On the back of Jane Birkin's return to the stage with 'Gainsbourg Symphonic' at the Barbican last month, Herbert contributor, Faye Fearon explores the relationship between iconic model, actress and singer Jane Birkin and French composer Serge Gainsbourg and how it extended through to classical music.
Photograph by Tony Frank | La Galerie De L'Instant
Jane Birkin’s life mirrors a symphony. Movement after movement, her years of ageing have marked her transitions from one chain of a composition to another. Acting opened her illustrious interlude, followed by a blossoming relationship with Serge Gainsbourg, which subsequently led to a transition into recording music. Her final movement? A solidification of iconicity. She’s cemented a lifelong ability to exude a charming, charismatic aura, no matter what field she dips into. Her symphony has yet to come to a close, and that is in part thanks to her most recent ode to her former lover through the aid of the orchestral field.
Birkin’s move into the field of music was almost inevitable when she met musical situationist Serge Gainsbourg in 1966. He was the 20th Century Baudelaire, she was his awaiting muse and future French-adoptee. The seal between the pair and their romanticised success? Charming production – which in part was orchestral. Take Melody Nelson: the couple’s poetic record of hip hits following on from their famed – albeit banned – Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus. Gainsbourg collaborated with composer and arranger Jean-Claude Vannier for the album, creating lavishly semi-orchestrated songs that in turn rejected conventions of early 70s French rock. But it wasn’t solely limited to this – the constant fusion of a pulsing bass gave it a modern feel. And that's precisely why it worked. Because – as was always fitting to Gainsbourg – he exhibited an instinct to produce startling content for practically any given form. He addressed just about any genre in an abstract manner – jazz, electronica, mambo, yé yé, funk, rock – they all became infused with a sense of ‘sergeness' that is almost impossible to be recreated. But it can be honoured. Birkin stands in a unique position in reinterpreting his music – she can re-address and perform lyrics that are actually about her. And upon the observation that Gainsbourg had often been inspired by classical music within his work, it seemed only honourable that a symphonic project be the answer for her latest album.
"Jane Birkin’s life mirrors a symphony. Movement after movement, her years of ageing have marked her transitions from one chain of a composition to another."
Birkin is evidently a star in her own right, but she refuses to distance herself from her former partner. She’s endlessly honouring and reinventing his work – the latest creation of which comes just this year. 25 years on from Gainsbourg’s death in 1991, her fresh studio album is comprised of a staggering 21 songs, all classics from the French-man and herself. The difference? They all have a modern symphonic twist. Gainsbourg Symphonic has been arranged by Japanese composer Nobuyki Nakajima with artistic direction from Phlippe Lerichomme. It follows suit from the 2010 reissue of the 1969 acclaimed Jane Birkin et Serge Gainsbourg. Just when you thought the pairs compositions couldn’t be any more illustrious, these melodramatic interpretations are even further overblown, setting the tone as a sublime soundtrack in search of a movie. Birkin’s arrangements with her collaborators respond intuitively to the twists in Gainsbourg’s ever-probing language and narratives. Yet she breathes new life into them – naturally through replacing his husky sonorous vocal monotone with her own singular soft and lilting voice.
Jane Birkin - Gainsbourough Symphony | The Barbican, Sept 2017
That fact was proven so to London last month. Birkin took to stage in The Barbican Centre to perform the symphonic as part of her worldwide orchestral tour. She enlisted the help of the Surrey based Heritage Orchestra, who have previously performed with Björk, Hot Chip and Massive Attack. Entering the venue encircled with ornate wood panelling revealed the array of cultures venturing to see her – but, as part-anticipated, English and French dominated. For the French, lyrics were poetic testaments of riotous, sensual wordplay. Several song conclusions received responses of “ouiiiiiiiii – bravo!!’ (and quite rightly so). For the English, literal translations of the poetic lyrics were not quite so determined. But the language barrier served little limitation in seeing their beauty, for it simply amplified the orchestral arrangements that drove them. Thanks to the orchestra – you were always aware of the topic matter, whether that be an exploration of dark, obsessional lust (cue the brass and timpani) or heavenly and sensual love (cue flares of strings and woodwind). Birkin’s concert was a flowing transition between the two.
Standout performances included Requiem pour un con – a faithful adaptation of a nostalgic anthem through a dominating snare and repetitive brass beat, as well as La Javanaise – a melancholic ballad stripped down to strings and piano making Birkin’s voice comfortably blend in with her orchestra. And it was needed – for Gainsbourg’s song was a most sincere ode to his lover – ‘In dancing the Javanaise, we loved each other for the length of a song’. Aware of the lyrics or not, this matter was evident through Birkin’s synonymous relationship with her accompanists. Her privilege to serve as the voice atop it all was as prominent as the symphonies themselves.
Photograph by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Ultimately – the album and concert were tributes. Despite her often delicate and shy presence, Birkin openly addressed that fact to her audience. “One thing that you don’t know is that you had the very best of me,” she warmly revealed. “I think that’s very true, and I’d like to thank Serge for that. I know that he would have been moved to tears tonight.” Gainsbourg’s musical style may have been difficult to specifically pinpoint and categorise, but if there’s one thing cemented, it’s his legacy. That’s mainly down to Jane Birkin, whose enduring appeal lies in her desire to keep the poetry of her late husband alive. Just as the names Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin have become synonymous, so too has Jane and her relationship with classical music. The two go hand in hand, for they both denote a pure sense of ardour. Jane would frequently observe the orchestra when not singing, applaud them with the audience at the end of each song, and kissed the hand of a lead violinist following a phenomenal solo. As was similar for her former lover, she proved her ability to transgress expectations. That quality was perhaps aided by Serge: The Renaissance Man. As the woman behind the charm in his music – be it dramatic or comical – Birkin has made sure it is always endlessly moving. Gainsbourg Symphonic demonstrates with great willingness her ability to do what her former lover had: elevate song to the level of art. Today – orchestrally enveloped art.
Most view Jane Birkin as a romantic through her modern-day depiction: the inspiration behind that Hermès bag, the fashion icon solidifying sartorial symbiosis between Brit-hip and French-chic, and the throwback photos of her love affair with Gainsbourg. That affair was mirrored through music – passionate, poetic, and utterly Parisian. Shouldn’t that dreamed-of Parisian love be orchestrated in the most powerful way possible? Therefore – through an orchestra? Birkin evidently agrees, and her listeners did too – for the concerts conclusion of Jane B and Mon Amour was met with a ten minute standing ovation. Despite being fifty years on from their illustrious love affair, you couldn’t help but feel Gainsbourg’s presence constantly throughout the two hours Birkin sang her heart out. And through her totally symphonic reimagined renditions, a fresh dose of life has been breathed into what will long be iconic music. Much like Jane Birkin, it’s an ever-pleasing sight and sound.