Hélène Grimaud: Reflections in the water

HG---Armory-4MatHennek

The January 2016 release of Hélène Grimaud's recording Water(Deutsche Gramophone) was landmark in many ways, perhaps most significantly as a memento of a concert that took place in Wade Thompson Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory in New York in December 2014. tears become…streams become… was its name. Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times called it "compelling [and] boldly original, a dramatic combination of art installation, light show and piano recital…"1 "Breathtaking, thrilling, intoxicating," chimed in other reviewers about the occasion. Grimaud's collaborator was Turner Prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon, perhaps best known to musicians for his 2012 film The End of Civilisation, featuring a burning Bechstein grand on a Scottish hillside. 

Photo by Mat Hennek, Deutsche Grammophon.

"Concert" may not be quite the right word for a musical event that takes place in the Drill Hall. Wade Thompson Hall is 55,000 square feet, one of the largest enclosed spaces in New York, described on the Armory website as recalling a great nineteenth-century European train shed. Popular nowadays as a performance space (albeit only for a certain type of work, given its size), the Drill Hall has presented a diverse range of art, including Kenneth Branaugh's Macbeth and an installation of Hansel & Gretel with contributions from the famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, as well as more conventional conferences and fairs.

For tears become…streams become…, Thompson Hall was slowly flooded with 122,000 gallons of water. The floor had to be reconstructed to a special blueprint by the international engineering firm Arup, who did the structural design of the iconic Sydney Opera House. Seven thousand concrete blocks were arranged strategically on the floor over six layers of plastic pool liner to support the floor and water, and then covered with 864 panels of Viroc, a cement-bonded particle board. Steinway representatives were understandably nervous about leaving two grand pianos in such a watery environment. Nevertheless, they found a solution using the science of psychometrics, which measures the effects of water vapor and air. The water was chilled to between fifty and fifty-five degrees to avoid the humidity that might damage the instruments. But in a project so novel, nothing was sure. "We have all sorts of Plans A, B, C, D, E, F, and G," Gordon joked (maybe it wasn't a joke) a week before the performance. But in the end, onlookers described the result as extraordinary, "an entirely new world of imagination and reflection."

The spreading pool of water, a few inches deep, created an eerie, out-of-time-and-space experience for audience members, who watched the water seep up from the floor for fifteen minutes or more before the program began. Grimaud herself was affected: "I felt like I was playing in a vortex," she told me. The lighting, by Brian Scott, transformed throughout the concert. The dark space was reminiscent of the watery chaos of Noah's flood; with the ceiling lit, the reflection on the pool created an uncanny double image of the Drill Hall ceiling. A "misty, watery oblivion" said the Times' Tommasini.

"Nature is the origin of everything," Grimaud has said. This maxim has inspired many of her recent projects, musical and otherwise. Her interest in wild animals was an impetus for founding the Wolf Conservation Center in 1999, in Westchester County, NY. She hand-feeds wolves medicine in liverwurst. "It beats cream cheese," she told the Wall Street Journal.2 Although she has won many prizes for her performances of mainstream repertoire (Bach and Rachmaninoff, among others), the intersection of music, art, and the natural world has lately called forth some uniquely creative performances. "There are two significant measures of a society," Grimaud has said. "How we support culture and how we treat our environment."

"We [Gordon and then Armory Director Alex Poots] discussed the tears become…streams become... concert for a year," Grimaud told me in a phone interview. "It's beautiful to be able to do a project with colleagues; they devote as much passion and commitment as does a pianist. We live, breathe, and eat the idea until the program comes to fruition. It's a leap of faith to trust another person, but it's the only way to work. It's that collaborative input that enables everything." Working with Douglas Gordon was "not a collaboration, it was a collision. His vision gave me wings." 

Gordon had an image that drove the project: "I once saw a small boy playing piano with one hand—and wiping tears with the other. The tears ran down his face and into his hand and then into the keys of the piano," he told William Grimes of The New York Times.3 "It stuck with me, those tears." In the program notes Gordon wrote, "How many times have you cried in your life? How much fluid have you given to the world? Every day, every week, every month… A field of water. A field is endless—it goes on, and on, and on, and on. And as the water collects, the space it inhabits will never be the same again."

Grimaud's CD Water contains performances of Berio's Wasserklavier and Liszt's Les Jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este. It ends with La Cathèdrale engloutie by Debussy, a work depicting a cathedral rising slowly from the ocean floor, and then sinking back into the depths. According to Ms. Grimaud, this piece was the creative starting point for the whole project. Other repertoire options were not so easy. "There were so many water pieces to choose from; it was interesting to look at everything—and then it became painful to make choices. I limited myself to one piece per composer.

