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More songs without words

April 12, 2013

Another quick post today – 20 minutes maximum – to keep my hand in, so to speak. But I hadn’t intended to do so: what prompted me was reaching for something to listen to while I was doing something much more mundane and domestic.

In fact, what I came upon was an old recording of Concerto pour une voix, by the contemporary French composer Saint-Preux. This is a curious but lovely piece, featuring an orchestra and a voice, but no words: just a series of “ba-da-ba” variations. It’s by an equally curious and I suspect deliberately enigmatic character. Naturally, he has a website, a page devoted to him in the online almanac, and to judge from his discography a fairly modest output for someone who has been composing for over 40 years. But he has/had a talent for melody and harmony, even if there are not too many hugely different ideas in it.

The first Saint-Preux record that I came across was my sister Anne-Marie’s, though I may be wrong, and it belonged to my brother Chris. What I’m sure of is that it was acquired on a French exchange school visit – one of those where the pupils from an English school hosted their counterparts from a French school for a fortnight, and vice versa. I was so struck by the record that when, a few years later, I went on an exchange trip myself I sought out a record shop to see what else could be found.

The family I visited lived in Toulon, and for a 17-year old and rather gauche boy it was a big adventure to get the train south through France on my own. Michel and his family made me very welcome – more so, I think, than I did when it was time to reciprocate. They took me caving, we spent a few days in the French Alps, and paid a visit to St Tropez – about which all I then knew was that it was the place where girls went topless on the beach (and indeed they did). All in all, a satisfactory experience: Summer in the South of France, with my own room in a sort of basement annexe, where I could smoke freely (such a liberty), and excellent food and drink. Musically, too, the trip was a success.

st tropezI remember buying Saint-Preux’s Passion for Anne-Marie, though I don’t know what became of it. Either he never took off in the UK, or for some other reason he was not selling his records here – but it isn’t easy to get physical recordings of his music. CDs are either prohibitively expensive imports, or “currently unavailable”. There are, happily, more digital downloads accessible.

His style, it seems to me, would not be out of place in a moody 60s or 70s movie. It has as much in common with Michel Legrand (the guy who wrote Windmills of Your Mind) as with more classical composers. Perhaps it’s a connection that is only made in my head, but I always think next of L’Oiseau, from the children’s tv show Belle and Sébastien. Not to be confused with Belle and Sebastien, the latter-day rock band who know how to Write about Love.

I’m not sure I’ve reached a conclusion, but I never said I was going to. In any event, your 20 minutes – or is it mine? – is up. I suggest that you reach for your lava lamp, and give Saint-Preux a psychedelic whirl.


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