of.

“Before, I was a special educator, I would see kids with talent, and they’re not taken care of,” Blais says. “There is some basic care for everyone, but on top of that, it’s sometimes like, this is not just being decent for this person. This person could give back so much to society, and we’re just not treating them properly.”

Hopefully his upright will find its place soon, somewhere it can continue to be taken care of, but for now, Blais hasn’t been able to find where that is. It’s hard to compose with at the moment, because the room, the place he’s found, is just an in-between. It needs a new, inspiring, better, and permanent spot, same as he does. And maybe once it’s there, it will be something completely unexpected.

“You can remove the piano from the apartment, and it’s not the same piano,” Blais says. “It’s not the same piano now. It needs to find its new place. If it’s going to be a new piano, I don’t even know myself.”

Jean-Michel Blais at Studio Bell

On Saturday, July 27, see Jean-Michel Blais at his NMC Artist in Residence Workshop live at Studio Bell. Click here to learn more.