Limbering Music

Searching for distinct forms of perfection with French stylist and autodidact Clovis Donizetti.

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South from Bordeaux, the west coast of France drops like a plumbline into 200 flat miles of sand and pine. Once malaria-ridden swampland, it’s been drained and flipped into lumber country. Cap Saint-Martin marks the first rise in the forthcoming Pyrenees, a geologic exhale that dates back to the Miocene. Stretching from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, the mountain chain girdles the Iberian Peninsula, a 150-million-year-old partition of heaving granite. 

Crossing the Adour River, I thread the narrow streets of the Basque hamlet Bayonne through to Biarritz, a town that straddles the limit. A whaling village in origin, its economy shifted in the late nineteenth century as petrol took the place of blubber. Its natural harbors became something of a spa for Parisians looking to kick tuberculosis.

The region has been a hub for turmoil for nearly a century since—held under Nazi occupation through the early 1940s, a refuge for the Catalonian exiles fleeing Franco’s Republic through the 70s, a hotly contested territory for Basque separatists across the 80s—while incongruously retaining tourism as its main trade. 

For surfers, Biarritz is at best a starting point, a halfway house between the pure beachbreaks to the north and the groomed points of Spain, Portugal, and Morocco to the south. 

At the edge of that city, Clovis Donizetti lives in an old three-room flat, sharing a foyer with an antiques dealer and a boulangerie. The air in the stairwell as I climb to his floor is heavy with the smell of old brioche and decomposing textile. The papier peint peels unchecked where the sun enters by skylight. Looking closely at the walls, I can spot narrow hatchet marks where Donizetti’s surfboards have gouged the soft plaster on mistimed descents down to the beach. I wonder if these represent something like the rings on a tree—growth and vitality—or if they’re more like scratches demarcating time in a prison cell. A little of both, maybe. Donizetti has lived in the same flat his entire life. Thirty-six years in total.

On the third floor, the landing in front of his door serves as a depot for stacks of shoeboxes, skateboards, roller skates, wetsuits, booties, and cardboard recycling. The landing is uncharacteristically warm for the Atlantic coast in winter, trapping the heat that rises from the bakery. As a result, the door to his apartment hangs lazily ajar. Inside, Donizetti paces barefoot.

He invites me inside, introduces me to his partner and their two daughters, and explains how, when it comes to the question of domestic politics, he’s decidedly “in the minority.” On the other hand, having spent his entire life in the apartment, its contents slant undeniably in his favor.

I follow him down a narrow L-shaped corridor. Its most striking detail is the number of books on the shelves. They also appear in the periphery of every angle I can see as we walk down the hall. They present a chaos of subject matter. The uncanny combinations of titles and subjects seem to suggest an underlying code. On one of many shelves I note Sartre, Plutarch, Balzac, Baudelaire, Dumas. You Should Have Been Here an Hour Ago by Phil Edwards and Le Rouge et le Noir by Stendhal form a strange bookend. Bars of Sex Wax fill the holes in the Western canon like some kind of fruity smelling mortar. Sheet music from Segovia, Bach, and Ravel sticks out from the volumes like shirtsleeves, lobbying for attention. Everything is bent and bookmarked, their spines more like old pairs of jeans than binding elements.

I ask if he’s actually read all of them and Donizetti explains that most of his reading began around age 17, when he decided to give up school in order to surf professionally.

“It was my last year of high school,” he says. “I was invited to compete in the Rabbit Kekai Invitational in Costa Rica. Unfortunately, the contest fell on the same day as the baccalaureate exam, which is the equivalent to the American high school exit exam. So I had to make a choice.”

Donizetti’s decision to forgo academic assessment was poorly received by his peers, his instructors, and his parents. As talented as he was, longboarding in France in the early 2000s was considered a leisure or hobby at best. Yet his future was quickly set on the narrow coordinates of surfing as profession. It also placed him well outside the nurturing possibilities of didactic education and into the territory of autodidact.

Through this lens, the decor of the apartment may be considered less of an aesthetic experience than the inventory of a young man trying to teach himself. Beginning as an attempt to keep pace with his peers, he says the autodidactica spun out of control, occasionally into something bordering on mania. It was impossible to amass enough knowledge. 

In addition to philosophy and literature, Donizetti also taught himself to play music. The sheets of it we pass in the hall are emblematic of his studies. So is the bumblebee-yellow 1952 Stratocaster that sits propped in the corner of the salon. On the opposite side of the room stands a traditional Spanish guitar. 

