Legendary Quebec band Harmonium gets the symphonic treatment

An interview with singer Serge Fiori and conductor Simon Leclerc.

The son of an Italian immigrant and a born-and-bred Montrealer, Serge Fiori is a towering figure of the francophone cultural landscape. Harmonium’s music, written nearly 50 years ago when Fiori was in his 20s, is now a celebrated cultural object passed down through generations.

As a teenager, I remember watching my mother and stepfather slip their record Si on avait besoin d’une cinquième saison in the CD player and sit on the floor, cuddled up to each other, their eyes closed for the entire 17 minutes and 13 seconds that encompass the album’s last track, “Histoire sans paroles” — an instrumental track, as the name suggests. Since I was a rebellious pain in the ass at the time, I found them a little ridiculous, but also beautiful and pretty lucky, as I can now admit these days.

This month, Fiori is presenting the results of a monumental project: nearly 70 musicians from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra working together to present a double-disc retrospective of Harmonium’s entire discography. This highly ambitious project is overseen by producer Nicolas Lemieux and led by Simon Leclerc, a well-known conductor, composer, arranger and orchestra leader.

Harmonium Symphonique
Montreal Symphony Orchestra working on Harmonium’s Histoire sans paroles

(Simon Leclerc is a major player in the music world. This article isn’t long enough to sum up his entire career, but it’s worth noting that he’s perhaps best known for having composed music for film and TV, including Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise. This isn’t his first symphonic rodeo, either — he’s worked with Charles Aznavour, Mika and Simple Plan, amongst others.)

The resulting double album is 140 minutes and titled Histoire sans paroles, just like the aforementioned instrumental track. Fiori’s instantly recognizable voice is nowhere to be found — but why? “It’s been a dream of mine for a while now,” Fiori explains. “I wanted to just hear the music, the melodies, the chords and the orchestra.”

Fair enough, but the lyrics are pretty important to the music of Harmonium, are they not? “Absolutely!” says Fiori. “I always tried to keep things as equal as possible, so to speak, but that part is in the past. In this case, the fact that the project is entirely instrumental essentially leads to the creation of a brand new work. It adds a lot to what I had already done. There have been lots of homages to my work, lots of covers and various projects, but this is in a whole other sphere.”

Other voices can be heard on the recording, however, including choruses from the Petits Chanteurs de Laval vocal group. As Leclerc explains it, the voices are treated as their own instrument. “For Kim Richardson, who sings on ‘L’exil, I wanted a soulful voice. Not necessarily one that sounds like James Brown, but one that felt… lived-in.”

On the iconic “Histoire sans paroles, Luce Dufault takes over from Judi Richards — who had pretty much delivered the entirety of her soul on the original 1975 version, in my opinion. Yet Dufault’s vocal performance is just as moving, despite the fact that it would have been very difficult to match Richards’ original performance. “There’s something about Luce’s version, when she gets into the higher register, that just tears you apart,” admits Fiori. “It’s not the same as the original — it’s less polished. Simon changed a note where she goes even higher, and it’s truly gorgeous.”

Just like in the movies

Leclerc’s approach turns Harmonium into movie music, and the result is stunning. Some of the arrangements are downright epic, to which Fiori absolutely concurs. “There are parts where it straight-up sounds like Ben-Hur!” he adds excitedly.

Leclerc, however, tempers Fiori’s excited reading. “Yes, there are moments like that, because I judged that the music needed that kind of depth in order to match the emotional curve of the piece,” he concedes. “In the original recording, when Serge hits a high and loud note and the band really leans into it, that’s a pretty emotionally charged moment. When you transpose those moments to an orchestral setting, it inevitably sounds big and loud. But there are also soft, tender moments in the piece. I don’t want everyone to think it’s just the Ben-Hur soundtrack! (laughs)”

Simon Leclerc and Serge Fiori

Both of the creators are open to the music being used in a potential film project — and are even open to the work being chopped up for that purpose. “It’s all still open, because there’s something that floats about the way Simon adapted the songs,” says Fiori.

One question remains: how does one turn the Maison symphonique into a studio that can record film music? “It was pretty complicated,” explains Leclerc. “It’s a space that sounds extraordinary for an orchestra, but to obtain a more cinematic sound, we had to make a few modifications by putting panels in certain areas, changing the microphones we used to record brass, and so on.”

What’s more – they had to execute all of this with social distancing in mind! “We had to essentially double the width of the stage, which wound up being 72 feet by 72 feet,” explains Simon Leclerc. “We had to add intercoms so I could speak to the musicians at the back of the room, saying stuff like “Hello, timbales, could you take it down a notch?” It was crazy!” Both Leclerc and Fiori laugh heartily at the memory, and I laugh along with them.

The wisdom of the fool

For the studio mix, both artists worked “stuck to each other,” as Fiori puts it. For Leclerc, it was obvious from the beginning that the sounds would not be put together using their original track listing. “I wanted to adapt, to arrange, to orchestrate and see what each piece had to offer in order to create a brand new narrative structure,” he says. “In fact, I wanted them all to stand on their own merits.”

In the end, they chose to finish the album with “Comme un fou” (Like a fool), the song that opened the album L’heptade. It bears reminding that L’heptade, Harmonium’s most experimental album, ends with the track Comme un sage (Like a wise man). That change has to be a deliberate comment on the times, does it not? “In fact, I like the idea of switching those two songs because I think those two states of being are pretty much two sides of the same coin,” says Fiori. Neither creator, it must be said, is sad when faced with the idea of presenting their work during the pandemic – quite the opposite, in fact.

“Now is the time when people most need beauty,” says Leclerc.

“In any case, working on this in the spring did us a lot of good,” adds Fiori.

It’s true that Harmonium’s music has a beneficial effect on the listener. It was what played on a loop in the hospital room where my stepfather spent his last days, filtering out of a CD player lent to him by the staff of the palliative care unit. I’m convinced he would have loved this symphonic reinterpretation of these works.

Though many people discover Harmonium through their first record, whose admittedly poppier songs are still in regular radio rotation, I discovered them at age 13 when I was given a tape copy of L’heptade. The way I see it, this new orchestral project functions best as a response to that specific masterwork — it may well be its logical endpoint. In that sense, I don’t know if Harmonium’s “loose ends” will ever be tied up, but Fiori seems at peace and content with his work, and that’s beautiful to see.

translation by Alex Rose

Harmonium Symphonique will be broadcast on ICI Musique on Sunday, Dec. 6, 12 p.m. and Dec. 25, 12 a.m. It is also available in various formats (digital, compact disk, vinyl) here.

For more Montreal music coverage, please visit the Music section.