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Jean-Michel Blais: “Tourette’s is like electricity, so I divert it into playing piano”

The composer is helping scientists understand why his tics disappear on stage – and waging war on a "boring" modern canon.

By Kate Mossman

A few weeks back Jean-Michel Blais dislocated his shoulder on one of Montreal’s historic exterior staircases — slippery death traps in the winter. He played a large, sell-out show on the piano with his chamber orchestra a few days later, unable to properly raise his right arm. Blais has Tourette’s syndrome and he experienced a lot of tics during the show because he was anxious, wondering whether he had bust his shoulder for good. This almost never happens to him on stage. The tics made him hit a wrong note so he incorporated the wrong note into the piece, which at least kept him interested in his own music.

“I mean, I know the piano is the feature instrument but sometimes what I play is so boring!” Blais says, speaking at high speed from his home in Montreal. “There is this one piece I do — I hate playing it live because it’s so boring for me and everyone loves it, and I’m the only one who doesn’t. So I thought, I’ll add strings, and I’ll have wind and brass! I have a guy in my band who plays flute and bass clarinet and soprano sax — he switches between them, and it’s richer, so you don’t get bored. Because that was my fear — I hope I don’t get bored of the clarinet three quarters of the way through.” 

In the world of modern classical piano, the irrepressible Blais occupies a space somewhere between Chilly Gonzales and Nico Muhly, often writing with pop chord progressions — though not with pop structure — and employing some of Quebec’s best young musicians in his chamber orchestra. He is helping a hospital in Montreal with their research into Tourette’s because his symptoms, which he’s had since he was three years old, almost entirely disappear when he’s playing. To scientists this is a subject of extreme interest. To Blais it makes perfect sense.

“It’s like a surge of electricity that needs to go somewhere,” he says, “and when you do a really complicated task, that surge can target something else. Short term, it was really helpful to me to play piano. If you repeat the same tic over and over you can really hurt yourself.”

It might seem surprising that the practice of classical music — associated with extraordinary pressure, precision and poise — could ease the physical symptoms of Tourette’s, which are often connected to anxiety. “When you start playing an instrument you embody, you concentrate, you discipline,” Blais goes on. “It’s like self-treatment for me to be playing and letting my emotions go through this machinery that doesn’t psychologise me. But there aren’t that many people with Tourette’s in the public eye apart from, like, Billie Eilish.” 

On Blais’s new album Aubades — which contains a dozen piano compositions, whittled down from 600 — Blais rejects the classical convention whereby one instrument carries the tune and the rest support it, an arrangement he calls “vertical”. A chamber orchestra should move, he says, “like a band of dolphins through the water, one instrument rising here, another there. I thought I’d lose people because I’m coming at them with baroque flavours, some optimistic chords, a plurality of sounds.” He hasn’t so far. Ellie Goulding is probably his most famous fan, and his 2016 album Il was a Time magazine Top 10 album of the year. 

Blais was born in 1984 in the small town of Nicolet, an hour north of Montreal. He loved taping world music off Radio Canada as a child, and preferred to stay at home with his piano while his friends played hockey in the street. His first tics began at three, when he started rolling his eyes back and making noises in his throat: his parents took him to countless specialists. Having started playing piano at 11, he attended the Trois Rivieres Music Conservatory in Quebec as a teenager but left after two years. “Those athletes, they train six hours a day, six days a week,” he says. “I just couldn’t. Sometimes I think maybe I should have shut up, put a mask on, done what they wanted. But even now, when you go see their shows, the room is empty — just parents, family, profs. When did it get so aristocratic? Classical music is a class in North America.”

After dropping out he trained in special education and taught children with behavioural disorders for five years. Blais had always suffered from anxiety — the piano was a place for putting his “misunderstood emotion” — but he did not get his Tourette’s diagnosis until he was 20, around the same time he realised he was gay.

Now, he finds himself increasingly asked to be a spokesman, for both things. “There are three topics I represent,” he says drily. “Because I come from Nicolet, I can promote culture in the countryside. Then there’s this Tourette’s thing, and this f***ot thing — which I think I’m allowed to say. Tourette’s-Nicolet-F***ot. I am happy to promote those causes. I know those things shaped me.”

Artistically, Blais is on a mission to liberate modern piano music from the cheese factor. “Ludovico Einaudi or Olafur Arnalds — they go for what works, the same chord progressions. Hans Zimmer is the chief of this new gravy you put on everything and it all tastes good.” He decries modern ambient piano playlists — “simple and boring, and good for sleeping and study” — and wants to make music “for the morning. Not music to sleep to.”  

“That’s what I love about Max Richter’s ideas,” he says, referencing Richter’s international interactive show, Sleep, in 2015. “’My music is so boring that I tour with mattresses!’ At least there’s a humble recognition of the function.” Ultimately, Blais blames the audience for this phenomenon of sleeping music. “It’s a new market. Suddenly there’s eight hours a day when people used to be sleeping and now they’re up listening to podcasts. Imagine the money! One third of the day can be consecrated and monetised.”

What classical composers does he find — well — boring? “Chopin and Vivaldi are like those bands you discover and love, and they become so popular you start hating them,” he says. “But Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, go back to it! Approach it like a guilty pleasure! Franz Liszt, I love what he did for musicians, ‘I’ll throw a show, I’ll be the devil incarnate, I’ll be a circus and you’ll pay to see me.’ But when do I see through Liszt and really connect with his soul? I see just a display of technicalities. I never get technical and when I do, it’s always ironic.” 

He says he is hyper-sensitive to his surroundings. “In the morning before a gig, I can tell you how much merch I will sell just because of the feeling I have from the venue,” he says. “I touch one key of the piano, I see the venue, I know the vibe and the city. Some cities I hate, and the show is s***.”

Is it tempting to think he is creating a “s***” show if he finds himself in a city he already hates? “That’s the question! So I started placing the public along a spectrum. Instead of being ‘boring’ or ‘appreciative’ it was ‘contemplative’, ‘passive”, ‘active’. London, Paris, anywhere in the Netherlands, Spain, New York — these are excited public. They laugh, they talk.” 

And colder cities? “All of Germany, apart from Cologne. And Toronto, here. So cold, they still love the Queen and you feel it. I think of them as contemplative, I give them more music and talk less. It’s not a unilateral approach.” 

Blais is developing a free show for people with Tourette’s, whose tics, he thinks, often prevent them from feeling free to attend classical concerts “for fear of being stared at, of making noise”. He’s had a resurgence of his own symptoms recently because he’s just moved in with his boyfriend. And he still gets tics at family mealtimes: “I can feel my mum looking at me and I have more tics than usual, because she’s thinking ‘There’s probably something bad going on in his life right now.’”

Another more intense kind of scrutiny — the kind he gets on stage — has the opposite effect. “I think of what I have to do, and focus. It’s almost meditation. You try and be in the zone, in the moment, and that’s where music happens. I’m good at talking, but I’m not good at expressing what I have inside. Instrumental music allows you to express emotion even more than poetry would.” 

Jean-Michel Blais plays the Purcell Room in London on 27 March.

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