MEET CHRISTOPHE CHASSOL, THE FRENCH COMPOSER OF ‘BIG SUN’
A prolific French artist possessing perfect pitch, Chassol (who studied at Berklee in Boston) recently released ‘Big Sun’ to major acclaim from outlets like The Fader, OUT, and Brooklyn Vegan. The bureauexport team in New York sat down with Chassol via Skype, resulting in the following interview, notably exploring Chassol’s unique concept of ultrascore, among other topics. You can now make your own ultrascore with the project myultrascore.com launched by Chassol’s label, Tricatel, which the artist will perform during his upcoming international tour. For details on his worldwide dates, check out Chassol’s website here.
What made you get into music?
It was a long time ago, practically the last century…in the 80’s! My dad was a saxophonist and clarinetist. Very early on, he signed my sister and I up in a conservatory. At four years old we did preschool classes in percussion, then music theory, and then towards 5-6 years old I started playing the piano. We took our work very seriously. It was as important as school! I started off playing pieces for kids like those by Prokofiev and lots of classical music. When I started middle school, I started to cover bands like the Doors, Gainsbourg, and Herbie Hancock. Other groups followed before I started my studies, besides which I was making lots of music for commercials, documentaries, TV, and later for film.
Have you always liked music?
Yes, I have always liked it. Let’s say that at the beginning, you work at without knowing what good the musical theory will do. It’s from the moment I started to be able to listen to and replicate music that I heard on the radio and on discs that I understood what the hard work was for. It’s especially by playing music over and over and figuring pieces out that I learned my craft, though I learned orchestral direction and orchestration during my studies in the United States (Berklee College of Music in Boston).
So you had a diverse training before arriving at the work we find on your discs: what is your job in your own words?
My answer to that has evolved through the years: when I was 18 I said I was a composer because I wanted to become one. The more you say things the more you become them. At a different time I claimed to be pianist. Nowadays, “musician” summarizes things nicely. I don’t like to say that I am an artist.
How did you make the transition between a music that accompanies a film’s images and a music that is a work in its own right? How does an artisan becomes an artist?
I never had the feeling to pass radically from one thing to another: I always had my personal approach in every project I’ve worked on and I’ve always tried to put the best of me even in both commands and in my personal work. I still claim today the artisanal aspect in my work. The only thing that has changed is that I was signed on Tricatel in 2011. It’s Bertrand Burgalat. It changed the perspective: I went from artisan to artist at this moment because my work was suddenly out commercially under my name. The other difference is that when I do the music for a film and a director, I serve them, while in my work I am doing exactly what I want.
Was it you who wanted to do your own thing or is it your meeting with Bertrand Burgalat that changed your mind?
I always wanted to make my own records but it happened later because it took a bit of a time before someone got interested in my music and understand it. This person was Bertrand.
How did you meet each other?
In 2002, I created music for Gaumont. It happened that Bertrand did the one just before mine. Then I got interested in him and I began to see a relationship between my music and his when it came to orchestrations, certain tastes, and to a certain kind of aesthetic. So, I called him and visited him at his place. He had a white piano with green carpet at home and we immediately liked each other. He is a musician, a gifted composer who promotes other artists and who understands them. You see what dose of empathy is needed to do that! After our first meetings, I invited him on gigs during which we played together. In 2010, I returned to France and I showed him my short videos of harmonization. He said that no one was doing it and that it had to be released… The rest is history.
Did your experience in scoring movies inspire the way you are making music now?
Yes it is very linked to my practice, to how I work. Since 1998 I am used to manipulaing the image and music together, to synchronize them. When I make my music or a film score, I always have two screens. When YouTube came, I had access to lots of different audio and visual sources. As in, the sound material films became my musical material. It all happened very smoothly, very naturally and this is how I came to harmonization videos.
What made you not satisfied enough with YouTube videos and gave you the longing to go and make your own videos?
Many reasons, including the rights. Making images is also an adventure. I have a camerawoman, Marie-France Barrier, who is also one of my best friends, and a sound engineer named Johann Levasseur who also works with me on the concerts. I met him on the tour of Sébastien Tellier. The three of us travel and film together.
How long does it last in general?
What? Trips? [Laughs] They usually last two weeks. Everything is framed and planned in advance: our itinerary and the places where we’re going to sleep among other things, mainly for budget reasons. Lately, I’ve been wondering if I should stay for a shorter or a longer time, given that every time I come back after two weeks, I get more material than needed to make a single album. I still have four films for India to do!
What makes you go so far away?
Opportunities. The Contemporary Art Museum of New Orleans called me and ordered a room and it became Nola Chérie. India because I’ve been listening to Indian music for 17 years, and I love this music, and I felt there was something I wanted to do especially in India because I was in love with the country. I come from the The West Indies, so it was also obvious for me to do a project about the Caribbean music and culture. But that does not mean that for the next project, if I find a subject that speaks to me and that is in France, I would hesitate to work on it. I can shoot down my street if the subject shows a real interest to me.
When you make music with traditional sacred songs, are you looking for a deconsecration of them or are you trying to make them even more sacred by the sublimation caused by harmonization?
