We are Europe – Chilly Gonzales Shakes the Old World

Europeans hardly see themselves as citizens of one nation. They consider themselves inhabitants of several independent countries pooled by an alliance of convenience, or worse: necessary evil. Even more in “our” times, when the EU is in danger, fighting monetary threats. On one hand, people benefit from open borders, and on the other, they seem to be more aware of the differences than of what unites us and the rich cultural heritage. Maybe it’s the lack of a common language; a European Esperanto. Yet, it’s the words of a Canadian that strikes a chord, and might bring some remedy for the sore EU citizen – especially the German soul. In an interview with renowned radio station Deutsche Welle he states: “I firmly believe that Europe is one land and Germany an important province of this land.”

The latter is still trying hard to rid itself of the rucksack of shame put on by its ancestors. Without complaining or fishing for empathy, being a German is hard. I myself, feel the constant pressure to prove to the world that Germans are not monsters by birth and can be good people – even almost 70 years after World War II. As a German, you are exposed to the cruelty and crimes committed by your grandparents from a very early age. As a German child (at least concerning my generation), you might never be able to release yourself from that inherited guilt. A guilt that often covers up other aspects of your culture you should identify with and maybe start to concentrate on in order to move forward without forgetting about the past. Chilly Gonzales, being Jewish and living in Cologne, says: “Sometimes I’d like to shake Germany and tell them: ‘Aren’t you aware of what you have here? I come from a country where we don’t have all of this. So learn to appreciate it!’” And that’s probably something we Europeans really “unlearned” or locked up somewhere behind the history section of our mind’s archive: That our roots go deep into intellectually fruitful ground and that we should water these grounds by turning to our great thinkers, the poets, writers, painters, composers, scientists etc.

“Sit-Down-Comedy” and Chilly Gonzales provides European audiences an outsider’s perspective

Talking about his life in exile, Gonzales states that he prefers to live somewhere, where people “get” his music. In Europe and especially Germany, people still have a “collective knowledge” in different fields such as art and history. “All of these things are inherent in my music”, Gonzales says. “In Canada, I’m just the funny guy on the piano, who collaborates with famous people”. Bearing this in mind, it’s no coincidence that the Anthem of Europe is Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which Chilly Gonzales uses to explain his theory of the artificiality in arts opposed to authenticity in arts, which in his opinion doesn’t exist on stage or is doomed to fail. “Art offers the opportunity of communication without truthfulness”, which can only be part of close relationships. “Beethoven knew how to convey emotions in a recognizable way”, Gonzales says, meaning that when he wrote the last movement of his Ninth Symphony, he used compositional techniques to create certain feelings in everyone. As a result, the listener feels as if Beethoven spoke from one’s own heart – which of course, he didn’t and couldn’t.

“We Canadians think that everyone’s superior. So we try to learn as much about other cultures as we can”, he tells Deutsche Welle. Humour and irony are the Canadian way to keep the distance, both important elements of each Chilly Gonzales show and also written into (almost) every song. He calls his way of entertainment “Sit Down-Comedy”, because it always happens around, on and through the piano, as opposed to “Stand Up-Comedy”. “I offer my audience in Europe the opportunity to look at themselves from an outsider’s perspective”, is one of the interview’s key sentences and it’s probably something everyone should open up to. In literature there is the genre “Picaresque Novel”. They are mostly written from an outsider’s view and make pranksters their heroes in an often bizarre, humorous and almost ridiculous way. At the same time, they either change or at least expose society’s failures and defects. Famous examples are Till Eulenspiegel, Simplicissimus, Felix Krull, Gregor Samsa or The Tin Drum’s Oskar Matzerath. The way Mozart is portrayed by Milos Foreman in “Amadeus” goes in the same direction. An outsider doesn’t have to follow the rules, obey or float with the current – he already swam himself free or was determined to stand outside society. Jason Beck created – or in the process became – Chilly Gonzales in the spotlight, a prankster or as we Germans say “Schelm”: “My stage persona serves to give me freedom and make me feel secure. It protects me.”

Gonzales dives deep into the concept of duality, one of the oldest concepts of mankind and a subject of religion and famous novels (Faust, The Divine Comedy et al), not only through his decision not to be “himself” on stage, but also with his next project “The Shadow”, a stage play adapting a famous fairy tale. A shadow also has been a repeated and varied art work since Solo Piano, where Gonzales appears as a black silhouette with one forelock almost touching his nose. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that the famous shadow is also part of the new Re-Introduction Etudes notebook’s cover. “This book represents the part of music which is absolutely pure in my mind – the part that brings me joy and saved my life”, he explains. It’s also a book meant to get people back on the piano, engage in and re-connect with the age-old art of making music. And in the end, music is the universal language not everyone may “speak”, but most people understand and feel – not only in Europe. Joy!

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