Nadia Boulanger was a composer and music teacher in France – one of the best teachers ever. Among her students were Aaron Copland (Fanfare for the Common Man), Quincy Jones (producer of Michael Jackson’s best albums), Astor Piazzolla (bandoneon [accordion-type instrument] composer – I heard his music from a street band in Italy), Philip Glass (pianist and Truman Show soundtrack composer), and Joe Raposo (creator of the Sesame Street theme and Kermit the Frog’s “Being Green (It’s Not Easy)”).
George Gershwin sought her as a teacher but she declined because she said he had already found his voice. That was what she was good at and that’s why her students had such diverse styles – all she did was help them find their voice, without imposing her own on them. Astor Piazzolla came to her for classical music training and she perceived that he had another love — he reluctantly admitted that he loved tangos on the accordion. She asked him to play a tango for her. She said, “Astor, your classical pieces are well written, but the true Piazzolla is here, never leave it behind”.
“Nothing is better than music; when it takes us out of time, it has done more for us than we have the right to hope for.” – Nadia Boulanger
She became friends with Leonard Bernstein, the great conductor of the New York Philharmonic and composer of West Side Story. Their final visit took place in Fontainebleau as she was floating between coma and sleep on her death bed. He was surprised to be recognized. “Cher Lenny,” she called him.
In Bernstein’s words:
“Then I heard myself asking: ‘Vous entendez la musique dans la tete?” (Do you hear music in your head?)
Instant reply: “Tout le temps, tout le temps.” (All the time, all the time.)
This so encouraged me that I continued, as if in quotidian conversation: “Et qu’est-ce vous entendez, ce moment-ci?” (And what do you hear right now?)
I thought of her preferred loves. “Mozart? Monteverdi? Bach, Stravinsky, Ravel?”
Long pause. “Une musique. . .” (A music. . .)
Very long pause . . . “ni commencement, ni fin” (. . . without beginning and without end).
Brandi Carlile has a cover contest going right now. Top 5 will be picked by YouTube view counts and then judges will select the winner among them. Winner gets a trip to Los Angeles and some time on stage with the band at The Orpheum Theater.
Here’s my entry, which includes some cheezy mini-me effects with a green screen that I hope will win the judges over.
I’ve told you about my music problem, right? I grew up in small-town Idaho where the only radio stations were hard rock, Top 40, pop country, and painfully easy listening. But we had a Rainbow Records store. In the age of Spotify and YouTube it feels so foreign now that I would wait for the weekly shipment and buy albums that looked interesting without so much as a listen. I also pilfered my friends’ collections and wore out my dual cassette recorder making copies.
Anyway, thus began a lifelong pursuit of music that pleases me. In the early 90s I went to Paris, France, as a Mormon missionary, which piqued my interest in French music. I’ve collected a bunch over the years and that’s what this post is about. I’ve noticed that I have different standards for foreign-language music – some styles that I wouldn’t listen to in English become interesting to me just because it’s in a different tongue. Even so, the search has been fairly difficult because most sites just highlight the popular stuff I tend to not love.
Here are a few of the gems I’ve found –
Let’s kick this off with one of my all-time favorites. If you don’t at least tap your foot to this you can skip the rest of the list.
Champs-Elysées by Joe Dassin:
Since “Classic Rock” stations now play the music I grew up with, I’ll define French Classics as music that predates my arrival in France, 1992.
Francis Cabrel was the first French musician I discovered in my first city, Compiègne. A French missionary asked me to learn “Je l’aime à mourir” (“I Love Her to Death”) on the guitar. He’s a folk and blues artist, along the lines of James Taylor and David Wilcox. He has 20+ albums. If you’re interested, start with the collection 77/87 (Amazon link). Not all of his music has aged well, but some songs are timeless. One of his earliest hits was “Petite Marie” about the woman who became his wife:
Georges Brassens goes way back to the 1950s (he died in 1981). I first fell in love with his melodies when I heard an album of instrumental covers. His accent is great, with a very different “r” than today’s French. He also enjoys dark humor and anarchy. Try “Les copains d’abord” (“Friends first”):
“La Mer” (“The Sea”) by Charles Trénet is just beautiful:
The cover by Jeff Lynne (of ELO) is also fun:
Ok, there are many more to explore here (including Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour), but let’s move on to another category.
My little brother also went to Paris on his mission and sent home a CD from the musical Notre Dame de Paris with lyrics by Luc Plamondon and music by italian Riccardo Cocciante. I listened to this thing non-stop for weeks. Maybe months. He also sent the piano music, which is still a favorite. I don’t know why this musical didn’t take over the world like Les Misérables – I watched the DVD and the modern dance might be part of the reason.
Try “Belle”, which features several of the characters signing about Esmerelda from varied points of view:
I’ll just feature a couple here. Yann Tiersen’s soundtrack to Amélie is fun instrumental music, especially for accordion lovers:
Les Choristes is a great movie with an amazing choral soundtrack.
My son is still haunted by Un monstre à Paris, a fever dream of a movie we watched on Netflix years ago. If I recall correctly, it’s about a cockroach that dreams of being a musician and gets his wish when a lab accident makes him human-sized. Chaos and good music ensue.
These get extra attention simply because this is when I was in France. We didn’t have much opportunity to listen to music, but some songs caught my attention at a store or in someone’s home and I looked them up later.
Powwow – I don’t usually like a cappella music but this album caught my eye because of the bilingual wordplay (Comme Un Guetteur means “like a watchman” but is pronounced similar to “come and get her”).
Try “Allongé sur mon sampan” – the verses are not great, but that makes the chorus all the better.