What Paris likes about American art
Paris — Two women are yelling as the light fades from the Paris sky late in the evening. It is not unpleasant; they are part of "N'shima," a new composition by Iannis Xenakis, the Greek composer living in France.
The yelling, in fact, could be called beautiful. It wells up from deep within them, and is wordless. They make vowel sounds -- ho! ho! ho! aooooom -- and frown, not in anger but in concentration. One woman looks classical Greek in a pale blue tunic; the other is wearing a strange green minidress and shawl with fish net stockings and teased '50s hairdo. They keep their eyes on the conductor and, because they often start to sing at a different pitch than the more conventionally playing musicians (trombones, French horns, and a cello), frequently strike tuning forks and listen to them before beginning.
With all this avant-garde activity, you would expect some strain -- either people feeling threatened and confused or trying very hard not to, or just the cranking of many intellects. But the concert, a double bill of Lukas Foss and Iannis Xenakis at the American Center here in Paris, has more the air of a chamber music gathering. Serene.
Maybe it's the high windows on both sides of the auditorium looking out into an overgrown but inviting garden, and the yellow and pink light fading on the tawny tops of old row houses just showing above the garden wall. It's as if the entire audience -- a full house, mostly middle-aged French people and younger American and French musicians -- had been invited over to someone's house to hear some new music and were sitting appreciatively in the elegant living room.
The American Center has always been a living room of sorts. Chateaubriand willed the house -- a large, four-story building in a garden in the middle of the Montparnasse district -- to the Archbishopric of Paris. In 1931 the American Center for Students and Artists was established as a "place to keep rich Americans away from the evil influence of the bistros," says Alexander Mehdevi, the center's manager. The atmosphere was "clubby," he said. Tea was served at 5 in the afternoon, and coats and ties were suggested.
Times changed, as did young Americans staying in Paris. Though afternoon tea continued, coats and ties disappeared in the '60s, as the clientele grew bushier and more casual. Rather than protecting rich kids from the bistros, the center offered "the college kid with the backpack and a couple of traveler's checks, who was feeling a bit lost," a place to hunker down and enjoy a cheaper cup of tea than could be had in cafes.
And now, again, there is a different atmosphere. Like American college kids these days, it is a bit more serious, a bit more businesslike. In the '60s and early '70s, "it was a very sort of laissez faire, democratic, populist, spontaneous, hairy thing," says Henry Pillsbury, the executive director who was also director from 1968 to 1972 and calls himself the "oldest living survivor" of that era.
"In those days when they inteviewed me about the center, I said, 'The American Center is a neighborhood, it's not a building.' Because it really went through the same evolution as Haight Ashbury or the Village or Telegraph Avenue, and it had all the drawbacks and all the advantages," says Pillsbury, a large man with curly hair and an unassuming air, which, combined with his untucked-in flannel shirt, make him seem too young to have acquired a PhD in French and several years of acting experience, but just right to have been among the American Center's former habitues.
The '80s model is something entirely different from the hairy days of yore. For one thing, it's no longer a "glorified Y," as Judith Pisar, chairman of the board, found it when she took over. Pisar is an astringently direct, nattily turned-out woman with jet black hair and an executive's way of talking.
"Within a year I had changed the image of the place," she says without braggadocio orm apology. She's the kind of person who gets things done, as Henry Pillsbury and Alexander Mehdevi attest, taking visions and turning them into programs. She was the music director of the Brooklyn Academy of Music when the center's president, Jack Engle, asked her to become chairman of the board in 1975. She rolled up her sleeves and got busy on the new image by importing her old friends Merce Cunningham and John Cage for a Spring Festival in 1978, and getting the Rockefeller Foundation to donate money.
In the beginning, Mehdevi recalls, much of the furniture had been stolen, the place was filthy, and they had to enlist the services of the karate instructor to keep the drug peddlers away.
The atmosphere of the place has changed radically since then, and the neighbors realize it. The Xenakis-Foss concert "was f full house, and we had to turn some people away," as Judith Pisar announced the next day.
