These Sisters Have Transformed the Piano Duo

AHETZE, France — “Oh, look!” said the pianist Katia Labèque, pushing aside some neatly ironed clothes hanging on a rack.

Behind the clothes, which were behind the boiler in the utility room of her home and studio here in French Basque Country, was a poster advertising concerts last year at the Philharmonie in Paris. It showed Katia and her sister, Marielle — both with dark hair flowing, glamorously dressed — and listed three programs: five centuries of Basque music; a Stravinsky and Debussy double bill; an evening with three art-rock auteurs, Thom Yorke, Bryce Dessner and David Chalmin.

“We’re ridiculous,” said Katia. “This is the only poster we have, and it’s hidden.”

The poster suggests the wildly varied musical interests of the Labèque sisters, who for over 50 years have been playing — and enlarging — the two-piano repertory. They have interpreted traditional classical and Romantic works, to brilliant effect, but have also ventured into jazz, Baroque, modernist and experimental genres — commissioning scores, inventing projects and testing their limits. Their latest recording, out this week, is a newly arranged two-piano adaptation of Philip Glass’s opera “Les Enfants Terribles.”

“What always struck me with both of them is that, although they are very different human beings, they both have this endless curiosity about everything, not just music,” said Simon Rattle, the music director of the London Symphony Orchestra and a frequent Labèques collaborator.

Katia, 70, and Marielle, 68, have been inventing themselves since they were teenagers. First taught by their mother, an Italian piano teacher and pupil of the renowned pianist Marguerite Long, the sisters moved at 11 and 13 from their hometown, Hendaye (not far from here), to attend the prestigious Paris Conservatory.

“They taught you the tricks, but not the love of music that we learned from our parents,” Marielle said. “Maybe that helped us develop our sense of independence, the desire to move in the world on our own terms.” (The sisters, interviewed mostly in French, also speak fluent English, Italian and Spanish.)

They decided against the solo careers that their fiercely competitive training had shaped them for. “From the moment we left — and it was 1968, the year of revolution of the students — we said, ‘Let’s do something maybe not so conventional,’” Katia said.

They decided to play together.

“They took a time-honored form, the double piano, which had become slightly less fashionable, and breathed entirely new life into it,” said Deborah Borda, the president and chief executive of the New York Philharmonic.

Despite their almost uncanny unity onstage — “it’s a mystery beyond sisterhood,” Mr. Rattle said — the Labèques have very different personalities. In the interview, Katia exuded energy and enthusiasm, while Marielle remained calm and reflective. But they agreed that they never really had a career plan. After deciding to perform together, they joined the Conservatory’s chamber music graduate class to develop their dual repertory, and worked as ensemble musicians with Félix Blaska’s dance company.

One day, while they were working on Olivier Messiaen’s “Visions de l’Amen,” Messiaen, who taught composition at the Conservatory, knocked on the door. After listening for a bit, he asked if one of the sisters would record the work with his wife. Even then, they showed surprising strength of purpose.

“We said, ‘No, we are just starting out and we can’t begin by dividing,’” Katia recalled. But eventually Messiaen asked them to record the work together, which led to encounters with the composers Gyorgy Ligeti, Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio, whom they boldly approached, asking him to compose a work for them. Berio suggested they give the French premiere of his double piano concerto, which they subsequently played all over the world.

Their international breakthrough came with a 1980 recording of “Rhapsody in Blue,” which was a best seller but led to some harsh criticism from parts of the classical music establishment.

“The concert halls were closed to Gershwin,” Katia said. “People would say, ‘He is not a serious composer.’ The same thing was true 30 years later, when we started to play Philip Glass.”

They were also sometimes ribbed for their designer outfits and glossy image. But Chad Smith, the chief executive of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said he loved that the Labèques “have a complete vision. Lighting creates a beautiful environment; clothes, too. They come with a theatrical approach and have shown the false narrative that it’s less serious if you engage in the visual.”

Over the years, they have pursued Baroque music, on Silbermann-model period-style pianofortes made for them and with the ensemble Il Giardino Armonico; ragtime; traditional Basque music; and jazz. Katia once lived with the jazz musician John McLaughlin and played in his band, and counts Miles Davis — who wrote two songs for her — and Billie Holiday as influences. The sisters have plunged deep into experimental terrain in “Minimalist Dream House,” an ongoing series of concerts and recordings with Mr. Chalmin, who is Katia’s partner, and Mr. Dessner.

