Interview: Christophe Chassol – Composing Scores from the Daily Life (January 2018)

I remember the first time I heard Chassol like it was yesterday. I was listening to “Pipornithology, Pt. II” – from his acclaimed album Big Sun – and I was blown away, by the way, he started with the recording of a singing bird and used it to create an enchanting piece of music. Even though this technique is rooted in minimalist music, it was an approach I had never encountered before and to this day he stays one of the most significant and important music discoveries I have made in recent years.

Chassol calls his compositions ‘Ultrascores’ and they are more than just music (as if being good music was not enough). They are soundtracks of reality, and a way to find beauty in everything, a way to see – and embrace – the world around us. When I heard I’d have the chance to interview him at the Jazz:Re:Found festival, I just couldn’t say no. Friendly and playful, he told me about the great film score composers, his epiphanies, and what it means to harmonise the real, all while sipping on whisky backstage.

You’ve composed a lot for the cinema, a lot of horror movies. Are there differences in the process of composing your own music and music for a film score?

Yes, it’s really different because when you compose for a movie you have to be at the service of the director and the production and the editor – so many people. When it’s only for me, I just have to kick my butt to get out of bed and get it done and do the work. If not, nobody is going to do it for me. When you have an assignment, it’s very different – you’re working to be efficient. But I’m trying to do it as best as I can even if it’s for someone else because it serves whatever you’re doing for yourself.

What brought you to composing for movies in the first place?

“I wanted to be able to live as a musician and this is a good way to do it because it’s a place where you can make a living as a musician. This was the pragmatic reason, but it was also kind of an epiphany that I had with the movie Towering Inferno, a catastrophic movie from the ‘70s (Paul Newman, Steve McQueen). I heard the music and I was instantly in love so I wanted to know how do you do that? What is it? And I discovered that people made a living as film composers. That was in my teenage years”.

Who is your favourite score composer?

 “Jerry Goldsmith – do you know him? He scored more than 300 movies, among which The Omen, Planet of the Apes, Rambo, Alien, Star Trek, PoltergeistChinatown, you name it… And of course, you know Ennio Morricone, he’s the best”.

When did you start composing your own music?

“I always did it”.

So when did you decide to come out as an artist on your own?

“I tried when I was 20, but I couldn’t because nobody would sign me. I waited until I was 35 when Bertrand Burgalat, a French composer, and owner of the Tricatel label, saw my work and wanted to do it. He was the only one until I was 35″.

Had he a vision?

“Because he’s a composer and he has a label. Usually, people who are heads of labels are not composers. It wasn’t luck. It’s normal that you don’t do that kind of music at 20 years of age”.

Let’s get to Ultrascores. It’s a trilogy where you explored three places: “New Orleans”, “India” and “Martinique”. Is there a link between these places?

 “Yes, you can find a link. New Orleans is Creole, we call Martinique West Indies and India is India. The link is more semantic: Martinique, West Indies – India and New Orleans is Creole, Creole – West Indies, West Indies – India. That’s the link that I can find. The link is just my life. New Orleans, I didn’t choose to do it. A museum asked me to do an exhibit about my short videos and I said ‘I’m gonna make a film,’ and it was New Orleans.

I thought you went to New Orleans because of jazz?

“Yeah, of course, New Orleans is close to what I am listening to, but if it were for me I wouldn’t have chosen New Orleans. But it was for the best because then after that I went to India because it’s a place where you have to go if you are a composer. Every composer has his Indian period because it’s very different from Western music, so when you’re tired of western music you’re trying to find other places and then there’s India, and there you can buy a lot of new records because you get to know a lot of new music”.

Which one did you prefer?

“The last one, Martinique – simply because it’s the last one – I preferred how we played together on it because the process of doing it had improved by then, so I prepared more carefully the live setting and the sounds. The mix of the video and sound is better, so it’s easier to play the last one because the mix is better”.

You seem to take inspiration from everything around you. Are there any special things or moments of the day that inspire you?

“There is something which happens every first Wednesday of the month in France where you have the siren of the firemen going – this is a nice moment. It’s like a big alarm, I like it. Also, we travel a lot with the guys. For instance, we were in Mannheim, Germany two weeks ago and this cab driver made us see what he’s doing. He makes Indian music, so he’s singing it, and we’re singing along with him and he (a camera guy who’s following Chassol on tour) was filming it, and it’s good material to work with. Not everything is good material to work with, but, for instance, if you were to sing right now, it could be cool. Could you?”

Sing? Right now?

“He’s filming – we could use it!”

*I try to sing*

“That’s enough. It’s good, no? I’m not sure if I could use it because the sound [of the concert in the background] could bother me. You know this sound, I could use it as background sound but I wouldn’t have your notes clearly”.

Ha-ha, great. Well, I’m honoured! Anyway, what does it mean to you to harmonise ‘the real’?

“It’s about seeing good things everywhere; it’s a good attitude, I think. But, you know, I couldn’t do this with things that are not nice. I couldn’t do it with someone who’s preaching white power or something like that. It could sound cool, but I’m just doing it with things that I like”.

Which artists would you say influenced you strongly as a composer? And who do you look up to right now, perhaps in the French scene?

“Ennio Morricone, definitely. As for France, Aquaserge – it’s a really good band. They were riding a water plane and listening to Serge Gainsbourg so they called themselves Aquaserge. Magma is another French band that is really cool”.