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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 Douce-Amère, a suite for piano inspired by the senses.


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


Last time we spoke, I was releasing my album Nocturnes for woodwinds and strings. Whilst promoting it, I was also putting the finishing touches to this new Douce-Amère suite and working on a brand new one. I also mentioned I worked on some larger piano projects which are now on hold as they are pretty much finished and waiting to be recorded. And I scored a great new short film by director/actor Derek Magyar that should be out in 2024. 


Tell us about Douce-Amère, your latest project in collaboration with Marie Awadis?


With Douce-Amère, I was continuing this idea of composing contrasting entities that started with my other suite Clair-Obscur. As I was writing and conceptualising, I thought of the contrast of sweet and bitter, bittersweet. This also happens to be the name of my favourite perfume by the great French perfumer Serge Lutens. I have been wearing his fragrance Douce Amère since the early 2000s, so I know it really well and I thought it would be interesting to try and translate in musical form what this scent represented to me. It is not an easy thing but as with everything I do a certain amount of abstraction helps with representation. Working with Marie is my obvious choice as she has the open-mindedness, the talent and the flexibility to interpret my ideas. Douce Amère opens with bitter notes of artemisia, absinth, liquorice, it then progresses towards marzipan, white florals and vanilla. It is a fascinating scent and it really conjures up lots of childhood images of French patisseries, apéritifs of Pastis and a certain Frenchness (bittersweet, melancholy!). There is a lot more to say about this but musically I tried out a combination of dissonant clusters and dreamy chords, a recurring modal theme and some contrasting rhythms.


It is now your fourth piano project — can you observe a difference and/or evolution in your writing?


The more I express myself with the piano, the more things are turning impressionistic, it seems. It does not have the full complexity of a Debussy piece because it is modern and at times minimalist but I realise effects, symbolism and abstraction are there in good measures. The deeper I dig musically, the better I am able to express more complex ideas, and I guess that is the evolution really, more on a technical side. Musically, I will always have my toolbox of sounds, arrangements, chords and feel that I vibe with but as I progress on this journey, things tend to get easier to play.


Have you started playing the piano yourself?


I always tinkered but when I really started composing for the piano (with my first EP Under Piano Skies), I wanted to make sure what I recorded was playable by an accomplished pianist and artist like Marie. So my process always starts with me trying to play things, not always succeeding in playing them and then figuring out what these things are technically when I am putting the scores together for her. Working with Marie has enabled me to crystallise what I was hearing in technical terms, I learnt a lot! She is also the only person who corrects my scores (available on my website) to make sure they are pianistic. So really, my pieces are only as good as my playing is! And the same goes for everything else I do musically. I have to be able to play what I write or at least have a good understanding of how it will be replayed in order to be happy with it. So a lot of editing and re-editing happens after I record the initial ideas. Editing is part of composing, it is a part of the craft that goes into realising a piece of music.


Douce-Amère seems like a turning point in your pianist writing. Tell us about some piano composers — if any — who have influenced your writing?


It is hard to remember exactly who influenced my writing at the time as I listen to a lot of music but Ravel’s “Jeux d’eau” is a piece I came across that I absolutely love. The way notes flow into each other is just superb and fluid, something I was trying to capture in my Douce-Amère. With this new suite, I really wanted to develop something thematic (the descending motif) that would encapsulate this perfume and that I could tie the three parts together with. It is a mix of something sweet and melodic with a little tension in there. In the last movement, Rhapsodie, I was listening to some Steve Reich and John Adams. I liked the idea of repeated dissonant clusters that are jarring but that evolve in a joyful rhapsodic way, like a vibration pulsating away. The perfume comes in waves of bitterness and sweetness and I imagine the ecstasy of sugared almond confectionary, candy floss, old school marshmallows, the sugar rush! Ravel’s Concerto in G major played by Martha Argerich is divine and it certainly was an influence when I decided to give Artemisia an orchestral cinematic treatment in the last piece. I hadn’t set out to do it but out of curiosity I tried adding some sounds and it developed into a full blown moment. Having Marie’s flowing metronome was really inspiring me to cocoon the piano with a cinematic aural atmosphere that would move naturally. So I tried to create something that was careful to the piano and in keeping with the concept of the suite. I hope people will enjoy this expansion! 


I feel that I have to ask the question once again, with more time that has passed — how is your environment and experience shaping you as an artist today? 


Having moved to LA, it took a little while to get used to how life is so different here. For a start, it is much more laidback and leisurely than how my life was in London. The move came at a perfect time, post-Covid, when I needed to take more time to work on my music and where I wanted my career to go in film and TV. In LA, you are never far away from someone working in that industry, so it is great to meet new people regularly and to choose to work on the projects that are aligned with who you are as an artist and composer. Music-wise, I would say I am more bold and more adventurous than ever, so expect a few more surprises in the future!


So after Douce-Amère, what’s next? 


I have been tinkering with strings again. All will be revealed in due course, but certainly a new album is in the works and with it some new explorations and musical adventures!

I also have been developing some violin/viola concepts that I am keen to try out at some point in 2024. And I am currently taking violin lessons which are giving me a newfound understanding of and respect for that instrument!


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?


One book: Forever Saul Leiter — this was a recent birthday present of mine. I came across Saul Leiter’s work on Pinterest and I was immediately taken in by his painterly approach to photography. Upon investigating further, I realised he had worked for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar but his street photography is what I find most fascinating. One film: In No Great Hurry: 13 lessons in life with Saul Leiter. I stumbled upon this great documentary about Leiter’s life, work, approach and philosophy, a very humble artist who did fantastic work. The documentary shows the sheer amount of work he created which has yet to be fully catalogued. One album: Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (Complete Ballet) — I decided to check this out after The Guardian gave this album a five star review based on the incredible performance by Sinfonia of London with John Wilson conducting. Having already seen Daphnis et Chloé Suite No 2 live, it is interesting to listen to the full expanded version that is rarely performed. As it happens, I am going to the Walt Disney concert Hall here in LA where Esa Pekka Salonen will be conducting the complete ballet with the LA Phil and choir, a magical event to finish of 2023!


Bouncing on Mathieu’s words, I cannot encourage enough to immerse oneself in the world of what is known as the impressionists. It is incredible how the music composed by these musicians still maintains such elements of freshness and novelty, a century after it has been created! Read my review of Douce-Amère.

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