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Paris celebrates Nuit Blanche of contemporary art

A fireworks display in front of the Musée d'Orsay as part of Nuit Blanche, or "White Night".
A fireworks display in front of the Musée d'Orsay as part of Nuit Blanche, or "White Night". Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes

Thousands of people roamed the streets of Paris into the early hours of the morning for the thirteenth edition of Nuit Blanche, an annual contemporary art festival held for one night only.


Nuit Blanche, or "White Night", began in 2001 under Paris mayor Bertrand Delanöe. This year's event was his last as mayor.

In its tradition of audacious spectacles, this year’s event featured the country’s first-ever performance of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet, a piece of music in which four musicians pass over the audience in four helicopters.

The performance begins when the helicopters fire their engines. They take off several kilometres from Paris’s central island, where a screen projects images of the musicians inside the roaring machines.

Their music follows the mechanical rhythms of the helicopters. Highly complicated from a technical standpoint, the Helicopter String Quartet has only been performed five times since Stockhausen wrote it in 1995. Sometimes, it’s even failed to get off the ground.

The day before the concert, technicians scramble around a field just west of the city, relaying information by walkie-talkie amid the musicians, pilots and programmers. It takes incredible coordination to keep up all the sound and image transmissions, says Mathieu Rocton of broadcast company Actis.

“We have to do the connection between the four helicopters and the ground, to send all the signals from the helicopters, to have the video signal and of course the sound as well, and to send the sound to the helicopter, which is the click of the metronome, to coordinate all the musicians in the helicopter.”

Chiara Parisi, the artistic director of Nuit Blanche, says the extravagant performance fits the spirit of the event.

“Why? Oh well why not? Stockhausen was a great artist, and it’s very important for contemporary art. It changed completely the relationship between the public and art, because the music is in the sky. It’s completely different.”

At each corner of the field sit the four Ecureuil twin-engine helicopters, typically used for passenger flights. As they get ready for their tour over the city, the pilots and the musicians strike up a friendly rapport.

Laura Moody, the cellist of British group the Elysian Quartet behind the performance, is tempted by the unique view over Paris as her helicopter glides past.

“I can’t wait, except I’ll have to be looking at my music, I can’t look at the Tour Eiffel,” she tells pilot Olivier Philippe.

No such worries for Philippe, though: “It’s fun, it’s interesting, and it’s the opportunity to fly over Paris in a way we rarely have the chance to do. And it’s surprising to hear live music in the headphones. We have to respect the usual rules of flying a helicopter, and there’s no extra difficulty. Just extra fun.”

Another pilot, Jacques Louis-Octave, stresses that this is not a joy ride.

“Flying over Paris, we have to respect very precise rules in terms of altitude and the route we take, and we stay in constant contact with the ground crew. It’s nice to have a violin behind you playing music, but other than that, we pay close attention to what we’re doing, and it’s a standard procedure,” he explains.

The Elysian Quartet had already performed the piece in Birmingham. Moody says the four helicopters are as much musical instruments as the four strings.

“The themes of the piece are all to do with air and flight and ascension, and the idea of the piece, from what I understand, is that it represents human beings going beyond their limitations. The piece is dedicated, in the score, it says to all astronauts, and it’s the idea of human beings trying to launch themselves into the air and transcend themselves.”

Despite a short interruption in the transmission halfway through the 32-minute performance, the broadcast comes through loud and clear. The helicopters pass high overhead near the end, momentarily visible over the engines and strings blaring from the speakers.

Below: a performance of the Helicopter Quartet and other works at Nuit Blanche 2013.

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