With his most recent piano release — and fourth in collaboration with Marie Awadis —, Douce-Amère, French composer Mathieu Karsenti asks a question; how do you represent fragrance in musical form? The musician has been composing for the piano for quite some time now, and it feels that he has reached a turning point in his approach towards the instrument. If not in the richness of its musical ideas, it is definitely the project for piano which displays the most diversity in its vocabulary, as well as a technical expression of the ideas unheard until now. A three-part suite, Douce-Amère continues the idea of contrasting entities that Karsenti had started with Clair-Obscur.
Serge Lutens’ fragrance of the same name is at the origin of the project for Karsenti. Having worn it for over twenty years, it triggered the composer’s interest in translating the representation of the scent to music; bitter notes of artemisia, absinth, liquorice, marzipan, white florals and vanilla were the starting elements of Karsenti’s exploration. Composed of three pieces — and an expanded version of “Artemisia” released as a bonus track on the EP — Douce-Amère is an elegant blend of the composer’s deep roots in impressionism, and if not minimalist, strongly influenced by the bare ideas of repetitive and cellular music of Reich and Adams. Effects, symbolism and abstraction are there in good measures…The technique and musical vocabulary is much more piano-centred than it has been before, thanks to the contribution and knowledge of Awadis. “Artemisia” — both the music, and the plant — has a natural association with joy; a feeling that is suggested by the composer. The music is bright, rich in its harmonic language, diverse in its rhythmic approach, and with a strong sense of dynamic direction. “Bittersweet”, with its minimalistic cell structures, which alternate suddenly, is — if still evocative in Karsenti’s style — a lot less pictorial and gliding towards new musical forms. There is a use of more common musical terms and familiar structures— until now quite rare with Karsenti — such as with “Rhapsodie” which alternates episodic material, uneven rhythmic structures and variations in at times a more classical fashion. The arrangement — and bonus track — of “Artemisia” is heavily impressionistic, and brings the music to other musical dimensions. Ravel of course springs to mind, with an arrangement which blossoms and develops in a floral harmonic language. A dreamy way to finish the sensory voyage that is Douce-Amère.
The vocabulary of Karsenti has changed; in Douce-Amère it is a lot more tonal — not in a traditional sense, but through a structure which is less evocative and perhaps more descriptive. One can feel that the composer is now getting in a zone of comfort with the instrument too. The style of Karsenti is almost at times unrecognisable; which is a healthy sign of growth. One would want to know that for the first time ever, Karsenti indicates an intention; the one of inducing joy, the same as the one he has been experiencing with Lutens’ fragrance, and just like the scent, Douce-Amère promises to be enchanting.