IASPM-Canada (Québec), May 20th 2000

A TRIBUTE TO GASTON ROCHON
by Line Grenier

In 1983, I attended my first popular music conference in Peterborough, Ontario. You can probably imagine that, as a young doctoral student, I was in equal measure impressed and intimidated to listen and talk with names such as John Shepherd, Günter Mayer, Philip Tagg, Simon Frith, Charles Hamm et Charlie Keil – some of the main researchers thanks to whom popular music studies were, at that time, beginning to gain a certain respect within academia as well as a greater visibility and vitality through IASPM which I was hearing about for the first time and which they were among the founding members.

During the conference’s opening cocktail, surprised to hear people speaking French, I moved closer to the small group sitting somewhat removed from the main party. The accents of two of them left no doubt: they were both Francophone Québécois. The face of one of the men, in his mid-fifties, looked hauntingly familiar. After a few minutes of small talk, we introduced ourselves. ‘Moi, c’est Gaston’ said the familiar looking man whose face I still could not place. Along with a beer, and another, and a few more, the conversation picked up… Music, of course, but also politics, culture, and nationalism were the topics of an animated discussion. Inevitably, someone mentioned Gilles Vigneault and his contributions to Québécois popular music and cultural politics, and it suddenly came to me. With surprise and emotion, I looked at Gaston who just smiled, simply, humbly. I just realised which Gaston I had just met and believe me, I was impressed. I was even more impressed and intimidated now than by meeting Tagg, Shepherd, Frith and company. More impressed, more intimidated and moved.

[excerpt from ‘Gens du pays’]

It is indeed in his capacity as composer, arranger, pianist and bandleader of Gilles Vigneault, one of Québec’s most celebrated nationalist poet singer-songwriters, that Gaston Rochon is known by the public. Between 1960 and 1978, he accompanied Vigneault at more than 3,000 live concerts, contributed to the recording of more than 30 albums, and the creation of about 140 songs, many of which have become classics of the Québécois popular music repertoire, and the one you just heard, ‘Gens du pays’ / People of the country, is accepted both as Québec’s unofficial national anthem and its birthday song (where ‘Gens du pays’ is replaced by Ma chère…. Dear so and so…).

A professionally trained cello and oboe player, this former member of Québec city’s symphonic orchestra and Radio-Canada string orchestra got professionally involved in popular music composition and performance by coincidence – typically, to help a friend. His training as a classical musician did not preclude his involvement with other musics. Having always had a passion for jazz and enjoying the American pop music he listened to as a teenager, he was further inspired by the post-war French chanson movement. With friends from college, he formed a popular music group in which he sang and played a wide variety of songs that combined without prejudice Québécois and Irish folklore, American pop in French, and chanson. A self-taught pianist who later learned his trade by accompanying young singers, Vigneault of course but also such rising cultural figures as Pauline Julien, whose performances in the small ‘boîtes à chanson’ of the 1960s marked a whole generation of Québécois and Québécoises, he became involved in song composition by accident but also by conviction. He strongly believed that while a song could be improvised, a good song could not: it requires inspiration, research and work. But his involvement of almost 40 years with popular music was no coincidence, no accident. Gaston conceived of popular music not only as a key mode of human expression, a highly democratic and accessible art form, a true pleasure for both the mind and body, and a great fun thing to do. He also perceived it as an extremely powerful cultural vehicle through which realities and dreams, ideas and collective projects could be articulated, thus politics expressed, lived and changed.

While Gaston Rochon will always be remembered in relation to Gilles Vigneault, his involvement with popular music not only goes far beyond this singular achievement but is much more diverse than what he is remembered for by most.

As some of you may know, the Canadian branch of IASPM was founded in 1984, in the wake of the drunken conversation in Peterborough I referred to earlier. Even though the initial membership of the branch consisted of a handful of people, we were fiercely passionate about the importance of popular music and IASPM as an important network of people who felt the same. We were also strongly convinced that there were other people in Canada involved in popular music studies who, like ourselves, worked in isolation and with the feeling that they were the only person who took popular music seriously. As a way of finding these people, we were unrelenting in the conviction that Montreal would be the site of the 1985 international meeting of IASPM. Thanks to Gaston, who used his position as lecturer in the Music Departement at UQAM, we were able to host what many will still say was one of the most stimulating IASPMs to date. While Gaston’s first allegiance was to the creation, production, and dissemination of music (and that sometimes meant that he could not necessarily relate to some of our research – on more than one occasion he accused me of trying to understand the workings of a fly’s eyes), he was always vehement in his support even of those of us who spend our time splitting hairs, as he would say.

