Released on Bertrand Burgalat’s Paris based record label Tricatel in May 2015 last – a label which is entirely dedicated to the promotion of genre-breaking acts such as French actress Valérie Lemercier or 2010 Goncourt Prize winner Michel Houellebecq – Big Sun is the third instalment in Chassol’s series of “Ultrascores”, an effort to “harmonize reality” by articulating “voices, music, sounds, images onto new audio-visual objects”.
Born and based in Paris of parents from the French West Indies’ Martinique Island, classically-trained multi-instrumentalist and former Berkelee College of Music student Christophe Chassol (aka Chassol) spent the first fifteen years of his professional career writing scores for television, cinema and advertising while also conducting an orchestra and producing other pop acts. This constant juggling between the visual and the audio medium has without a doubt been instrumental in the musician’s novel approach to music composition.
A 2011 commission for the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Centre prompted the film and accompanying soundtrack Nola Chérie, his first “Ultrascore” released as part of X-Pianos in 2012. Two years later, Chassol repeated the experiment with Indiamore (2013), his film and score based on footage captured in Calcutta and Benares.
In addition to ambient sounds, looped chords on the keyboard or sound and video manipulation, Chassol also makes an extensive use of the “speech melody” technique whereby recorded voices are used both as a rhythmic and a melodic element in the new composition.
Using the human voice as source material harks back to the work of Steve Reich and his early tape manipulations in the mid-1960s on “It’s Gonna Rain” (1965) or “Come Out” (1966). Since then, several other musicians have been making music out of ordinary speech using voice pitches and deriving new melodic patterns such as Scott Johnson on “John Somebody” (1982), Steve Reich again on Different Trains – for string quartet & tape (1988), Charles Spearin on his “Happiness Project” (2009) and more recently Gerry Diver on his Speech Project (2012).
In 2012, using loops, sampling and keyboard accompaniment, Chassol beautifully harmonized one of Barack Obama’s speeches. The same technique used on Music is God my Love (from Indiamore) produces the most mesmerising result:
In March 2014, accompanied by director of photography Marie-France Barrier and by sound engineer Johann Levasseur, Chassol set out for the Martinique Island to curate the sounds and images which would eventually form the basis for his new audio-visual project. Back in his Paris studio, Chassol started remixing, sampling and manipulating his source material to create an original artefact.
Fusing snippets of dialogue, poems, songs by local musicians (namely Malavoi singer Pipo Gertrude), tunes on the flute or conch shells and percussions with a series of motifs on the piano, the musician adds an entirely new layer of magical realism over the existing video footage.
“The piano is a horizontal and rhythmic instrument” explains Chassol, “I try to use it as a vertical instrument by superimposing pitches and creating harmonies. And with video editing and repetition, one can duplicate the same sequence thanks to harmony, creating two distinct temporal patterns and thus transcending any kind of video footage.”
In parallel, the project is also an occasion for the musician to elaborate on the specific “music” of the Martiniquan, the unique variety of French-based Creole spoken on the island. Or on tracks like “Birds Pt. I & II” to emulate the work of French composer Olivier Messiaen who incorporated bird songs extensively into his music.
Part documentary, part road-movie, part ethno-musicological study, Big Sun is equally informed by the Musique Concrète of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, minimalism, classical, and repetitive music or by electronic, pop, jazz, hip hop and the film scoring of Jerry Goldsmith, whom Chassol often quotes as a major influence.
In all of Chassol’s projects, sound and image remain inseparable: his three released “Ultrascores” all come with a DVD, and his concerts all feature a large video screen backdrop in front of which the keyboard player performs live facing his regular drummer Lawrence Clais.
Big Sun’s combined video footage and 27 audio tracks amount to a wonderful three-dimensional artistic creation – the Martinique Island through the prism of Chassol’s “augmented reality”.