CFCF and Jean-Michel Blais's unlikely pairing: How pop and classical made a magical musical merger

Piano and synths unite in Montreal as the two celebrated musicians join forces in a surprisingly serendipitous collaboration.

Piano and synths unite in Montreal as the two celebrated musicians join forces

Mike Silver and Jean-Michel Blais at the Red Bull Music Academy. (Red Bull Music Academy/Dan Wilton)

When the Red Bull Music Academy arranged a live collaboration between electronic producer Mike Silver (CFCF) and neoclassical pianist Jean-Michel Blais, the two musicians had no idea they were living just around the corner from one another. Eventually, when they sat down together to bounce around ideas, the newly-formed duo discovered they had composed tracks with nearly identical melodies — even one on the exact same chord. The serendipitous result is Cascades, a gorgeous half-hour hybrid EP that blends piano with synths, contemplation with motion. CBC Arts sat down with Silver and Blais to discuss the joint record.

The succinct five-track release, released March 15 by Arts & Crafts, immediately defies categorization. Silver and Blais were initially reluctant whether their distinct sounds would even complement each other, but by zeroing in on common influences — including John Cage, whose "In a Landscape" is reworked as the album's closer — the pair were able to create something magical in time for the RBMA one-off. They first considered staging the unveiling in a warehouse, and then a full-fledged nightclub, before settling on a traditional, seated venue (which ended up selling out). But they didn't stop there. They're in Austin on the program for this month's SXSW, playing in St. David's Historic Sanctuary.

The duo are covering a lot of ground, and it isn't difficult to see why. Although both are Quebec natives, Silver is an Anglo-Jewish Montrealer whose sonic foundations involved messing around on his home computer. Music has been his primary source of income for a solid seven years, and last year he received a Grammy nomination in the Best Remixed Recording category.

​Blais, on the other hand, was raised in the countryside and never believed he could forge a career out of his "protected passion." While he was brought up under the classical conservatory model of practice, "it was an ideal you sort of know will never happen," he admits. "I could be a composer playing in front of people, but it would just be part of a film, or a dream...and now I'm experiencing it." Blais, who worked as a CÉGEP professor up until last year, found himself conflicted over the inherent solitude that comes with the profession. "But to work with this guy," he says, motioning towards Silver, "it feels like a whole orchestra in one body."

"Right — just without any of the knowledge," Silver laughs in response.

I think part of our personal approach is to not even think that we need to validate this pop music by turning it into classical or we need to bring this classical music down to the masses by turning it into pop music. It's like, no — pop music is art and classical music can be trash.- Mike Silver

There's a definite symbiosis at play between the piano keys and the PC-built beats of this project. Yet Blais is quick to remind me of the romantic composers, like Chopin, who introduced the fusion of popular folk songs with classical instruments in the 19th century: "Quote-unquote classical history is always being rewritten. In several cases now we look back and we're like: 'Oh, they were black and female.'"

"I think for us the high isn't that high; the high could be trash and the low could be gold," adds Silver. "I think part of our personal approach is to not even think that we need to validate this pop music by turning it into classical or we need to bring this classical music down to the masses by turning it into pop music. It's like, no — pop music is art and classical music can be trash."

Working within the instrumental domain allows for the capacity to transcend language, and so does working within Montreal. "There's nowhere else in Canada I'd rather be," says Silver. "It feels like the only place where we can do what we want with some freedom and not have to spend nine or ten hours working a job and then come home and work on our stuff." They make a point of noting that their city is one of the few where it's still possible to touch upon international communities without experiencing outright gentrification the same way New York, Paris or London have in the past.

"It's like the common thread in Montreal," Silver continues. "There's a really great quality of life, and it kind of has a top-down influence. You end up naturally inclined to more socialist, liberal ideas, because you're like, 'It could be so easy.'"

"We need discussions about Anglos and Francos, and Jews and Catholics," says Blais. "I think it's really exciting and super important, because it's so easy to divide the 'others' and 'us.' It's more like — who are the Canadians or Québécois who share common values? Like, transcending religion and skin colour and language. That's what I think we should aim for with this little musical project."

Mike Silver and Jean-Michel Blais. (Arts & Crafts/Dan Wilton)

The concept of home is a preoccupation of both of their work. And while Jean-Michel has upcoming shows at concert halls in Paris and Sherbrooke, and Mike remains a staple of the city's experimental music scene, the internet forms a common residence for the both of them.

"I wouldn't really have a career without the internet," says Silver. "I'm not a crazy SoundCloud dweller or anything like that, but as far as consuming music and promoting it and talking about it, it's almost entirely on the internet. I would say I live a good 70% of my life on it."

Adapting the John Cage work, Silver and Blais toyed with the choreography of standing up and exiting the stage as the music plays on uninterrupted: "We'd both leave our instruments but the music continues and there's this idea the musician still necessary for live performance?"

Taken literally, "cascade" means small waterfall, an image that captures the flow of the record brilliantly. It also refers to the process whereby information or knowledge is passed on. CFCF and Jean-Michel Blais, by joining forces and combining their disciplines, have created music that speaks to everyone without words.

"It has this weird loop," says Silver. "It has this unending like cycling thing, because if it's a four-chord cycle then you feel like the structure of a song. But because there's this fifth chord added it feels like it's starting again — but never ending."

Buy or stream CFCF and Jean-Michel Blais's Cascades here.


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