As he talks, Donizetti moves anxiously and perhaps unconsciously between the instruments, striking patterns of jazz, flamenco, samba, and baroque fugues as a nervous origami artist might unconsciously build and dismember swans with their napkin while waiting for their entrée.

Over the course of a slow jazz riff, he traces the architecture of his life in a disjointed fashion: the absence of a father, the pressure to leave France for Australia to pursue his surfing ambitions, a failed stint as a carpenter, 12 years working the low end of the restaurant business washing dishes and waiting tables. It seems to have worked out, as he today finds himself employed by the WSL as the head judge of the Duct Tape events. Donizetti admits that the role still baffles him. 

“Perhaps it’s because I’m French,” he says. “Perhaps they think that allows me to be detached from developing biases. Or maybe it’s because I’m one of the few people who was there in the 90s, when longboarding was in exile.”

Indeed, during that period the Biarritz Surf Festival was one of the few stages upon which longboarding was showcased—two weeks of classic surfing, the town and sponsors paying Hawaiians and Californians to live and surf and compete at La Côte des Basques. Peter Cole, Skip Frye, George Downing, Nat Young, Joel Tudor, and Jimmy Gamboa loitered about the area, drinking cognac at the bistro and waiting in line at the boulangerie where a very young Donizetti bought his pain au chocolat

“It was as though they were banished heroes waiting to cross the Styx,” he says. 

Still, in his young mind, the festival was the only thing that mattered, and those first weeks in July became an annual period of intense study: “How to knee-paddle properly, how to carry your board, where to place your hands. Everything I learned in that short time needed to hold me over for an entire year. I remember when Joel came to eat at one of the hotels I was working in when I was 18. It was the greatest night of my life.”

After the festival ceased to run, Tudor continued to make trips to La Côte des Basques, bringing his orbit of filmmakers, surfers, and photographers, who at some point began to take note of Donizetti and compared his technique to Tudor’s. “People used to give me shit for surfing ‘like Joel,’” he says. “They thought I was mimicking his style.”

Scanning back to the present, I survey the apartment from the living room and notice a glaring absence.

“Where are your surfboards?” I ask.

Without answering, he puts the guitars back in their corners, places a record on the gramophone, drops the needle, and slips away to the kitchen to make coffee. Returning with two cups, he sinks into meditation before the window. He gazes out across a choppy red ocean of pitching roofs and sinking windows. His body is long. His limbs are flexible and glassy. His monolithic nose breaks the grisly beard framing his face, and his Saturn-blue eyes are capped by thick, unchecked pterygiums recalling his Normand ancestry: Born in Biarritz and thus technically Basque, the goofyfoot traces his genealogy to the north of the country. On a wave in a black wetsuit, the ensemble of his features and carriage create the silhouette of a funeral vase, blown with the intention of holding a solitary flower.

He points to the album cover propped on the shelf beside the spinning vinyl.

“Do you know who Pablo Casals is?” he asks, then continues without waiting for an answer. “He was a cellist. A Spaniard who dedicated most of his life to playing six pieces of music, written by Bach, which were mostly considered exercises, limbering music, by the cellists who played them.”

The six pieces that Donizetti refers to—which hiss out of the stereo in long, bent moans—have since become ubiquitous, some of the most popular classical music on the earth, Debussy withstanding. “I’ve surfed pretty much every design you can think of,” he says, connecting the limits of Casals’ focus to the sweep of his own. “I’ve tapped into each era.” 

He stands up, passes more books, and directs me into the bedroom. Opposite the queen-size bed, a quiver of nine surfboards stands behind a small barricade of wire laundry racks, where an uncountable number of socks hang to dry. In the corner, a dehumidifier seems to be choking. Donizetti opens the window and empties the film of caught water into the adjacent rain gutter.

 “Sometimes when the bed gets crowded with the kids, and I don’t have the energy to make it onto the sofa, I end up under the boards,” he says, half sarcastically.

Although he can be counted among Chris Christenson’s team riders, the logistical and supply-chain hangovers initiated during the pandemic have allowed him to bend his shaper-surfer fidelity. More than half the craft in the space are from other designers. Lying on the floor and stretching out, first as a joke, he places his hands behind his head and falls into contemplation of the long curves of fiberglass arcing across the bedroom. He tells me that there are many more boards floating around the neighborhood. These are simply the day’s menu.

