So I’ve been thinking about the relationship between poetry and music in the French tradition, so I thought I’d translate the first part of the roundtable discussion Brassens, Brel and Ferré had in 1969 for a radio show (I believe), in which they touch on some of this issues. I got the transcript of the roundtable from the website Snoopairz, where you can also see more great pictures from the session. I’ve read that these three sort of represent a holy trinity of singer-songwriters in France at this time. Even though I have never been a fan of Ferré’s for whatever reason (too elitist? too misogynistic? who knows?), Brel and Brassens are perfectly interesting people. I sort of long for the days when artists had genuine, thoughtful things to say about art and life, instead of these weird, shallow interviews you see all too often in magazines and on-line. Maybe because France has a more prominent history of encouraging philosophical discourse in public? I don’t know, I don’t want to cast aspersions. But anyway. This isn’t a perfect translation by any means. Given the amount of writing I’m require to put on this blog each week for class, I’m sort of just going with my gut and posting what is essentially the first drafts of these translations. I’ve provided notes where I think what they’re saying needs a little clarification.
– Georges Brassens, Jacques Brel, Léo Ferré: are you all aware of the fact that you are the three biggest singer-songwriters in French music, and have been for years with consistent success?
FERRÉ: I’m aware first and foremost of being with two brothers-in-arms, who have immense talent, yes, but first and foremost I’m with two friends. I’ve wanted that for a long time. Today, people never stop saying: “What is music for you?…” What’s an off-ramp– who cares? The important thing, I believe, is that it’s a small bit of love that one can give or receive, with a microphone, for example. Now, since we’ve been making music for twenty years, we’ve been working hard, we’ve been, as I say where I’m from [Ed: Monaco], zugumed for a long time at work, now, we can sing quietly in a place without having the cops come, or people who just come to whistle at us, that’s our just reward. You do what you can, you say what you want, and there’s no need to break your back for all that.
– All three of you are in the celebrated collection “Poets of Today” …
BRASSENS: We’re not the only ones [in the collection]. And besides, it doesn’t really mean anything, the way people label–
– You don’t consider yourself a poet, then?
BRASSENS: Not really. I don’t know if I’m a poet. I guess I might be a little, but I don’t care. I put words and music together and then I sing them.
– I believe Jacques Brel doesn’t think of himself as a poet either?
BREL: I’m a “song-maker,” that’s the right word! I’m a little musical artisan.
FERRÉ: People who say they’re poets– these are the people who aren’t really poets, deep down. The people who are honored to be considered poets– these are the Sunday poets, who have little self-published booklets… That said, if someone tells me I’m a poet, that’s what I want. But it’s like if someone said to me that I’m a cobbler who makes beautiful shoes. I share the same point of view as Brel.
– According to you, is music an art? Is it a major art or a minor art?
[Ed: The French traditionally divide the disciplines of art into a hierarchy: so-called “major” arts include painting, sculpture, architecture, etc., and “minor” arts include ceramics, furniture, or other decorative objects. Serge Gainsbourg and Guy Béart had a famous argument on TV over this issue in the 80s, with Gainsbourg insisting music was a “minor” art because it required no formal training or apprenticeship. He famously told Béart to “shut [his] trap” when Béart disagreed.]
FERRÉ: Brassens said something true: “I put words and music together.” That’s what I do.
BRASSENS: Well, yes, it’s completely different from what we colloquially call “poetry,” which is written to be read or spoken. Music is very different. Even if people like Ferré have succeeded in setting poets to music, like Baudelaire, it’s difficult to use music like the poets who came before used the verb. When you write for the ear, you’re obliged to use a slightly different vocabulary, words that catch your ear… Even though now we have the record, and the listener can listen to it again…
BREL: Yes, but the record is a by-product of music, let’s not kid ourselves… Songs were meant to be sung, not to be distributed as a record…
FERRÉ: I agree perfectly with him. It’s as if you were making delicious chocolates, extraordinary chocolates, not for sale, that you keep at home. But the moment you put them in a bag, or you sell them, you don’t care about them anymore. If I make delicious chocolates, and someone else eats them, it doesn’t matter to me. The bag is the record. The record is the death of music, in a way.
BRASSENS: In the old days, you sang. When a guy performed a song, the people would pass by and learn it and sing it themselves. They participated, they had books of musical scores… Today, the public has become more passive.
FERRÉ: Some people hear the music first, others the lyrics. The most intelligent people will hear the lyrics first. The most sensitive people– and possibly the least intelligent– hear the music first. This means that I can introduce Baudelaire to people who had no idea who he was.