“They have an extremely broad vision of what they can do in a concert hall, and they treat everyone with the same respect,” said Mr. Dessner, best known as a member of the indie-rock band the National.

The coronavirus pandemic paused a number of their projects. A concerto by Nico Muhly, which should have premiered at the New York Philharmonic in early June, is now scheduled for the Paris Philharmonie on Nov. 12; a program with Mr. Dessner and the soprano Barbara Hannigan will probably be pushed to 2022.

But one thing they could work on in quarantine was “Les Enfants Terribles,” arranged by Mr. Glass’s longtime collaborator, Michael Riesman. During the initial lockdown the Labèques worked separately to prepare the score — Marielle lives with her husband, the conductor Semyon Bychkov, about nine miles from the house Katia and Mr. Chalmin share — but sent recordings back and forth and spoke frequently with Mr. Riesman about changes.

“We wanted more of the story and the dramatic parts,” Katia said. “It was so odd that it’s a story of confinement.” After the lockdown restrictions were relaxed in May, they were able to practice together, and recorded the work in the state-of-the-art studio at Katia’s house.

“I love the way they play Philip Glass,” said Mr. Riesman. “They have the right style, the right approach. They don’t overly dramatize or emote.”

Mr. Muhly said, “They are actually much more involved in everything than most people of their stature. They email you about material; they are totally involved. The rhythms of the day are organized around an unspeakably rigorous work ethic, but there is something really elegant about the way they live their lives which flows into music and food and their extended family of artists.”

The sisters’ trick, according to Katia, is their constant desire to change and learn. “We never want to rely on what we’ve done,” she said. “We have always tried to be relentlessly in the present.”

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How raising the school-leaver’s age transformed NSW schools

The NSW government’s decision to raise the school-leaving age from 15 to 17 ushered in an era of universal senior school participation in 2010. Few oppose the principle: with greater educational attainment generally comes better life opportunities.

But that decision also transformed the state’s schools. Some students sit in classrooms they don’t want to be in, and with that comes low attendance and behavioural challenges. Teachers have needed to find new ways to engage them, as their own workloads grow. The senior curriculum was reshaped to teach vocational skills, which has cost time and money that not all schools have.

President of the Secondary Principals’ Council, Craig Petersen.Credit:Janie Barrett

“I think the concept was good,” Petersen says. “But what we experienced in reality was a disconnect between the intent of the policy and implementation. Schools weren’t given additional resources to cater for this new cohort of student. It was entirely up to the school what they did.”

Then-education minister Verity Firth raised the age without much controversy. NSW had lagged the rest of Australia, and most of the western world, in letting kids leave as early as 15. The policy had not changed since 1943, and was more suited to the era of a strong manufacturing industry than the aftermath of a global recession. The school certificate was abolished too, widely seen as a disincentive to further education.

“The argument wasn’t a difficult one, considering that at the time [our leaving age was] so low compared to other jurisdictions. We also had the lowest school retention rate,” Firth says.

When a 2008 COAG meeting placed the issue on the state’s agenda, about 68 per cent of NSW students were finishing year 12, compared to a national average of 71 per cent. Amid rising youth unemployment in 2009, the government aimed for 90 per cent year 12 completion by 2015.

But many affluent schools were already attaining 90 per cent retention rates. Those most swept up in the change were government schools, particularly in areas of low socio-economic advantage where 30 to 40 per cent of students tended to leave early.

Within a year, NSW’s retention rate rose to about 73 per cent and has stayed around that mark in the decade since. “I would absolutely do the same again,” Firth says. “Where I always think we need to do better – how do you support those students in learning who aren’t as engaged in the traditional curriculum? That is still a pertinent question.”

A union-led inquiry into teacher conditions, held this month by the NSW Teachers’ Federation, heard the raised school-leaving age has been one of the most profound factors in increasing teacher workloads over the decade. “Our systems were actually built to allow for about 30 per cent of kids to get to the end of year 12, not 100 per cent,” former chair of the NSW Education Standards Authority, Tom Alegounarias, said in his evidence.

Principal of Fairvale High School, Kathleen Seto, says the impact was felt most by schools from lower-socioeconomic bands, like hers. They had low resources but faced high costs in setting up alternative structures and non-academic subjects for students forced to stay. Principals reported ramifications such as behavioural issues, non-attendance and disengagement. She says low-socioeconomic status (SES) schools were “condemned to innovate”.