I don’t want to deconsecrate. For me, singing moments in India for example are issued from the highest spiritual authority. What I want to do is to show the power of music, that invisible thing. It’s about showing a little moment that is sublimated by music which gives it another reality. Through repetition of an image and harmonies, I wish to point out the image and music in a different way. It’s about creating an augmented reality. It can be done anywhere: while filming a pigeon on my street or with devotional images. However, it’s true that aesthetically speaking I prefer to film images that are related to the second case.
Are you influenced by other art forms like cinema or music? We also recognize in your work an anthropological approach: did you get inspired by famous anthropologists?
Yes, visual arts, comics, literature, etc. I’m someone who likes to reread the same books. I then adapt some scenes in videos that I make. I have a preference for Herman Hesse and initiation novels in general, especially The Magic Bead Game and Narcissus and Goldmund. Jean Rousse’ movies and documentaries by Van der Keuken are also influences. It is true that one can find in my work an anthropological aspect especially when you think of the idea of catalog that also exists in my music. But what really interests me are the chords, the music, the sound sources from images. One can certainly see a topology that emerges from the images that I select but this comes before all from my tastes and documentaries that I saw and that inspired me. For example, I do not use only human sources: for Big Sun in the West Indies, I was really interested by birds. I am interested in everything that makes sound actually. It’s the music that guides everything.
When you start, do you have a very predefined idea of what you’ll find or do you adopt a more spontaneous approach? I know you have composition grids: how do they work and what is their degree of adaptability compared to what you’ll find there?
You can put a chord progression in all keys you want. What I film and record, the harmonization of the “mélodification” of a voice according to the melodic line it describes, I put it in my composition grid and if the chords do not correspond, I would then change the tone. This is what enables a grid that sprinkles the film, put together images and sounds: it gives a musical coherence to the whole. Each new project has its own musical grid.
Do you have any projects that moved you more than others?
No, they all moved me differently. The three projects were all very intense. In New Orleans, we saw destroyed houses, people affected by the disaster, the dates on houses and we sometimes came back home in tears after filming … On the other hand, we’ve also partied a lot and we drank on Bourbon St. It was an experience both crazy and intense. In addition, it was my first project and I was on tour at the same time at the time. I didn’t have benchmarks yet for how to make the film. India was the otherworldliness, the exoticism … I was very impressed by the devotion of the people. I knew India but the fact to return to film, it was really a way to rediscover the country. The West Indies is my family, my roots. Everything is very intense but different every time.
Do you have any favorite tracks?
I have some yes. It’s like parents with children, they always have their favorite.
Is there any particular aspect of your career that you prefer? Travel, live music, composition?
The moment I prefer is when I come back home with the rushes, sit down at my desk, look at all the material that I have and then begin to clear the way. I also love performing live music: master the pieces, play in beautiful venues, and see people loving the music. I like filming too but that’s not what I prefer: that’s really when I’m at home with my keyboards and when I’m trying to see what is going to happen.
What are your next dates?
Les Nuits Sonores in Lyon and then I go to Japan for a week with the French Institute for three concerts. There will also be an English tour.
Not the United States?
We have a date in February 2016 at the Cleveland Museum. I’d love to play at Carnegie Hall.
Otherwise, do you have contemporary French artists that you particularly appreciate?
Yes I do! There’s Aquaserge, especially the song “TVCQJVD“. I love Julien Gasc who created this group. I also have a friend named Leonie Pernet. There are also Sebastian and Para One who made a Big Sun remix that I love. I recently discovered DJ Yann Kesz who I think is also great.
Do you have any idea of your next destination?
Not really, I’m gonna do a residency in Japan. I’m going to create a 10 minutes track which may or may not be released.
Do you have many tracks that you haven’t released yet?
I have plenty. Sometimes we put them together in a compilation like the vinyl Ultrascore. I’ve taken every one of Christiane Taubira’s speeches for gay marriage from YouTube. I harmonized one whole 26 minute speech as I did for Barack Obama and that’s the only one that I’ve put back on YouTube! I have plenty of unreleased projects.
Did you send it to her?
No I did not send it. She will see it or not. It doesn’t really matter. This speech is so powerful and she is amazing.
What do you think you are adding to music today? Compared to Steve Reich, for example?
[Chassol pretends to leave] What am I adding? Well the video! It’s true that I really stole the technical harmonization of Ernesto Pasqual speeches or Steve Reich in 88, but the main thing is that yes, I use the same technique, including video.
What is the significance of music for you?
For me music is the organization of noises and sounds. This is a typical human thing. After there are animals that make sounds that are similar to music, like birds for instance. These are the sounds of nature that are the closest to music. It is first of all a means of communication of human beings. One way that is highly developed, powerful and increasingly invisible. I hopefully try to make it a little bit more conspicuous with synchronization. I think music is quite powerful because it sums up many things: space, time… I think that it makes present a lot of invisible things like some feelings for instance. Still, for me, the art that works the best is cinema: it has it all! Music brought me a lot of emotions and epiphanies but it’s true that cinema is the most comprehensive art for me. It’s with it that I have felt the most emotions.
For more info on Chassol, check out his France Rocks artist page here
The interview was originally conducted in French by Fion Forte and Sarah Gabrielli-Cohen from the French Music Export Office team.