Musical Borrowing
An Annotated Bibliography

Individual record

[+] Givan, Benjamin. “How Mimi Perrin Translated Jazz Instrumentals into French Song.” American Music 34 (Spring 2016): 87-109.

French literary translator Mimi Perrin’s vocalese songs for her vocal jazz group, Les Double Six, offer a unique perspective on the interrelationships between music, language, and culture through her adoption of literary translation aesthetics in a musical practice. Vocalese is a vocal jazz practice in which a singer sets lyrics to an instrumental solo and transforms it into a song. While this practice was not invented by Perrin, what sets her versions apart is the careful way she writes her lyrics so that the vocal sounds produced by the singers mimic the instrumental sounds of the source material. Perrin composed her vocalese by first translating instrumental sounds into phonemes: saxophone attacks become labiodental fricatives, brass attacks become alveolar plosives, and so on. The semantic meaning of the text is secondary to the process of translating instrumental sounds into French phonology. In translation terms, what Perrin does is a kind of homophonic intersemiotic translation, approximating the sounds of a non-linguistic text but not necessarily its meaning. This contrasts with contemporary American vocalese composer Jon Hendricks, who begins with a semantic connection to the instrumental pieces he sets rather than a phonemic connection. To non-French-speakers, Perrin’s translations provide a sonic experience somewhere in between hearing (but not understanding) a French text and hearing nonsense scat syllables. The aesthetics of literary translation further inform what Perrin does with her music. In order to capture the rhythmic feel of swing, Perrin modifies her French with an unusual number of elisions and monosyllabic words, even to the point of confusing some French speakers. Beyond their importance as metaphorical translations of instrumental music, Perrin’s vocalese songs exemplify the cross-cultural translation and adaptation at the heart of global jazz culture.

Works: Mimi Perrin (lyricist and arranger): Blues in Hoss’ Flat (93), Doodlin’ (94), La complainte du bagnard (94-95), Les quatre extra-terrestres (96-97), A Night in Tunisia (99) Un tour au bois (99-100); Jon Hendricks (lyricist and arranger): Doodlin’ (93), Moanin’ (95); Four Brothers (97)

Sources: Count Basie Orchestra: Blues in Hoss’ Flat (93); Horace Silver: Doodlin’ (93); Bobby Timmons: Moanin’ (94-95); Jimmy Giuffre: Four Brothers (96-97); Dizzy Gillespie: A Night in Tunisia (99); Quincy Jones: Walkin’ (99-100)

Index Classifications: 1900s, Jazz

Contributed by: Matthew Van Vleet

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Musical Borrowing and Reworking - - 2024
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