As the “Basquiat Soundtracks” exhibition opens at the Philharmonie, which examines the importance of music in the life and work of the New York artist, we asked his co-curator Vincent Bessières to we comment on seven pieces of music that resonate with his work.
All those who knew Jean-Michel Basquiat and saw him work in his studio assure him: the artist painted to music. If he made many references to jazz in his paintings, quoting Charlie Parker, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong or Duke Ellington, he who had, it is said, a collection of 3000 records, listened just as much to La Callas, David Bowie, Curtis Mayfiled, blues, reggae or Beethoven. Also immersed in the bubbling arty underground scene of New York in the early 1980s, the epicenter of experimentation in no wave, new wave and emerging hip-hop, he had formed a group inspired by John Cage, Gray, DJ in his spare time and in 1983 produced a piece of hip-hop.
The formidable exhibition “Basquiat Soundtracks” which is held at the Philharmonie de Paris from April 6 to July 30, 2023 is an exploration of the place that music held in his imagination and in his work. Co-curator Vincent Bessières has agreed to select and comment on seven pieces for us, which form a perfect introduction to his sound universe and to this exhibition.
1 La Callas: “Norma” by Bellini
It may be a surprising reference, but Basquiat is full of surprises. He was far from monomaniacal in terms of music. Very curious, he listened to very very different things. He regularly sent his assistant or friends to buy him records. He gave them a wad of cash and said to them: go buy me some records. He trusted them to bring him novelties or traditional things. La Callas is one, with Billie Holiday, of those great singers he admired. Suzanne Mallouk, who was his companion, tells in the very pretty book The Widow Basquiat that they were in Italy and Basquiat had something missing: he had to listen to La Callas. The exhibition opens with a painting that talks about opera (Anybody Speaking Words, 1982), which refers precisely to all the physical effort involved in singing, to the way it puts the body in motion. And it may also be a tribute to La Callas, who obviously touched him.
2 James White and the Blacks: “Sax Maniac”
Jean-Michel Basquiat really found himself at the heart of No Wave. He hung out in all the clubs downtown Manhattan where No Wave was invented, at Max’s Kansas City, at CBGB, at the Mudd Club and at Hurrah. These are places he went to daily, and where he played with his band Gray. James Chance is one of the emblematic figures of No Wave, of this spirit of collage, shift and impertinence, carried by musicians who assume that they are not virtuosos in the traditional sense, and who make music that can sometimes be a little acidic, aggressive and fits in. James Chance, who had several bands at the time, including the Contortions, and also called himself James White and the Blacks, brought together free jazz, funk and punk and ignited the audience of this scene. He is also in the movie Downtown 81 (shown in an alcove on the big screen at the NDLR exhibition), of which Basquiat is the common thread, and this film was shot on location in the clubs where Basquiat went. We see in particular a live sequence of James White shot in 1981 in a club, the Peppermint Lounge. Basquiat had drawn a saxophone to announce the free concert that was going to take place for the purposes of filming. The original of the drawing and its flyer version are shown at the exhibition.
3 Gray: “Drum Mode”
From the group Gray in which Basquiat played for a little over a year (he left the group in the summer of 1981 to devote himself to painting, editor’s note), only one title has survived from the time he was part of it: Drum Moderecorded for the soundtrack of Downtown 81. It’s a very interesting piece. Personally I find it very successful, and it gives a pretty good idea of how musicians made music at the time. They use instruments, but we don’t really know what it is. For example, producer Michael Holman, who held the drums in the lineup, revealed a trade secret about a strange, indescribable sound you hear in this track. He had actually stuck tape on the snare drum and ripping it off – shhrrt! shhrrt!- it was making that weird sound, almost a scratch, that keeps coming up. Basquiat, who played clarinet and synthesizers in Gray, apparently plays the triangle on Drum Mode. Anyway, the mystery reigns over who was doing what in this group. According to Michael Holman, ” we were like extraterrestrials who had just arrived on earth: we found instruments and we wondered what they were for“. There is really this idea that music is a plastic material. For me, Gray’s musicians are more sound sculptors who make sound tables, than musicians in the traditional sense. I think that shows the interest that Basquiat had for sound as a material to work with.
