What made you the composer you are today?
Since I was a small child, I always had the urge to make things. When I was 9 or 10 years old, I suffered from terrible nightmares. My parents took me to the doctors and they told us to try and put me on an instrument — see if it helps. And it did ! The nightmares stopped when I started playing classical guitar. Since then, I’ve always felt that composing, making things, was like a biological necessity for me. If I don’t, my brain and body will shut down. At one point, I felt that music alone couldn’t cover that for me anymore. I needed to expand that vision to other elements. I started as a recording engineer, then started composing for, and edit film, then I tried stage direction — each time, my toolbox was growing and I was able to express myself in many ways, and to find new ways to bring my ideas to the audience.
How do your experiences as a stage director, as well as a film composer and film maker, influence your compositional process?
You can’t separate the medias. I’m 45 now. I grew up in a complete image culture with MTV, Nintendo, etc. Images were always part of my life, therefore always part of my vocabulary. If you’re a maker today, you have to use or tap in the DNA of our time, and that DNA is very much electronics, and visuals, and images, and films. It helps me to write, or create, in a language that is the language of today.
How do you articulate them on stage?
Everything is elaborated in parallel. For instance, I’m currently writing a small opera, and when I write a aria, I not only think about what the singer sings, but also about what’s happening at the same instant on the stage. That’s one way to balance the different layers: sometimes the music is on the foreground, sometimes it’s the film or the staging. It’s a constant play between these three perspectives. Using film on stage is a very dangerous thing though: the attention of people will always be attracted by the film part. I’m always aware of leaving enough room for the music and the staging. One thing that happens in my music is that I started using electronics, or soundtracks, or tapes, to generate an alter ego of the ensemble on stage, the musicians that are playing. With it, I can create an internal musical dialog, if you will. I can show the singer on film, as well as on stage, and have him sing a duet with himself and even create frictions between the two versions of the same person… It’s a visual tool, that’s also allowed me to extend that particular musical idea.
The concept of alter egos is very important in you work: is it what drew you to Fernando Pessoa’s “Book of Disquiet” ?
Of course, I liked the idea of Pessoa’s heteronyms very much: plus each of the Pessoa heteronyms have their own writing styles, and he even wrote biographies for them. They are fictive persons in a way, and I thought it would be interesting to find what would happened if they actually met and started talking to each other, if there was a theatrical setting where they could meet. That’s how the Book of Disquiet was born. It’s a huge book. It was of course impossible to make a 75 minutes piece that covered the whole book. So I read it a few times, I marked it, made a selection and narrowed it down. It took me three months to come down to a few pages of text that I felt carried the essence of the book, or at least sheltered the most important calls and topics of the book. Unable to do justice to the entire book, I wanted to show a glimpse of it, as kaleidoscopic as possible.
The Book of Disquiet and the Book of Sand are both inspired by a literary monument, one by Pessoa, the other by Borges. Did you try to reflect their writing in your composing? And how ?
Yes. There’s no way around it. With the Book of Disquiet, there are Pessoa’s obsessions for heteronyms and alter egos, that I try to do in the music as well. Sometimes, there are different musical styles mixed together, one for the characters that speak to us from stage and one from the same characters from the film. Also, I wrote two “contemporary Fados” for a wonderful Fado singer, Ana Moura, that goes right in Pessoa’s universe. In the case of the Book of Disquiet, you can hear definite traces of the text in the music.
For the Book of Sand and Borges, I don’t think it’s in the music as much as in the film, where there are definitely all kinds of references to the Borges stories. Not only to the Borges stories that I use in the text, but also to other Borges stories.
Speaking of your toolbox, you integrate a lot of aspects from classical music as well as pop music into your sound world: what’s your stance in all that, vis-à-vis avant-garde music ?
I think my generation isn’t that conscious anymore of this kind of classifications. If you look at the 20 or 30 something kids’ playlist these days, I think you’ll find that many of them move very smoothly between Steve Reich and Beyoncé, Square Pusher and Aphex Twin, Bach and Nono. It’s easier to cross boundaries in that respect, thanks to the new digital technics. As for me, I always listened to everything: from world music to jazz, from pop to classical, to contemporary. For me, it’s all music and at one point, I stopped thinking in genres anymore. When I write something, if I feel it needs some glitch electronics, which you might also find on a world label or in dance music, then I use it. Most of the time, it’s just small references. Like in the Violin Concerto: at the end of the first movement, a very strange beat pops up and then stops. It’s these shadows, these different colours that I use. I don’t feel like I’m doing any kind of crossover, it’s just something that is part of my world, as much as film is part of my world. It’s all in one big toolbox and it all depends of the idea, the core of the piece, for me to decide which tool I need for that piece.
Actually, when we listen to your Violin Concerto, we can hear you play with the repertoire of the violinist: we can hear some kind of shadow of the Sibelius’ Concerto, as well as Prokofiev’s…
Well, it’s also because I wrote it for Janine Jansen. This is her world! I wanted to start from there, and then take it and stretch its boundaries. A violin concerto is such an historically heavily loaded genre, if you write a new piece, you either have to admit that, or go against it. I just chose to use the gesture of it, as well as the virtuosity of it and some of the language of it, to transform it into my own world.
How did you compose for such a magnetic personality as Janine Jansen ?
Actually, this piece exists only because of her. Normally, I would never write a violin concerto. But she’s such an amazing performer, both musically and theatrically, that I wanted to write a piece for her, who happens to play the violin. If she had played the recorder, it would have been a recorder concerto! I often need the inspiration of a great performer to make a piece.
What about her presence on stage: do you write with that in mind too ?
Absolutely. Listening to the piece on CD may be a bit less interesting than live. There’s all these theatrical and visual lines that are played between her, the concert master, the lead cello player and the three percussionists… They form like two trios that communicate together. In the third movement, for instance, I play a lot with visual lines, like a little ball of energy that is being thrown around between these key players.
Is virtuosity important for you in your music ?
In a way. I often have some man or woman vs machine kind of virtuosity: like a battle of strength, trying to beat the machine, or to stay together with it. It has this theatrical machine like quality that I use as a counterpoint for the very human aspect of performance.
Sound technologies are everywhere in your music, sometimes even in a very rudimentary way (like the tape recorder in “Here [Circles]”). Besides your evocation of musical alter egos and these battle of strength, what is your approach of the electronic tools ?
I’m a digital native. I’m quite fluent with the computer, and with all the plugins and software. Recently, I kind of fell in love, and even become slightly obsessed, with the modular synthesizer. I started using it largely in my work. For example, in the Book of Sand and in my opera Sunken garden, there’s a lot more electronic sounds mixing with the digital soundtracks. I had started miss-ing the tactile relationship of making sounds. With the modular synthesizer, you physically have to patch between an oscillator and a filter, and I really liked the fact that you have to manually turn an actual clock knob, and not just use your mouse on a computer screen, to manipulate the switch. Having some kind of physical relationship with the creation of sound again made new developments possible for me. So I mix a bit in an analogic mode now.
Interviewed by Jérémie Szpirglas