CHEVANCE - OUTREMUSIQUE pour ENFANTS ( 1975-1984)
[engl] France at the crossroads of the 70s: the Chevance collection revolutionizes music for children. Mixing forward-thinking folk and avant-garde jazz, driven by a strong literary spirit, its exceptional catalog was created under the direction of producer Philippe Gavardin, in the tradition of the Saravah label or iconoclastic publisher Harlin Quist. Anti-fables, songs from mysterious countries, wild bestiaries... It brought together a band of classically inspired free musicians, propelling its singers into orbit by exploiting all the fantastical potential of texts by Jean Tardieu, Robert Desnos, Jacqueline Held and many others. More strictly instrumental,
its younger sibling, the Sonoriage collection completed the company, dedicating itself to the acousmatic exploration of children's familiar environments.
In the land of Presidents Giscard and Mitterand, thermal clothing and elbow pads, Sautet films and Sunday roasts, the carpeting of a nursery is strewn with a handful of 7-inches. There, exotic birds and courteous elephants guarding a castle built with cakes form a Front for the Liberation of the Imaginary: colourful, systematically framed illustrations standing out against the cream background of gatefold sleeves… doorways to a maze of sounds at the crossroads between the neatest form of chanson and the most prospective jazz.
Founded in the course of the 1970s by Philippe Gavardin, the small collection named Chevance is above all the story of buddies who were out and about between the twilight of the Trente Glorieuses and the disenchantment that followed the socialists’ rise to power, gravitating around this mentor known for his kindness and curiosity. Originally a linguist, Gavardin was one of these open-minded intellectuals, with one foot in the Contrescarpe cabarets and the other in step with the avant-garde, combining his apparently classical tastes with a keen interest in the novelties of his time. It is notably with Jean-Louis Méchali—a drummer from the free jazz scene who became Gavardin’s team-mate and arranged a good deal of the releases—that he forged the identity of this series of recordings for the younger generations: musically janus-faced, definitely literary, impregnated with a surrealism that echoed the decade’s psychedelic and libertarian experiments. The label developed a real editorial policy disregarding commercial constraints. Each record took a clear direction: modern fables, bestiaries, musical tales, cookbooks… Words were the backbone and every release was both carefully designed and perfectly manufactured.
Several teams were built up in the course of meetings which were more like congenial brainstormings. In the chanson category, Anne and Gilles, a duet regularly performing in the left bank area, alternated with the Swiss actress Cristine Combe who had recently settled in Paris and wanted to sing Kurt Weill. As for the folk projects, Imbert and Moreau, who were more in the hippie vein, took turns with the canonical pioneer Steve Waring, whose famous Grenouilles were then turning round and round in José Arthur’s Pop Club. The musicians included many a jazzman from some of the most adventurous factions of the French scene: Méchali’s fellow travellers involved in the Cohelmec Ensemble; The Marvelous Band, a gang from Lyon that had also co-founded the “Association à la Recherche d’un Folklore Imaginaire” (Association in Search of an Imaginary Folklore); and various mavericks like multi-instrumentalist Teddy Lasry, or the intriguing, so often credited Jacques Cassard, whose track seems to have been completely lost today.
Initially distributed by the label Le Chant du Monde, Chevance was definitely included in the catalogue of this venerable parent company when Gavardin started directing it. Thus, it joined a selection of traditional music and work songs also including chanson, poetry and recordings that just can’t be categorised. While bookshops for kids knew a historic boom in France, the collection eventually enjoyed the monopoly of the prizes awarded by “Loisirs Jeunes” or the Charles Cros Academy, a key factor to reach school and library networks.
If the collection gives a striking change from mass-produced music for kids, its spirit is nevertheless akin to other singular attempts that were made at the time.
Mixing songwriting and avant-garde jazz, Chevance seems to be, first of all, Saravah’s younger sibling. Founded by Pierre Barouh, Saravah showed the same balance between moderation and radicalism, with oddities like those of Brigitte Fontaine, Alfred Panou, Barney Willen and so many other musicians feeding the creative frenzy that characterised the French jazz scene.1 As the Cohelmec Ensemble bridged the two worlds, the teams got to know one another and often worked in the same studios.
As for the literary dimension, it is right in the lineage of the American iconoclastic publisher Harlin Quist, whose activity in France left its mark on the genre. Similar selections, a common taste for playful uses of language, and the same distancing from both conventional and outcome-based education… A universe excluding the mundane to make room for cosmogonic visions in which, at the turn of each page, everyday life is relentlessly assaulted by the incongruous. The parallelism with Chevance goes even beyond questions of editorial, graphical or typographical choices: the two worked with the same team of illustrators, which included Henri Galeron, Nicole Claveloux and Patrick Couratin.
While Chevance had strong literary roots, Le Chant du Monde developed, in the middle of the 1980s, another collection in a more abstract, rigorously instrumental line, far from textual concerns.
Initiated by Anne H. Bustarret, a critic, a major activist in the field of creation for kids and a friend of Gavardin’s, Sonoriage openly campaigned for ”an active initiation to the listening and reading of today’s music based on the attention to every day sonic environments.” Inspired by the many situations she experienced in workshops and the hundreds of hours she spent stirring the imagination of children with a bunch of keys hanging at the end of a string, Bustarret carefully presented each record, systematically adding an illustrated, notebook-like insert to guide the kids’ listening.
Bernard Baschet—the sound sculptor who invented, along with his brother François, the “crystal” bearing their name, and worked with Pierre Schaeffer on the typology of sound objects for the Treatise on Musical Objects—was an old friend of Anne Bustarret’s. She therefore naturally turned to him for the Musiques de table project, before he oriented her towards Jean-François Gaël. A cornerstone of the amazingly hybrid band Sonorhc, a student of acousmatics and a first-class arranger who had worked for many of the decade’s singers, Gaël was a crystal lover who followed Baschet around his interventions, including in schools.
When Gaël set to work, Bustarret called the composer Alain Savouret, asking him to select excerpts from his tape-recorded Sonate Baroque, so as to compile another volume entitled Musiques en Bande. Renaud Gagneux, who was in charge of the Louvre’s carillon, had just been ringing his bells for Musiques sur la place when she contacted the outsider naturalist Knud Viktor about a project which, unfortunately, was never carried out.
As a rather up-to-date though not-so-commercially-successful collection, Sonoriage constitutes a kind of ideal illustration of François Delalande’s theories.2 This very serious member of the GRM also worked as a research supervisor at the National Audiovisual Institute. His theories emphasised the unexpected parallelism between the methods of the most respectable practitioners of concrete music and the way the youngest children explore their sonic environment.
Necessarily incomplete and subjective, this very partial overview deliberately draws attention to the most peculiar tracks. Unfortunately, some equally valuable works could not be included: Jean-Louis Méchali and François Ruy-Vidal’s Petit Poucet (a monolithic musical tale that cannot be sized down), Colette Magny’s rough and raucous lullabies, B-sides from the Antifables series, La Promenade de Picasso, a record that had to be destroyed and therefore seems definitely lost… May the most curious listeners feel like putting these fragments back in their broader context so as to (re)discover the vast inheritance this uncommon project bequeathed us.