Some have said I ‘manipulated history’: René Lussier on sound archives, people’s voices and Quebec history in Le trésor de la langue
Le trésor de la langue (1989) is a unique musical work. A kind of sonic ‘road movie’, it explores the political, historical and poetic dimensions of French as it is spoken in Quebec. In 1989, the work was awarded the Prix Paul Gilson by the Communauté des radios publiques de langue française (CRPLF), while the composition project dates back to 1986. René Lussier traveled the roads of Quebec with his friend Claude Beaugrand to record people’s speech and their individual ways of speaking French. Lussier continued the collective project with talented musicians, including Fred Frith, Jean Derome, Alain Trudel and Tom Cora. They played with the musicality of the Quebec language, with its different accents, all while performing original and striking music. The instruments double the voices, frame the words, help them take off. Lussier and his friends created a dense, highly-political, geographically-situated sonic narrative.
René Lussier engaged with the recording studio as a place of knowledge production. He juxtaposed voices recorded on the road, which he calls “son direct” or “vox pop”, with sound archives from Radio-Canada and Université Laval in Québec City. He used sound collage as a tool to transform reality; by bringing together heterogeneous materials, Lussier offered a critical hearing of the history of Quebec. For example, the voices of ordinary people can be heard alongside Charles de Gaulle’s 1967 speech in Montreal and the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) manifesto.1 The music transforms the archives, makes them groove. But beyond this assumed political dimension, for René Lussier it is about finding directions to follow and seeking himself within these stories.
This interview tracks the creative process of the Le trésor de la langue as well as some of the ethical and political issues involved in the use of sound archives and field recordings in this work. It explores music composition’s capacity to scrutinize recent history in order to answer shared questions, beyond what is spoken and unspoken within collective memory and official history.2
Luis Velasco-Pufleau: What motivated you in 1986 to undertake a composition project on the French language spoken in Quebec?
René Lussier: Initially, I wanted to make a catalog of Quebec French accents, by touring the different regions. In mid-January, I headed out with Claude Beaugrand, a sound technician in the television industry who had worked with big names in documentary film and who had this know-how. First stop, Université Laval in Québec City. We met a linguist who came from Abitibi, a region located in western Quebec, but spoke “à la française” [with a European French accent]. I asked him: “But when you go home to see your family, do you speak like that?” Still in his European accent, he replied, “No, no, I speak normally, my native language”. That’s when I thought, “What I just heard is gold, it’s like live cinema”. I gave up the idea of a catalog and decided to drop the guidelines, to follow my nose, to make a sound movie. At the same time, I realized that it was difficult to ignore the recent political situation in Quebec. I wasn’t an academic writing his PhD thesis, but a self-taught musician who wanted to find out what he was made of, where he came from.
LVP: How did working in the archives and the field recordings help you to discover your history, the history of Quebec?
RL: School and I, we were never friends. There wasn’t really access, at school or at home, to the history of the Quiet Revolution, the history of the beginnings of colonization, or that of the First Nations. We knew that the French had arrived four hundred years ago, we were taught about Jacques Cartier, about ‘Canadian martyrs’, and everywhere we looked we learned that the ‘Indians’ were bad guys… What we were taught was pretty ridiculous, and it was very much guided by the Catholic religion – religious obscurantism that went hand in hand with politics…
I wondered: “What happened? How is it that I’m here today? How is it that I am who I am, that I live here?” I wanted to understand my own story, and the big changes that we have experienced as a society. Learning is the constant challenge of the self-taught. Learning all the time, that’s what I’m discovering along the way, being right in the thick of it. I had already been doing audio editing and live sound for years, but now, because Radio-Canada was interested in my piece, I had access to all their archives, just as I had access to the folklore archives at Université Laval. And the more I went into the archives, the more I discovered how far I was coming from, the gaps in my knowledge. That’s what motivated me to ask questions. To dig. To go on a journey both through the archives and to where people live. To ask for directions, literally and figuratively.
LVP: Did you have a structured plan for your composition?
RL: No, I didn’t have a plan. I worked in an intuitive way, a little anarchic, but with a lot of care, with the means at hand and with the people who were around. I accumulated a lot of material on tape. I had to condense it, like turning 80 minutes into one. The material guided me. The work is made of everything that is there, but also of everything that is no longer there. The composition ended with the last editing session in the studio.
