Over the last couple of years, the French composer Mathieu Karsenti has cultivated a steady creative flow, through several projects and collaborations, as well as film music. Each of his solo albums has been an opportunity for the musician to grow and expand his knowledge and creative versatility; in order words, when it comes to his own music, it is under the brief of exploration that Karsenti creates. It would seem that he amuses himself at surprising the listener, at being where he is not expected. For this latest project, Exchanges, the surprise lives in both the form and the content. The form; through his collaboration with Josh Doughty on the African harp — the kora — and the content; rather than a direction from the composer to the performer it is an exchange between both musicians.
It is not new for Karsenti to venture in the waters of international music and less-known instruments — such as the Japanese shō, and its aitaké chords for Aitaké. And it is this time with an instrument that evokes lightness and aeriality — I found it to be somewhere between the guitar and the harp — “Uplift” — , that the composer surprises. Dougthy, who performs on all five pieces of Exchanges, seamlessly brings this traditional instrument in modern territories, and makes it sound at home.
What makes this project so interesting is the difference between the two worlds; as described by the artists, it is an unusual fusion between both musical sensibilities. Karsenti, a composer for screen, is very much used to writing following rules and visual indications, and Doughty’s world is improvisation-based. Additionally, African music —where the instrument originates from — is strongly rhythmically beat-driven, which is something that Karsenti has been drifting away since Downstream Blue, and Exchanges is no exception.
But Karsenti’s arrangements of strings and modern effects blend perfectly with the kora — “Oscillate” — and provide it with a ground that is at times at the back, and at others at the front — “Nurture”. At other times, some of the music — “Volutes” — would even remind me of the works of the French duo Air.
The composer’s music always makes sense when perceived in its entirety; although all charming independent pieces, it is really a story telling, and throughout the album one can easily understand how each piece moves to the other.
Each of Karsenti’s releases seems to grow from the other and slowly morphing into the next one; one can hear some of Karsenti’s musical adventures fading away, while some new appear. In Exchanges, it is the ghost of Debussy that still haunts the release — “Ascend” —, to the listener’s great joy.
Exchanges has been released on Karsenti’s newly founded 101075, a new label for modern classical fusion music on the edge. It comes after the composer’s detour with Slowcraft Records; what has been an opportunity for him to slow down and focus on elasticity rather than multiplicity. This recent release retains some of the atoms of the previous works, while, as always, aiming in a new direction. Dougthy’s performance blends perfectly with Karsenti’s writing; both aim at expression, sensitivity and delicacy. I have often found the composer’s projects to be very solid and coherent; with Exchanges it feels that there is less a sense of cohesion and more of a sense of freedom, for both artists.