Anri Sala’s return to Ravel
In June 2021, I received a request from the Festival Ravel in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France (birthplace of composer Maurice Ravel) to show Anri Sala’s Ravel Ravel, the complex, powerfully moving sound and video installation based on Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (1930), which Sala originally premiered at the 2013 Venice Biennale.
That summer, Sala and I took an overnight trip to the Basque country, on an ultimately unsuccessful mission to secure a place for the work to be installed there. Before our departure, we met with the festival’s artistic co-director, the renowned pianist Bertrand Chamayou, who told us about his experience with functional dystonia, a debilitating condition that can cause varying levels of paralysis in one hand. Stricken by the affliction in his mid-twenties, Chamayou spent two years in rehabilitation to recover full mobility in his right hand.
With this story in mind and facing the impossibility of screening Ravel Ravel as he had envisioned it, Sala began developing an idea that ultimately grew into a new live work, Ravel Ravel Revisited, adding another layer to an already deeply layered body of work. Chamayou immediately signed on to the project as pianist, and Sala’s longtime collaborator, Olivier Goinard, resumed his critical role as sound designer. On the occasion of the recent exhibition “Anri Sala: Time No Longer” at the Bourse de Commerce in Paris, the Pinault Collection became a co-producer and hosted the new piece’s two premiere performances in January 2023.
In January, I met with Sala, Chamayou and Goinard in Paris to talk about their collaboration. These are edited and condensed portions of our conversation.
Performance of Anri Sala’s Ravel Ravel Revisited at the Bourse de Commerce, Paris, January 6, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Bourse de Commerce-Pinault Collection
Olivier Renaud-Clément: We are here in Paris, the day after the second premiere performance of Ravel Ravel Revisited at the Bourse de Commerce. Anri, would you give us a little background on your original Ravel Ravel from 2013.
Anri Sala: It began with my interest in the piano repertory for the left hand. This is a repertory that had started before World War I, but it grew afterwards because of the large number of dismembered men, chiefly soldiers. Back then, society prioritized the use of the right hand, and consequently it was more exposed to harm. I was thinking about how to represent the resulting void, the fact that the body no longer has both hands but still must cover the full anatomy of the piano, the full length of its keyboard. One important part of this repertory are the commissions made by Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, older brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. When the war started, Paul joined the Austro-Hungarian army in a moment of patriotic élan and lost his right arm on the Russian front. He was convinced his destiny was to continue as a pianist. He commissioned the best composers of his time to create piano concertos for his left hand, to be accompanied by an orchestra. Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand was among these pieces.
ORC: I’m very interested in how you chose Ravel’s Concerto over other musical pieces.
AS: At first, I was trying not to choose it because it felt like skipping to the obvious, but it was impossible not to—it is one of the most beautiful, emotional, technically accomplished pieces in this repertory. Conceiving it for the occasion when I was invited to represent France at the 2013 Venice Biennale also played a role. As we decided to swap pavilions with Germany, playing Ravel in the German Pavilion felt much more complex and interesting than playing him in the French Pavilion, in terms of the representation of identity.
ORC: Musically, Ravel’s Concerto creates a lot of adrenaline for the listener. Your Ravel Ravel created even more adrenaline—two videos, two pianists [Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Louis Lortie], the moments when it is sometimes in full sync and then completely off.
AS: From the very beginning, I wanted to produce an interval between two executions of the same concerto that are in unison and eventually go out of sync, with one ahead and one behind, then catching up and running ahead. There is a bit of a Tom and Jerry dynamic. Sometimes Bavouzet is ahead of Lortie, but then Lortie goes before Bavouzet—it’s very elastic, in a way. Producing a succession of shifting intervals creates a space that is consecutive to the lag between the two executions, because all the notes are repeated twice. In a way, it is a bit of a composition of echoes, because every note and every sound are repeated a second time.
ORC: For Ravel Ravel, was each pianist recorded with a different orchestra? Or was the orchestra recorded once?