BREL: In the past, when a guy wrote a song, others would reproduce it–like Georges was saying– but now we reproduce it ourselves. It created a chain, before… I mean before the microgroove. In fact, the greatest musical inventor was the English engineer who discovered the principle of the microgroove, during the war. [???]
FERRÉ: That’s it. You were just saying we were poets, or artisans, all that… We’re not. You know what all three of us are?
BRASSENS: A trio of morons with mikes in front of them!
FERRÉ: No, we’re singers. Because if we didn’t have a voice, we couldn’t produce our work. Because if I didn’t have a voice, or you Georges, or you Jacques, you wouldn’t write and I wouldn’t either.
BRASSENS: That’s very kind of you to say. Because when it comes to that side of things [i.e. singing], I’m not really into it, you know! [Ed: Brassens suffered from terrible stage fright. Brel did too, in fact, claiming in an interview that he vomited every time before he sang.]
FERRÉ: But you do have a voice. You sing. Jacques does, too. If he didn’t have a voice, who would sing Brel’s songs? Everything he’s composed, he never would have done it. He wrote his songs because he “published” them with his voice. I did too…
BRASSENS: Yes, he definitely would have written different things…
BREL: All that to say that you might be a singer… just because you have a voice.
– Have you ever done anything besides writing, composing, and singing, and has this helped you in your work as a singer?
FERRÉ: At the same time, we can’t do anything else. Now what we’ve done before, we all went to school, studied, had jobs, etc.
BRASSENS: We lived, you know. But really, we’ve always written songs.
FERRÉ: We had to make ends meet, sometimes. When Brel came to Paris with his guitar, I don’t know what he did to make ends meet, but it must not have been fun. He probably doesn’t want to talk about it…
BREL: Oh, I don’t mind. I didn’t do anything at all! [laughs]
FERRÉ: That’s great, then… It’s always better that way! [laughs]
BRASSENS: You weren’t the only one. I’ve never done anything but write songs…
–All three of you have, more or less, been involved in cinema. Do you think actors and singers have something in common?
FERRÉ: I’ve never been an actor. I’d love to do it, but I guess I don’t know. I’d love to, the way you’d love to do things you don’t know how to do.
BRASSENS: I don’t know how to be an actor, I really, sincerely don’t… I have no idea.
BREL: I’ve made two films. Not for the sake of Cinema or the Lumière brothers, but because both times there was this idea of freedom… And I’ve very strong feelings about freedom! The first was Risky Business (Les risques du métier, 1967), and the other was The Bonnot Gang (La bande à Bonnot, 1968). I was seduced by the idea. And I believe that, if you can lend a hand to an idea, you have to do it.
–Cinema is first and foremost a collaborative effort… Did this do anything to change the lonely work of the singer?
BREL: No… For musicals, you can talk a lot more about collaborative work.
BRASSENS: I don’t think it’s that collaborative work, or some other kind of work, brings or doesn’t bring something more to the table… A guy likes acting or he doesn’t. I don’t like it, but I have nothing against collaborative work. The film that I was involved in, The Gates of Paris (La porte des Lilas, 1957), I did with a couple of friends, Brasseurs and Bussières, and it worked very well. They didn’t bother me. I didn’t bother them. What I don’t like is the technical side of things, the mechanical. I don’t like anything more than the mike you guys shoved under our noses!
FERRÉ: When we sing, we are the only ones there in the spotlight, with just a suit on, a guitar or a piano, and we know what “the solitude of a singer” means. We cope with what we call “work,” but it’s not always easy. What I’m wondering is, if, for Brel, the solitude of the theater is the same as a recital?
BREL: Yes, it’s the same solitude.
FERRÉ: You mean that when you play your role, surrounded by other people, you are as alone as when you sing in a concert-hall for two hours? That’s new to me… I didn’t realize that.
BRASSENS: Of course it is… Because if it turns out rotten, they’ll say it’s him who was bad. He’s got to make his voice heard…
FERRÉ: He’s already got his armor on the moment he steps onto the stage…
BREL: For Man of La Mancha [Ed: Stage Musical, 1968], it’s a bit different because it was me who started this madness. So I’m still a little bit alone in my madness.
– The others don’t share in the madness?
BREL: Of course they do! But it’s likely they don’t think it’s all madness. In the end, for me, in the moment that I’m acting, I’m as alone as when I’m giving a recital.
BRASSENS: Don’t worry. In any case, you’re always alone where ever you go, all the time. And you’re not the only one!
BREL: Well of course! The guy who says to me that he’s not alone in life is more Belgian than I am! [Ed: Possibly an oblique reference to the stereotype that Belgians aren’t the brightest crayons in the box.]