Formed in 2015 and based in Strasbourg, Snowdrops is a French chamber duo comprised of Christine Ott on piano and Ondes Martenot and Mathieu Gabry on piano and keyboards. Originally established to support various film and theatre soundtrack projects such as Thai filmmaker Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s Manta Ray, Snowdrops have released three full-length records to date. The duo has now morphed into a trio with the inclusion of frequent collaborator Anne-Irène Kempf on viola.

Released on 16 October 2020 last on London-based Injazero Records, the duo’s début record Volutes is a remarkable instrumental promenade exploring acoustic and classical chamber music, retro-futuristic ambient electronica and improvisation.

Snowdrops - Volutes (2020)
Snowdrops – Volutes (2020) – Artwork © Lali Torma

When we compose for Snowdrops, we are often looking for these moments, this intensity and this madness within the classical and allegedly peaceful chamber music genre. These moments often stem from improvisation. We then tell ourselves it’s a bit like uncovering hidden gems within our collective psyche. This is sometimes the ultimate gift in music, when it goes above and beyond us.

The three Snowdrops records to date must be appraised in the context of an intense period of creativity for composer and ondist Christine Ott. Volutes (2020), Inner Fires (2021) and Missing Island (2022) were released a year apart over three years. The albums were also interspersed with the release of Christine Ott’s third and fourth solo album – Chimères in May 2020 and Time to Die in April 2021. In addition, the self-titled Theodore Wild Ride – another side project involving Mathieu Gabry on piano and Ophir Levy on oud – came out in October 2021.

“Volute” is an architectural term suggesting a scroll-like or spiral shape found at the top of ionic columns for instance. For violin makers, the volute and the pegbox make up the scroll on stringed instruments. But in the French language, the word “volute” is also used to describe an ever-changing billowing cloud or puff of smoke.

The term therefore chimes to perfection with the free-flowing, drifting and floating nature of the music on Snowdrops’ début album. The cover artwork by Romanian-born and Montreal-based visual artist Lali Torma further emphasizes this “quest for colour, free expression and thirst for unseen forms and patterns.”

Injazero Records · Snowdrops – Trapezian Fields

The acoustic/electronic balance on all three Snowdrops recordings stems from the combination of the piano and viola with the Ondes Martenot, an early semi-electronic instrument which first emerged in the 1930s and for which a new repertoire was written in a chamber music or orchestral context. Even though the instrument was modified and perfected over the following decades, it never strayed completely from its original design of a keyboard, a fingerboard metallic strip, a control box for the left hand and a set of four loudspeakers. A cumbersome, difficult to master and rare instrument, it has nevertheless retained its 20th century aura on the contemporary scene thanks to the dedication of generations of performers, composers and teachers like Jeanne Loriod, Cynthia Millar, Thomas Bloch or Christine Ott.

Recorded over a two-day live session in July 2019, Volutes is bookended by two versions of “Comma”, a beautiful slow and pensive piece which the composer has also interpreted in different variations on Chimères and Time to Die.

In keeping with the semi-improvisational nature of the music, the free-flowing smoke metaphor and the soundwave representation on the LP artwork, a song title like “Eloge de l’Errance” (in praise of wandering) also points to physical nomadism – not so much in the sense of vagrancy – but as in wayfaring, wandering or drifting.

An entire literary tradition stems from documenting travel journeys and experiences in the form of journals, narratives or fictional stories – travel writing of course, but in its urban version, the city “flâneur” (as in wandering with no purpose), the stroller or even the street photographer. In that sense, the epic and 13mn cinematic tour de force “Odysseus” could also refer to one of the most famous novels of the 20th century which follows fictional hero (and flâneur) Leopold Bloom wandering around Dublin city centre on 16th June 1904 in James Joyce’s “Ulysses”.

But to illustrate the transcending aura of the meandering “Odysseus”, the duo chose images from a Hindu religious ceremony in Malaysia. “In the 4th movement” reflect the musicians, “there’s a sort of trance, of communion, of “letting go” which elicits for us jubilant gatherings from another world, and at the same time from our world”

Volutes is a superb recording drenched in a rich vibrato generated by either Christine Ott’s Ondes Martenot, Mathieu Gabry’s Mellotron (“Ultraviolet”) and Anne-Irène Kempf’s viola, all constantly interweaving melodic lines with a subtly impressionistic piano.

Released a year later on the Forwind label, Inner Fires is a compilation of four earlier and more experimental sessions while Missing Island, released on 25 November 2022 last, pursues the same improvisational soundscape initiated with Volutes.

Cinema and literature are also clear influences in the creative process leading to the compositions. “Retour à la Terre” was inspired by a quote from Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke and “Nostalgia de la Luz” borrows its title from a 2010 Chilean documentary of the same name by Patricio Guzmán. The record also introduces a slightly different instrumental balance whereby Christine Ott trades the Ondes Martenot for the harmonium or the piano on “Retour à la Terre”, “Comme un Souffle qui Vient” and “Mémoires Elémentaires” respectively.

As eternal sound explorers, Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry (alongside drummer and percussionist Pierre-Loïc Le Bliguet) have announced the launch of a new experimental and improvisational project as a trio with the release of The Cry on 15 June 2023 next on Gizeh Records.