“I wanted to produce an interval between two executions of the same concerto that are in unison and eventually go out of sync, with one ahead and one behind, then catching up and running ahead. There is a bit of a Tom and Jerry dynamic.”—Anri Sala
AS: The same orchestra [Orchestra National de France] performed separately with each pianist. For each recording, we did this in two rooms. I wanted to film only the piano performance in one room and the orchestra in an adjacent room. Conductor Didier Benetti was in the room with the orchestra. He could see and listen to the pianists on the video monitor, and vice versa, but for reasons of production, the orchestra could not see or listen to the pianists. It’s not only that the orchestra was meant to sometimes go out of sync with the pianist—there are even parts of the score where some sections of the orchestra are not in sync with the rest of the orchestra. These parts were recorded separately.
ORC: So you are altering the composition.
AS: Not a single note, but all the spaces between the notes.
ORC: This idea gets even more reinforced when you begin working with Bertrand.
AS: Absolutely. There's something in the original structure of Ravel’s Concerto, a tectonic strata, that allows for it to be disjoined, to be disunited in order for it to come back together again. In Ravel Ravel Revisited, we are adding more layers to the strata that have existed since the creation of Ravel Ravel. It’s a bit like building a house. There is a foundation, which I envisioned in collaboration with Olivier and Ari Benjamin Meyers, then we built the first floor with Bavouzet and Lortie. Now, with Bertrand, we added another floor and I would say even the roof.
ORC: Olivier, you were the sound designer for Ravel Ravel. How was it for you to come back to this idea ten years later? You are not exactly the artist, but I see you as the conductor of the production.
Olivier Goinard: The custodian of time!
ORC: Yes, exactly.
OG: With this project—and all the other projects with Anri—it is always alive. It is never dead in a box. For Ravel Ravel, of course the premiere was in Venice in 2013, but it has since been installed in Tel Aviv, New York and Mexico. Each time, we completely reconsidered the sound of Ravel Ravel according to the acoustic characteristic of the space, and as time passes we have new visions of the work. Now, it’s a new era with Ravel Ravel Revisited—as Anri said, it is the second floor, maybe a roof.
ORC: It would be interesting to hear how this new project developed.
Bertrand Chamayou: It began when I was planning the Ravel Festival. One of my very first ideas was to screen Ravel Ravel, but we could not find an appropriate location in which to present it.
ORC: One thing that struck me when we first met in Saint-Jean-de-Luz was our conversation about the left hand. You had a problem early in your career when you lost some of the use of your right hand.
BC: Yes. There is a disease called dystonia, which is a sickness that many musicians have. I know a few pianists who have had it in the left hand, but most of them—including myself, when I had it—have it in the right hand. There are many different levels, the most extreme being not able to play a single note. Mine was not as terrible as that, but as a pianist it was very stressful, of course. In my case, it happened just after I learned Concerto for the Left Hand. It was the first time I was practicing completely with the left hand alone like that. I love this concerto so much. Everything was very emotional for me in working on it.
AS: If one were to imagine the concerto as the script of a film, one could also imagine that this script brought you into the role. Ravel composed this concerto for Wittgenstein to overcome the absence of his right hand. In a way, it was as if you were inflicting yourself with loss to be able to play the concerto, a little bit like an actor who inflicts himself with the narrative of the character to be able to inhabit the character more fully. I think this is part of what makes the whole project so striking.
ORC: Because there are so many layers to this piece, can you take us through how it's structured?
BC: It is a live performance with two pianos, but with only one pianist. I play the first part on a Steinway Spirio Model D, a self-playing model that can record interpretation and reproduce exactly what I just played. There are two screens that sometimes show what I am playing and other times show moments from Ravel Ravel—echoes of the past, a kind of memory. For the second part, I move to a traditional Steinway Model D and play alongside my “double,” which is the Spirio reproducing what I played first. At the end, the elements reunite and the puzzle is completed at the end.
ORC: You have an earpiece. Do you hear cues?
