French musician Bertrand Laurence tells stories with music. Credit: Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — Leaving behind a Boston arts legacy, a French composer and musician is creating new sounds drawn from his heritage and the beauty of the Aroostook County sky. 

Obsessed with the power of sound, Bertrand Laurence of Houlton said the city’s noise pollution became toxic over time, and the silence in his new life is inspiring fresh musical journeys. Drawn to the vibrant reds of a County sunset, Laurence recently created “Houlton Skies,” a slideshow with original music. The final image will be of next year’s eclipse, he said.  

“Music is a timeless goddess who organizes the universe,” said Laurence. “She is the connector of souls.”

Born in Rouen, Normandy, Laurence moved to Houlton about two years ago with his musician wife, Susan Lee Laurence, her father, the Rev. Kwan Lee, former minister of Houlton’s United Methodist Church, and 2-year-old toy poodle Poppy. Their daughter, poet Sophie Laurence, is a senior at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

Music is a great healer, he said.

His parents, Hubert Laurence and Fatima Ben Ibrik, were traumatized by World War II.

“They were kids and emotionally they saw and experienced things that little kids should not experience,” he said. “There were German soldiers living in my mother’s home.”

His grandfather, Robert Laurence, wrote for the local papers in Normandy and his grandmother, Jeanne Laurence, wrote a French Resistance column during WWII, “Tribunes Féminines” (Women’s Chronicles), an early expression of modern feminism, he said.

Robert Laurence was sent to the concentration camps because of his journalistic writings and work with the French Resistance. While at the Theresienstad t camp in Czechoslovakia, French surrealist poet Robert Desnos died in Laurence’s grandfather’s arms along a road just days after liberation in 1945, he said.

His mother’s father, Ben Ibrek Ben Houssein, was African and performed all over Europe with the  Sarasini Circus, and his mother’s mother, Gertrude Appel, joined the circus as a violinist.

French musician Bertrand Laurence has performed internationally and now, after a recent move to Houlton, teaches music and has played in multiple Aroostook County venues. Credit: Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli / Houlton Pioneer Times

During his childhood his parents masked the remnants of their childhood pain with alcohol, and the only time his parents were completely happy was when they played music, he said, adding that he could see the pain fall away with music.

He got his love of New Orleans jazz and blues from his dad and American rock’n roll from his mother, he said, momentarily stopping to play and sing a bit of   Big Bill Broonzy’s “Hey, Hey.”

Laurence’s musical influences also include Jelly Roll Morton, Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones and Arthur Smith Guitar  Boogie. American music pulled him to America, he said.

“America came and freed up Europe and France, but their music healed us. That was truly where the liberation was from, the jukeboxes that the GIs brought,” he said.

In 1979, Laurence left Paris for the Berklee College of Music in Boston and has stayed in New England ever since.

For several years he worked with an improv dance company. He lived with artists, dancers, photographers in the old Chickering Piano Factory, a live-in studio haven for Boston creatives. He has penned musical scores, performed in New Orleans and most of New England, at the Montreal Jazz Festival, Lafayette International and the NYC International Buskers Ball. Laurence even worked at a Boston homeless shelter, teaching music, for eight years, and a piece on one of his CDs was written by a homeless man he worked with, he said.

In Houlton, he created the music for a murder mystery dinner at Shire Ale House just last week — a combination of silent movie scoring and improv theater scoring, he said.

Pulling from memories of great orchestral pieces written for French radio murder mystery theater, the kind that terrorized him as a kid, he created analog and digital sound effects for the local show, he said.

As a kid, he was hypnotized by the sound of creaky doors, the midnight footsteps, he said, sharing the story of how he scored the music for a recent version of the rare silent film, “Sur un air de Charleston,” directed by Jean Renoir in 1927.

For silent films, Laurence’s music is often a mashup of ragtime, swing, blues, boogie woogie, bluegrass, classical and satirical and caricatural cliches, he said.

He also composed the film scores for 2019’s “Joan Walsh Anglund: Life in Story and Poem,” 2017’s “The Reaver” and “Giddy in Love” in 2012.

Since coming to The County, he said he has more gigs, including the  Acadian Festival in Madawaska, than he could have imagined and his guitar classes in person and online are flourishing. He’s on several local committees to attract visitors to the area and said he sees much potential for Houlton.

Laurence is considering a New England performance tour, but he’s just letting the pieces fall where they may.

“Here in Houlton, I’m still open to a big surprise,” he said. “I’m hooked on Houlton.”

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Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...