04.12.2019 #music

Christophe Chassol

“Harmonizing reality”

People of my generation were more interested in electro while I loved Jerry Goldsmith.

On December 4th, Christophe Chassol offered Parisians a rare experience: a concert at the Place Vendôme as part of an end-of-year event organized by Cartier. The musician, film music composer and arranger, pianist and performer composed a poetic and captivating Christmas score exclusively for Cartier. He partnered with the Orchestre de Paris choir and its conductor Lionel Sow to perform in collaboration with Art Bridge. Christophe Chassol entered the Conservatory at the age of four and made a lasting impression both for his musical mastery and for the eclectic variety of his references: from Busta Rhymes to Frank Ocean and Solange (with whom he collaborated), from Stephen Sondheim’s work (he was listening to the original music of “Into the Woods” when he opened his door to greet me) to Brian de Palma’s films to Jim Henson’s experiments (which he enthusiastically showed me on YouTube), Christophe Chassol has built an extensive music culture supported by a passion for cinema in the 1970s. When he talks about his music, Chassol often uses the term “film”. That’s because in his country, image and sound are one and the same. A vision that inspired the “ultrascores”, a way, as he explains, of “harmonizing reality”… 

You gave an interview for France Inter at the very beginning of the year where you talked about your plans for 2019. Now that we are nearing the end of the year, here’s the same question, but in the opposite direction: what did you do this past year?

Since 2011, each year has been busier and busier! It started off pretty well because I worked on my last film, which is both an album and a show, “Ludi”. In the fall of 2018, I worked non-stop on editing, writing, composition… I had this deadline of January 11th to play a piece that I had not yet written. We played a first version in Flagey in Belgium, so the year started with this concert, then we continued with other dates, six or seven times before the start of the school year: Jazz in Vienna, Jazz in Montreux, in Japan four times, in Alfortville, in Nantes… Throughout this time, I was mixing and recording the record. I also composed a film score for a director named Jean-Pascal Zadi, for his film “Tout simplement Noir” (Gaumont), a very funny comedy that will be released earlier this year.

“Ludi” is a project we’ve already heard about. Do you consider it as an end-to-end story, or a composition of several pieces?

It is a construction, an exploration of the theme of: the game. I started from Hermann Hesse’s book, “The Glass Bead Game”, which is a utopian novel from the 1940s that tells the story of a child throughout his life and who becomes the “Ludi Magister”, the Master of the glass bead game. This game – which is never described in the book – is in a way the cornerstone of this world, a utopian province where there are only researchers. I also read Roger Caillois’ work on the classification of games (competition, chance, simulacrum, and vertigo). I went to shoot playful scenes: a schoolyard at recess, a basketball game, an amusement park and arcade games in Tokyo… and I asked singers to sing the melodies I had extracted from these documentary shoots with a green screen background. There are thirty songs on the disc, which can be distinguished in five parts. There are quite a few speakers: Crystal Kay, a Japanese pop star who is a friend and who I filmed in an elevator with an incredible view of all of Tokyo. We went up and down for two hours! I took some lines from her and she becomes a bit of a common thread in the film. There is also the English singer Ala.ni, my sister Carine Chassol, my drummer Mathieu Edward, Thomas de Pourquery, Alice Lewis, Alice Orpheus, Jocelyn Mienniel on the flute… so many people! Mostly friends, in fact, who all came together for this hour-long film.

2019 is also the release of Solange’s new album that you worked on.

Yes, we worked together early last year. She lives in New Orleans, and in 2008 the Contemporary Arts Centers New Orleans (CACNO) commissioned a piece from me, which resulted in “Nola Cherie” (which I then released on CD with Tricatel in 2011). It was my first film. A few years later, I did “Big Sun”, which since then has had a somewhat museum-like life, is on exhibition regularly and travels quite a bit. Solange saw it in a museum and called me to suggest that I open two concerts for her. It was at Radio City Music Hall in New York, a huge hall that is incredible and also very old school, and at the Greek Theatre in San Francisco. After that, she asked me if we wanted to come and see her in Los Angeles, where she had rented a house to record her album. We worked for five whole days, and then I asked if I could interview her. From this interview, I extracted some of the things she said and I harmonized it, which gave birth to three tracks on the album, and one of them, “Things I Imagined’, ended up being the first track.