BC: We create some cues with Olivier—these could be signals, but also musical parts—that help me follow the time code. They also guide me when I want to be perfectly synchronized and when I want to be more free. This freedom cannot be too extreme. When you create a space or an interval, it has to be calculated. If you have an interval that is too long, it will create a kind of chaos. For example, if you have an interval of more than ten seconds, you will be lost. That is not the purpose of this project.
ORC: Was there any desire to let that freedom edge up occasionally towards cacophony?
BC: Never. You don’t go to a place where you deconstruct completely. It’s more to create a feeling like tracing paper.
ORC: During the premiere, at some points, it felt like you were quite behind—like eight seconds—but you still manage to catch up. Everything comes back together and is in complete sync.
BC: When you say eight seconds, it’s a kind of illusion, perhaps. It’s never more than two seconds.
ORC: It feels so long.
BC: The really important thing is that it’s never random. There is a flexibility that I can play with, but the way we conceived it to work, it is very precise.
OG: When Bertrand is behind, I think the audience really feels a kind of tension that he is indeed lost. When he comes back and catches up, it is a big joy. It’s an incredible feeling.
ORC: Bertrand, do you get lost?
BC: No, never! But my big joy is when I am not together in the piece.
ORC: Anri, in your exhibitions you don't always face the public directly, in person. With this piece, you get a full-on reaction—the clapping at the end, the energy. How do you feel about being a live artist?
AS: I have staged live works as part of larger group presentations. But this performance brings new sensations and has a very different feeling. With exhibitions, people do not need to—nor are they asked to—respond right away. In a theater or concert, the response is immediate. This project is also different because I like to develop my exhibitions so that people do not necessarily enter from the center, and the audience passes by the narrative. In this case, the audience is seated, and the stage is symmetrical with the two pianos and the two orchestras. The only asymmetry is time-based. Bertrand plays first on the Spirio positioned on the left of the stage, and then later he moves and plays on the regular Steinway on the right.
“When you create a space or an interval, it has to be calculated. If you have an interval that is too long, it will create a kind of chaos. For example, if you have an interval of more than ten seconds, you will be lost. That is not the purpose of this project.”—Bertrand Chamayou
ORC: Olivier, do you feel like you deal with the public, also?
OG: I don’t need to. [Laughter.]
ORC: Have you done many live performances?
OG: Not really, but my role with Anri is to take ideas from concept to concrete realizations. Here, my role was to put in relation eight actors: two pianists from before [Bavouzet and Lortie] on the stage screens; two orchestras; two lights; and Bertrand’s playing, which has a first and second part. The light is completely linked to the sound of the orchestras, and to the Spirio and the regular Steinway.
ORC: The light is seen behind a glass wall beyond the stage, so it is not in the auditorium proper. What was your idea behind that?
AS: The idea was to develop a visual landscape in tandem with the music, using the quality of the Bourse space. The glass wall visually connects the stage and the foyer beyond it, where people come in. When the public arrives, they see Bertrand through the glass wall and hear him play, and it’s a bit like the performance has started before they arrived. Then during the performance, the lights in the foyer are triggered by the respective sound of the orchestras.
ORC: Is this a brand-new orchestra?
AS: No. We use the light to expand the presence of the recorded orchestras. Seen behind the glass wall, the light program also produces a split feeling between here and there for the audience.
OG: We are creating relations between different worlds—sound, light, videos, the Spirio, a live pianist—that are not meant to naturally connect or to have contents that interact with each other. But this is exactly what we are trying to do, and it’s a big challenge.
AS: This project is a bit like open-heart surgery. Because all the elements are live, something is always at stake. There are certain moments when the video projections flicker, which I conceived with the help of Dominik Hildebrand through a program called TouchDesigner. It’s written so that the video projections become visible only during certain moments, when Bertrand plays certain notes. These moments depend on Bertrand and how he plays his part—whether he is in sync or not with what we conceived will change the outcome. These elements are all connected and symbiotic, which can be very precarious, but I like that.
ORC: Does the Spirio save every nuance?
OG: We are recording everything, yes.