The transitions between the sections are extremely important. To get from one to the other, I tried a lot of things, listening to them and changing them over and over. There are people who plan a piece from beginning to end before they even start. I don’t work like that, I need to see how it makes me feel. That’s essential. The order of things eventually appears, and then you know how you are going to end one movement and start the next; it’s a crucial moment. I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of hours of editing. Back in the days before fast computer editing (undo – redo), I was cutting and pasting, taking off, pasting again manually on my B77. I had to keep track of all the material. That was my vocabulary. For me, the studio has always been an instrument of composition.
LVP: How did you articulate music, sound archives and vox pop in your narrative?
RL: We recorded everyday stuff, like asking directions, “How do we get downtown?” Soon, these little clips became the links between the main sections. I would use those recordings as stepping stones, for example, from the FLQ manifesto to another place. I used the “Where are we?” and “Where are we going?” to start the journey again, as if we were walking through the archives of Quebec. In fact, it’s a road movie in file boxes. For their part, the people on the street, the vox pop were certainly as interesting as any archive. The musical character chosen for each fragment coloured each archive and vice versa. For example, if de Gaulle on the balcony was getting amped up [était rock‘n’roll], the audience reaction was huge! I had to get that down.
LVP: Did you think of Le trésor de la langue as a political work?
RL: Yes, absolutely. I went looking for trouble all the time by increasing the number of sources. For the song Pourquoi ils coupent les pauvres ? [Why are they cutting aid for the poor?], I recorded a woman on the news who was angry at social injustices. Her heartfelt cry really hit me. [Michel] Chartrand, I got from a recording of a union solidarity show.
The minute you associate a supposed terrorist group’s manifesto with René Lévesque’s voice during the defeat of the 1980 referendum,3 or Charles de Gaulle saying “Vive le Québec libre” [Long live free Quebec] just before [the premier ministre du Québec Maurice] Duplessis spitting on the Iroquois… you’re asking questions that hurt. And there are no obvious answers. Each person can find their own. Richard Desjardins responded to Quebec’s motto “Je me souviens” [I remember] by writing “Qui se souvient?” [Who remembers?]. In the box set edition of the Trésor (2h45), I also wanted to include the singular voices of poet Patrice Desbiens, writer Jacques Ferron and Pierre Bourgault in his last radio interview.
LVP: How was your work received at Radio-Canada?
RL: Some people said that I “manipulated history” because of the sound editing [montage]. There were people at Radio-Canada who considered Le trésor de la langue too political, and it was almost censored. In fact, I finished the work and gave it to the producer Hélène Prévost, and to Denis Regnaud who was then in charge of Radio-Canada’s French-language FM. They organized a listening session with the board of directors and apparently, there was a commotion. I wasn’t there, but I was told that a guy was very angry because the FLQ manifesto was still sealed. It had been recorded 19 years earlier, not 20, which was required for me to use it in my work.
Denis Regnaud said that there was no question of removing parts of it, that it was as is or not at all. Since he had gotten a head start and had already sent it to Europe for the CRPLF award, he added, “We can censor it, but if we win, we’ll look like fools!” After deliberating, the guys from the jury called me in the middle of the night to tell me that I had won unanimously. I was very happy. It was the first time someone from here had won the award since 1969. Until then, the submissions from Quebec were all from academics. It was the first time that we had dared to send something like this.4 Faced with this ‘fait accompli’ Radio-Canada broadcast Le trésor de la langue, but… without an interview.
LVP: How did you articulate the political dimension, which was important to you, using a sound-based ethic?
RL: Documentary film music has influenced me a lot. There are basic ethics that go hand in hand with respect for the images. I think that in Le trésor de la langue, I respected the sonic material at every moment. For example, in the original FLQ manifesto, there are a lot of jokes that go back to the 1970s. All that was removed. What interested me was everything that still resonated, that was still current. The filmmaker Jacques Leduc helped me a lot with that. The same goes for the emotional moments. The first referendum that was lost was truly a blue moment, very sad. This sadness is present in the whole project. In the vox pop of the street, when people got upset. I didn’t want to show people’s flaws. I avoided all the overly-noticeable impairments. I wasn’t interested in laughing at people, I never have been. That’s the bottom line. No one can say I didn’t respect what was said. I just associated it with other narratives, and that’s what’s revealing, that’s the pleasure. Putting two things together to make a third.