Sound and image seem to be inseparable for you, and I understand that you really like cinema, especially Brian De Palma’s films.

I discovered the music of film with Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone: “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly“My Name is Nobody”“Duck, You Sucker!”, “Once Upon a Time in America”… I really studied the music of these films in particular. There was John Williams from Steven Spielberg films, and also Jerry Goldsmith. There were so many films from the late 1960s and early 1970s… I really liked their aesthetics, the way they were shot, their themes that combined politics and paranoia. I discovered Brian De Palma when I was a teenager with “Carrie“. I also love photography, and Vilmos Zsigmond, who had also worked on “The Deer Hunter“, was the director of photography for the film. There seems to be a sort of veil over the camera – I even heard  that it was because he put milk on it! It’s an image I love, and it’s found in a lot of Brian De Palma’s films, including “Obsession“. I love that De Palma’s films were thrillers, that there was a bit of the paranormal, plus voyeurism themes, long traveling shots like in “Blow Out” where Travolta is a sound recorder, or the scenes in supermarkets, museums where he follows women. There’s something perverse about it, but his way of filming is incredible, as is his use of music. De Palma is a fan of Hitchcock, so he worked with Bernard Hermann, then when he died he chose Pino Donaggio (“Carrie”, “Blow Out”, “Dressed to Kill”, “Body Double”…). He had a real signature. Synchronization, camera movements, music… that’s what I loved when I was a teenager.

Is your movie knowledge something you have learned on your own? I imagine you’re not taught that at the Conservatory?

No, it’s really personal pop culture, but it comes from my studies at the Conservatory. Obviously I was interested in the orchestra part of music for films. People of my generation were more interested in electro (Goblins or John Carpenter), while I loved Jerry Goldsmith (“Planet of the Apes”, “The Curse”…). These are just a few of my idiosyncrasies.  I discovered not so long ago that I am in fact a geek!

It also shows that you have a deep curiosity.

I don’t know if I’m particularly curious. Anyway, I know what I like, and I don’t necessarily go looking elsewhere. I come across something I love every three months and I look at it and listen to it obsessively.

What are you listening to today?

I listen to a lot of rap music, but more to specific songs. I grew up with Busta Rhymes, Slum Village… and today I listen to people like Playboi Carti, who is on Solange’s album. He works with a producer named Pi’erre Bourne. There are also the members of Odd Future who I met via Frank Ocean… In another vein, when I listen to Stephen Sondheim’s songs, like “Into the Woods” or “Sunday in the Park with George“, there I have all the things I love that are mixed: I have the impression that I’m listening to Magma with orchestra (I love Magma and we will record with them in December). I also listen to a lot of classical Indian music. Let’s say that in today’s music world, there are songs here and there that I like, but I often find the sounds too “clean”! That doesn’t mean I don’t like anything new of course, I loved Solange’s latest album, I really like an artist named Anderson .Paak. In France, people like Aquaserge, Lucie Antunes, Jocelyn Mienniel… In reality, I’ve been listening to the same things for a long time, and I haven’t finished listening to them because they’re really great.

Let’s talk about the “ultrascores”, this unique process that you’ve named. How did you come up with the idea of taking the images and sounds and harmonizing them?

Since I was a teenager, I wanted to compose film music. After graduating from high school, I studied philosophy, but I always worked on the side: I gave piano lessons, I was a copyist for the Sacem, I made arrangements, I was a pianist for groups, and I made a lot of music for advertising and television. For that, the technical process is to have a software in which you import the video and write your music in sync. I’ve been used to doing this since I was twenty years old: taking video and giving it its own soundtrack, being able to “cut” it, manipulate it, pull it, use it as a sample… When YouTube came along, I started to harmonize a lot of videos: passages from films by directors I love, documentaries like those by Johan van der Keuken or Chris Marker with “Sans soleil”. These are very free forms of documentary that made me think. That’s kind of what the Kubricks or the Hitchcocks of the world do. With YouTube, I started to take ownership of videos and noticed that I could, thanks to techniques I had known for a long time such as speech harmonization (with Hermeto Pascoal or Steve Reich in the 1980s and 1990s), find the notes of each spoken syllable or any sound. It’s basically concrete music. By adding these techniques together, extracting the melody from any scene and recording it in sync as the action takes place, you get a soundtrack that becomes extreme, super objective music that uses the sound elements of the film. And just for fun, when I was looking for a name for this, I called it the “ultrascore” – as if it was a superhero! I don’t claim to have invented something, there are many contemporary artists who have done it before me. For example, Jim Henson (the creator of The Muppet Show) who made films in the 1960s, including “Timepiece” in 1965.

