Jean-Michel Blais Explains His Inner Journey to Minimal Piano Masterpiece 'Il'

Jean-Michel Blais Explains His Inner Journey to Minimal Piano Masterpiece 'Il'
Photo: Isis Essery
The world came close to never hearing Il, the immaculate new minimalist piano masterpiece that composer Jean-Michel Blais just released with Arts & Crafts. Despite a love of music since his early years, the 31-year-old Montrealer says "they had to convince me" to release Il; he never considered that he might actually make a career out of music.

"I was secretly kind of liking the idea of being a composer at one point, but never serious," he tells Exclaim! "Even now, I'm like, 'Let's see what happens.'"

Raised in the small town of Nicolet, QC, it wasn't until Blais enrolled at the Conservatoire de Musique du Québec à Trois-Rivières, at 17, that he realized music could be a full-time endeavour, but the rigidity of those teaching methods discouraged the angsty teenager from pursuing music further.

"I was 17, trying to find myself, and they say, 'No, this is the way.' I had this huge reflection: What is music? Is it a 'fake' production in a studio? Is it sheet music? Is it when you first try to practice a Bach and make a mistake — why can't this be music? Or in the composer's head? Is it the idea, or when it's written down? These are all faces, I think, of what music is."

At the conservatory, he says, "They wanted me to take more from history: 'Yes, but the tradition says…' I was trying to bring the argument that classical music was a living thing, and it became a really stagnant and purist thing. It was not good people, maybe, to have that discussion with."

After a time in Guatemala, then Berlin, Blais started recording music he'd come back to writing. When he started feeling like he'd never "truly be a Berliner," Blais returned to Quebec and settled in Montreal, attending Concordia and recording what would become Il, a solo piano album that mixes the beauty of Erik Satie, the complexity of Philip Glass and the playfulness of early 2000s Yann Tiersen.

"We had this great church at Concordia with a grand piano [but] I realized those songs don't belong to that kind of space. I thought, 'Whoa whoa whoa: I have all this [gear at my apartment]. That's why the picture on the album, it's my studio, which is half my room."

That intimacy is palpable on Il, where the sounds of life — children playing, birds singing, the weather outside, a Hasselblad camera's shutter clicking and whirring and Blais's own intakes of breath — play as fundamental a role as his gorgeous piano compositions.

"It's a John Cage thing: What is sound, if not organization, voluntary or no, of noises in time? If I have an idea but it's rainy, well, it's going to capture it. So I thought, 'Why not show it instead of hiding it?' At the end of 'Rondo majeur,' there's even a bird that starts singing. I can't ask the bird — 'Now it's your cue!' It just happened. That's the beauty of it. In 'Casa,' we close the window because the rain was too loud, and you hear the window close and you can imagine the kind of window I have in my room. So we came into this idea that the listener would be in the room with us, experiencing, staying on the couch and being absorbed by the music.

"I try to create music that, if you have a classical background, you can be like, 'Oh, there's this contrary voice here, and oh, he's playing with this, or quoting another artist,' but if you don't have this knowledge, you just listen and it's fine. I play both cards at the same time."

Listen to "Nostos," from Il, below.