Courtesy Arts and Crafts

Classical Beauty: A Conversation With Jean-Michel Blais And CFCF

The Montreal-based collaborators discuss their new album, ‘Cascades’

The best song I’ve heard this year caught me by surprise. “Hypocrite,” by Montreal musicians CFCF and Jean-Michel Blais, begins innocently enough, with plaintive keys from Blais, who has spent the past two decades composing and improvising on the piano. Immediately, there is something about the way he plays, some nameless sense of aching nostalgia for a forgotten memory, that catches in my throat. Then, in the background, you hear gently swelling synths from CFCF, the name under which Mike Silver has made smart, soothing electronic music since his teens. They crest and fall, gathering quiet momentum, until suddenly it’s like those too-perfect-to-be-real photos of a surfer tucked inconceivably inside the wild curl of a wave. Blais’s piano, fortified by Silver’s electronics, becomes heroic. And the strangest part is that the whole thing kind of sounds like a trance song — these epic builds and free falls, tense and soaring. The biggest drop of 2017 is played by a classical pianist.

I first came across Silver’s music nearly seven years ago, through a short-lived and now sort of quaint phase of early-2010s internet music then called “night bus” (basically, the kind of melancholy tunes you might listen to on, well, a night bus, inspired by the Burial song of the same name). His screwed, sad remix of Aaliyah’s “4 Page Letter” remains in my iTunes today, a small relic of a bygone age of the internet during which people actually downloaded mp3s. This is not, fortunately, an accurate representation of Silver’s almost implausibly broad catalogue, which has spanned from minimalist, Philip Glass–esque impressions of everyday things (2013’s Music for Objects), to gentle, sincere takes on Balearic and New Age music (respectively, 2016’s On Vacation and 2015’s stellar The Colours of Life), to nostalgic revisions of ’90s department store music (2010’s slightly cheeky Slow R&B for Zellers Locations Canada-Wide, which opens with a perfect chopped-and-screwed version of Alexander O’Neal’s “If You Were Here Tonight”). The CFCF release that left the biggest impression was Exercises, Silver’s 2012 EP of cold but poignant piano meditations, inspired by Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and brutalist architecture. All of this comes off as much more whimsical than it seems on paper, if you can believe it.

My introduction to Blais came last year, when I stumbled at random upon his debut album for Canada’s Arts & Crafts Productions, titled simply (and, for a debut, strangely) II. Before that record, he’d spent his time as a teacher, composing and improvising in private. My own understanding of piano composition is limited to fruitless childhood lessons during which I ignored Chopin to focus on memorizing the Titanic theme, but Blais’s approach to the instrument — somewhere between composition and improvisation, with an obvious understanding of classicism yet existing distinctly outside that realm — registered immediately on a human level. The songs sounded nothing like pop music, but somehow resonated in a way that reminded me of hearing a Céline Dion song as a child, tapping into some universal reservoir of emotion.

Sparked by an initial live collaboration last October at the Red Bull Music Academy, Blais and Silver released their first collaborative project last month — titled Cascades, a word that comes to mind in the gentle power of its five tracks, with a playfully serious black-and-white, turtleneck-donning cover.

Along with the stunning “Hypocrite” are several more propulsive and consistently surprising piano-and-synth explorations, including a slow-panning 10-minute rework of John Cage’s 1948 composition “In a Landscape.” It is tempting to describe the duo’s collaboration as Silver “remixing” Blais’s piano playing, but to me the term fails to sufficiently accommodate the way each half informs the other, allowing space only to combine into something larger than life.

I spoke to Blais and Silver separately, from their respective homes in Montreal, about their solo work, their collaboration, and why the piano does what no other instrument can.

What early musical memories stand out especially in your mind?

Jean-Michel Blais: I was born and raised in Nicolet, a countryside land — formerly an important religious and cultural place in Québec, now substituting culture for agriculture. My parents are obvious mélomanes. They competed a lot in social dances too, and so did I from within mom’s belly. Nonetheless, I grew up quite far from any classical, jazz, or sophisticated music. French pop raised me up! I started drumming with pots and pans, mixtaping Radio-Canada “world” music, traditional, Celtic, Andes, and Eastern European stuff. One day I found out we had an organ, [and] started playing at age 9, mixing cheap beats with consonant harmonic sequences. And here I am now!

The piano signifies something different than, say, the guitar or the drums — it doesn’t have the same “sex appeal” or youthful “cool factor.” Was there something in particular that drew you to these classical compositions, some reason music that is often not super popular with kids resonated so much with you?

Blais: At age 15, I almost quit piano for that exact reason. I found it not “cool” enough. Sort of lame, the boy who attends his Saturday morning piano class instead of partying and sleeping in, especially in a flatland where hockey and cars mattered the most. But I chose it [again], and I guess that’s when I started really engaging, for myself. Piano was my diary, palliating for my lack of words to express teenage, complex feelings. Still is. Any composition is tied to a specific, emotionally charged moment. It’s pure sublimation in the Freudian sense.

