Jacques LasryBorn: January 29th, 1918, Alger (French Algeria)
Died: March 26th, 2014, Jerusalem (Israel)
Nationality: French (1918-1978) / Israeli (1978-)
Between 1932 and 1936, Jacques studied the piano as well as the obligatory theoretical music subjects at the Alger Conservatory. As his ambition was to become a piano virtuoso, he set his mind on continuing his studies in France. With his mother, whose only surviving child he was, he moved to Paris. There, he became a student at the Ecole Normale de Musique, where he met his future wife Yvonne, an Alsatian girl who studied the organ. Moreover, he was an auditor at the most prestigious of the Parisian conservatories, the Conservatoire de Musique et de Déclamation (after World War II renamed the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique). Lasry explains: “The Conservatoire de Musique did not admit me, as I was too old for their piano courses. Another problem was that they allowed only a limited number of non-French citizens in as students. As an Algerian Jew, I did not qualify as a Frenchman… Therefore, I turned to the Ecole Normale. Luckily, one of the teachers of the Conservatoire de Musique, Madame Marguerite Long, invited me to attend her classes. That is what it meant to be an auditor: while I followed the courses of Mme Marguerite, I was not permitted to take any exams at the Conservatoire de Musique. Nonetheless, I was very happy to be picked up by Madame Marguerite, as she was a highly acclaimed concert pianist and piano teacher at that time. Meanwhile, my mother and I lived in an apartment. At home, I studied frantically, because it was my ambition to become a concert pianist.”
All of Jacques’ ambitions were cut short by the Second World War and the German invasion of France. When the German forces occupied Paris in June ’40, Jacques, his mother, and his girlfriend fled the capital, reaching the Riviera by bike, upon which they managed to catch a boat which brought them to Alger. The family spent the entire war in Algeria, where Jacques continued his studied individually and taught piano lessons to make ends meet. During these same years, Jacques and Yvonne married, with Yvonne converting to Judaism. The couple had three children: Teddy, Claude, and Stany, all of whom were to find their way in the world of music and art. Immediately after the end of the war, the family returned to France on a French bomber aircraft. The first years after the war were marred by legal problems, as the family had to go to court to get the apartment back which Jacques and his mother inhabited before the war.
“As you will understand, this was an unpleasant situation”, Lasry admits. “Imagine: the Germans had given our house to another family, who were unwilling to give it up. It took us years before it eventually was returned to us. In the meantime, I worked as a pianist on tours across France, playing jazz and classical music, sometimes solo, sometimes in small groups and combos. In Paris, I met an impresario who organised a tour in Scandinavia for me. For half a year, my wife and I stayed in different towns in Denmark, upon which we moved to Sundsvall in the far north of Sweden. There was plenty of work for us and it was a mightily interesting experience!”
Back in Paris in 1949, Lasry was invited to work as a piano accompanist at the Milord d’Arsouille, a so-called cabaret littéraire, where poets and avant-garde artists were given the opportunity to present their work to a progressively-minded audience. Léo Ferré and Francis Lemarque made their debut in the Milord. Lasry accompanied a string of chansonniers, such as Michèle Arnaud, the wife of owner Francis Claude, as well as a very young Serge Gainsbourg. Charlie Chaplin, who attended a night of entertainment at the cabaret, was so impressed by Lasry’s ability to improvise that he wanted him to become his accompanist, but the pianist politely refused. In the 1950s, Lasry occasionally worked as an arranger and conductor for studio sessions as well, mainly recording with artists he accompanied on the Milord stage, most importantly Michèle Arnaud and Renée Lebas. Although he worked primarily as an accompanist and arranger, Lasry occasionally composed chansons himself, including ‘Le Pont Mirabeau’, originally a poem of Guillaume Apollinaire, which was recorded by Michèle Arnaud in 1957.
In 1954, Jacques met François Baschet, the inventor of the guitare pneumatique, a guitar with a balloon instead of a sound box attached to the neck. In ’52, Baschet, who was about to undertake a world journey, had designed this inflatable guitar because he thought a real one took too much space in his suitcase. Back in Paris, he began playing in cabarets, including the Milord d’Arsouille, where he entertained the audience with parodies of well-known songs. Although their personalities were fundamentally different, François and Jacques became friends. With the help of Yvonne, the two men set about designing and building another totally new instrument, the Cristal, a metal construction which produces sound from oscillating glass-cylinders. With François’ older brother Bernard, who was not a musician and whose role was merely administrative, Jacques, Yvonne, and François formed the quartet Les Structures Sonores Lasry-Baschet, the Lasry-Baschet Sound Structures.
In the quartet, each had his own task: while Bernard Baschet took care of the organisational aspects, François set about designing and building new Cristals as well as sculptures based on the same idea as the musical instrument, which were put on display in galleries and museums. Jacques Lasry, in his turn, provided suitable material for the instrument by adapting classical music pieces from different composers, such as Bach and Bartok, as well as composing new material himself. In the process, he had to adapt old techniques and invent new ones to play instruments that had never existed before. In a 1961 interview, Lasry explains his ideals: “As every composer, I want to make the music of my time. Mozart lived in a world of horses and diligences. Nowadays, however, we live in an era of metal and electricity. The metal in the Cristal corresponds with the vibrations of metal which can be heard everywhere around us. At the same time, the instrument manages to reproduce certain sounds of nature. My compositions are in fact improvisations which are recorded. Subsequently, a suitable instrumentation is made for these new creations.”