"I tried to stay with works that were more abstract, less narrative, to fit the vision of the Armory show. The Liszt starts with the idea of water as a destructive element; the water at the end has a redemptive aura of mysticism. It takes you to a totally different place from where it started. In the Ravel [Jeux d'eau], I liked the element of sensuality and play instead of the aspect of storytelling. In planning the whole program, I needed to make the weight of each piece equal, so that one didn't overshadow the others. I didn't need a gigantic climax."

Although the recording features many familiar "water" pieces, other musical aspects are less traditional. Grimaud collaborated with the British composer Nitin Sawhney, an artist who has worked with luminaries in the musical arenas of pop (Sir Paul McCartney), rap (Taio Cruz), and classical (the London Symphony Orchestra), composed music for video games, and written a score for Cirque du Soleil. Sawhney wrote what he called Transitions between each of the pieces played by Grimaud. "He was my partner of choice from the beginning," she said. "We hit it off right away. He captured all aspects of water, from purity to destruction. None of his pieces are interchangeable: one leads inexorably to the next. This was a beautiful organic development."

Does the program work in other venues? "I've played it in wonderful historic halls in Europe: Amsterdam, Berlin…but the Armory was mesmerizing, otherworldly. The experience that we felt as the installation transformed and took shape before our eyes is hard to describe. It was like living in the matrix; I couldn't tell which direction was up or down. The sound of the piano itself was different: oddly resonant and metallic. The decay was different from what you hear in the typical hall. It affected my tempo choices; I felt as if I were taking my repertoire under a microscope with a scalpel and putting it back together. 

Photo by Mat Hennek, Deutsche Grammophon.
Photo by Mat Hennek, Deutsche Grammophon.

"The whole experience was something profoundly affecting. The musical program itself morphed into something very different froma normal piano recital. It was so powerful, so unique—I felt orphaned when it was done, and had to transition for a couple of weeks. All of us involved in the project will never be the same, but we take some of its beauty with us always."

How did the live performances inform the recording? "Our original plans were to record in the studio; it seemed like the sound experience in the Armory would be impossible to catch. But in the end, we decided to try. It was such a nice touch that the actual Drill Hall sound could be the basis of an enduring memento."

Primeval images of nature have also inspired Grimaud's latest project, Woodlands and beyond…, premiered at the Great Hall of Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie in June 2017. "For me, nature is the proof of the spiritual," she said. "And music forms the bridge." No water this time, but the seats behind the stage were left empty so that a gigantic LED screen could be set up behind the piano. As Grimaud performed works of Ravel and Debussy, among others, again with Transitions by Nitin Swahney, giant photographs flashed on the screen. These included shots of brightly lit forests, flowing water, and, yes, wolves.

This is no simple slideshow. "We want the viewer to fill the open space with his own imagination and fantasy." Each image changes to the next very slowly, making it difficult for the viewer to apprehend where one ends and the next begins. Easy orientation is difficult. The vantage point changes, often focusing on images of tree trunks, for instance, with no ground or sky. The verticality of the trees and the intersecting visual planes of light and shadow seem almost abstract. Where are we? What does this mean? Attendees have to decide for themselves. The images move forward and then relax, just like music itself. Grimaud calls it "a pictorial recital."

"In Woodlands are all the symbols of German Romanticism, the foundation of this whole project," says Grimaud. "For me it is particularly exciting when I read how many composers were inspired by forest walk. It seems to me absolutely logical to combine these two levels in order to create a special spatial atmosphere that appeals to listeners on a multi-dimensional level." Grimaud's collaborator is photographer Mat Hennek, her life partner. Originally recognized for his portraits of figures from the music industry, Hennek has gradually switched to art photography, "a spiritual path of silence and beauty."

Late Spring 2017 was another milestone for Grimaud, with the issue of her new two-CD compilation Perspectives. The first disc contains solo works of Bach, Chopin, and Bartók, to name a few; the second, concerti. The contents, drawn from her earlier recordings, were selected by Grimaud herself with a special concern for context and perspective, the way a museum curator might plan an installation to shed new light on familiar works through juxtaposition with other pieces of art. This is not a "retrospective," it's a "perspective," a glance at an ever-evolving artist and what she sees in her art today.

"No man ever steps in the same river twice," wrote the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. "For it is not the same river and he is not the same man." Is this how Grimaud feels? "Every time I perform or record, I find myself in Heraclitus's shoes, wading out into the water and there meeting myself…" she wrote in the program notes for Water. "At the same time, the process has reaffirmed my belief in the limitless capacity of music not only to represent nature, but to interpret it and stimulate change." 



1Tommasini, A. (2014, December 10). Harmonic ripples in a watery world. The New York Times. www.nytimes.com.

2Binkley, C. (2013, October 9). A pianist's two loves. The Wall Street Journal. www.wsj.com

3Grimes, W. (2014, December 4). A stage, a pool, a flood of ideas The New York Times. www.nytimes.com. 

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