The Maestro of Belleville

Benoît Charest, who scored the animated film Les Triplettes de Belleville, talks about turning a vacuum cleaner into a Theremin, and other jazzy feats of everyday electronica.

It’s quite possible that the best electronic group to debut in 2003 consists of three French old maids playing household objects, plus a visiting grandmother whose instrument of choice is a bicycle wheel. And furthermore, they’re all cartoons.

The old maids are the title characters of Triplettes de Belleville, the animated feature film from France, described in the New York Times as “by turns sweet and sinister, insouciant and grotesque, invitingly funny and forbiddingly dark.” They appear in the movie’s opening sequence as young entertainers, Jazz Age flappers, and then reappear much later, some two decades hence, each with her eccentric instrument of choice: the plucked grill of a refrigerator, a vacuum cleaner with a mournful hum, and a newspaper section crumpled rhythmically. It’s a pop-py kind of musique concrete, grounded in the French cabaret scene of their youth.

Triplettes (released in the U.S. with its title translated, almost unnecessarily, Triplets of Belleville) tells the story of an aspiring bicyclist, named Champion, who is kidnapped during the Tour de France, and of the quest by his grandmother, Madame Souza, to rescue him, all of which unfolds almost entirely without dialogue. In place of conversation, there is a rich sound design, and an equally rich score by Canadian guitarist and composer Benoît Charest. Anthony Lane wrote of Triplettes in his New Yorker film review, “there is merely the lingua franca of noise — the clatter of trains, the rap of repeated gunfire, or the snouty wheeze of a dog.”

Charest’s highest achievement in Triplettes is the triplets themselves, three French singers who appear both as young women and old ladies. On the phone from his Montreal home, while his family finished a dinner of oysters, Charest unraveled the film’s sonic onomatopoeia — how a plastic bag can make a newspaper sound more crisp, how an African kalimba blended with Madame Souza’s bicycle spokes (think of the combination as her Souza-phone), and how an American military chant inspired his songwriting. He also explained how the Triplettes crew aspired, under the direction of Sylvain Chomet, for a kind of retro-futurism.

Charest talked about some of his other projects, including the score for the film Ne Dis Rien, on which he collaborated with Canadian electronic artist Maxime Morin. (Morin is among the musicians, along with Monolake and Cristian Vogel, commissioned to participate in a current exhibit at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, which involves composing sequences for a set of high-watt light bulbs.) One focal point of the Ne Dis Rien score is a piece called “Dobro Trance,” which recalls the atmospheric mix of rural and electronic that has been explored by Bruce Kaphan (on his Slider album) and BJ Cole (working with electronic musician Luke Vibert). Charest also discussed an upcoming electro-acoustic concert he’s developing, a tribute-in-music to car chase scenes from movies, which will mix electronic instruments with a small orchestra.

A lightly edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Marc Weidenbaum: Thanks for taking the time to talk.

Benoît Charest: Absolutely, yeah.

Weidenbaum: I loved the movie Les Triplettes de Belleville for many reasons, in particular for the sequence with the old women performing their quartet, with the vacuum cleaner and the crumpled newspaper and the fridge and bicycle spokes as instruments. At that moment I knew I had to talk with you. And as much as I want to ask you some general questions about the film, I kind of want to try and stick to the electronic and musique concrete elements in Triplettes.

Charest: You know Raymond Scott?

Weidenbaum: I love Raymond Scott.

Charest: I’ve got to get more of his records. I was in London a couple of days ago and bumped into a guy who’s a big fan, and we listened to records all night. It was great.

Weidenbaum: Have you heard his Music for Babies?

Charest: I saw the record, I almost bought it, I should have bought it.

Weidenbaum: How old are your kids?

Charest: Eight and a half, and two and a half.

Weidenbaum: Well, it’s more aimed at infants.

Charest: I started going nuts on the idea, you know, of making, maybe, irritating noise for midgets, or for mothers-in-law.

Weidenbaum: That specific track in the film, with the vacuum cleaner and the bicycle wheel, how was that recorded? Did you play instrumentation we see in the animation?

Charest: It was a mixture, actually. All the sounds, all that you see, are the original sounds.

Weidenbaum: The plucked refrigerator, the vacuum cleaner —

Charest: Yes. Some of the excerpts were cut’n’paste, you know what I mean?

Weidenbaum: So you constructed them in a computer.