LVP: In your work, you double the voices’ inflections with the guitar and other instruments, modifying their timbres by creating a kind of ‘sound shadow’. What were you looking for when you set up this compositional technique?
RL: First of all, I must say that I already knew three composers who had touched on sound tracing in a brief or episodic way: Hermeto Pascoal, Frank Zappa and André Duchesne. I wanted to go further, to copy reality to transpose it into another dimension. To hear what is hidden behind everyday voices. Incredible melodies, crazy rhythms! It requires perfect synchronicity. Like at the movie theatre, if you watch a film and the voice doesn’t match the lip movements, you don’t believe it. It’s the same thing in tracing. I was patient, persevering, manic.
LVP: At the beginning of the project, before Radio-Canada became interested in your work, what motivated you to continue with the field recordings and sound editing?
RL: Truly, it was the pleasure. The weird melodies, all the material that was behind the spoken voices. It was the working at home while smoking a ton of cigarettes, working standing at my editing table while discovering another little fragment each day, getting better at notating while identifying the main notes and the passing tones more easily. It is this pleasure, of composing and discovering, that really motivated my drive.
LVP: Did you want this pleasure to be perceptible when people listen to your piece?
RL: Yes. Basically, when you compose, you hope that people will listen creatively, because that’s where something happens: if people are not creative, they won’t listen. But there has to be room for the listener to reflect. So that they find their place, that it speaks to them, that they laugh, that they are moved… For a composer, this is not always easy to reach.
LVP: To conclude our interview, in what ways has Le trésor de la langue changed your own ways of listening?
RL: It really improved my aural skills! I wasn’t listening to what people were saying at all anymore, I was listening to how they were saying things. I was obsessed. I was listening to the rhythm, the register, the phrasing. In the end, I was absent from the conversation. Hypnotized by the sound material more than by the signifier. It was time to stop. But I’ve been coming back to it for a few years: for a commission in 2016, I composed Nocturne, a piece based on recordings of my girlfriend’s breathing and snoring.
- Charles de Gaulle delivered his famous “Vive le Québec libre!” speech in Montreal on July 24, 1967, from the balcony of City Hall, galvanizing a large crowd and immediately triggering a diplomatic outcry. As for the FLQ manifesto, it was read on Radio-Canada television and radio on October 8, 1970, between two hostage takings (James Richard Cross and Pierre Laporte). During the night of October 15-16, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau triggered the War Measures Act, leading to the arrest without warrants of more than 450 Quebecers linked to the independence movement (including several trade unionists, poets and intellectuals, such as Michel Chartrand and Gaston Miron). These events are known as the October Crisis; René Lussier refers to them during this interview.
- The following is an edited version of a discussion by video call held between Montreal and Fribourg (Switzerland) on April 18, 2018. The interview was originally published in French, with footnotes by Maxime McKinley, in the special issue “Sound commitments: ethics and politics” of Circuit, musiques contemporaines: Luis Velasco-Pufleau, “Le trésor de la langue : un entretien avec René Lussier”, Circuit, musiques contemporaines, vol. 28, no 3, pp. 65-70, https://doi.org/10.7202/1055195ar. The interview was translated by the author with revisions by Helen Lantsbury and Stacey Brown. For a detailed analysis of Le trésor de la langue, see Ana Dall’Ara-Majek, “Le trésor de la langue de René Lussier : documentation d’un voyage, de la quête linguistique au débat politique”, Circuit, musiques contemporaines, vol. 28, no 3, pp. 71-86, https://doi.org/10.7202/1055196ar.
- First independence referendum for Quebec (victory for ‘no’ at 59.56%.) The second referendum was held in 1995 (victory in extremis for ‘no’ at 50.58%).
- In 1969, Otto Joachim was the first Canadian to receive this award for Illumination II. After René Lussier, Walter Boudreau received this honour in 1991 for his work Golgot(h)a – a collaboration with the poet Raôul Duguay (the tandem of L’Infonie), which also uses Québécois, as Duguay plays a joual-speaking Jesus.