Why am I only now, in its second season, finding out about La boîte à musique? It is, believe it or not, a 90 minute show with no ad breaks about how music is made and, especially, how it is played, on French state TV channel France 2. It's just stunning TV, made for people who love music and have a little bit of technical knowledge of it. Last week's show, which I came across by happy accident, was dedicated to opera. Now, I don't really care for opera, but seeing a counter-tenor sing a stubbornly staccato song about freezing to death on the ground was, dare I say, chilling. The show proceeded to display various styles, voices and music of opera, from Mozart to Wagner, baritone to counter-tenor and make occasional comparaisons to pop singing.
This week's episode was dedicated to the piano, of which the host is an impeccable player, and featured a classical pianist and jazz pianist Antoine Hervé. The keyboards ranged in time from an 1817 pianoforte to a vocoder and detoured through the celeste, glockenspiel, a West European cymbalum variant and the orgue de Barbarie (which is kind of a combination between a punch-card computer and an iPod). Organ fans might have felt left out. The pianoforte was pretty surprising. I'd never heard one, and the radically different timbres it gives to each register and less clinical sound compared to the modern piano reminds the listener of how each sound, especially the ones we are most used to, is a historical construct. It also reminded me how shameful it is that I have never been to Brussels's Musée des Instruments des Musiques
The three pianists had different styles and despite the camaraderie (they ended with six-handed Rachmaninoff), there was a fascinating moment of conflict. The host talked about making the piano sing had and demonstrated by playing a bit of Ravel's "Concerto" (Stravinksy's "Petroushka" had shown its percussive potential). He emphasised that he was playing the melody later than the bass, to which the classical pianist countered that he disliked this style, preferring a more "vertical" and "colder" interpretation he felt was closer to the original intent. He demonstrated. The host's version had been pretty and sensual, but the second one was, in the span of a few - too few - seconds, transcendent.
Every show has a solfeggio section on a slightly out-of-tune hundred year old upright. Last week was about cadences: perfect, plagal, etc. The host joked, as he pounded away, that if you repeated a perfect cadence 30 times, you got Beethoven. The counter-tenor cracked up. This time, it wasn't really about theory, but about how Satie, by limiting himself to one rhythm and two chords, suspended the passage of time.
Hopefully this show will turn up on a bittorrent somewhere, it's great and too-rare TV. There are three episodes left, and I can't imagine a better reason to stay home on a Friday night.