The biggest system-wide change the policy spurred was a reshaping of the NSW curriculum. Teaching academic English to students who weren’t interested in university was no longer an option. Vocational (VET) offerings were turbocharged, and a suite of non-academic courses introduced: English studies, Maths in Practice, Science for Life.

But the VET curriculum required investments – from industrial kitchens to partnerships with local businesses – which were made at the discretion of local schools. The roll-out has received mixed reviews.

Seto says her school was supported by new funding arrangements, such as the low-SES National Partnership and needs-based funding that later came with the Gonksi reforms. Former union president Denis Fitzgerald, however, told the inquiry that the education department did not support schools in “any meaningful ways”. A 2012 auditor-general’s report acknowledged that while options were created, there was great variation in schools’ ability to deliver them.

Petersen says curriculum delivery became much more complex. “That created a bit of tension for teachers. The whole training and maintenance requirements our VET teachers had to keep up to date with [is] a significant increase in workload. They don’t get a decrease in their teaching allocation to do that.”

It also raised expectations of what teachers would deliver. Alegounarias points out that teaching qualifications were designed for a world where few students remained until the end of schooling. “Literacy or numeracy stuff didn’t have to hit the mark with 100 per cent of [students], because they were going to go anyway,” he says. “Teacher training was about that world, and it hasn’t changed much.”

But now all students are expected to reasonably succeed. “You have to engage kids; you’re not relying on your disciplinary authority to keep them in the classroom… That teacher education capacity isn’t there,” he says.

Catering to disengaged students was the main concern for teachers when the policy was first floated, and they had some difficulty adjusting. Reluctant learners can be disruptive, distract other students, and require more disciplinary attention. “Students who weren’t highly motivated to be in school were in the same classes as students who were highly motivated,” Petersen says. “In some cases there was certainly a challenge in keeping those students engaged, and managing their behaviour so they weren’t distributing other students.”

That issue hasn’t been made easier by the passage of time. “It’s fairly consistently been there,” he says. In 2010 there was an instant uptick in year 11 and 12 students receiving suspensions of between four and 20 days. Before that, between 600 and 700 senior students received long suspensions each year, less than 1 per cent of the cohort. These days it hovers around 1200, or 1.5 per cent of senior students.

Schools have also observed record-low attendance rates. Senior attendance dropped by 0.7 per cent in 2011, and has not recovered to pre-2010 levels in the decade since. The department attributes this to the raised leaving age, and notes that some year 10, 11 and 12 students forced to stay on would have low attendance.

It has created new issues for schools following up truancy. “There is no additional resource to chase up those students who don’t return at the beginning of year 11,” Petersen says. “We don’t have the mechanisms or the people to knock on doors and contact families to get you to school. And the more school you miss, the harder it is to catch up and be motivated.”

But it has also led those schools to innovate. Some have moved to four-day timetables, so students can attend TAFE courses on the fifth day. Period lengths tend to be longer, to accommodate the greater expectation of teachers to cater to a broad cohort of students.

Acting executive of the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta, Christine Howe, regards the change as a “really great thing”. “However it is really important that learning is relevant to their lives. Unfortunately, too often it’s not,” she says. The Parramatta diocese started offering more vocational and creative arts courses in its schools when the policy changed, and has since built trade training centres specifically for years 10 to 12.

“The curriculum has emerged over time to be quite different to [what it was] 10 years ago. It was very important for us to recognise the cost of doing nothing, or more of the same, would have been huge,” Howe says.

The CathWest Innovation College, which opened this year, offers work placements as well as an on-site cafe, hair salon and daycare centre for students to practice their skills. Hours are flexible, uniform is not required, and students receive formal one-on-one mentoring. “That’s the advantage of being within the school while commencing other training experiences,” Howe says. “It starts to give them credentials that will help future employment, and they leave school with a level of confidence in that area of interest.”

Jessica Libreri is studying to be a childcare worker at CathWest Innovation college.

Jessica Libreri is studying to be a childcare worker at CathWest Innovation college.Credit:Janie Barrett

Lifting my mindset

“If this wasn’t an option I think I’d go crazy,” says Jessica Libreri, who is studying childcare at CathWest. “I was not excited for the HSC, let’s just say that. Having the trade school just lifted my mindset. I would have dropped out and just done childcare if there wasn’t that option there.”

She will finish this year with her HSC and a Certificate III in business. “Being in the workplace early is going to prepare me better than other students, so I still get that,” she says. “I’m hoping to get a diploma and keep working.”

Some still leave at 17. “But they’re leaving with a career ahead of them and I think that’s an amazingly positive outcome for them,” Howe says.

