Harmonium

Harmonium was a Québécois symphonic-folk band that released the 1974–75 Célébration albums Harmonium and Les Cinq Saisons, followed by the 1976 CBS double-album L’heptade.

Members: Serge Fiori (guitar, flute, vocals), Michel Normandeau (guitar, vocals, 1972-76), Louis Valois (guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals, 1973-78), Serge Locat (keyboards, 1975-77), Pierre Daigneault (flute, saxophone, clarinet, 1975-76), Robert Stanley (guitar, vocals, 1976-78), Denis Farmer (drums, 1976-78), Libert Subirana (flute, saxophone, clarinet, 1976-78), Monique Fauteux (keyboards, vocals, 1976-78), Jeff Fisher (keyboards, 1977-78)


Background

Harmonium sprung from a songwriting partnership between singing guitarists Serge Fiori and Michel Normandeau, who met during a music theater meeting in late 1972. Fiori hailed from the garage-psych combo Les Comtes Harbourg, which issued the 1968 single “Jeune Fille de Couvent” (b.w “L’Humanite”). As a member of Morphus, he played on a 1971 album credited to Guy Trépanier.

In 1973, Fiori and Normandeau teamed with bassist Louis Valois and named their project Harmonium after the 18th century reed organ. After several months on the local cafe circuit, they visited Montreal’s CHOM-FM and performed three on-air originals: “Pour un instant,” “Un musicien parmi tant d’autres,” and its unrecorded sequel, “Un refrain parmi tant d’autres.” They signed with Célébration, a subsidiary of Quality Records Limited.


Harmonium

Harmonium released their self-titled debut album on February 20, 1974, on Célébration. Each side features two compositions (A2, A3, B3, B4) by singer–flutist Serge Fiori, who co-wrote the remaining songs with harpist Michel Normandeau.

Normandeau sings backing vocals and doubles Fiori on acoustic six- and twelve-string guitar. Louis Valois plays bass, upright piano, and Fender Rhodes electric. For this release, Harmonium function as a trio with auxiliary drummer Réjean Émond, a onetime L’infonie associate. Select passages feature veteran jazz flugelhornist Alan Penfold.

A1. “Harmonium Suite” (6:30)
A2. “Si Doucement” (4:20)
A3. “Aujourd’hui, je dis Bonjour à la Vie” (5:45)
A4. “Vieilles Courroies” (5:40)

B1. “Attends-Moi” (4:29)
B2. “Pour un Instant” (3:16)
B3. “De la Chambre u Salon” (5:35)
B4. “Un Musicien Parmi Tant D’Autres” (7:02)

Sessions took place at Studio Tempo, a then-new Montreal facility (on McGill College Avenue) also used by fellow folksters Beau Dommage for their 1974 debut album. Both albums were engineered by Michel Lachance, a prior soundman for Offenbach, Roger Rodier, Vos Voisins, and The Wackers. Harmonium’s producer, R.A. Morten, worked on subsequent albums by Lynx and Sweet Blindness.

Harmonium appeared in a textured brass cover with a sideways, serif all-caps logo beside the reproduced image of a one-man-band sourced from Les costumes grotesques et les métiers, a series of late-17th-century engravings by French baroque artist Nicolas de Larmessin>.

Célébration lifted “Pour un Instant” as a single, backed with the non-album Fiori–Normandeau number “100,000 Raisons.” Harmonium promoted their hit across Canada, where the album reappeared on Atlantic (1975, mustard cover) and Polydor (1987).

In April 1974, L’infonie reedist Pierre Daigneault replaced Harmonium fourth-wheel Richard Beaudet, who sat out the recent sessions. On 4/27, they did an in-studio performance for the CBC Radio program The Entertainers. In August, they welcomed a fifth member: keyboardist Serge Locat, a onetime Catherine Lara sideman who impressed Fiori from a nearby studio.


Les Cinq Saisons

Harmonium released their second album, Les Cinq Saisons, on April 15, 1975, on Célébration. It marks their embrace of lavish symphonic-folk arrangements. Thematically, the lyrics invoke Québécois separatism with one song dedicated to each of the four seasons and a suite that outlines a make-believe fifth season.

Serge Fiori composed the lion’s share, including both sides of the album’s single (“Dixie,” “En Pleine Face”) and “Histoires sans Paroles,” a five-part suite that dominates Side B. Michel Normandeau had lyrical input in “Depuis l’automne,” Fior’s ten-minute opus. Serge, in turn, added words to Michel’s composition, “Vert.”

Both writers play guitar on Les Cinq Saisons, which features eclectic secondary instrumentation from Fiori (mandolin, zither, cymbals, bass drum, spoons) and Normandeau (accordion, dulcimer). Louis Valois plays bass and shares electric piano with Serge Locat, who also plays Mellotron and synthesizer. Pierre Daigneault plays recorder, piccolo, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, and transverse flute.

A1. “Vert” (Le printemps et l’arrivée des couleurs— 5:34)
A2. “Dixie (Une toune qui me revient)” (L’été et l’arrivée de la chaleur — 3:26)
A3. “Depuis l’automne” (L’automne et le départ de bien des choses — 10:25)

B1. “En Pleine Face” (L’hiver et le départ de bien des gens — 4:51) features guest Marie Bernard on the ondes Martenot, a theramin-like keyboard–string oscilator.
B2. “Histoires sans Paroles” (La cinquième saison — 17:12) features guest vocals by Toulouse singer Judi Richards (wife of comedian Yvon Deschamps, a Vos Voisins collaborator).
      I. “L’isolement”
      II. “L’appel”
      III. “La rencontre”
      IV. “L’union”
      V. “Le grand bal”

Harmonium co-produced Les Cinq Saisons with Studio Six staff engineer Peter Burns, a soundman on 1975–76 albums by Dionysos, Le Temps, and Michel Madore (Le Komuso à Cordes). Fiori’s onetime Morphus bandmate, Fred Torak, conducted string arrangements.

