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Meet Chassol, The French Composer Bringing Classical Training To Carnival

His visual album Big Sun has taken him from Martinique field recordings to album sessions with Frank Ocean.

June 12, 2015

"I'm good with catastrophes," says Christophe Chassol in a thick French accent. He's speaking over the phone from his Paris studio, recounting the several major disasters he's encountered through his 38 years. Just days before our talk, during a tour stop in Osaka, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck Japan mere moments after he stepped off stage. In 2000, he came home from a night of partying in Belleville to find his apartment building engulfed in flames. In September 2001, he traveled New York City for the first time, and visited the World Trade Center with his parents on the 10th. In 2005, he tragically lost both his parents in a plane crash.

It was this last life-changing event that inspired the pianist, composer, and film scorer to travel back to his parents' native Martinique, a small French territory in the Caribbean, and make audio-visual record Big Sun, combining Carnival footage, field recordings of tropical wildlife, market conversations, indigenous folk songs, and lush classical arrangements into a format he calls ultrascore. "It was something I wanted to do to close a chapter," he says. "They would've liked it."

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Maybe in spite of the traumas he's experienced, Chassol is bright and infectious in conversation, laughing heartily and almost in disbelief as he takes stock of the exciting second life his career has taken on this year. After a decade scoring films and commercials and touring with orchestras around the world, the Berklee College of Music alum found himself at Abbey Road with Frank Ocean and Rick Rubin this Spring, trading chords for the enigmatic singer's upcoming album. We spoke about how he came to his singular style, and the winding career that's led him there.

In the states, it’s rare that someone who comes out of the film world establishes themselves as an artist.

Yes, like, being a craftsman, and then becoming an artist. I was doing, and I’m still doing, a lot of movie scores. That’s how I survived the wild world of the music business. It was really natural to go from movie scores to what we do now. It’s kind of the same path. I started with classical music, very early. I did so many jobs in music. I was a teacher, I did music for ballets, arranging strings for orchestras—many many things, like a craftsman. I met with Bertrand Burgalat, who is the head of my label, Tricatel. He’s an artist, and I think I needed someone like that to understand where I was going. We got in the studio and did work, like artist work. In my mind, I was a craftsman and an artist. But it takes time to find your style, to find the right forms.

You did a lot of horror movie scores. I think that’s so cool. You have to accomplish so much with the music in a horror movie. It serves the film in such an extreme way, more than any other genre.

Exactly. The sounds, on the stairs, at the door—everything is like, too much. The spectrum for the orchestra is wide. Doing something weird is cooler in horror than in comedy, you know? It’s way cooler. I’m a big The Shining fan.

What are some films you worked on that you enjoyed?

I did one film called The Incident, by Alexandre Courtes. It’s [set] during the '80s in an asylum. The heroes, they have a rock band, and they’re also the guards of the facility. There’s a storm, and [there's a blackout]. The inmates get out of their cells, and they kill everyone. It’s fuckin scary, man!

For people who don’t know, what's the scoring process like?

It depends on the director and the editor. It’s always a team. You have to get to know them. Sometimes they come way before they shoot the film, and then you can discuss the themes and moods, and it’s way better. But most of the time, they arrive during the editing. So it’s a back-and-forth between the composer and the editor. I give him my arrangement, he edits on it, and sometimes he cuts one second of it, and it’s like a complete mess. You have to understand his semantics, his vocabulary. You have to understand how he transcribes things into the world that he knows in music. Sometimes he doesn’t know anything, sometimes he knows. It’s not necessarily better if he knows. You can end up suffering.

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“Contemporary musicians are not cool. They were not the cool kids in high school.”

Your use of filmed and field-recorded material as a musical element throughout the album makes sense, given your work scoring movies.

It’s about considering this material really as a musical material, like a piano or a scale. It depends on what starts at the beginning. It can just be a chord, just a harmonic progression. It can be the image also. There are so many techniques to get the thing together. For example, there’s a scene we shot in a grocery store in Martinique: the "Dominoes" scene. You shoot that sequence, and then when you go back home, you’re like, “How can I relate, and transmit, what we did?” We shot many guys, the guys playing music. You have to find a way to put the chords that are the metrics for Big Sun in the right tonality, you have to find a way to harmonize and [draw a melody out of] what they say, and to edit the whole thing into something that tells a story, with a point A and point B.

Can you talk a bit about your use of vocal harmonization? You record everyday conversations, and then play music around the notes of the speech.