Seto also stresses the message, that “not all early leaving is bad”. “Moving [into] a job, apprenticeship or traineeship can be a positive outcome for the student, their family and the school,” she says. But she has nonetheless observed staying at school become the norm over the decade.

Increasing her school’s retention rate required a dedicated strategy: Fairvale introduced tailored student intervention programs; a transition adviser; and extra support in the form of student mentoring and counselling. Where 40 students left at the end of year 10 before 2009, now only a handful depart early each year.

“Students have discussed the value of staying on and completing their HSC credential. For a large number of students at Fairvale High, they are the first member of their family to realise the dream of attaining the HSC credential and thereafter a university place,” Seto says.


She believes this points to the policy’s effectiveness. “The students have benefited in improved education attainment and the ability to have choices when they leave school. Students are completing their schooling and achieving qualifications that their parents or carers were unable to access.”

Petersen agrees there are “lots of positives”. “I think there is an increased understanding of the importance of education generally speaking,” he says. “Many students have gone on who would have otherwise left at the end of year 10, and life opportunities opened up.”

But he still sees 15-year-olds, who would have once hung on until the school certificate, lose sight of the end when confronted with two more years. “Some young adults are much better in different settings,” he says. “If the end point becomes keeping kids at school to meet that [retention] target, it misses the point of why kids are educated.”

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Soviet Ships Transformed Into Yachts For Millionaires

Some modern super-yachts used to look differently and perform basically military missions. They served interests of their native country and its people. Many Soviet yachts bacame the property of foreign buyers in the 1990s who bought them quite cheaply.Olivia

“Valirean Albanov” and Olivia

The first in the list is a 70-meters yacht Olivia that was produced as a surveillance ship “Valerian Albanov” in 1972 to detect enemy submarines in northern seas. In 1999 it was sold to Norway and in 2010 it was bought by an Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer who turned the Soviet ship into a super-yacht Olivia.

Soviet Ships Transformed Into Yachts For Millionaires

Soviet Ships Transformed Into Yachts For Millionaires

Soviet Ships Transformed Into Yachts For Millionaires

Former “Valerian Albanov” has a great seagoing performance and endurance, and it also has an ice class. The present-day Olivia is equipped with five guest cabins, a spa tub, deck chairs, a movie-theater and a splendid personal cabin for the owner of the yacht.

La Sultana

Soviet Ships Transformed Into Yachts For Millionaires
La Sultana

La Sultana yacht is a former “Ai-Petri” motor ship built in Bulgaria at the order of the USSR in 1962. Initially it served to transport Soviet citizens and loads across the Black Sea, in 1970 it relocated to the North Atlantic where it intercepted negotiations between crews of ships from NATO countries via radio communication.

Soviet Ships Transformed Into Yachts For Millionaires

Soviet Ships Transformed Into Yachts For Millionaires

Soviet Ships Transformed Into Yachts For Millionaires

Soviet Ships Transformed Into Yachts For Millionaires

After the collapse of the USSR “Ai Petri” found itself in Bulgaria, in 2007 it was bought by La Sultana Group company to be reequipped into a posh yacht. 12 guests may rest aboard La Sultana now, they enjoy seven cabins with marble baths and panoramic windows. The yacht also has a canteen, a pool, a bar and a helideck.


Soviet Ships Transformed Into Yachts For Millionaires

Former Soviet ice-breaker “Giant”, currently – yacht Legend.

Until 1992 this ice-breaking tug had been functioning as a unit of “Sevryba” association (“Northern fish”). In 2003 it was sold to the Germans where it was transformed into a charter yacht to cruise to Antarctica, Greenland and the Baltic Sea.

Soviet Ships Transformed Into Yachts For Millionaires

Soviet Ships Transformed Into Yachts For Millionaires

Soviet Ships Transformed Into Yachts For Millionaires

Soviet Ships Transformed Into Yachts For Millionaires

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How Clueless transformed the movie makeover

Cher begins the film already looking like an ‘after’ photo, so her transformation comes from popping the bubble of her privileged lifestyle. She participates in her teacher’s charity drive, gives away lots of her material possessions, and becomes friends with peers, like stoner Travis, who she had previously excluded. On top of that, realising that her love interest Josh is attracted to brains as much as beauty, she starts watching the news, and helping with her dad’s legal work.

