Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Chêne Noir—
Chant Pour Le Delta, La Lune et Le Soleil


Released 1976 on Chêne Noir
The Seth Man, March 2008ce
Abridging their name from Théâtre du Chêne Noir d’Avignon to Chêne Noir, the French musical troupe had inaugurated their self-named record label in 1973 with the release of their “Miss Madona” seven inch EP. Three years later, their “Chant Pour Le Delta, La Lune et Le Soleil” album marked five years since the troupe’s debut album, “Aurora.” Only three people remained from that album’s lineup as Gerard Gélas was now positioned offstage to concentrate on his writing and direction of the group, which had now expanded to include half a dozen additional players. Along with this expansion came an assertion of their independence from the confines of drama by focusing their talents into the sphere of musical spectacle with results that were entirely dissimilar from their previous recorded efforts. Unlike “Aurora,” performances of “Chant” saw the troupe hold to stationary points onstage with the focus now on musical, rather than physical, drama.

“Chant Pour Le Delta, La Lune et Le Soleil” (“Songs For The Delta, The Moon And The Sun”) is a successive set of interludes that spool out behind the narrative poetry and ethereal observations of vocalist Nicole Aubiat. She is joined by Abel Valls (bass guitar, contrabass); Jean-Pierre Chalon (drums, percussion); Pierre Surtel (soprano saxophone, vibraphone); Jean-Louis Cannaud (flute, tenor and alto saxophone); Christine Schaffter (soprano saxophone); Thierry Bergerot (synthesizers); Daniel Dublet (piano, violoncello, congas) and rounded out by the percussion and vocals of Monik Lamy and vibist Philippe Puech.

According to the liners, “Chant” was an effort to ‘paraphrase a new page in our Treaty of love’ influenced by ‘the unattainable unknown of the voices of martinets (these birds from Egypt...), which we do not doubt for an instant will fly again next spring from the nooks, mosses and stones...among the shadows and the light of our very ancient Black Oak.’

The “Chant” album was every bit as poetic as those descriptions and its musical score corresponded to Aubiat’s compelling recitations. The addition of synthesizer player Thierry Bergerot provided skillful drones and background colourations that were the firmament for the earthbound sax, woodwinds, bassist and drummer backing her evocations. Although her vocals are entirely in French, much of their comprehension for non-French speakers can be felt in the music, for it is more than mere accompaniment. Whether drifting, rolling or jazz-like scoring, it allows Aubiat accurate emotional settings to call out for and beckon forth the natural elements of her world: whether the deltas of the Rhone and Nile Rivers, the moon, the sun or all life in its infinitesimal interconnectedness.

One further firmament is present in the sleeve painting by Chêne Noir vibist Philippe Puech’s depiction of Chêne Noir’s chapel in their sweet home Avignon ensconced within a blue circle sky above. Appropriately, Avignon repeatedly crops up as one of the reoccurring themes in “Chant” as does the Rhone River, upon whose bank the city is set. Located 50 miles north of the Mediterranean Sea in the south of France, it’s no surprise that a warm and distinctly Mediterranean vibe permeates the album throughout.

The album comes slowly into view with “Le Train” as a slow fade-in reveals bongos rapping out a slow locomotive rhythm, vibraphone melodically striking against ensuing percussion over a simple and repeating synthesizer theme. A sparse arrangement of slow deliberate paces alternating with a fanfare of triumphant horns, Aubiat breathlessly evokes images of Avignon, the sea, the delta and the soil of the Nile in front of the ensemble’s steady rollin’ flux of brass which cuts out and falls away for the beautiful, enduring moments of “Les Oiseaux” (“The Birds.”) Sublime, airy drones cushioned by reverbed, distant female voicing behind Aubiat’s slow narration, the title is a reference to the nesting martinets in the hidden confines of their chapel grounds during the months of autumn and winter, with springtime hosting their migratory return to Egypt. A wordless female choir, the sounds of droning synthesizer and airy cries of wheeling birds hoist high above Aubiat’s spoken intonations of slow adoration and mystery. Like Jocelyn Montgomery and David Lynch’s “Lux Vivens” album, it’s at once Medieval and modern, cool yet warm and altogether imposing in its huge, weightless space. Passing by like clouds, it’s much like an extended ambient version of the “Zabriskie Point” version of the first part of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” with an overlay of soothing, French woman-tone recitations.