The quartet started giving concerts of its unique music, initially in Parisian avant-garde circles only, but later for a wider audience as well. In 1954, the group recorded its first of several albums, ‘Chronophagie’, with all compositions and arrangements by Jacques Lasry; in the 1960s, this LP was rerecorded and released internationally with an English title, ‘The Time Eaters’. The group was successful from the beginning onwards, as François Baschet explains on his website: “Our project caught on immediately. Electronic music was still in its infancy and our structures, with their resonators that produced long, mysterious tones, were deemed ‘cosmic’. It was the era of the launching of the first Russian Sputnik and every time a radio or television station wanted music for a science fiction programme, they came to us. Our biggest thrill was being asked by Jean Cocteau to do the music for his film, ‘Le Testament d’Orphée’ (1960)”. The soundtrack to this film was arranged by Jacques Lasry. From 1959 onwards, the group toured in France and abroad, performing with Yehudi Menuhin in London and roaming the universities in the United States on two concert tours in 1962. Still in the early 1960s, the group was booked on the highly popular Ed Sullivan Show in the USA on three occasions. On stage, the Lasry-Baschet combo was often accompanied by vocalists and different instrumentalists, usually including Jacques’ son Teddy on the clarinet.
With the growing success of the Sound Structures project, Lasry was left with little time for other professional activities. He quit the Milord d’Arsouille towards the end of the 1950s. Nevertheless, he made his mark in several other music projects, one of which was Francis Claude’s radio programme ‘Monsieur Flute s’en mêle’. For this show, comprising 39 broadcasts in 1957-’58 for France II, Lasry composed and arranged all music. Besides, he composed ballets for the theatre and penned the soundtracks for some films, such as ‘Le songe des chevaux sauvages’ (1960), ‘Le roi du village’ (1963), and ‘Elle est à tuer’ (1964), as well as for the 1958 documentary ‘Le foulard de Smyrne’. He also wrote the accompanying music to the records of Jacques Doyen, a narrator specializing in declaiming poems, as well as to some records with music for children. Moreover, he penned the arrangements to several chansons of Hélène Martin, of which the best-known is ‘Le condamné à mort’ from 1964.
In 1968, Jacques Lasry decided to convert to Orthodox Judaism, as a consequence of which he ended all his professional activities, including his collaboration in the Sound Structures project. While he prepared moving to Israel by studying religion extensively, he taught piano lessons. In 1978, Jacques and Yvonne immigrated to Israel, where they settled down in Jerusalem. They took some of the Cristals with them, which were put on display in a three-month-exhibition in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Jacques Lasry in the Eurovision Song Contest
For the interview with Jacques Lasry in Jerusalem in 2011, we bring him an audio recording of the 1956 Eurovision Song Contest; it is the first time ever he has the opportunity to hear the Lugano performance. “Isn’t that wonderful!”, he exclaims, upon which he sits down and intently listens to both Michèle Arnaud songs. At the start of the first chorus of ‘Les amants de minuit’, the 93-year-old starts making faint conducting gestures. At the end of that song, Lasry starts telling about his working relationship with Michèle Arnaud: “She is one of the few artists with whom I worked as an arranger in the studio, but then again – I always accompanied her at the piano in the Milord d’Arsouille Cabaret. When writing an arrangement for a chanson, the piano part was always my starting point, upon which I elaborated it for a fully-fledged orchestra. I never studied any arranging or conducting, but my classical background provided me with more than enough knowledge. True, I never was a very experienced conductor, but I knew the basic techniques as well as how to communicate with orchestra musicians.”
“As for the Eurovision Song Contest”, Lasry continues, “we went there by train, but for one reason or another Michèle and I did not travel together. ‘Ne crois pas’ was a song in a straight rhythm, very easy to conduct. ‘Les amants de minuit’ – that was an altogether different story… an interesting song with an unusual build-up, although it is hardly a masterpiece. The complicated melody made life hard for Michèle, but I must say she did a terrific job. She was a good singer and a very intelligent girl too, who was dedicated to what she was doing and was determined to do it right. As for me, appearing in this Eurovision Song Contest did not change my career – I would rather think of it as a side-step.”
Other artists on Jacques Lasry
Michel Deneuve (1955-) is one of the most recognized players of the Cristal Baschet of the generation following the Lasrys and the Baschets. He met Jacques Lasry as a young student in ’75: “As I had just chosen the cristal as my preferred instrument, it was some event for me to meet one of the first and only musicians in the world who was able to play it. All of this took place in the atelier of Bernard Baschet in Saint-Michel-sur-Orge. I had the impression he passed the flame of the cristal on to me by his warm words of encouragement and his patience! In the 1950s, Jacques, with his wife Yvonne, embarked on a journey with the Cristal Baschet, a totally new and unexplored instrument. Therefore, he deserves to be called a pioneer and an innovator… he was the first to play this new instrument, which, nowadays, has firmly taken root in cultural life throughout the world. As a composer, Jacques was completely atypical, writing music of many different styles and purposes; he showed no apprehension whatsoever about leaving the well-trodden paths of what was acceptable to the cultural elite of his day. Hereby, he managed to unveil a great number of possibilities for the cristal.” (2012)