Charest: Yeah. The Hoover, I played and kept the long sequences and pasted them together. And the bicycle spokes were a bicycle I had in the studio, and I blended it with a kalimba, because the bicycle on its own was lacking a bit of punch, so I did that. The newspaper is real newspaper, but I had to blend in a plastic bag, to get it a bit more crisp. And the same with the grill in the fridge — I put in a bass drum.

Weidenbaum: So it had more resonance.

Charest: Yeah, exactly. It gave it that boom [he says “boom” and, for emphasis, lets the “m” sound reverberate].

Weidenbaum: The rhythm is mostly the newspaper — was that a loop?

Charest: Parts of it, yes. I have a couple of different loops in there.

Weidenbaum: Part of what’s wonderful about the movie is this mix of past and future. The images have this quasi-futuristic, or retro-futuristic, feel to them, the city of Belleville being so overgrown. I wonder if that’s because we’re seeing Belleville from the point of view of people coming over from Europe, who are amazed by how big the new world is.

Charest: I think one of the guidelines of the director, interestingly, was that he wanted this to be a retro movie in a certain aspect, but he wanted it to be a retro movie as if it was the past that wasn’t really — that was kind of different, like going back to the roots, but if a different reality had happened, which would be his, or our, version. By keeping the essence of the era, throughout the music, but having a different twist to it.

Weidenbaum: The music in the opening sequence clearly draws from the period performance styles of Josephine Baker and Django Reinhardt and others. Was there for you, similarly, any sort of early model for the kind of music we hear in the sequence I’ve been focusing on?

Charest: Not really. It’s a bit of a reminder of the American army song [the one that goes “sound off, one two; sound off, three four”]. Funnily, a longtime friend of mine, one of my first girlfriends, asked me to do some music when she became a director. She did a movie on women’s shoes, the “flavorism through the shoes,” the high heel, and the rapport between that and the Asian women who put bandages around their toes. The original song I wrote for that was like that theme, with different words — “My little girl’s got high heel shoes.” She thought it was too tongue in cheek for her movie. I thought it was still a good idea to mock it a little bit, or else it becomes Germanic. I really liked that tune, and left it on my demo. The director [of Triplettes], Sylvain Chomet, saw me play a lot in clubs and stuff. He wanted a musician for this gig, and he heard some of the music I did for another movie and really liked it, and called me up to listen to the tune, and he said, “This is the tune.”

Weidenbaum: That’s quite a jump, to go from having the song turned down, to essentially having the movie built around the song.

Charest: You know what, when I did that song, I knew there was something there. It just shows, what doesn’t appeal to some appeals to others.

Weidenbaum: One point of comparison for me is — do you know that film Toto le Hero?

Charest: Yeah.

Weidenbaum: They use the song “Boum” by Charles Trenet, and it has a similar feel and is used similarly, as a recurring theme. I love that your old ladies in Belleville have fallen on hard times, but that they show no sign of the fact that they’re destitute, and they’re just making the music with the best instruments that they can manage.

Charest: That’s what I love about it, actually. They’re down and out, has-beens, whatever, but they still are connected to music, and have their little thing, and they live together. They’re poor but happy. Poor and happy and crazy.

Weidenbaum: It’s great how Champion’s grandmother is tuning the bicycle wheel early on in the film, but you don’t understand why until later.

Charest: It’s all interconnected, it’s imagery being in tune with what you do.

Weidenbaum: You must have had a lot of rapport with the filmmakers.

Charest: Certainly, me and Sylvain are very good friends now. I’m working on the next film, and me and him together — poor wives, you know what I mean? We can go out, totally, we have a really good time, and very similar imaginations.

Weidenbaum: I listened to the various tracks on your website from your previous film work. You have quite a range — opera, jazz, electronic. Are any of those particularly close to the type of music you write for yourself?

Charest: Well, you know, I haven’t figured that one out yet. That’s probably why I do more film music than I have a personal career. I do admit I have a certain talent for getting a grip on musical styles, you know? I listen to something, and I see how it works, and can pretty much reproduce the essence of the style.

Weidenbaum: Is that something that you’re aided in doing with computers, or is that something you do with traditional arrangements?

Charest: Yeah, with traditional arrangements. I love so much music, so many different musics. Basically, I think I weeded it out, I figured it out — the only music I don’t like is the music where the commercial motives are too apparent. “Let’s try and make a hit song.” A bunch of good looking kids and trying to milk it.

Weidenbaum: One of the tracks I liked the most from your site is “Dobro Trance,” from the film Ne Dis Rien.

Charest: Oh, yeah. I did that with another guy, too.

