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London, 2023

During this interview, I change seats, place myself in front of another artist and ask him the questions I wish people asked me. Today, I speak to the French composer Mathieu Karsenti who has just released a new project entitled Nocturnes.


Mathieu, what have you been up to since we last spoke?

Lots of work! Towards the second half of 2022, I scored an episodic podcast with composer Deron Johnson called “Birds of Empire”. I had not scored podcasts before and not having the visual material to influence me was very interesting. Everything is about sound: voice acting, sound FX, music. It was a fantastic project because the script was so good, the acting was brilliant, the sound FX team was outstanding and musically we were free to approach the score more organically. I also scored Julian Bridges’ short film “The Tourist” all on acoustic guitar. Julian was interested in a jazz vibe for his short film. It was refreshing to step away from computer plugins and add real drums (Julian is also a talented jazz drummer and guitarist) and some whistling. My score took inspiration from Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli, masters of French gypsy jazz. In January, I released a single “Tōji - Part I & II” for electric guitar, ambient sounds and added strings. At the time, I borrowed a friend’s electric guitar to play on songwriter Ben Fairey’s new material and I started playing around with some ideas for myself. The instrument itself prompted me to compose something around it that felt very personal, emotional and reflective. I recycled old string parts I had (cello and violin), multi-layering them and pitching them to suit my guitar playing. The idea of the winter solstice and the death of something past felt right. I stumbled upon the Japanese word for the winter solstice tōji and thought it fitted with the tracks. Then, following on from my Clair-Obscur suite for solo piano, I decided to explore piano suite ideas further, resulting in two new ones. These are not recorded yet but we are working out the finer details with Marie Awadis and which one will be released first around October time.

But that is not it, I also have another three larger piano projects composed and ready to be recorded. But I will not say much more than that because I am not sure when I will be able to record them. Hopefully for a release early next year!


Tell us about Nocturnes, your latest solo project?


I started composing Nocturnes at the end of 2019 and before we hit lockdown. I always had a fascination and a predilection for evocative nighttime atmospheres and I wanted to explore composing music to be listened to preferably at night. So I embarked on my own version of that great tradition of the classical format (Debussy, Chopin, Liszt and many more have composed nocturnes) and I was naturally curious about this idea of contrast, conversations between two entities, essentially two instruments in a nocturnal setting. As I had not composed for woodwinds before (other than arranging them for film and TV), flute and clarinet seemed the natural way. Woodwinds can be difficult to compose for, they feel very watery, flowing and light but also sometimes thin, lacking body or character. So I anchored them with low bass and a delicate sound world approach to cocoon them with. Then I wondered how I could do something similar with strings: violin and viola. Both sets of instruments are brilliantly played by George Millard and Violeta Vicci respectively. In the middle of the album, there is an interlude that crosses over both instrument groups. They do not blend, they are not supposed to. It is almost like two people going through a transformation, changing/evolving throughout the night. But I like to steer clear of too much explanation because I want the listener to have their own interpretation of my music.


It seems that the influence of Debussy has grown bigger and bigger in your works — can you tell us more about it?


Yes, Debussy AND Ravel. When you listen carefully to Debussy, there is a certain amount of abstraction in his work — melodies are sometimes not fully realised, everything is suggested but it is part of a bigger atmosphere, and he had no problems jumping from one motif or chord to another without technical preparation in the classical way. With Ravel, everything flows naturally, like a big wave of emotion with complex images coming together all at once. Similarly, I always wanted my work to exist in its own world, with no boundaries, no obvious musical references, with complete freedom to define itself, or not. And it seems that those French masters were guiding the way with those concepts. It was inevitable that I would attempt in my own small way to create something richer and bigger, abstract and emotional at the same time. Thanks to Debussy and Ravel, I was able to find work that was really compelling to me… but there are other big influences on me such as Philip Glass, John Tavener, film scores, baroque music, J.S Bach etc. all provide inspiration and musical paintings. Contrary to Debussy’s and Ravel’s though, my music is much simpler and not that virtuosic! There might be some challenges in my piano work in that there are precise but often abstract images, but really it is never going to be Paganini! I seem to constantly focus in and focus out musically, adding precision to melodic lines but also zooming out and being more abstract in my compositions. Thomas Newman’s music scores are some of my favourites, and I am always amazed at how he is able to convey so much with simple but well thought-out ideas! That is what I strive to do. 


Explain to us a bit of your creative process for this particular release?