"We couldn't have done it two years ago, because the center had such a shabby image. People didn't want to go down there on the Boulevard Raspail with all that punk and pot." Pisar says she knew the American center was living up to her vision when on the front page of Le Monde one day last March there was one article attacking the American position on Afghanistan, and another article advising readers to "drop everything you're doing and go to the American Center to see Joseph Chakin's production of 'The End Game."
Though everyone acknowledges that the low ebb of the center was between 1972 and 1975 when Pisar took over, Henry Pillsbury likes to talk about the similarities between the old days and the sleek, purposeful '80s.
"Even though we were not emphasizing quality, we were emphasizing everyone doing their own thing, there was a tremendous amount of quality goind on here. . . . It really feels very much the same to walk in here . . . the main thing that hasn't changed at all is the energy."
Now the energy is channeled in a more businesslike way. The American Center is definitely not a Y anymore. The old swimming pool has been boarded over with wood flooring and now serves as a dance studio.The billiards room, an elegant, wood-paneled hangout for nearly every lost generation since them Lost Generation of Hemingway-Fitzgerald fame, is now an actors' rehearsal studio. Where young would-be cosmopolitans once drank tea in coats and ties, and later, hippies in sandals and scarves sluped cut-rate cocoa, there is now an anteroom for the public television and visual arts offices. the present cafeteria is functional and tiny -- more a place for quick refreshment on your way to your "Negativity and Creativity in Contemporary Art" class or your American English lesson than a snug haven to linger in, discussing the world's problems in more general terms.
Like the center itself, its inhabitants are more clean cut. You can't tell just by looking any more whether people are French or American. They all look moderately artistic, but also less like refugees. The billowing skirts, flaring pants, and bristling Afros of the last decade have vanished along with easily accessible charter flights. Styles have changed. Perhaps because there are fewer Americans here, and there is more an effort to fit in.
The American Center policy, at least, aims to fit in.
"When I came to the center last summer to start again, there was sort of a general attitude that one of the neat things about getting American artists over here was, 'Wow, things aren't happening in France,'" Pillsbury recalls. Having spent seven years in Paris acting in french and American plays, he took exception.
"I said, 'Come on, it's not as bleak as you think it is, and we're not being that grandiose in bestowing upon them American art as you like to think. What's really important is that we . . . focus on things that really are happening here.'"
The evening of Xenakis and Lukas Foss, an American composer, ends with a debate between the two in French, moderated by Claude Samuel, a French critic. The evening, called a "concert-rencontre" (concert-encounter), is typical of the American Center's current activities, and of how Pillsbury's idea prevailed. The aim of the center is now, all the directors say, to "provide high-level contact between artists."
The Foss-Xenakis debate wasn't too high-level to be fun. At one point in the debate, Xenakis made the mistake of remarking that the woman in the green minidress was not even a singer, but an actress. Sounds of French outrage emanated from the back of the theater, where the woman was leaning up against the wall.
"I am a singer!" she shouted. Finally she came up on stage and exasperatedly told the audience that although she had trained as an actress she had been singing professionally for several years, and wasm a singer, no matter what M. Xenakist thought. Xenakis looked taken aback as she stalked mightily offstage, wobbling on her high heels, fairly glowing with indignation.
The audience cheered. What came out more subtly was the difference between the way the two artists worked. Mr. Xenakis would answer questions about where he got his ideas quite technically. He explained his own particular musicology to show how "N'shima" had come about. Mr. Foss was more poetic. He wouldn't pin down his feelings and aspirations so much as ascribe them to the condition of being human. And whereas Xenakis explained what specifically could keep his ideas from being carried out, foss sighed and said all musicians and indeed, all creative people, get frustrated, and shrugged comfortingly to the audience.
That shrug is practically a universal gesture among American artists, according to Henry Pillsbury. In general, the French artist brings a lot of conceptual, intellectual trappings to his work, while the American is much more pragmatic. If something works for him, he'll use it. If not, he abandons it with no second thought. This pragmatism is appreciated by the French, but Pillsbury gets impatient with its flip side, anti-intellectualism.
"I've had young American composers [not Foss] say things here that were unbelievably naive. Like after -- the first presentation of Xenakis was really remarkable -- they said, 'Well, what's all that intellectual jazz?'" Pillsbury shakes his head and snorts. He finds this anti-intellectualism an offshoot of the current American mood of isolationism.
