It is great to witness the development and growth of an artistic couple. Mathieu Karsenti and Marie Awadis have met a few years back through Haruki — a compilation project in honour of Haruki Murakami — and since then have developed an artistic relationship which has not only been successful, but thrilling to observe. Clair-obscur, which has just been released, is their third collaboration, after Under Piano Skies and Piano Paintings. If for these projects Awadis is the voice of Karsenti — and Karsenti the creative flame —, what is important to observe and pay attention to is how the two of them have evolved into one single musical unit, release after release.
The subject of painting has been at the forefront of their collaborations, and this time it is the clair-obscur, or chiaroscuro, which takes the focus. A well-known fine art technique, clair-obscur means light-dark, and refers to clear tonal contrasts which are often used to suggest the volume and modelling of the subjects depicted. Artists who are famed for the use of chiaroscuro include Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio, and for Karsenti’s own influence, the works of Bacon.
What strikes the most in this third collaboration — and from “Outrenoir”—, is how Karsenti’s writing for piano has evolved over time. It is indeed a lot more pianistic; one can observes how the composer’s understanding of the instrument, its mechanism, its qualities, has evolved. One can hear pianist patterns borrowed from Debussy — but also Chopin and Liszt, to which we owe much of the instrument’s vocabulary and grammar. However, that does not steer away from Karsenti’s compositional instinct and one can picture himself going from places to places, discovering the musical canvas, reflecting, as the composer’s intentions, its lights and shades.
The album is all about contrasts of darkness and lightness. If not only in the titles, it is surely in the intentions of the artists; going from shades of black to shades of white. This is done through several musical devices, such as intensity, speed, rhythm, harmonic rhythm. All is well expressed in “White penumbra” for instance, where Awadis alternates from excitement to relief, from saturation of sounds to space and rest.
Karsenti makes use of the natural acoustic nature of the instrument; when it gets lower it naturally darkens, while when it gets higher the brightness appears again. This is extremely clear in “Noire Lumière”. In this particular piece, the melodic choices of the composer are simply divine. There is no intention of clear direction but rather a wish for speech and spontaneity of ideas, with a progression which is natural and coherent.
Out of the three of Karsenti and Awadis’ collaborations, Clair-obscur is perhaps the work which has the clearest creative intentions; and the result is very enjoyable for the listener and his understanding and appreciation of the work. The evident contrast between two extremes is very well musically crafted and interpreted. Whether it is in the composition or in the performance, the listener is guided towards a certain understanding of the works, and is accompanied in his own reflections and the impressions he gets from them.
On a personal note, Clair-obscur is most probably my favourite release from Karsenti and Awadis!