Contes pour enfants pas sages (complete)

2007/2010

I. L’autruche
II. Scène de la vie des antilopes
III. Le dromadaire mécontent
IV. L’éléphant de mer
V. Cheval dans un île
VI. Jeune lion en cage
VII. L’Opéra des girafes
VIII. Les premiers ânes

Contes pour enfants pas sages is a book of eight children’s stories by French poet and screenwriter Jacque Prévert, published in 1947. The title, like the stories themselves, is difficult to translate: Tales for naughty/inconsiderate/ thoughtless/unwise children begins to do the job, but there is something there that can’t be known unless one is French to begin with, perhaps something about the relationship there between child and parent, child and adult, child and the world. The stories are deeply unsentimental, seeing life as absurd and unpredictable, often with unpleasant or even tragic results. Setting texts like these to music is not easy, because they’re too sophisticated for a childish idiom, but at the same time one doesn't want to lose the sense of play that might make them appeal to younger listeners (or, indeed, older ones too!).

Over the years I’ve been much happier setting either nonsense/sound poetry or experimental writing to music. I believe that in doing so I’m more successful in creating something like an equal union of materials, with the hope that the result will be greater than the sum of the parts. I feel the same about setting a foreign language. I will never completely understand French cadence, let alone nuance, but perhaps my lack of fluency allows me to create an unlikely set of associations, in which the music will never exactly illustrate the text, and so allow for a more open experience.

There are a number of people and agencies who have to be acknowledged for their part in the composition for Contes. ‘Cellist Anssi Karttunen, who introduced me to the stories in 1993, suggesting that we needed a new set of Babar pieces for our children; poet and writer Susan Clark, who brought me the book from Paris in 1995; the Canada Council, who gave me a development grant; James Rolfe and Juliet Palmer, the interim directors of Continuum in the mid-oughts, who wanted something of mine for their 2007 season, and were happy to program the six stories I was working on; the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, where I finished them; and Jennifer Waring, co-Artistic Director of Continuum, who not only was happy with the result, but convinced me to set the remaining two stories, so that the set would be complete. She also was prepared to deal with the larger forces I wanted (12 voices and mandolin), thus allowing for a chorus of giraffes and horses. In the end, it is her devotion to the project that I’m truly grateful for.

This complete version given its World Premiere by Continuum on May 27, 2012


Christopher Butterfield CA

Christopher Butterfield lives in Victoria BC, where he teaches in the School of Music and the Department of Visual Arts. Recent activities include singing Socrate, by Erik Satie; mentoring the Arraymusic Young Composers Workshop; judging the Gaudeamus International Composers Award and mentoring the Young Composers Meeting ‘de Ereprijs’, both in the Netherlands. Future activities include organizing a festival for John Cage’s 100th birthday with the Victoria Symphony, Open Space and UVic, and curating an exhibition about his life at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria; translating Théatre by Paris Dada Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes; composing new works for Aventa Ensemble and Arraymusic, and trying to stay devoted to long-term projects.

Christopher Butterfield