His pleasant Midwestern twang takes on the tone a camp counselor might use when his five-to-eight-year-olds won't go in the water. "I mean, they really sound so nitwitted.m It is such a way of cutting off. What about Leonardo da Vinci? I mean, come on. Big cathedrals have been built by people doing a little thinking. Using their brains. So I think a young American artist would rather, when asked, say, 'I don't know, I just sort of kind of took my computer and kind of fooled around with it.' It's partly true, but he's got more brains than that. He doesn't want to admit it."
Most American artists, once they get to Paris, come around and behave like model campers and at least get their feet wet.
"Now, that said," says Pillsbury, all smiles again, "I would say that the American artists is potentially the most open artist to what's going on, because he is pragmatic. He's curious to know. . . . Oh, they're very appreciative. Especially if they've had a good time and the weather's been nice, they really flip out."
Being artists, they flip out on more than just fancy pastry and views. Paris is an ideal city for artists, Pillsbury says, because it's the center of everything -- government, academics, industry, and intellectual life. Even though New York is accepted as being a center for arts, he says artistic life in that city is so fragmented, "they talk about uptown music and downtown music." Paris also has one of the highest population densities in the world.
"There's no part of Paris that's as highly populated as, you know, probably certain sections of New York and London," But "London is spread all over the place. . . . In Paris, it is five floors right across the map. It's five floors, small rooms, and everybody's packed in. that's what gives Paris this tremendously urbane quality."
And make it an ideal place for artists to intermingle. During the Festival d'Automne last year, a city arts festival, there were a lot of American artists involved, and the American Center took part as well.
"In the lobby of the hotel [where the Americans were staying] at any given moment there was more contact between American artists than anywhere else in the world," says Pillsbury.
The American Center has the same effect. Not only do American artists get together, they mingle with French artists. And what do French artists think of these galloping anti- intellectuals?
"They like the same things that I was just sort of making fun of," Pillsbury admits. "These young French artists come to see how the American artist did it, that's why they come to a workshop. They are constantly thrown over by the fact that the American artist did it because the American artist has evolved a technique which is related to what he wants to say, and it's for him, and he's worked it out. He's got all the lines plugged in."
The French artists, some Americans who work with them complain, are overwhelmed with years and years of classical technique and history, which, being French, they have grown up knowing. Moses Pendleton, a dancer with Pilobilus, worked with the Opera Ballet and found them delightfully proficient in tecnnique, but blocked, at first, by all their knowledge and unable to do anything new. Being the type of teache he is ("amazing," Pillsbury says), he was able to loosen them up.
When an American comes along and "just sort of fools around with his computer" and gets results, French artists are sincerely bowled over. they are also impressed, says Pillsbury, with Americans' more natural, casual approach to their work. For example, a French director, touring New York's Manhattan Theater Club, "walked into one of the little theaters, and there was a black actor and a white actor who were just sitting on the stage chatting. He didn't want to interrupt them, so he sat there for a while and it got a little long, so he was about to interrupt them and suddenly he realized they weren't chatting, they were rehearsing. And no French actor could do that."
More such realizations will happen in Paris in the '80s, Pillsbury is sure. "Paris is very equipped for it because of a variety of new organizations and structures." He includes Beauborg, and the Peter Brook theater workshop as well as the American Center, even though the latter has been around for 50 years.
In its new form, though, Pillsbury feels that the center will serve a very important purpose for art in the next few years -- not French or American or even international, but just art. He sees the arts in the '80s as being increasingly collective and collaborative. Fewer people, he feels, will be slinking off to ivory towers to create personal masterpices, and more will be figuring out what to do with others. By its policy of being open to anyone and its commitment to debates and workshops, such people are clearly invited to figure things out at the American Center. Pillsbury feels it's a more important place than ever before, and wants it to be even more a part of Parisian life. He had dropped "for Students and Artists" from the center's name, because he feels that's understood.
"And in any case it can stand on its own. The city has Beauborg, it has Notre Dame, it has the Tour Eiffel, and it has the American Center."
Who could ask for anything more?