Your world of music seems to have been largely based in conservatories and a more academic musical community. Was it a strange transition, coming from this more insulated musical environment, to now become familiar with the industry side of things?

Blais: I went through different stages. First I quit the so-called “classical” sphere, not finding my place in there. Then, around 25, I looked back and gathered chunks of musical ideas to construct a more coherent and personal musical language. On the other side, I’ve always improvised and composed beside my classical studies. I think that beside those “grand composers,” my modest self couldn’t consider itself interesting. Validation only came later on, via friends, family, label, and fans.

You’ve said that you were a teacher — is that still something you want to do?

Blais: I was a special education teacher, not a music one. At the moment, I have no task assigned, but at any moment I’m susceptible to receive a call, wanting me back in front of my students. That day will ask for an inner decision, choosing between a musical or a social path.

I’ve read that you prefer not to be considered a “classical” musician. Is there a different term or way of thinking that better fits your worldview?

Blais: I’ve always seen myself as a pianist, a pianistic pianist. I have difficulties with labels because [they] limit, as you read. To be a classical interpreter, I’d have to rehearse like an athlete and dedicate mainly to classical repertoire, which is not my interest for now. I concentrate in composing, where my approach borrows from pop harmonic structures, classical technique, jazz colors sometimes. ... What I’m sure of is when I sit and play, I become the medium through which music expresses itself. And this touches people. This could be achieved via any piece I’d be playing, but it’s surely easier when I feel closer to the composition — a.k.a. mine.

How does your improvisational practice interact with your compositions? And how do you know, when improvising, what is good as opposed to what is more fleeting — or does that distinction even matter?

Blais: Improvisation is the living part of my music. Daily, I sit and jam. And usually, what’s good is what haunts me the next day, what I remember the morning after, what I surprise myself whistling in the shower. Outside of it, I’m often improvising onstage — sometimes I feel a track needs a longer ending, a more complex introduction, or a bridge between tracks. I like to surprise the public as much as myself. Eventually I’d love to gain more confidence and completely improvise in front of people.

Can I ask the meaning behind the name CFCF?

Mike Silver: I chose the name when I was probably 14 or 15, making silly tunes on the family computer, as a little nod to Montreal [Editor's note: CFCF-TV is a local television station], and also a nostalgic reference to the mountains of videotapes we’d recorded off the only local Anglo TV station at the time.

Where did you grow up, and what was it that drew you to music?

Silver: I was born in Montreal and grew up in the surrounding area and suburban towns north of the city, then partly in the city when my parents split up. I’m the youngest of four siblings, so I absorbed a lot of what they were listening to, and there were always copies of Rolling Stone and Spin lying around the house, and thanks to pirated satellite, we had constant access to MTV and MTV2. The four of us were always poring over that stuff, looking for things, showing each other things. The first album I loved was a cassette copy of The Breeders’ Last Splash I stole off my brother.

What musicians made you fall in love with music or gave you some kind of awakening?

Silver: Eventually I started getting into things on my own, like The Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk, DJ Shadow, a lot of that stuff. I explored a lot of the samples they were using. Endtroducing introduced me to a lot of experimental music by way of its samples. Like, I was 13 or 14 trying to track down a Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company album online so I could hear the entirety of “Oleo Strut,” which is sampled on “Stem/Long Stem.” I was really curious about drawing those connections.

The release in your catalogue that stands out in my mind is the Exercises EP, which is based around piano compositions. What’s your experience with piano?

Silver: I’m not classically trained at all, so my work with piano comes from the position of a listener, an admirer. When I made Exercises I was listening to tons of solo Philip Glass, solo Ryuichi Sakamoto, Chopin’s nocturnes. And I tend to compose things for the broader atmosphere, so the tools I use, like piano, are the ones that I know will help me convey that atmosphere. The piano has its own texture, it can do things other sounds can’t. It can be gentle and it feels alive and human.

What do you see as the thread that connects your releases throughout the years?

Silver: I make electronic music. That’s my only real guiding framework. I work alone on a laptop, and I don’t go into a studio with musicians to bang it out in a couple takes. It can take the form of ambient music, heady New Age stuff, dance music. I try to be respectful and original in each of those areas, but at the same time I actually like the idea of trend-hopping — or at least from a young age I’ve been fascinated by trends, following them, the politics of what is cool and not.

Why do you think ambient and New Age music has seemed to come back into vogue in the past few years?

Silver: Ambient was always around, but if we’re going to be honest, the New Age thing probably started as a tongue-in-cheek fascination around 2010, 2011. Then the joke kind of reduced, evaporated, and musicians started to understand the value of those sounds. It’s really wonderful, transportive music, calming. And I think there’s some morbidity to the fascination, too, with all the dark ’70s culty vibes around the spiritual side of that music. But this current version is pretty self-aware. I think part of its current value is how starkly it stands in contrast to the world today. There’s an inherent irony or a gulf there that is fun to exploit and play within.