Graduate Research Colloquium: Professor Mary Ann Smart (UC Berkeley)


This talk documents a seismic shift in the relationship among sound, language, and discourse in post-war France by listening closely to a single 78RPM record. Released in November of 1950, Columbia Records DF 3367 showcases singer Juliette Gréco singing three songs by Joseph Kosma. The disc’s A-side offers the first commercial recording of “Si tu t’imagines,” with lyrics by language poet Raymond Queneau. The B-side begins with the brief novelty number, “La Fourmi,” setting a whimsical poem about a gigantic polyglot ant by surrealist Robert Desnos and continues with a song from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos (No Exit, 1944). The record was an unexpected hit, catapulting Gréco and her collaborators from the intimacy of Saint-Germain-des-Près to international celebrity. Le Figaro marvelled at the disc’s success, observing how rarely a song that is not a dance number–let alone one whose “jaded tone seems pitched exclusively to young intellectuals”--could so flamboyantly take hold of the popular imagination. 

Besides their distinguished literary pedigrees, what these songs have in common is a tendency to break apart language, to resort to timbral effects to maximise expressive intensity. In Sartre’s song for No Exit, every single one of the song’s 17 lines ends with the same phoneme–o, as in “échafaud” [scaffold] or “boulot” [work]--and Kosma’s lilting melody pastes a carefree smile over the images of executioners and severed heads rolling into buckets. In Queneau’s carpe diem poem, “Si tu t’imagines,” the narrator’s warnings about the passage of time are punctuated by a slangy refrain (“Xa va, xa va, xa va”) that exploits the sharp edges of the singer’s tongue and palate. Each of these songs in its way revels in the arbitrary nature of signification, an idea that had gained prominence in the late 1940s as Roman Jakobson, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and others began to write and lecture about Saussure’s linguistics. Yet somehow these self-consciously ironic songs and their detached affect (“singing out of the side of her mouth,” as filmmaker Jacques Baratier described Gréco’s offhand delivery) came to be heard as capturing the pathos of the shattered city and lost lives in the aftermath of the German Occupation. This paper approaches Gréco’s début recording as a material object, a document of vocal performance practice, and a locus for notions of voice/language/history/politics that would define much of the musical production of the decade to come. 



Mary Ann Smart is Gladyce Arata Terrill Professor in the Department of Music at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Mimomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth-Century Opera and of Waiting for Verdi: Opera and Political Opinion in Italy, 1815-1848.  She is editor of Siren Songs: Gender and Sexuality in Opera, author of the articles on Bellini and Donizetti in the Revised New Grove Dictionary of Music, and editor of the critical edition of Donizetti’s last opera, Dom Sébastien. With David Levin, she edits the “Opera Lab” book series at the University of Chicago Press. She is currently at work on a book about music and new ways of listening in France after World War II.