Marie Bernard appeared concurrently on Beau Dommage’s second album (Où est Passée la Noce?) and Diane Dufresne’s three-sided Sur la Même Longueur D’Ondes, both in lead-up to the singular album by her own band, Et Cetera.

Montrealer artist Louis-Pierre Bougie painted the Les Cinq Saisons gatefold and sleeve illustrations. On the watercolor outer-fold, the band appear perched on a valley in blue butterfly-bedecked overcoats, surrounded by sprouting purple tulips (with twin human-head stigmas) and nearby rabbits and angels.

The inner-gates present four bleak gray-scale columns — a family huddled in a forest; people cramped indoors; a crowd congested on a smoky street; a lone angel (color) with butterflies in a dead winter valley — captioned with the album’s subtitle, Si on avait besoin d’une cinquième saison (“If we needed a fifth season”). The inner-sleeve contains a sketch of the head-sprouting shrubbery with credits and the lyrics to “Depuis l’automne.”

Bougie later did artwork for Conventum (Le Bureau Central des Utopies) and a solo album by their guitarist, René Lussier.

Célébration lifted “Dixie” as a single (b/w “En Pleine Face”). Les Cinq Saisons achieved Platinum status in Canada with sales in excess of 100,000 copies. It earned the band two nominations at the second annual Juno Awards (Album of the Year, Group of the Year) and won them a contract with CBS.


L’heptade

Harmonium released their third album, L’heptade, on November 16, 1976, on CBS. It’s a two-record set (85:18 duration) with seven symphonic-folk epics by Serge Fiori, each surrounded by orchestral interludes (seven total, including the prologue and epilogue) composed and arranged by conductor–keyboardist Neil Chotem.

Fiori collaborated on the lyrics to four songs (A2, A4, B2, C1) with Michel Normandeau, who left Harmonium halfway through the sessions. Thematically, the songs concern seven facets of man’s internal daily turmoil.

L’heptade presents Harmonium as a four-piece band — Fiori, Serge Locat, Louis Valois, and new drummer Dennis Farmer — augmented with a five-piece string–reed section, four choral singers, and seven auxiliary musicians.

Fiori sings lead and choral vocals and plays six- and twelve-string electric and acoustic guitars. Bassist Valois doubles on Fender Rhodes electric piano and shares the Yamaha organ with pianist Locat, who also plays mellotron, synthesizer, and pipe organ. Normandeau (listed as an additional musician) adds acoustic guitar to the mix.

Musical guests include woodwind player Libert Subirana (multiple flute, sax, and clarinet), percussionist Louis Charbonneau, and Chotem himself, who plays piano, Fender Rhodes, synthesizer, and celesta on select passages. His son, Anthony Chotem, appears on classical guitar. The choral section includes singer–songwriter Richard Séguin.

A1. “Prologue” (4:20)
A2. “Comme un fou” (7:50)
A3. “Sommeil sans rêves” (1:25)
A4. “Chanson noire” (8:12)
      a. Le bien, le mal (3:39)
      b. Pour une blanche cérémonie (4:32)

B1. “L’appel” (0:12)
B2. “Le premier ciel” (11:09)
B3. “Sur une corde raide” (0:16)
B4. “L’exil” (12:38)

C1. “Le corridor” (6:40)
C2. “Les premières lumières” (1:30)
C3. “Lumières de vie” (14:11)
      a. Lumières de nuit (6:59)
      b. Éclipse (1:27)
      c. Lumière de jour (3:09)
      d. Lumière de vie (2:38)

D1. “Prélude d’amour” (0:41)
D2. “Comme un sage” (13:23)
D3. “Épilogue” (2:50)

Sessions spanned June to October 1976 at Studio Tempo with additional recordings at Vincent D’Indy School (Montreal) and the Fiori House (Saint-Césaire). The project cost $90,000, a then-unheard sum in the Québécois music industry, co-funded by CBS and the band.

Harmonium soundman Michel Lachance returned for L’heptade, which he produced amid sessions for concurrent titles by Beau Dommage and singer Patsy Gallant (“World of Fantasy”).

L’heptade appeared in a black-framed gatefold with red-tinted photos of an evening sky with heavy clouds. On reissues, the clouds appear with blue tints.

Harmonium promoted the album with high-profile European dates with Supertramp. L’heptade later certified as quadruple-Platinum with sales in excess of 400,000 copies.


Later Activity

Harmonium disbanded after the tour behind L’heptade. In 1978, Serge Locat surfaced with an instrumental solo album (Transfert) while Serge Fiori and Richard Séguin reappeared as a duo with Deux Cents Nuits à L’Heure, both released on CBS.

In 1980, CBS capitalized on Harmonium’s ongoing popularity with Harmonium en Tournée, a live double-album drawn from their June 20, 1977, concert at the Venue Malkin Bowl in Vancouver. Side B contains a twenty-minute version of “Le premier ciel.”


Discography:

  • Harmonium (1974)
  • Les Cinq Saisons (1975)
  • L’heptade (1976)
  • En tournée (live, 1980)

Sources:

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