WITH MATHIEU KARSENTI & MARIE AWADIS
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 duet of composers and pianists Mathieu Karsenti and Marie Awadis who have just released Clair-Obscur, their third collaboration.
So, tell us about your most recent collaboration, Clair-Obscur, what is it about and how was it born?
MK — After Under Piano Skies and Piano Paintings, I toyed with the idea of composing longer pieces for solo piano with no bells and whistles, no added instrumentation or other colours. Very quickly, the idea of a suite was forming in my head — three pieces that would be united by a common concept, a common expression and perhaps recurring motifs or harmonies, to be listened to from start to finish. I was keen to explore and crystallise more rhythmical ideas too, juxtaposing them without prior preparation or clues. Then, there seemed to be a constant back and forth between dark and light colours, fuller textures and sparse ones and the idea of clair-obscur seemed fitting to me as a title for this suite. The pieces started out much longer so after trimming down a little, I had a suite in three parts like a triptych executed in clair-obscur. For the cover artwork, I worked with a photography artist on instagram (@body_light_shadows), I loved the play of light and shade in his work and it suited my project perfectly. In the end, I combined three of his photographs, referencing Francis Bacon’s later oeuvre (one of my favourite artists) — the sensuality of body shapes, the abstraction stemming from its natural contours. It all seemed to make sense with my piano work. For each title, I played again with the light and shade ideas, with a nod to Pierre Soulages’ stunning work with Outrenoir or beyond black: in black you find light, details, shapes and a new narrative.
MA — Clair-Obscur is the continuation of earlier collaborations we had together. The first time I got to know Mathieu was through the Haruki compilation; where he needed someone to play his piano piece. For me it was a nice challenge to play another contemporary composer’s music other than mine, especially when it sounds different and has its own character. Since then we have been working together, and Clair-Obscur is our third collaboration. As the title says, Clair-Obscur is in the first place the expression of contrasts, but when you go deeper it is about emotions, shapes, images or characters. Mathieu’s music is different and unpredictable. I like the sudden changes, unexpected harmonic developments, the rhythmical movement (even more obvious in Claire-Obscur). Also him being a painter as well, he has a very special way to create music. I can feel the painter artist guiding his musical lines. When I play his pieces, it feels like going through an exhibition, observing different paintings and getting different impacts with each drawing. It takes me into a journey walking between all those colours and pictures, enjoying the moment and then exploring a new picture and a new reflection. And the best part is that all those experiences I can put them into my emotional word and try to create my own story and my own images. Clair-Obscur is definitely the most intense experience I had since our first collaboration.
Your collaboration is a great example of how our current world connects us and allows us to develop relationships while being in multiple distant places. Tell us more about how you worked together on Clair-Obscur, and if you wish too, on your past works together?
MK — Indeed thanks to the magic of the internet we met through you on the Haruki project — and I had not even envisaged composing for piano at the time! Because I am not a pianist, it is really a blessing to work with such a talented artist/composer/musician as Marie. My work is often abstract images and you described it perfectly in the past by saying it is suggested music. Marie is the best person to interpret my ideas because she is an incredibly gifted artist with the ability to imagine moments while she deciphers what I do. Anyone too rigid in their approach and their playing would not get it. And so for this project we connected on Skype as usual, discussed the pieces and played through them, ironing out anything that was not clear. My music comes alive once it is felt, digested, interpreted and played/recorded so it does take some time to get your head around it. My aim is to reflect moments in our lives, how we received the world through our senses. Nothing is linear in life — we don’t go around with a chord progression in our heads or a fixed rhythm and so it is natural for me to express my music in this evolving way: various time-signatures, polyrhythms, polyphonic elements etc… This I have explored with my previous work for piano and Marie is able each time to make sense of it as the seasoned performer that she is!
MA — Absolutely, I think we are lucky to be living in such a period of time where connecting to the other side of the world is easy to achieve. This also proved in the conditions that we were living in the past few years. I know that I gained a lot of artist friends, and started more collaborations because of the capability of connecting through social media. From our first collaboration until now, Mathieu used to send me a rough version of the pieces with the scores, where I have a look and then I try to play and feel them. Usually we have a call or I record the pieces the way I would interpret, and then have a conversation by exchanging ideas. After few versions we usually have a good recording which is satisfying to both of us. What I find comforting, is that we have the same perspective to music in general, and also my way of understanding his works. the images that we have in general are almost the same, which makes my job much more easier, and more natural, because I do not have to pretend to feel or imagine something which I do not believe. Everything goes effortlessly which allows much more space for experimenting sound and interpretation.
