WITH MATHIEU KARSENTI
During this interview, I change seat, place myself in front of another artist and ask him the questions I wish people asked me. Today, I speak to French composer Mathieu Karsenti. The London based multi award-winning composer for film, TV and stage has just released his latest project Movements; an opportunity for him to explore percussive patterns, contrapuntal parts and inventive sonic colour combinations.
Mathieu, tell us about Movements. Its concept is very unique and it has a very distinctive instrumentation that sets it apart from other projects. What started it all?
Put simply, Movements is all about the contrast between long notes and short notes! I’ve always been a fan of percussion and strings, and I decided to explore writing for marimba, piano, vibraphone and three solo violins, working in balance with each other—and with added FX. I love the contrast of the short attack of the percussions and the flowing lines that strings can give you.
I was searching to develop this concept for a while, and last year I came across professional musicians Joe Martone and his wife Jordan Ann on Instagram. I was very impressed by the standard of their works and decided to get in touch with them to record Movements.
At the same time, I was heavily listening to Jacques Loussier’s jazz re-workings of Bach’s catalogue—my current gym playlist—and that gave me an idea to explore further extended harmonies, polyrhythms and counterpoint.
In your recent projects, your choice of instrumentation is very interesting and in many cases unconventional. What motivates you and how does it emerge; does sound come first or musical texture is adapted later in the creative process?
I’m always looking for things around me that could trigger an idea. Often, the desire to write for an instrument comes first and that forms the basis for a body of work. I also like to explore what my composing voice responds to; whether it’s a series of chords—such as in Aitaké—, writing for solo cello—such as in Cello Prayers—or with Movements; percussion and strings.
At the basis, I have a need to learn new things and to put myself out of my comfort zone. And even if oftentimes the results are much simpler than the process, the creating path is always worth travelling on.
Some composers are very disciplined and write regularly, while others are more prone to bursts of creativity. Some sit in a silent room with a pen and paper, while others use the instrument and current technologies to translate their ideas. Mathieu, tell us about your creative process.
I basically write everyday and to me it’s very similar to exercising. If you exercise everyday, you get stronger and that’s what I want. I think creativity is a muscle and I certainly don’t wait for inspiration to come—I work at it! And that approach stems from my background in art and design.
I am not precious about my work so often things can get discarded or recycled easily. When scoring films or TV projects, your work goes through an approval process so you have to let go of certain ideas. When I work on my releases, I have the freedom to do what I want—but I always have an eye on creating a product that holds together conceptually.
I mostly use the computer to lay things out. I play various instruments—not very well!—so I also keep in mind that each sound, each instrument, should be performed by a person and should therefore be interesting to play! When I’m happy with a part that will be re-recorded by an actual musician, I put together rough scores. The magic happens when the musician interprets the music and brings it alive; it is such a great experience that's also part of the creative process.
I strongly believe that culture and nationality have an impact on what an artist creates. How do you feel your cultural background influences your music?
I totally agree. Growing up in the South of France, I was exposed to various cultures and music genres such as North African, African and Spanish music—also traditional French Chanson with Edith Piaf and Claude Nougaro, French Jazz with Michel Legrand, Stéphane Grappelli and Serge Gainsbourg, and of course our rich Classical music with Debussy, Ravel, Satie… On the English side of my family, I was also into the Beatles, 1960s Mods culture, Acid Jazz and Soul music; my mum was a big Motown, Ray Charles and Barry White fan! Through being a Beatles fan, I also discovered Indian music, Ravi Shankar etc. Through Debussy, I searched for Gamelan and Balinese music.
My brother is also a vinyl collector, DJ and music curator and his influence continues to expose me to music from other cultures such as Japan and Thailand.
It’s all related really and once you delve deeper into music, you realise that it transcends everything: genres, cultures, languages etc.
Musicians have always been inspired by the non-musical artistic world, whether it is with Mussorgsky and Hartmann—Pictures at an Exhibition—or recently Richter and Kafka—The Blue Notebooks. What have been your main sources of inspiration recently and who would you cite as your main influences in art?
As I mentioned before, I have a background in applied arts so I’ve always been influenced by fine art, architecture, design, fashion etc. I am also a painter; the brush was my first instrument before music took over in my teens, so there’s a direct link between my music and visual ideas. I would say an indirect powerful influence was Francis Bacon. Not so much for the violence in his paintings but more for his work on textures and colours. I’m also very at ease with abstraction and I find that it seeps into my music: sometimes I let go of a specific melody in order to explore more suggested melodic ideas. Gerhard Richter’s and Pierre Soulages’s work also have an influence on me: bold, deep, abstract. Film and dance also trigger ideas: I love Pina Bausch’s choreography work coupled with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; so vivid and emotional.
Most composers like their musical identity to be reflected in their visual identity. For your last two projects—Aitaké and Movements—you designed very interesting artworks, that illustrated your music very well. Can you tell us more about it?
Thank you! Firstly, it’s out of necessity. I’m already paying for musicians to play on my releases so I try to save money by designing the artwork myself. But most of the time, I think I know exactly what I would like it to represent because I’m already “designing” the music. When you’ve worked on a project long enough, the visual falls into place naturally and you instinctively know what it should be.
For Movements, I wanted something multi-layered and in motion, so I used an old photo I had of the Pompidou centre and chopped it up in Photoshop. That iconic building already suggests urban movement with its lines and piping, cultural travel/motion etc. and so it just seemed to fit with how I envisaged this project.
So after Movements, what’s next?
Basically, when I’m not writing music to picture, I’m always composing new things and I have two projects in the pipeline. Both are more ambient—maybe I was going through a more reflective time—one involves woodwinds because I rarely compose for them and the other one is strings again—my go-to instruments!. I’ve also finished another project which is sitting on the shelf right now: for violin, cello, flugelhorn and flute; four voices having a musical conversation!
Thanks very much Mathieu. Last one for the road—one book, one album, one film—tell us about your latest cultural pearls?
Thank you very much for letting me talk! Oh, that’s a tricky one. There are so many books, films and albums around…. I’m going through a Haruki Murakami phase at the moment; easy to read, interesting concepts (his 1Q84 trilogy is particularly inspiring). Musically, I always seem to go back to Bach for studies. With film, I find that I’m not too choosy. Because I’ve worked on films, I understand the amount of work that goes into making a film so I’ll give most things a try and then see if it resonates with me or not.
Overall, I’m always looking to be challenged though so if I figure something out too soon, I tend to move on fast. I like things that don’t fit anywhere and that are emotionally and creatively open-minded. Watching Anime is always good for the soul as is listening to a bit of Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass—Passages—!
Bouncing on Mathieu’s words, I strongly suggest to read Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, as well as discover the works of abstract painter Ad Reinhardt… Read my review of Movements.