Weidenbaum: Who?

Charest: A friend of mine called Maxime Morin. He’s putting out a record right now, actually. He’s a very interesting musician. Very, how should I say, self-taught kind of clubber, first generation of DJ, who were writing their own music.

Weidenbaum: So, he’s more the electronic side of the track, and you’re more the Dobro side.

Charest: Yeah. It was actually — we worked together for a while, and it was a mixture of both. We kind of both influenced each other on that. We did some good music together, it was really fun.

Weidenbaum: I love the Dobro used for its ambient quality. It has such a sense of a soundscape, even a landscape. It’s very evocative.

Charest: That track was totally done — we worked on the groove track and when we were pretty satisfied, I just took the Dobro, we did a good take, and I just played through it, and there was no editing at all.

Weidenbaum: I like how the track works. It introduces the Dobro, and it’s only after about a minute that the drums kick in, and then after a while, the Dobro has this coda-like return.

Charest: Yeah. When I met Max six years ago, I was what you can call “the global village idiot.” I was teaching jazz guitar in college and was pretty bored with it. Max then was doing kinda drum’n’bass shows with his Atari and a small sampler. I hired him for drum programming I needed for a TV commercial. From there we started a music company that quickly became successful. But quickly we both got tired of the stress involved, and plus when we got more conventional gigs to do, there was not much for Max to do. We kinda split, on good terms. For the music of Matroni et Moi, I had written the music prior to meeting him. He tagged along, engineered some of the sessions, programmed and remixed some of the stuff.

Weidenbaum: Were you involved at all in the sound design of Triplettes?

Charest: All the foley stuff? No. I almost was, but one guy from Paris and one guy from Brussels, they did a great job. That’s a very interesting trade. How can you not love a guy with high heeled shoes and a strap, hitting on a fridge with a baseball bat.

Weidenbaum: I just read an article about the people doing the sounds for Master and Commander, the new Russell Crowe film, and what it took to make the sounds of sails and cannons.

Charest: Oh, yeah, gun shots were like a baseball bat on a small fridge, and they distorted the pre-amp, and it has that really big depth to it.

Weidenbaum: A hollow depth.

Charest: Yeah yeah yeah.

Weidenbaum: The reason I ask about sound design is because, since it’s a nearly silent movie — it’s weird to call it a silent movie, since sound is so important to it, it’s so rich in sound — but because there’s no dialogue per se, the music takes on this additional responsibility. Did you feel that you were a storyteller?

Charest: Yeah, of course. I felt totally at ease with it, it was fun. But at the same time, I didn’t feel so alone, because the acting is so strong, the details, the look, all the scenes, they help so much, you know what I mean?

Weidenbaum: I was thinking of this track I’ve been focused on. You can sort of hear a sadness in it, because it’s so much quieter than the full instrumentation earlier in the film. Were you involved in the recording of the vocals as well?

Charest: Of course.

Weidenbaum: The women who did the singing, are they young?

Charest: When they’re under the bridge, it’s old women, yeah. I had old women, I felt like a “third age pimp” there, had all these old ladies come into the studio, bringing them back home, helping them up the stairs. It was actually fun. The ladies that sang the later song were old ladies, and the younger ones were younger ones. Also, my grandmother, she’s like 94 or something, she did some voices, and one guy, a bass player friend of mine, who does voices.

Weidenbaum: I love that it’s older women — the instruments aren’t really instruments, and their voices are tarnished with age. They appear to go together well.

Charest: Exactly. That’s one of Sylvain’s worst nightmares, is to try and do that cute “everything becomes sweet” kinda thing. Like, when Elvis picks up his guitar, and you hear a full orchestra and the band is playing on the beach — that kinda thing, you know? Too arranged.

Weidenbaum: Were you involved in the game on the web, where you can play Madame Souza’s bicycle wheel on the website?

Charest: No, not at all, that’s the guys at the website, they made that up.

Weidenbaum: Are you working on anything you want to talk about now?

Charest: Over the next year, I am going to write for a small orchestra, about a 15-piece orchestra, a whole show of car chase music.

Weidenbaum: From classic movies, like The French Connection?

Charest: Yeah, all that, mixed up together, and mixed with electronics and real-time effects on some of the instruments.

Weidenbaum: Is Maxime Morin involved in this?

Charest: Probably, yeah. I’m giving myself to April 2004 to write the music. I did a synopsis, a bit of a story, basically it’s the synopsis of a car chase, someone is tailing someone, and then there’s the chase, and then he gets away, and then they find him again, and then the final sequence, and I’m going to arrange the whole concert around the car chase.