Clueless is a movie that cunningly subverts the movie makeover to show how attractiveness is not only predicated on how conventionally good looking you are on the outside, but how good a person you are on the inside too. Though, it should also be noted, the film doesn’t say that wanting to look glamorous is a bad thing; come the end, Cher is still wearing designer outfits. Similarly, Legally Blonde (2001) allows its bombshell lead Elle Woods to retain her hyper-feminine style, even as she goes through an intellectual transformation while studying at Harvard Law School.

A sexist transformation

The flipside to this kind of evolution, however, is the more hackneyed one that suggests a woman is only valuable in as much as she conforms to societal beauty standards. Think of Ally Sheedy’s ‘Basketcase’ Allison being made over to look more like Molly Ringwald’s ‘Princess’ in The Breakfast Club (1985), or Sandy getting sexed up at the end of Grease (1978). That’s when the trope becomes problematic.

“I think the main problem is perhaps in the result of the makeovers, which almost always shows a standard and narrow idea of beauty,” Wagner suggests. “No one ends up with frizzier hair after a movie makeover.”

In their book The Makeover in Movies: Before and After in Hollywood Films, 1941-2002, Elizabeth A Ford and Deborah C Mitchell assert that 1941’s Now, Voyager, “established the ground rules for the makeover genre,” through the metamorphosis of Bette Davis’s depressed and dowdy spinster into a beautiful and confident heiress. “Change of appearance parallels change of fortune for heroine Charlotte Vale,” the authors write, noting that the physical traits of Charlotte’s ‘before’ appearance – no make-up, frumpy clothes, bushy eyebrows, heavy dark hair and glasses – have often been replicated in makeover movies, to varying degrees, ever since.

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Historical Figures Transformed Into Modern-Day People

From the distant past to 2020.

Earlier this year, we wrote about Royalty Now, an incredible project where graphic designer Becca Saladin photo manipulates historical figures into what they’d look like if they were alive today, and people couldn’t get enough.

You may remember how Saladin envisioned what Abraham Lincoln might look today:

She imagined what Mona Lisa — the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait — could look like in 2020:

And she created this image of what Julius Caesar might look like as an iPhone-carrying, modern-day man:

One of the coolest things about this project is how far Saladin goes to ensure her images are as historically accurate as possible. She tries to only use contemporary portraits of the figures (that is, portraits made while they were alive), and does meticulous research to find historical records of their physical appearance.

Saladin tells BuzzFeed that since we last checked in with her, she has set out on a “world tour” to shine a light on what a new group of historical figures from all over the globe might look like today.

She modernized Egyptian queen Hatshepsut, who ascended to the throne in 1478 BC and is regarded as one of the most successful pharaohs in Egyptian history.

She brought to the year 2020 legendary Venezuelan leader Simón Bolívar, who liberated much of modern-day South America from the Spanish Empire in the early 1800s.

And she envisioned Pocahontas as a 21st century woman.

Saladin — who has almost a quarter of a million followers on Instagram — says that one of the ways she chooses her subjects is by asking her followers who she should do next. A popular request was for the powerful 19th century South African king Shaka Zulu.

Saladin tells BuzzFeed, “I did a lot of European figures at the beginning, because those were the figures I knew best and learned about growing up. The best thing about gaining new followers has been learning about new figures in history from so many cultures and being able to bring them to life.”

Some of these portraits were harder to realize than others. Saladin says, “The challenge with creating certain figures came from the portraits themselves. For instance, my portrait of Queen Mother Idia was challenging because it was created from a mask. When I first started creating this art, I didn’t think I’d ever get good enough to create something from a mask, but I attempted it and I’m really happy with how it turned out.”

Her modernization of Mumtaz Mahal — the woman for whom the Taj Mahal was built — was also challenging because it was based on a very stylized portrait. Saladin says, “I’ve finally figured out how to translate stylization into more of a realistic portrait, which opens up a lot of doors. Many cultures portray their leaders as more of a stylized ‘essence’ rather than a photorealistic image, which has presented a huge challenge for me. Now that I’ve improved my skills, I’m getting better at navigating those.”

Saladin is proud of her new work and believes it to be of a higher quality than her earlier work. Below she brings Akhenaten — the ancient Egyptian pharaoh who reigned circa 1353–1336 BCE — into the modern day.

As for the future, Saladin is excited to expand what she’s doing and has been working on new offerings like bookmark designs, prints, and digital downloads. She’s even on TikTok, where she makes videos showing the transformation process.

Nostalgia Trip

Take a trip down memory lane that’ll make you feel nostalgia AF

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