Mathieu, you have settled on the piano for a few projects now, would you like to tell us a little more on your relationship with the instrument? Marie, on the other side, the piano has been your main medium of expression for a long time now; are there other instruments that attract you and that you would want to compose for?
MK — Composing for piano is not easy when you are not a pianist! And the temptation at the beginning is to approach it like you would a pop song: simple chord progression and a melody derived from the chords. Nothing wrong with that and I am certainly able to do that but my ambition lies in creating atmospheres, expanded abstract landscapes, more challenging non-linear writing that requires a little more. With the piano, it is like you are writing a mini orchestral piece for one player: bass, chords, melodies, countermelodies etc… but it has also got to be playable and to me, it has to do something interesting. So I compose in Logic with some normal piano plugins and it is at times hard to imagine the finished product. But I have to trust what I am composing and know that it will come alive with Marie. Even though I compose to the metronome, it is fantastic to have Marie’s naturally evolving meter with her playing — rubato moments, faster passages and other steady ones as well as her highly attuned artistic sensibility. So I would not dream of putting any of my own piano playing out on a record!
MA — Yes the piano is my main instrument because I am trained to play the piano from my childhood, but of course I love other instruments. I love the sound of the cello and Oboe, because of their warm and deeper timbre. composing for strings in different constructions is my next aim. I do not want to write only for solo piano, and I do have some projects going on which do not contain the piano, or maybe the piano is more of an accompaniment. So yes even if the piano is my main language to express, I do like to include other instruments as well.
It is now your third collaboration; tell us about how your relationship has evolved? What are the differences between Under Piano Skies and Clair-Obscur?
MK — As with any successful creative relationship, there is a shorthand in how we work together. I think by now Marie is used to my abstract ways and it is fantastic that she is willing to go down these creative routes with me! With Under Piano Skies, it was really my first inklings that I could find my own language on the piano. Marie is very encouraging and she reminds me that what I do is playable and that it works conceptually too! There are definitely some ideas on there I am proud of; simple moments that capture all I wanted to say, some motifs and finger action I now know work and could be explored further in more effective ways. In Clair-Obscur, it is more of an expansion of that. In between each project, I listened to a lot of piano music, from Debussy to Ravel, Chopin, Satie, Philip Glass, Keith Jarrett and more, and the results are usually my own brain trying to distill something, an atmosphere, a rhythm, as in a synthesis. The results are also formed by my inability to play complex pieces! How can I express these multi-layered images I have in my head with the limited playing skills I have. The more I explore, the more I acquire different ways of expressing myself on this fascinating instrument!
MA — Mathieu’s pieces may look easy to play on the first attempt, but they are complex in their layers and the creation of the right colour of sound and its phrasings. It is about to be able to bring out what is between the notes, and the right dynamic in order to be able to create the character or the image he wants to reflect. With the third collaboration of course it is like we know and understand each other much better, but from the beginning, fortunately we had similar point of views in approaching to music, which makes things much easier for me and more motivating to take challenges and move freely in my creative process. Not only as an artist but also as a human being I feel that we have similar approaches, our conversations are always productive and motivating. Under Piano Skies was very interesting to play and to record because of its clarity and transparency in its minimal and quiet character, and yet the challenge to be able to transfer the pictures and the ideas that Mathieu wanted to reflect. For me what the most interesting part is to experience the development of the pianistic ideas and the creativity of taking the challenge to experiment more from the first album to the third. You can see how the melodiec lines and the structure of the pieces have developed from Under Piano Skies to Clair-Obscur; in the first album the pieces are more quiet, there is more space and more room to keep the listener attached to the piece, while in Claire-Obscur there are more changes in dynamics, harmonic mood and also in the rhythmical intensity. I find that the latest album has more movement both in melodic and harmonic structure. I have more space and possibilities to apply my pianistic knowledge as an interpreter.
Mathieu, painting has progressively become more and more central to your approach to music, can you tell us more about it? Marie, what has been your approach towards this, have you, for instance, involved yourself in visual arts in order to translate Mathieu’s intentions?
