1981. This is the story of a boy of eight. To make his journeys in the car seem less of a burden, his father used to play him cassettes of two Barclay recordings, changing one for the other each time it finished. They were miraculous anthologies of music, and they were devoted to a composer whose life had ended abruptly some six years earlier, cut off in his prime in a diving-accident while at sea in the Canary Islands. The composer was François de Roubaix, and he died when he was thirty-six. His tragic disappearance made orphans of his favorite filmmakers, Robert Enrico and José Giovanni. In the (very) original soundtracks of de Roubaix, the young boy in his father’s car saw nothing but sunshine and exalted, positive feelings. “Objectively,” he admits today, “my discovery of François de Roubaix is linked to ideas of travel and summer holidays. I had no idea it was music he’d written for films. I took it for what it seemed, without associating the slightest image with it. The pieces I heard were reassuring; I used to sing them to myself at bedtimes, to keep nightmares away…” Those words sound like an echo of these recommendations from Françoise Xenakis, who wrote this in her liner notes for the second Barclay volume of de Roubaix’s music: “Listen to these pieces without sadness; he was a man who was the life and joy which composed them.” 2015. In his own turn, the boy of eight is today a human orchestra, a prodigy of a musician and composer, a bassist, and the leader of the new-world formation whose humour is the most scathing: Le Sacre du Tympan. The man’s name is Fred Pallem. In concerts, on records and over the air, Fred Pallem has unleashed the firepower of his own writing and, as someone who loves new readings, he has brought a crackling new energy out of the music of his masters: André Popp, Burt Bacharach, Francis Lai, Jean-Claude Vannier and, yes, François de Roubaix. “I remember the Jazz à La Villette Festival, back in 2008,” he says. “They wanted a programme constructed around a film-music composer. We could have chosen Ennio Morricone of course… but François de Roubaix, that was a more original area; a path through that territory still had to be cleared. His image — they called him a ‘do-it-yourself genius’ — often completely obscured the rest; more attention was paid to the notion that he was ‘a pioneer in electronics’, but his splendid melodies and harmonies could take your breath away. Even with just a piano, reduced down to two lines, his music knocks you out, and that’s an excellent test. So I listened to his existing albums and noted down around twenty of his compositions by ear. The deeper and more intimately I went into his music, the more I fell in love with it, particularly the way he juggles with the keys, his taste for parallel chords, those modulations of his that are just out of this world. De Roubaix is a language. A wonderful, modern language influenced by all kinds of popular music forms, jazz, folk and pop.” Skilfully broken-in over a dozen concerts, the de Roubaix programme has taken Le Sacre all over France. All it needed was the right incident, the timely spark that would take it from the stage and send it to the studios. When 2015 dawned, there was a 40th anniversary on the horizon: that of the composer’s disappearance. Fred Pallem saw the sign and decided to take the plunge. Right from the outset, the idea of a recording imposed strict choices, subjective ones, obviously: “It was unavoidable,” he insists, “we had use a knife, and keep only those pieces there was no getting away from, the ones we could appropriate 100%. These were the ones that opened up real possibilities for the musicians to express themselves. Too bad for Le Vieux fusil or Le Samouraï… And most of all, it had to be a contemporary record, not a copy-paste version of the original music. Because that already exists. While still showing respect for the writing of François de Roubaix, the idea was to undo our ties with it and show the music in a different light. We used synthesizers from the Seventies, for instance, but also synths from the Eighties that de Roubaix didn’t have the time to learn.” Some original soundtracks are present here in the shape of their main theme, while others take the form of little suites, like Chapi-Chapo… or L'Homme orchestre, which brilliantly combines three distinct pieces in a display of fireworks: “In terms of melodic inspiration,” underlines Pallem, “this is one of the most prolific scores written by François, the only musical he ever wrote. I wanted this suite, and conceived it, to be a pop epic.” Dizzy with contrasts, the psychedelic explosions of piti-piti pas reinforce the twilight lyricism of a flute chorus in levitation in L’Antarctique. With de Roubaix, the sea, the desert or a field of ice all come together, in one and the same impression of the absolute, of eternity: the hypnotic enchantment of vast spaces. Here and there, between tracks, emerge six notable guests. Philippe Katerine plays cubes again in Chapi-Chapo, while Barbara Carlotti revives the spectres of Boulevard du rhum in a new reading that, Fred Pallem dixit, is “not so much Kurt Weill as Alain Souchon.” The duo idea in Les Amis is preserved; this time the pair is girl & boy: “They are friends,” says Pallem, “and while they feel that love is possible, they resist love in order to avoid blowing their friendship to atoms… Alexandre Chatelard wrote this poetic text, and he performs it with Alice Lewis.” Another original song is Ariane Thread, based on the famous Enterrement sous-marin from the film Les Aventuriers: Juliette Paquereau (from the group Diving with Andy) unfolds a parable using mythology’s Ariadne, whose thread could have changed the destiny of François de Roubaix. It is a kind of disturbing mise en abyme in which the composer, in a transposed manner, becomes the subject of the song himself. And finally, a last guest, and not the least: François de Roubaix in person, via an interview superimposed over the electronic-acoustic ostinato from L'Atelier. "The idea for this came from Vincent Taurelle, who plays keyboards with Le Sacre,” explains Pallem. “I thought it was unusual, this principle of using François’ voice like an instrument… It’s very moving to hear his timbre and diction so near; he speaks calmly, and he’s quite self-deprecating. His cool, serene personality is so obvious, it’s there for everyone to see.” In this contribution from François de Roubaix, the composer explains his electronics and the equipment he used to record the original versions of several pieces that Le Sacre du Tympan have in their repertoire today. These are their Russian dolls, forty years on. What else can be said? This recording is euphoric: the musicians are galvanized into acrobatics (listen to Rémi Sciuto’s choruses on alto saxophone in Un tank pour l'aventure or Chapi-Chapo). There remains also a feeling that’s disquieting. Here we rediscover works dating from different periods, written originally for different orchestral combinations. And now here they are, homogenized, through the blessing of a singular group whose leader-arranger is also singular. “It’s a groupie’s album,” concludes Fred Pallem with a smile. “I hope it can be used as a door — potentially for new fans, but also to widen the circle of die-hard deroubaixphiles perhaps. Our ambition is quite simple: to transmit and, if possible, to convert.” De Roubaix, a musician who shared and who knew the meaning of fraternity, would certainly have appreciated that statement. Even if one chapter has come to an end, his work continues to catalyse vocations and feed the imagination of new generations. Thanks to Le Sacre du Tympan, his music now has even more life; it is more contemporary, more innovative than ever before. And for Fred Pallem, aged a young forty, it also represents an opportunity to settle a strange score: his loyalty to his own childhood, and to the boy of eight who, on the road from Houilles to Trouville, built an inner world for himself while listening to Dernier domicile connu or La Scoumoune.
(liner notes by Stephane Lerouge)
The man behind the concept of the Universal “Listen to films!” CD series, Stéphane Lerouge has restored the original master-tapes of François de Roubaix and devoted fourteen albums to them. Translation: Martin Davies