Then he stands again and runs his hand across the leading edge of a Tyler Hatzikian, tracing his fingers out the over-pronounced edge, a beautiful ridge of resin running up the rail and diminishing gradually toward the center. 

“It is close to perfect,” he says. “For a little while I even thought it might be the one. But see how thin it gets in the tail? Whoever set the fin box didn’t want to break through the deck. So they ended up setting it higher, where the foam could handle it.”

Borrowing a pivot fin from one of the four longboards leaning against the wall, he pushes the fin as far back as the box will allow. The trailing edge falls just short of the tailblock. It’s a question of centimeters, but in his mind the remainder weighs heavily.

“I’m thinking about cutting into it,” he says, explaining a plan to remove the fin box and glass a fin flush with the tail. “But the last couple of nights have been pretty rough.”

His restless 1-year-old daughter, Scarlet, has given him plenty of sleepless time to think about the operation—and time to doubt it. He allows the rail to draw him back to the fin box. 

“I’ve always been impressionable,” he says. “I can’t get beyond the influence of the shaper. When I surf a board by Tyler, I surf like Tyler.” Tapping his fingers against the bottom of the board, Donizetti looks forlorn. “Can you hear that?” he asks.

“I’m looking for a single board. Something that al­lows you to surf beyond the shape.”

Echoing through the flat, the long cries of the cello suites enter into the bed/quiver room. According to the album’s liner notes, the cello is the instrument that most closely resembles the human voice. Its awkward relationship to more-dynamic orchestral instruments is a bit like a longboard’s relationship to a 6’1″ thruster. When pitted against one another in the context of performance, the contest becomes grotesque, an exposition of limits. In isolation and in the care of a masterful operator, however, the limits of the instrument are overshadowed—even obliterated—by the dynamic of how it’s used.

“That’s what I’m really looking for,” says Donizetti. “A single board. Something that allows you to surf beyond the shape.” Returning to the living room, he slouches his long frame toward the record player, swaying like a bowling pin teetering in a dream. “Or maybe it’s not really a board at all. Maybe it’s a medium.”

As we meet to surf throughout the next month, he cycles through what seems like a pantheon of board designs in this search: Daniel Thomsons, Takayamas, Hatzikians, Christensons. There are boards that he says have worked only in Australia, hybrid shapes, displacement-noseriding pigs. There are colorful hard-candy designs with nothing but hot air in the center. There are boards that seem to turn only in the imagination.

There are small boards, too, the things one rides to cleanse the palate, to show that you are trying—the Bonzers, the Pipeliners, the twins, the fishes, the eggs, the edge boards. All are bought, sold, traded away—swinging direct and waning into retrograde. Within this cycle, he has two new boards shaped: a Pipeliner by Joel Roux and a displacement hull by Tristan Mausse.

These boards seem to instantly fall well outside of Donizetti’s scrutiny. They become part of the band.

Rivaling his fickleness, the brutality of the Atlantic winter breeds mercurial conditions. It is the Southern California surf forecast in opposition: truly different from moment to moment. And there are no doldrums. We spend long stretches of time waiting for it to get smaller. We drive hours only to find the tide too high or the wind flipped.

When it doesn’t go our way, we drink in Spanish gas stations, in French bistros. In the stupor of my hangover, I see the reports of logical men who ride “conventional” winter equipment, and I begin to doubt Donizetti and his devotion to exploring this array of designs. I go AWOL to chase tubes and points. Yet I always return, finding the madness of his trip quixotically poetic. 

Sometime toward winter’s end, I stand with him at what seems to be the starting line of all that is good. Swell from the west creases the Bay of Biscay. The deep-water peak of Guéthary flickers like a candle, and even the mountains seem to be leaning toward Mundaka.

“What do you think?” I ask. 

“Mundaka?” says Donizetti, looking out across the bay, his stone-like nose rising from his scruff like a rune. “Yeah, you know Ryan Burch has been camped out there for three years in a row. He’s surfed it every day, in all conditions. That’s the only way the locals will let you sit in the slot. It might be really good,” he concludes, defogging his Bob Dylan replica glasses. 

For a moment I wonder if he, too, is picturing the inside of the barrel, the design under his feet not enough of a thought to be an afterthought, only an extension of the sensation provided by the wave itself and his positioning. We both look at the mountains again, then he shrugs. 

“I think Belza might turn on,” he says.

It is the look of a man who has six exercises to perform in an attempt to master his instrument.