MK — I recently posted a type of declaration on Instagram: Abstraction is what I am after. In this world of instant images that do not say anything interesting in particular, of hyper connectivity and information overload, I personally need abstraction more than ever. I need it to imagine, to disconnect from reality and I certainly do not want the music I make to tell me exactly how to feel. And in the same way that abstract art feeds my imagination, abstraction in music feeds my soul. The more I compose music, the more I see the connection between my painting work and my music work. It is a natural path to me. Interestingly I recently read in a Debussy biography that he was totally at ease creating music that seemingly jumped from one thing to another: no cadences, no preparation, just juxtaposed ideas that do work next to each other — a form of abstraction. That was a lightbulb moment for me! It explained why I love his music so much. His and Ravel’s are often linked to Impressionism (although they go beyond that) because of the sonorities and the not-so-straightforward depiction of something abstract, something felt but not explained. There is mystery, intrigue and imagination in there, and that feels right to me. Lastly, I would say that music is more impactful to me than art. Art deals with language, conversations, philosophy, reflexion etc…. and music also does all this but with feelings added. It is also more universal. In the end, for me, approaching music like a painter allows me to not get stuck, to keep it open-minded and not be backed into the corner of virtuosity or straightforward popular expression.
MA — As a pianist I always involve images, stories and feelings in my interpretations, that is why it was very easy to communicate and share my ideas with Mathieu, and we were always on the same side in what we had in mind. I love the idea that both composer and player share a common vision to translate music. I have learned a lot from our collaboration, especially from the fact that the pieces are being played for the first time, so I have no other sources other than the composers and my point of view, thats very challenging and exciting at the same time.
Outside of Clair-Obscur, give us an update of your own careers. What else can we expect from each of you?
MK — Well for me, Clair-Obscur will be my last release of 2022. But there is already a couple of albums planned out and finished for 2023! One I worked on before lockdown and delayed it because I found other musical adventures to explore in the meantime (like composing for piano!). The second project is a reworks one of some of my existing strings tracks with a few surprises in tow. There are also a few other projects simmering away that I will go back to at some point…
MA — From my side I am working on different projects which are different in both style and instrumentation. Two albums and few single pieces are on their way but first next year. So there will be lots of new things in the future which I am excited to share .
So after Clair-Obscur what’s next — are we to hear more collaborative works from the two of you?
MK — Oh yes you bet! Well, a week after finishing mixing and mastering of Clair-Obscur, I was inspired to start on another suite which I am currently developing. There is plenty of time though because I would not be releasing this new suite until next year. I also need to do more research and listen to more and more amazing work to help crystallise the ideas in my new suite.
MA — I love the direction that Mathieu’s work is taking, it is getting more challenging and complex, and I would love to experience more of that and have the honour to play them.
Thanks very much Mathieu and Marie. It is a tradition now, so last one for the road — one book, one album, one film —, tell us about your latest cultural pearls?
MK — Ravel by Roger Nichols — a fascinating and detailed biography with lots of musical analysis. A good starting point into one of the most influential composer of modern music. “Daphnis and Chloe, Suite No 2” by Maurice Ravel — not so much an album, Suite No2 is the most often played one and for good reasons — there is so much in there, so many fantastic ideas and incredible spellbinding musical moments. Sir Simon Rattle conducting the LSO is a wonderful version too.
Moonage Daydream by Brett Morgen — a visually stunning and creative documentary retracing David Bowie’s spiritual and musical journey. Even if you are not a Bowie fan, it is worth watching it alone for the sensory overload and the chaotic narrative that emulates Bowie’s life — a rich, colourful, expanded life that left an incredible legacy.
MA — Thank you Doug as well for this lovely interview. I am currently reading Philip Glass biography: Words without Music, it is very interesting to read about his mindset as a human being and as a composer. I still find Marina Baranova’s Unfolding Debussy one of the most interesting albums, where she expresses another side of Debussy with her own perspective.
I like the fact that both Mathieu and Marie have mentioned impressionist musicians — Ravel and Debussy — this not only shows how both have connected, but also shows the importance that the French have had on our contemporary musical world. Another mention is of course, Glass’ biography. Not only an essential historical read, it is also a great point of reference for contemporary composers, and a great way to understand what it means to be a musician in the modern world! Read my review of Clair-obscur.