Weidenbaum: Any visual accompaniment?

Charest: I’m trying to get a VJ to do a mixture of all the great car scenes in movies.

Weidenbaum: Do you know the work of David Holmes, the film composer? He’s got a strong background in electronic music and remixes, and he’s done some of the Steven Soderbergh movies, like Ocean’s Eleven and Out of Sight.

Charest: Oh, yeah.

Weidenbaum: The recent Italian Job remake has some great chase music, and the Karen Sisco TV series, which spun off from Out of Sight.

Charest: Oh, yeah, all that stuff, like Emergency, it’s so funky, with the strings and the horns and everything [he sings a little]. I’d like to hear that live with a band, and see it mixed with electronic music, and performed with a small ensemble, that’d be fantastic.

Weidenbaum: That music has had a huge influence on today’s electronic scene, from the Beastie Boys to the Ninja Tune label to Holmes. People love that Starksy and Hutch kind of sound.

Charest: Absolutely, yeah.

Weidenbaum: It must be freeing in that sort of music. You can mix horns and keyboards, and it doesn’t need that natural balance that there is in a jazz ensemble or an orchestra.

Charest: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Weidenbaum: Is electronic music an area you listen to a lot?

Charest: In and out. A little less these days, but I’m into all the usuals, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada. I like Squarepusher, I like all these guys. I’m going to get some Raymond Scott.

Weidenbaum: That’s a deep well, a lot of good stuff.

Charest: Exactly. Even [Edgar] Varèse’s music, his Electronic Poem and everything. Fabulous.

Weidenbaum: That’s what I was wondering about in regard to the film, whether there was music of that time, in the futurist moment, that had inspired what goes on with the old ladies. Varese as a precursor for today’s electronic work.

Charest: Yes, exactly. I don’t want to generalize, but some of the DJs I meet are not — they don’t have a conscience that there was electronic music for 60 years now, and more, with the Theremin and such. It’s interesting to keep that in mind.

Weidenbaum: To me, that’s what the vacuum cleaner was touching on.

Charest: Exactly, it’s like a cleaner version of the Theremin. You ever see The Electronic Odyssey, the documentary on Victor Theremin? You have got to see that. He did this thing — I was a little ashamed, but he had a thing when he tried to do a big Theremin with dancers, and with their bodies intervening and controlling sounds, but they were trying to do tonal music. Big mistake. So, the dancer was saying it was almost impossible. If they had let go a little more, it could have been something totally new.

Weidenbaum: The Theremin, ever since its comeback, has become a not uncommon sight. There are modern versions available. Oddly, though, I felt that your vacuum cleaner was in some ways closer to the original feel of the Theremin.

Charest: Thanks, yeah, I had a good time. When Sylvain said, “I want music with a vacuum cleaner,” I don’t think he had in mind me using an actual vacuum cleaner to make the sound. So, I had a vacuum cleaner in the studio. I tried everything. I tried to turn the tube around, to see if it would make a horn noise, and chuck it around, or whatever. But I just turned it on and put my hand in front of it and it was like woop [he makes the noise]. I started controlling the input of air.

Weidenbaum: Like Miles Davis putting the plunger in his trumpet while recording Sketches of Spain, it changes the sound and the mood entirely.

Charest: I had it between my fingers, and I took my other hand, and controlled the fingers, and started to do tremolos and was like, Hey this is great.

Weidenbaum: So, Sylvain told you to use a vacuum. And, clearly, the bicycle was there because of Champion. How about the other two instruments in that piece, the fridge and the newspaper?

Charest: The others were influenced by that Sylvain got really into Stomp.

Weidenbaum: Really, the performance troupe?

Charest: He really liked Stomp, and he wanted something a bit similar.

Weidenbaum: One question about the opening sequence. The song we hear when the movie starts, when they’re performing in black and white. Was there an electric pulse to that? Despite its jazzy feel, the rhythm sounded automated.

Charest: Yeah, it had a looped drum.

Weidenbaum: Yeah, it had a traditional sound, but because of the drum it had a contemporary liveliness, which distinguished it from being something retro for retro’s sake.

Charest: That’s exactly the twist that we wanted to achieve with the music, for it to be retro, but to have that twist, that this could have been a parallel reality to what happened.

Related links: Benoît Charest's website, The Triplettes de Belleville websites in English (there's an alternate English-language site here) and French.

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