Why Pianist Hélène Grimaud Flooded the Park Avenue Armory with 122,000 Gallons of Water

By Stephen Raskauskas |

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The performance and installation tears become… streams become… by pianist Hélène Grimaud and artist Douglas Gordon at the Park Avenue Armory

Pianist Hélène Grimaud made a literal splash exploring water music at the Park Avenue Armory, New York during the 2014-15 season. She teamed with artist Douglas Gordon to flood the Armory’s 55,000 square foot Drill Hall with 122,000 gallons of water and played a set of water-inspired music for solo piano in the middle of the peaceful reflecting pool they created.

Grimaud recently released an album, Water, that resulted from her performance, titled tears become… streams become… She spoke about this unique artistic collaboration and the music on her album.

Composers have been fascinated by water for centuries, and there’s a lot of water music that she could have included in the program. In fact, Grimaud’s original setlist was slightly longer than the final version.

It was shortened, she explained, because “We decided to make the actual creation of the installation a part of the program.” During the performance, for 20 minutes, water oozed from the floor of the darkened Hall before Grimaud even entered.

“It was quite a mesmerizing experience for everyone there, and I think really contributed to putting people in a different place before starting to receive this highly fragile and poetic music. But that meant less music.”

With only a short setlist, what music to pick from the veritable ocean of works about water?

“We could have made a program with only pieces by Ravel, Debussy, and Liszt,” she said. “But I wanted to represent as many composers as possible, which meant only one piece per composer – that was very clear from the beginning.

“Actually that made the selection even harder because some of these pieces are from cycles, and I found it hard to extract them from their original context. But in the end, I gravitated towards the less narrative pieces, and the more abstract or stylized pieces (at least in my opinion).”

Grimaud performs water music atop a lake of 122,000 gallons of water at the Park Avenue Armory

The final list of pieces on the program and the album includes water music by Berio, Takemitsu, Fauré, Ravel, Albéniz, Liszt, Janáček, and Debussy.

tears become… streams become… was initiated when Grimaud had a conversation with Alex Poots, artistic director of the Park Avenue Armory and the Manchester International Festival, while they were in Paris together.

“I told him about this water project and that I was thinking with a visual artist to create a different incarnation of the project that could create an experience that was parallel to the traditional concert experience,” she said. “No other space could allow us to do with the Armory did in terms technical possibility and space for this type of creativity.”

When Grimaud and Gordon began their work at the Armory, the project changed significantly over a week of rehearsals. “You envision it in a certain way, and then when you’re there, of course, everything changes – and that was one of the wonderful aspects of the whole process,” she said.

“But it meant being open and flexible up to the last minute. What I liked is that in the beginning there were all sorts of heuristic, psychedelic ideas, but we all gravitated towards doing something boiled down to the minimum and it was all the stronger for it.”

The Hall itself affected the way Grimaud played. “The acoustics were highly sensitive and changed nearly every day because the weather in New York at the time was absolutely crazy. There were days where people were in t-shirts in Central Park, and other days when it was snowing, and just about everything in between.”

The performance and installation tears become… streams become… by pianist Hélène Grimaud and artist Douglas Gordon at the Park Avenue Armory

The incredible size of the hall did not, however, affect her ability to connect with her audience. “In the rehearsals, I felt very isolated on my little island with the piano inside this tremendous, cavernous space,” she said.

“But that’s always the magic – when I played the first note on the first night, the connection was there. It doesn’t matter if I am geographically removed from them. It was all of a sudden totally different than what I had imagined, and quite intimate in spite of the distance separating us.

“I’m sure everything tended to sound like an echo, at some moments, one might’ve wanted more directness. But it was kind of hypnotic, not only visually, but also acoustically. The odd resonance of the sound, and the delay with which it reached one in its whole spectrum – it sounded like black magic was at work.”

The project however wasn’t simply an artistic indulgence, however. Grimaud is an environmental activist who hopes that by exploring water music in a unique way, she will encourage her listeners to think critically about the environment and how humans interact with it.

“It’s too early for me to know what kind of impact this is going to have. At the end of the day, you do it out of artistic conviction,” Grimaud said with confidence.

In addition to raising awareness about the environment through projects like Water, Grimaud founded the Wolf Conservation Center, which raises awareness of the importance and relationship of these top predators to our ecosystem.

To learn more about Hélène Grimaud, visit her website.