“Hey...!” is an intoxicating and intoxicated half-something else, run-on, locked jazz groove that isn’t. About the same length as “Low Spark of the High Heeled Boys” with similar patient rhythm piano underscoring a format unlike most garden variety jazz vocal arrangements for “Hey...!” is a rolling and jaunty recitation of some length where Aubiat’s tone and delivery are feathery dalliances of pre-orgasmic arousal. Her prolonged shimmying foreplay dances on until at one point falls into a jarring plateau of super-echoed reverb that halts everything in its tracks, quickly returning to continue with its sinewy, half-dressed rhythms and Aubiat’s super-teasing vocalese. She then starts name-checking her band mates, each one punctuated with a “Hey...!” and it’s at this point you realise this vocal delivery would make even a recitation of the Avignon phone directory no less vivacious or sexy. Her stance is one of always giving, never taking and then giving some more. Like Aubiat’s own delta (Hey...!) it is a blossom inside a blossom inside a further blossom reaching out from within and blossoming all the time. But after eleven and a half minutes of foreplay, she ends the song abruptly on a pair of annoyed “HEY!!”s as if indignant with the lack of response to her entreaties and slamming the door of both her bedroom allure and the song along with it.

The second side of “Chant Pour Le Delta, La Lune et Le Soleil” begins with the becalmed “La 7.” Setting Aubiat as a flâneur of the mind and fully engaged with her projections regarding the Rhone River, here you can feel the Avignon sunset sinking into another quiet dusk of bright orange highlights as stubborn sunlight keeps darkness at bay in its waning with sharply-angled breaks. Meanwhile, the hardy fauna, the funny flora and the fertile soil begin to close their pores to nighttime’s approaching chill are all reflected in Aubiat’s vocals, describing the emotion of the landscape, murmuring in delight and recognising its life-giving character. “Avignon...Avignon...” Aubiat whispers while Puech’s delicate vibraphone playing and overall late summer sun vibes radiate everywhere while buoyant stand-up bass slowly plucks into each moment of this warming rumination.

Traveling downriver from Avignon to the Camargue delta and into the Mediterranean Sea where the Rhone joins the Nile River as its final tributary, “Le Nil” (“The Nile”) ends the album with a starkly building, Zeuhl-like structure akin to the opening strains of side one of “Kohntarkosz” as performed by a Christian Vander-less Magma (At the back of Chêne Noir’s stage upon the wall of the huge semi-circular barrel vault hung a banner of their logo of a stylised oak sprouting talon-like roots emblazoned in red on a black background. Its colour scheme and severity suggests Magma’s logo may have been the inspiration. Seeing as Magma performed in Chêne Noir’s deconsecrated twelfth century chapel several times throughout the seventies, it would seem to be more than a possibility.) The voices of a choir enters with swaying chanting and gradually rising to full strength as the remaining members of Chêne Noir have taken to softly toll small bells and tinkle chimes in the background in counterpoint to Daniel Dublet’s anchoring, undulating piano line. Once the choir fall away, Nicole Aubiat enters for the final time with a voice slower and more deliberate than before. As though in a trance and channelling a deeply felt interior monologue or reconnecting with an ancient Egyptian priestess who long ago spoke song cycles in veneration of the sun and the life-giving Nile. Another reflection on a body of water, “Le Nil” completes a cycle of rivers, their home city, bird migrations, the moon, the sun and the stars. For eleven minutes, the music passes in measured steps like a procession with all the gravity of a ritual that “Chant Pour Le Delta, La Lune et Le Soleil” is in every way. And like the black oak they took their name from, Chêne Noir were such a deeply-rooted group of artists that even today the company exists, performs and still calls the same chapel home.