Nikolai Galen reflects on interpreting the work of Jacques Brel
I grew up in Wales so it’s a special pleasure to return home so to speak with a voice project which has taken me on a different kind of journey, an inward journey. In 2009 I was asked to curate a generously-budgeted concert of the music of Jacques Brel in Poznan, Poland. I got the curator’s gig because the concert was my idea, and things went rather well I have to say. I chose the singers, the musical director and most of the songs, and I also translated four of his lyrics for which I couldn’t find English translations. It took me deep into Brel; I listened to all his recordings, I watched lots of videos and I read something about his life. And once the concert was over the following year, I didn’t want to let Brel go easily. I had some ideas – the first required too much money to be realized – then I had the idea of translating more of his lyrics into English because I felt that the existing translations, however good or well-known in themselves, didn’t really do Brel’s French justice.
In the Poznan concert, I sang two songs myself (rather nervously I have to say). It was clear that not only did I want to translate a selection of Brel’s songs (the ones I liked most) into English, but I also wanted to sing them myself. And then I thought how would I sing them? There are so many illustrious interpreters of Brel, what is there to add? And the idea came to sing them a cappella because I’d never heard Brel sung a cappella. I felt that would be an artistic challenge, one that I hoped would open up the texts, and also push me to engage with songs which were perhaps superficially more conventional compared with the more experimental or extreme work that I normally sing.
It took a while to get round to the hard work of translating, but finally last year I ended up in the studio with my producer Dolf, who is also the sound engineer for the live concerts. And it was at that point that I worked on how I would interpret the songs; I had my English versions of the lyrics and I knew that they were singable to Brel’s music but I didn’t know whether I would actually like the results once shorn of any accompaniment. So what happened in the studio was that sometimes I went – yes this is very nice, and it sounds more or less like Brel, except without the music and more compact (I like density…) and with English words; and sometimes I went – mmm this doesn’t really work without the accompaniment, the tune sounds too banal or whatever, and for those songs I had to find some other interpretation so that I could feel at ease with them. And some of them turned into a kind of theatre or into fairly radical re-workings of the originals, and there was one song (one of the famous ones) where I didn’t like the lyric after paying more attention to it – and that song I travestied completely.
It’s maybe asking a lot of an audience to listen to nearly an hour and a half of solo a cappella singing but I think (and hope) the concert works – it’s certainly intense, and perhaps requires an audience who are generously willing to work their attention. I think the words are very often wonderful, despite some inevitable queasiness about Brel’s more misogynist side (which I didn’t censor). But otherwise politically he’s pretty right on – he detested the bourgeoisie, the insanity of war, and the Flemish equivalent of Little Englanderism – he would not be voting for Brexit…
For someone who’s spent many years exploring extended vocal techniques in my own utterly non-commercial way, it’s almost strange to restrain my vocal palette, but in this programme I felt that what was important was to serve the songs and the texts, not to decorate them with anything superfluous. That said, I hope that my wilder background informs the way that I sing these songs, I think it does, and I hope that my penchant for intensity lives on here, albeit in a tightly-focused way. And most of all I hope that I’ve succeeded, at least in part, in bringing Brel’s French texts and some of his less well-known songs to an Anglophone audience and doing them justice, poetic justice.
Nikolai Galen sings Jaques Brel at Chapter Theatre on 4 June.