Understanding changes in vocality in the French chanson revival of the 1930s: the example of Mireille and Jean Sablon

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  • Seminars

On February 7, LES MERCREDIS DE STMS will be dedicated to Pierre FARGETON, invited by the Analyse des Pratiques Musicales research team of the STMS laboratory (Ircam - CNRS - Sorbonne University - French Ministry of Culture).

The presentation will be in French, at Ircam, and can be followed live on: https://youtube.com/live/eQyM69h-rgM

At the end of the Roaring Twenties, when French operetta had already been revitalized by contact with American musicals (No, no, Nanette, 1925) and under the influence of American dances and rhythms (charleston, foxtrot, etc.), chanson saw the emergence of vocalists who went against the grain of what had hitherto been the signature of caf'-conc' and music-hall songs, as well as operetta songs and "chanson réaliste": a strongly projected voice - either because vocal projection met the imperatives of the stage, or because it was essential to compete with an orchestra, or because it embodied a form of popular roughness or faubourienne truculence.

With the rise of radio and the record, and then in the middle of the decade with the increasingly frequent use of the microphone, other stars emerged, with voice types that were more confidential, lighter, more intimate, more fragile, flatter. However, these voices did not become cold or inexpressive; rather, they sought the tools of expressivity elsewhere, differently, and gradually imposed another standard of singing, paving the way for the first "modernity" of French chanson, in which we generally read the influence, the mark or the imprint of jazz and the United States.

While objective markers of Americanization (melodic turns, types of syncopation and rhythmic figures, borrowings from the blues, harmonic colors... ) in this "modern chanson", which more or less discreetly leans towards jazz, there are undoubtedly many other markers that contribute to imbuing a singer's voice with an aura of French "identity", as the press of the time often does, and as historiography - which has patrimonialized Charles Trenet as a "monument of French chanson" - has installed in our imaginations.

The new vocality that emerged on the threshold of the 1930s, embodied in particular by a woman (Mireille) and a man (Jean Sablon) who profoundly marked the history of French chanson, cannot therefore be observed solely through the reduced prism of the traditional parameters of musical analysis (melodic-harmonic-rhythmic analysis from a transcription), and even less from the analysis of a score (commercial "small formats" being only a very distant reflection of the thing performed in the studio or on the radio). Changes in vocality - and ultimately in the signifier of vocality's "identity" - therefore need to be grasped on a somewhat encrypted level of complexity, to which digital voice isolation and analysis tools can hopefully provide finer access.

This work of understanding and contribution to the musical analysis of the voice will be initiated here, based on a corpus of French songs from the 1930s centered around these two figureheads, one female, the other male.

Pierre Fargeton is an HDR lecturer in musicology at the Université Jean-Monnet (St-Étienne). A researcher at IHRIM (UMR 5317), he has published André Hodeir : le jazz et son double (Symétrie, 2017), awarded the 2017 Prix du Livre de jazz by the Académie du jazz, as well as a sum devoted to jazz critic Hugues Panassié, Mi-figue, mi-raisin (correspondances Hugues Panassié - André Hodeir), followed by Exégèse d'un théologien du jazz (la pensée d'Hugues Panassié dans son temps), Outre Mesure, 2020. He is also the author of Boppin' with Django (Delatour, 2021) and two collective works published by Hermann (Écoute multiple, écoute des multiples, 2019; Une musicologie entre textes et arts: hommages à Béatrice Ramaut-Chevassus et Alban Ramaut, 2021). He recently co-edited with Vincent Cotro À l'invisible nulle n'est tenue. Questions de genre et place des femmes dans le jazz (PuFR, Tours, 2023), and with Yannick Séité Quand les musiciens de jazz (s')écrivent (Hermann, 2023). Currently on a CNRS delegation at Ircam (STMS, Analyse des Pratiques Musicales team), he is working on the French chanson of the 1930s.

Mireille & Jean Sablon

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