4 Rammellzee & K Rob: “Beat-Bop”
In 1983, when Basquiat had forged close ties with lots of young people his age from disadvantaged areas of the Bronx who were into hip-hop, he decided to produce a rap song. As he begins to be known and to have some money, he can afford to rent a studio, pay technicians and musicians and even have the record made, because yes, he had the record pressed. This disc is a total work of art because Basquiat designed the cover entirely, on both sides, as well as the label. But he also imagined the cast of the group, made up of musicians from different backgrounds. The bass player comes more from funk, the percussionist of Puerto Rican origins is none other than Al Diaz, his partner at the time of the graffiti signed SAMO. There is also a violinist, Esther Bálint, who played in Jim Jarmusch’s films. Basquiat had told him: try to make the theme of Psychosis of Hitchcock, so she does a kind of violin riff. Basquiat also chose the two rappers and did the mixing. So he kind of scripted the recording. I find this mixture of funk, No Wave, film music and rap very convincing musically, it works incredibly.
5 Charlie Parker: “Now’s The Time”
It’s a piece that Basquiat quotes very often, because Now’s the Time, it can be understood both as an incentive to modernity, it is the celebration of the present time, it is to act and create in the present. But Now’s The Time it is also an expression that Martin Luther King used in one of his speeches, on the idea that the time has come. This phrase is a recurring motif in the struggle for civil rights: the time has come to change society, the time has come to affirm one’s identity, to affirm one’s pride. Behind this emblematic piece, it is the capacity that jazzmen had, and bebop musicians in particular, to compose in real time, that is to say to improvise but within a restrictive framework that they managed to to sublimate by their virtuosity, by the association of their intellect and their sensitivity. I think that, this association of intellect and sensitivity, is really something that speaks to Basquiat. He says : “when I paint, I am in automatic mode“. In fact, he is not in a reflection, it is not cerebral. Basquiat is not a conceptual artist, he is in the gesture, in the doing, but at the same time everything he does and everything he composes on the canvas is guided, framed, by everything he knows and by all his practice. He is like jazz musicians, who do not analyze what they are doing when they improvise: there is something that speaks in them, framed by all the work they have done upstream, which allows them, when it comes time to set off, not to crash.
6 Clifton Chenier: “Clifton’s Blues (Where Can My Baby Be?)”
Clifton Chenier is the great accordionist of zydeco in Louisiana. From 1985, Basquiat used this motif of the accordionist a lot. He represents him as a black cowboy. Zydeco is a rural music whose birth, I think, is what fascinates Basquiat. This music was born from the meeting of the Acadians who had been expelled from New France, therefore from Quebec, by the English when they conquered Canada. All the French speakers who refused to recognize the new sovereignty were expelled, deported by the English to Louisiana, to the bayou, a hostile region because it was very humid, full of alligators and mosquitoes. They left them to fend for themselves. This is called “the great displacement” in the history of French-speaking Canadians. So the Acadians arrived with their dances, their traditions and their songs, and they met slaves, freedmen or slaves who had run away and who lived there, in the countryside. Perhaps because they shared poverty and adversity with them, the Acadians mixed together, unlike the English-speaking settlers who kept their distance from the blacks. From this meeting was born the zydeco. I think Basquiat had an interest in this music because it was born out of one of those great crazy movements in human history that led to population mixing. I don’t know when he discovered zydeco but in 1985 and 1986 it was a recurring motif in his works.
7 Ludwig van Beethoven: “Symphony No. 3, Heroic”
It is a very beautiful work, very melancholy. Basquiat says his painting is about heroism and the street. The last painting in the exhibition, which is also one of the last he painted, is called Eroica, heroic, there is an already semantic correspondence between the two. But this symphony also has a tormented destiny since it is a work that Beethoven had originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte when he was still only First Consul and the whole of Europe saw in him the providential man, the incarnation of the ideals of the Revolution, and who eventually turned into a tyrant. The day Beethoven learned that Napoleon had declared himself Emperor, he crossed out the dedication on his score. But Basquiat also has much recourse to erasures: he crosses out the words, hides the words, sometimes covers them with paint, so there is a kind of analogy of gesture. But above all Basquiat, as a Haitian of origin, who bears a French name which is perhaps that of a slaver, was very interested in the history of Haiti, in the character of Toussaint Louverture, in the fact that Haiti was the first territory where slavery was abolished, where blacks finally took power and tried to create a society. And how, precisely, it was broken by the colonists and by Napoleon, who reestablished slavery. I think that behind Eroica, there is all this historical dimension and all that this symphony symbolizes as a failure of Western society.
“Basquiat Soundtracks” exhibition from April 6 to July 30, 2023 at the Philharmonie de Paris
Tuesday to Thursday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Friday from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Prices: from 8 to 14 euros, free for children under 16