It started in 2005, I was living in Los Angeles, doing a residency at the 18th Street Arts Center. I had time, you know? I had just finished touring with Phoenix, and I had time to research, to experiment. It was at the same time that YouTube was created—February, 2005. I was working with my software for music, and films on YouTube. I realized that it was making sound, and that I could really play with it—play with the images and the sound so they linked. You know, like a VJ. I stole the concept of pitch harmonization from Hermeto Pascoal—he's a composer from Brazil, a video composer, an old guy. Completely crazy, makes pigs sing. He does so many experiments, and he's a piano player. He did this pitch harmonization of a little girl and her mother—a president's speech, things like this—in 1992. And also you have Steve Reich that did that in 1998, harmonizing the pitches of survivors from the Holocaust.

The examples you're giving, I think that's what was so powerful about the record. It was musical, but you also have this ground-level look at a culture. You're hearing stray conversations people are having. I don't speak French, and in a way it made me enjoy the record more because it completely divorced me from what they were saying, but I felt their vibe. Like the song "Madame Etienne Lise." You can feel exactly where this woman's head is at. Who is she?

A woman that we met randomly at the market. They had these big bags of white farine [flour]. It looked like big bags of cocaine. We went and asked, "So, what are you selling?," making jokes about cocaine. So she's telling us who she is: she's 85, she was the Carnival queen for many years, that’s what she says. She says she's gonna go dancing, she listens to a lot of good music. She doesn't need cocaine because she has a lot of strength. She's a widow. She says her name; she says that she loves to dance.

You were born in Martinique?

I was born in Paris. I was going to Martinique every two summers. My parents had a house over there, but I didn't want to live there. I wasn't getting along that much with people [laughs], because, you know, it is very conservative. They had an insular mentality, you know. I really struggled with the island. But during the Carnival, everything was inverted. I’d never seen the Carnival. That's what I wanted to shoot. With a good reason to go there, going to shoot, I met the people differently. It was really wonderful.

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There's a scientific element to the album, too. You record several different bird calls. And the overall idea of this trip to a tropical place, where you do this field research.

In a way, yeah. There's something a little bit scientific, but human science, like anthropology. But it comes from all the documentaries that I'm fond of. There are a variety of documentarians, filmmakers, that I love. They're doing social documentaries. There's a guy called Johan van der Keuken, and his films are absolutely gorgeous. It's all around the world. He goes with his wife. He knows how to use the sound, cutting the sound from another scene and putting it on the scene after. It's really gorgeous. I learned things from all of them. It made me want to do this.

Frank Ocean heard your vocal harmonization work, and flew you to Abbey Road to work on his upcoming album. What were those sessions like?

It was really good to work with a guy who had touched me so deeply. There were some parts [of his new music] where I was thinking of Michael Jackson. We jammed a lot, also. I was working on tracks that were already made. I was bringing ideas and doing all sorts of things: doing voices, arranging with the loops, trading arrangements, chords. It was a really cool experience. I was there maybe four days. Four nights, I would say—we were working all night long. I worked on it in Paris, and a little more in Los Angeles. It was, not an unusual way, but a different way for me to work.

Frank first heard your music via Diplo. Have you had other people reach out? Do you have a sense of who's listening to your stuff?

I have a vague idea. Mainly it's underground: people from the classical scene, people from the jazz scene, people from the electronic scene. And the pop world a little, I guess. But when I do my concerts I see, I have to say, I see many white people [laughs]. A few black people. I don't know if I want to say this, but I see upper classes, I guess. I have the feeling that it's starting to get larger, hopefully.

You've had a long, accomplished career as a composer, but now, this second life as an artist is happening.

Yeah, it's different. But I'm not 20–I'm 38. In a way, it's a normal thing. It's really step-by-step. It's not like a big breakthrough. I've been doing this for such a long time, and now I have more space to make a path. I have more trust, also, from people. If I want to put out a project, I know that I can now. It's a good thing, because I can work more.

Why do you think musicians like yourself, younger but classically trained, aren't really seen in pop?

I think that contemporary musicians are not cool. They were not the cool kids in high school. So it's not fun. You have those guys in New York called Bang On A Can. They play contemporary music. They were raised classical, they played in jazz avant-garde groups when they were teenagers. They always listen to pop music. Those musicians—they're from the 21st century. They're cool. They're from New York, they really know how to play. They play with that contemporary energy, with classical preciseness. They can play pop music with the precision of classical music and the freedom of jazz. And the coolness of pop, you know.

You can be a complete master-savant in music, but still, to be able to connect with people, have to have this whole other element of appeal as a personality.

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Yeah, but I think I shouldn't consider it. My parameter is like, do I want to really show what I recorded tonight? If I want to, it’s good. If I don't feel like it, then I didn’t do the work. The criterion, the first parameter is, do I like it? If I like it, I will defend it, I will put energy in it, I will make it useful to people, I will be proud of it. I want to please the people, of course. But what counts is the desire I have.

Meet Chassol, The French Composer Bringing Classical Training To Carnival