This month you collaborated with Cartier by composing original Christmas music for them. Can you tell me about how this came about and the concert on the Place Vendôme?

Earlier in the year, I participated in the launch of “Clash de Cartier”, and I did two performances: one where I accompanied a calligraphy and a second with Golshifteh Farahani and both experiences were great. For their Christmas celebration night, they asked me to write a 15-20 minute piece of music. Something modern, with all the tradition of Christmas music. It is a collaboration with the singers of the Orchestre de Paris choir, and their conductor Lionel Sow. It will be broadcast in their shop with a binaural installation, i.e. the sound moves using several speakers. We will also perform this piece in concert with the choir on Place Vendôme (the interview took place the day before the concert, editor’s note). I studied in the United States and there is really a top level Christmas orchestration there. I enjoyed writing this song where I had things like celesta, French horns, flutes, choir, warm chords that come from jazz but are at the same time quite modern… And then I used techniques of speech harmonization. I looked at all the Queen of England’s Christmas speeches and found a moment that really communicated the message of Christmas. I turned this passage into a melody, I stretched it out, I let the choir bring it to life with their voices I was inspired by the rather minimalist Steve Reich style processes, where things aggregate and evolve gradually.

Did you approach this project differently from more personal projects?

The most important thing is to make sure that we’re all happy with it, and above that I am happy with, so that I can progress in my research, so it can challenge me. We have to make sure that we fill in the specifications, but also that it goes beyond them, so I approach things with the same seriousness. I wrote it in four or five days (and nights!), which is a rather long process. Then I had to write the scores, proceed with the recording, communicate with the choir director so that he could conduct his singers.



Earlier you mentioned artists. You are no stranger to contemporary art, you have worked with Sophie Calle and more recently with Xavier Veilhan on the occasion of the Venice Biennale.

We had been talking about the Biennale with Xavier for a while. It was a really great experience to work with him on his French Pavilion, which he had transformed into a recording studio. A lot of musicians followed each other for six months, and I stayed there for about five days. I had a job to do for a contemporary art museum in Montreal, as part of an exhibition on Leonard Cohen. I had chosen one of his videos from the 1960s that I had harmonized and turned  into song. The visitors were all walking by while I was working. And when you see people passing by, you tend to want to “perform” for them. So while visitors came to see the musician’s work, I filmed girls on the edge of the canal and I harmonized the video to create the “Teenaging” video.

You said somewhere that ultrascores were a way of “harmonizing reality”. Can we say that this is a contemporary artist’s approach? How do you define yourself?

I define myself as a musician, but I know that in many situations, I am defined as an artist. The way we define ourselves changes over the years. In my early days, I said I was more of a composer because I wanted to become one, and I forced myself to say that in order to make it a reality. For me, a musician seems more humble, more global.

If you had to name only one composer as your ultimate reference, who would it be?

I’ll say Ennio Morricone. I could say Ravel, Stravinsky, Bartok or Zappa, but Morricone has developed a style that is recognizable among thousands. He has composed classical music, film music, jazz, avant-garde music… He has managed to be both ultra popular and ultra learned and today the whole world hums his compositions.

We started by talking about 2019. What’s in store for you in 2020?

All good things! A tour for “Ludi”, some film music, a Reich play, “Six Pianos” that I sometimes play on tour, recordings, research…

Interview: Maxime Der Nahabédian

Photos: Jean Picon / Nicolas Stajic

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