Personal statement in memory of

Gaston Rochon

from Philip Tagg, 19 May 2000

See also Line Grenier’s speech in memory of Gaston


'Ce n'est pas toi' [snépâtwé], said Gaston the first time I met him at the airport in Göteborg, 'je t'imaginais beaucoup plus vieux' [chtimaginai baoucou pu vieu]. I might have taken this as a complement under other circumstances but did not because, from our correspondence and phone calls, I had imagined Gaston as 'beaucoup plus jeune'. What I mean is that although his physical appearance on that occasion was indeed that of a man in his mid fifties, as he was then and I am now, his attitude to music, culture, knowledge and life in general - but especially music! - was that of someone much more open and enthusiastic than you would generally associate with someone of his age then, or mine now. But in Gaston there seemed to be little or nothing of the world-weary, disillusioned or jaded fifty-five-year-old.

Gaston knew that he knew something others didn't. He also knew intuitively that this knowledge and experience was worth something to others. Gaston played a pivotal, and much underestimated, role in the creation of a music which late twentieth-century Québécois could call their own. During the heyday of the PQ, he arranged, co-wrote, and produced many of the songs which became part of the patrimoine culturelle des québécois. He recorded his discrete but highly effective piano parts, toured, performed and worked closely with Gilles Vigneault. These were important times for the people of Québec, the struggle for national identity often hitting the headlines. But the movement in the music of that movement was just as much Rochon as Vigneault and it was not so much out of self-vindication as out of concern for the way musical skill, care and creativity all contribute so much to the cultural and political context in which and for which they are produced that Gaston had decided to write his thesis Le processus compositionnel as a témoinage.

Unfortunately music and the skills of music-makers is still paradoxically absent from many studies of popular music. Gaston wasn't going to have any of that and he set about his task of describing, beyond a reasonable shadow of doubt, that it is futile to take the music out of music studies. His account of how Tout l'monde est malhereux, Je chante pour and Tante Irène actually came about is eloquent testimony to the role of the musician in creating the sonic structures that make sense to particular people in particular social and historical contexts.

Gaston set about his task of documenting his role in the compositional process with dogged determination, and that determination would sometimes border on stubbornness. I remember sitting with him, in about 1989, at my kitchen table in Göteborg arguing about the periodic structure of Tout l'monde est malhereux. Gaston, who co-wrote and arranged the song, would not at first believe that there were eleven bars between each reprise of the tune: 'non, c'est douze', he said, 'parce que ça sent tout-à-fait normal'. 'True, it does feel normal', I conceded, 'but it's still based on eleven-bar periods'.

I think that Gaston was in this sense a truly gifted musician: the way he wrote and arranged the music made it sound easy, but his musicianship was full of subtlety. For example, that 'missing' twelfth bar from Tout l'monde est malhereux makes the music rush, almost stumble, into the subsequent reprise, underlining the absurd and comic character of the gigue tune's quasi-cheerful stress. Gaston was also a great fan of jazz chords, but never did his love of 'demented nineteenths' intrude: instead his subtle harmonic variations provide welcome differences of colour, adding interest to the song narrative. The most stunning example of Gaston's ability to make really complex and interesting music without drawing attention to itself is, I think, in Je chante pour. He interprets the hook line ('Je chante pour ne pas courir'), dictated in a variety of different tonal guises by Vigneault, as a cascading line consisting of eight different notes spanning a minor ninth, starting on a high f sharp and ending on a low f natural. I know of no popular song with such a tonally complex and yet simple sounding hook line. Moreover, Gaston's accompaniment includes triads on most notes of the twelve-tone scale, moving from D major to F major to D minor and all the way round to D flat major and A major before returning to D. But these giant harmonic steps (Gaston would like that reference to Coltrane) do not show off, they do not try to be clever. They just contribute, in the most natural way imaginable, to the serious but accessible existential power of a truly great song.

It is in this way that I choose to celebrate Gaston: as a serious and passionate musician whose power of expression was all the more skilled and effective because it was never in the foreground, never ostentatious, never egoistic. His dissertation - his témoinage, to use his own word - is certainly not the most virtuoso piece of academic writing I have read, but it raises more issues of deep concern to our field of studies (not to mention the political background against which the testimony is set) than the combined output of 'postmodernists' over the last fifteen years.

It took a lot of guts for Gaston to complete his doctorate. Not only did he have to come all the way to Sweden, several times at his own (and at Danièle's) expense; he also had to move to the strange world of academia where the tyranny of words over music can be even more terrifying than outside the ivory tower. Gaston saw it all through. I have much admiration and respect for his courage and perserverance, but most of all for his empirically proven belief in the importance of music. I am honoured to have been counted among friends.

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