Originally published on Asymptote Journal.
Belgian composer Thomas Smetryns has written one third of Triptych, a new opera commissioned and created by Opera Erratica. His piece uses English language learning records L’anglais sans peine from 1950s France as the basis for an absurdist comedy.
How did you come across the L’anglais sans peine records?
I DJ with 78rpm records with a friend, and I was always looking for new material because we didn’t want to only play the regular Bing Crosby and Andrews Sisters songs. I found the German language records first and then I started to look for them especially and collect them. They’re all from the 50s because they stopped producing 78rpm at the end of the 50s.
How did you choose which records to use in A Party, your section of Triptych?
I was quite fascinated by L’anglais sans peine because there is a lot of material, it had the book with it and because it was just quite funny. The accents of the records, the way they pronounce the words, I find them very refined, as a Belgian, but for Patrick and other native speakers they are funny just how they are because it’s very old fashioned way of talking.
I had already transcribed the whole record, so when Patrick and I were trying things out for Triptych I said he should take a look at it. He was completely enthusiastic, so from then on it went really fast, I think two weeks later I got the first draft of the libretto from him.
A Party is about Dora, who learns English from L’anglais sans peine. As she plays it, her fantasy takes over and she is joined on the stage by Mr. and Mrs. Martin and Mr. and Mrs. Jones, characters from the record. Could you describe the original records and how Patrick created the libretto from your transcript of them?
The records gives you the essentials of language, with “he is”, “she is”, verbs, saying positives and negatives, and it goes on and gets more elaborate, and then there are a few storylines on the records. There is a Mr. Martin and Mrs. Martin and Mr. Jones and Mrs. Jones, but there are a lot of other people too.
Patrick started cutting up a lot of the phrases out of the book and made a completely new story for them, which I like because it is very generic. We are making “opera,” and our story is so operatic: you’ve got two couples, and the man of Couple A is in love with the woman of Couple B and vice versa, so from the beginning you almost know what’s going to happen, which gives us the opportunity to work not on the story but on how we tell the story. You can watch the narrative but you can also focus on the musicality of the language. That’s the thing we are playing with: the musicality of the language, how it was pronounced at that time.
Does the exploration of the musicality of the language replace singing in the piece?
In a way, yes. All the performers have to copy the original text as closely as possible, which is quite a virtuosic thing to do because they have to copy the inflections and the tone of speaking. Once this is established, Dora starts fooling with the records, playing them backwards, faster and slower, and the characters imitate this, so this becomes the compositional way to approach this concept of imitating.
But there is still singing in the piece, but only really from one person and that’s Dora, who is a little outside of the story. When she sings it shifts towards a musical style, like Mary Poppins. That was my idea of her magic. All those songs are introspective, and it’s a moment where she gets a little introspective too so of course she sings then.
There is also another layer in the composition, which is mainly pure instrumental music, also built from samples of songs from the 50s. The music comes out of the radio whilst the text comes from the record.
We decided at a certain moment that Dora would be Belgian or Dutch and learning the language, so I decided to put some practical jokes in the music which you hear from the radio – there’s a moment when she’s looking for a radio station and Belgian songs from the 50s pop up.
As a composer do you feel very aware of the musicality of different languages?
Definitely when you have to compose vocal music you are very aware of it, I mean there is such a big difference between English and Italian, or Dutch and Portuguese, it’s incredible. It’s not as much the sound of the language but it’s more the cultural reference that is important. It’s really hard to approach Dutch from a typical classical setting, for example, because the language doesn’t work in that kind of setting. It works really well in singer-songwriter style, but when you make a classical singer sing Dutch it’s really hard to understand.
What cultural reference does English bring with it?
In Belgium, English is now what French was in the 19th or early 20th Century. When my father was growing up in the 60s and 70s, French was much more dominant, he listened to rock (The Beatles and The Rolling Stones), but also to Jacques Brel and all these people. Now this is almost completely gone – well, except for Stromae for example, he’s the new Jacques Brel, they say. People really like it, but he’s the exception.
Our whole culture now from the most high-brow art to every popular cultural phenomenon we see is in English, so it’s a language we are really used to. So with English I don’t have the feeling I have to be careful about the cultural connotation, unlike with Italian for example – there would probably be some references I would immediately have, which go from late 19th Century opera to Fellini and the movies from the 60s, but there wouldn’t be so many current references as there are with English.
Does that mean you feel free to write the music you want in English?
Yes I think so. When it’s not your native language you can force yourself to understand everything, but you can also stop understanding and just listen to the music and read the surtitles instead. For native speakers it’s different.
Do you think these records were a good method of learning for the generation that bought them?
The funny thing with these records is that it seems that they are almost always in mint condition. I think it is a feeling I experience too like when I buy a book, it already feels like you’ve got the knowledge already even if you didn’t read it. So I think it must have been very similar.
Triptych is on at The Print Room, London, until 7th June, and at Wilton’s Music Hall, London, on 9th and 10th June as part of the Spitalfields Summer Music Festival.