The year following the Montreal international conference, Gaston was hired by the same music departement where he founded the first program in popular music interpretation in Québec. Within this program, he initiated courses in composition, improvisation, and harmonisation but also ensured that part of the curriculum included historical, social and cultural perspectives on popular music, more specifically on jazz, rock, chanson française and chanson québécoise. His career as a popular musician and composer inspired one generation of artists and his devotion to teaching helped train the next generation of popular musicians in Québec, encouraging them to develop an awareness of popular music’s development and importance that went beyond the stage and the studio.

One of Gaston’s primary preoccupations involved the continuous questioning of the creative process. This he integrated into his career as a composer and teacher, but also produced the first doctoral dissertation on song creation in popular music. In the introduction to his thesis, questioning the ways in which popular music is often considered an inferior art form, he says: « I came to think that it was the fault of popular musicians most of whom tend to remain mute about their work and the ways that they create. But then, how do we break this silence? How do we speak of popular music as musicians, in a way that is rigorous, pertinent and accessible? » (Rochon, 1992: 5). He received his Ph.D. from the University of Göteborg in Sweden in 1992, at an age when most people are making plans for retirement. Gaston had other plans.

While working as a full-time professor, he continued to be involved with popular music on a number of levels. One of the projects closest to his heart, which stemmed from his desire to see a more inclusive history of Québécois popular music produced, is one that would not silence the importance of the chansonnier tradition, but would acknowledge the contribution of a other genres, styles and traditions, including post-World War II folklore, Latin musics, pop and variety. This project includes the release of a box-set and extensive liner notes devoted to the Collégiens Troubadours, the group he played with in the 1950s which I referred to earlier. While Gaston was not able to see this project to its conclusion, thanks to Sylvie Genest – a former student and later colleague of Gaston’s – and La Bottine Souriante (the most popular contemporary folklore group in Québec), the remixing and production of the collection in well on its way to being complete.

In addition to special projects like this one, Gaston never stopped working on this or that composition, whether it be a television score, arrangements for variety revues or songs for various singers.

That small smile of acknowledgement on that night in Peterborough said: « Yah, You got it, I am Vigneault’s composer, I wrote the music to ‘Gens du Pays’ ». But it took me sometime to come to understand that it also said: « Now get over it ». If there was a certain way to get on Gaston’s nerves, it was to reduce him, his career, his music and his involvement in popular music to his contribution to Gilles Vigneault’s songs. While many of his post-Vigneault compositions are not as well known, one recent song achieved enormous popularity. This song, the entire proceeds of which were used to come to the aid of people in the Saguenay/Lac Saint-Jean region in Québec which experienced the most severe flooding in recent memory in the summer of 1996, is typical of Gaston. The musical idioms used in the song leave little doubt that Gaston composed it. Whether he liked it or not, his musical signature is found, as it was in Vigneault’s hits, in the instrumental harmonies and the catchy but not facile melody. The fact that Gaston saw popular music as a powerful cultural and political mobilizer makes it no surprise that when a small group of people imagined a song which would use as many of Québec’s popular music figures as could be brought together on short notice, a song meant to symbolise solidarity and empathy among Québécois, they called him at 2:00 in the morning with a plea that he set music to the words as he had done with so many words before. The result was "Si chacun…" (If every one…).

After a battle with cancer, Gaston Rochon died in Montreal, last November. I hope that I have shown you a glimpse of who he was and what he stood for. And, in deference to his politics and mine, let me say a few words of thanks and farewell on my behalf and that of IASPM in French.

Merci à toi Gaston, homme de peu de mots, homme de million de musiques… Puissions-nous tous et toutes ne jamais cesser de discuter, d’échanger, de s’engueuler même s’il le faut en gardant quelque part à l’esprit l’écoute, l’espoir, la générosité et l’intégrité que tu incarnes.

[excerpt from « Si chacun »]

Line Grenier

Département de communication

Université de Montréal