It is always hard for me to explain my creative process as I do not usually remember why something happens and when or how and I do not often look back. The initial idea was to create something for winds and strings and it was vaguely atmospheric, ambient even. Then as I was developing musical ideas, the concept of nocturnes seemed to make sense with the overall vibe. Once I conceptualise or I have a direction for a release, everything seems to fall into place: arrangements, sounds, composing, mixing, etc… It all happens fairly quickly. I was a bit shy with winds at first because I was not sure how to approach them, what they could mean to me. And then I just let it flow in its own way. I was trying to get out of the way of the music, just letting the ideas take over. What took the longest was the mixing actually. At first, I could not get the sound I was after, it was not gelling well. So I let that project sit for a while. Then at the end of 2022, I jumped on it again with fresher ears and made the final tweaks to the mix, adding and subtracting. The overall sound is more homogenous and ambient, everything blending together into one another in a way that feels right for nocturnal atmospheres. The whole album feels subdued but it’s quietly pushing through with conversations, reflections, abstract images. It will lead to interesting dark corners if you let it.


After many years in London, you have relocated to Los Angeles — how has that affected you as an artist and as a musician?


The pace of life here in Los Angeles is very different to London and indeed any other big European city. Firstly it is much warmer, and therefore much more laid back! Having lived in London for 27 years, I wanted a change and with lockdown I got the push I was after. I first relocated to France until Covid quietened down and then I was ready to move out to Los Angeles. In London, I had already worked online with L.A-based filmmakers so I was used to how things were done, how people talked about film. Being here, it felt right and I am excited every day to see what this city brings. Everything here is evocative, whether you consider the Hollywood industry, the contrast of landscapes, the different neighbourhoods, the contrast between rich and poor, the entertainment industry’s looming presence — it’s all there and it permeates everything. I am just simply content to experience something new at this point in my life and career, doing what I do and seeing where it leads to. And who knows, I might live somewhere else at some point in the future - Tokyo is definitely appealing!


You have focused on the piano for quite some time; how does it feel to return to other instruments, and what would you say this time studying the piano has taught you? 


As you know from my work, I like to keep searching for new creative adventures. It keeps things fresh for me and also it stems from a desire to express my creative voice when I use this or that instrument. What do I do when I compose for… winds? Or strings? Or vocals? I also thought a while back, if I want to call myself a composer I should be able to compose for all instruments, so that is what I am doing in some way…. But the piano is not far away and as I mentioned, there are more piano works underway! I am still studying that instrument and what I have learned is that there is always so much more than can be done with it. It is such a great instrument and when played by fantastic pianists such as Marie Awadis, it can be very rewarding. The challenge for me was to be able to paint new pictures without resorting to studio tricks or added sound design to prop my ideas up. I want to compose, hopefully, interesting music for that solo instrument in a truthful way. Learning to translate your ideas into pianistic, playable ones is always a challenge and it’s one I am thoroughly enjoying at the moment! The piano also allows me to think up bigger images, bigger atmospheres without having multiple instruments to realise them. Ideas have to be precise and they have to work because someone will be playing them at some point. And because it is a bare instrument, it requires more thinking to fill up the sound. It is definitely a fascinating instrument and there is so much to explore. Also having Marie’s natural fluctuations in tempo and expressions is golden to me, it really makes the compositions come alive.  


So after Nocturnes what’s next?


I have so much music waiting to be released! It really depends on planning my year and pacing myself. But for sure, there will be another suite for solo piano later on this year. I have also been reworking some strings ideas and I am currently working out what to do with them… Plus there is always film and TV work not far away!


Thanks very much Mathieu. You know the exercise well, last one for the road — one book, one album, one film —, tell us about your latest cultural pearls?


Children of the Sea by Ayumu Watanabe with a score by Joe Hisaishi. This gorgeous anime is a multi-layered, multi-sensory masterpiece and the score is just as fabulous. This film may be a bit cryptic and hard to understand but the journey it takes you on is so fantastic! Joe Hisaishi’s work has been an influence on me for a while. The diversity in his scores and the amount he has produced over the years is amazing. His ear is always turned onto the narrative and he is  a master at bringing out something truly special in each film he undertakes. Uccellini — Violin Sonatas from Opp. 3-5’ by Noxwode and Conor Gricmanis. It is so refreshing listening to recordings of Baroque music. I met Conor in London over coffee before moving to L.A and I hope one day we will work together in some capacity. I love the tone of Baroque violin (gut strings) and its versatility is definitely appealing to me! Autoportrait’ by Edouard Levé — a linear biography of sorts, telling each moment, each detail as is. At first, it feels very crude and raw but it is addictive. It is as if you opened Levé’s head and had a good look at his thoughts!


Bouncing on Mathieu’ words, actually bouncing-off them! What I enjoy the most about these interviews is discovering new things, and this is exactly what Mathieu is allowing us to do with his replies! Read my review of Nocturnes.

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