AS: Although there is a chronology of what was recorded first, Bertrand is central to the way it comes together in Ravel Ravel Revisited—both in the first part, playing the Spirio, and then later playing the second reiteration with the regular Steinway. Other elements—the two videos with Lortie and Bavouzet, the respective orchestras—were pre-recorded, and we edited everything in such a way that often Bertrand is alone. I would say that the live performance is the last echo in time, the last layer we are adding. It's happening presently, currently. This is what makes us lose our grasp of chronological time, what comes first and what comes later, because sometimes something that Bertrand plays live precedes what will be heard soon like an echo, whereas other times it will succeed what we just heard, as if it were an echo.
ORC: And we will hear the piece again at the Festival Ravel this summer. Bertrand, could you tell us how you became involved with that?
BC: Ravel is very important in my life and my work. I grew up in the Southwest of France, in Toulouse, which by chance is not far from Saint-Jean-de-Luz. I have spent a lot of time there with family. During the pandemic, I worked to join forces with the music academy where I had studied and the existing music festival to obtain funding and develop this new Ravel festival. We do not celebrate only Ravel. It might sound a bit silly, but once you know the personality of Ravel, it leads in so many directions. There is his musical taste, but there is also the spirit of Ravel, which is about an open mind and a multiplicity of strong ideas.
OG: Working with Bertrand has given us new ideas about experimentation. We could have other ways to do this piece with him—for example, with live musicians from the orchestra. We don’t know if this is the end of the project.
ORC: Anri, is there anything you would like to add?
AS: There is something I was thinking about yesterday. The Ravel Concerto is indirectly a reflection on war because of the left-hand repertory and how the changed anatomy of the body now has to crisscross the unchanged anatomy of the piano. There is a beautiful textbook, Phantom Limbs, by Peter Szendy, that includes a whole discussion about phantom limbs in music. Of course, the entire concerto is about the right hand being the ghost hand, but in our second part, when Bertrand moves on to the Steinway, the left hand that had just played also becomes a ghost hand. It becomes the hand that we no longer see playing the Spirio.
BC: My son said that!
ORC: He said what?
AS: Bertrand’s son told him that he saw a ghost.
BC: He’s going to be just four!
ORC: Maybe you need to do a Tom and Jerry version next, for him. [Laughter.]
Anri Sala works in a range of media, including video, photography and installation, He was educated in Albania and France, and now lives and works in Berlin. In his films and installations, he invites viewers to participate in his world of cultural observation, for which he often uses sociopolitical settings and personal experiences as backdrops. By juxtaposing elements of past and present, discordance and harmony, and by overlapping narrative, sound and movement, Sala creates a unique sensibility.
Bertrand Chamayou is a world-renowned pianist, having performed in prominent music halls including the Philharmonie de Paris, Wigmore Hall, Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Berlin Philharmonie, Suntory Hall Tokyo, and others. He is artistic co-director of Festival Ravel in France. In 2016, Chamayou's Ravel: Complete Works for Solo Piano (Erato) won the ECHO Klassik Award. In 2019, Chamayou won a Gramophone Award for his Saint- Saëns recording (Erato). He has won The Victoires de la Musique Classique award on four separate occasions.
Olivier Goinard is a French sound designer and composer who has won two César awards for Best Sound, the first in 2020 for The Wolf’s Call, and the second in 2021 for Adolescentes. Over the past twenty years, he has worked with acclaimed directors such as Olivier Assayas, Naomi Kawase, Agnès Varda and Xavier Dolan. In 2022, he composed the music for Koji Fukada’s film Love Life. For more than twenty-five years, he has worked in close collaboration with Anri Sala on the sound design for his projects.
Olivier Renaud-Clément has organized exhibitions and acted as an advisor to artists and estates in the United States, Europe and Japan for many years. He has worked frequently with Hauser & Wirth, collaborating with the gallery on more than thirty exhibitions across the globe. He has collaborated with Takesada Matsutani and the estates of Fabio Mauri, Lygia Pape, August Sander and Mira Schendel, among others. Renaud-Clément is the founder of the International Friends of the Munich Opera. He is based between Paris and New York.