What Does A Star Sound Like? Chassol | Interview With The King Of Ultrascore

by Johanne Affricot - Published on 02/11/2016

If you lift your gaze and look at the sky at night, can you hear the sound the stars emit? I can: Chassol. Christophe-Thomas Chassol.

A new star is born, or maybe it would be better to say on the rise, given that the Parisian pianist, composer, arranger and musical director, born in 1976, started to play the keys of the piano at the tender age of 4, before landing on the Berklee College of Music.
griot-mag-star-chassol-ultrascore-trilogy-roma-concert-italyYears and years of studying and apprenticeship have helped him to grow and compose music for many films, working as musical director for electro-pop icons such as Sebastian Tellier and Phoenix.

American singer and rapper Frank Ocean also heard and saw the sound of this star and chose to include Chassol’s vision and genius in his visual album Endless.

Pianist, musician, visionary experimenter, talented juggler of sounds and images, Christophe-Thomas Chassol has invented his own genre to define his world and music – a space between minimalism, jazz, electro, pop, lounge, rap, folk, funk, world music, chill wave and nu wave: Ultrascore. In his own words, Ultrascore is a method for “Harmoniser le réel”, that is “Harmonizing the reality.”

Basically, he records and articulates voices, music, sounds, images of nature and every day life around the world, and turns them into new audiovisual stories that harmoniously break any preconceived ideas of certainty, shortening the distance between the ordinary and the unusual. He had also wonderfully harmonized one of Barack Obama’s speeches.

Over the past few months he has toured half of Italy. A tour that concludes, on November 13 at the Philarmonie de Paris, with the Steve Reich Anniversary. Fortunately, there is still one more date to go in Rome – at Roma Europa Festival – to enjoy his live show and his ability to take the audience on a dream in front of their very own eyes. He will perform the last chapter of his Trilogy, Big Sun, that in March 2014 took him to his parents’s birthplace, Martinique: “It was something I wanted to do to close a chapter,” he said to The Fader. “They would’ve liked it.”

griot-mag-star-chassol-ultrascore-trilogy-big-sun-ape-roma-concert-italy-Foto © Louis Canadas copia
Big Sun (2013), by Chassol (c) Louis Canadas

Speaking to him feels like speaking to a friend, someone you can share with. A true artist who is totally focused on his work. We met in video between Rome and the Ile de Ré, France, where he went to relax and to be kissed by the sun of November. “I wake up at something like 11am, because I go to bed late, and I start to work. I work all the time. Actually it isn’t work. I would say I play,” he says.

In his free time he watches documentaries, goes to the movies, and when he can, he goes hiking “You know, I’m a loner. I don’t even see my friends. I live at night. I go out at 3 or 4 in the morning. I always go to the same place. I have one or two whiskies and I write my stuff and I see my girlfriend. We’ve been together for 18 years, since 1998.”

GRIOT: Tell me something more about your Ultrascore.

Chassol: It’s something I’ve been working on for more than 20 years, and I’m 40 now. It happened really naturally doing music for movies. I’m used to creating music with images, to synchronize music with my software. In 2005 when YouTube was created, I had access to so many videos, so it was natural for me to use the sound of the videos as musical material.

What I’m doing now is a very natural evolution of this, and what I want is to evolve more and more and more. Show people more ways to understand the synchronization of images on music.

Pierre Michel Gertrude on the screen

Right now I’m working on two movie scores. One is a French comedy, and the other one is a biopic on André Courrèges, who was a very famous French fashion designer. His wife is doing a documentary on his life.

New Orleans, India and your family’s West Indian birthplace of Martinique. The Trilogy. How was it interacting with different cultures?

Three different experiences and all very intense. I was used to America when I went to New Orleans. I loved it. Most of the time we cried because we were there after Katrina. We met people who had lost so much, but were eager to give us so much at the same time. It was fantastic.

griot-mag-star-chassol-ultrascore-trilogy-big-sun-ape-roma-concert-italy-Nola Cherie, New Orleans (2011), Christophe Chassol
Nola Cherie, New Orleans (2011), by Christophe Chassol

India, that country has so many things that I could hate: it’s dirty, so many people, there’s a lot of flies. But I love it. It went to my heart because of the music, the devotional music. It’s like a direct connection with the spiritual world.

Martinique, I’ve known it since I was a kid, as I went there on holiday every two years, and I speak the language. My family is over there, but when I was younger I always got into trouble as it’s a very conservative society, religious and the jokes aren’t the same. No. Certain jokes would not work. But when I went there for my project – to record the people – it was really different because I had a purpose. It changed everything. I was surprised by the people, by their humour. It was surprising, refreshing, wonderful.

You usually spend two weeks in each place. Does that ever give you a feeling of “Oh, shit, I should have recorded this and that” once you get back home?

No, no. I actually always have too many things! You know, two weeks is a lot, and you cut so much. Since I do loops in my work, one second is a lot, so I always have plenty of images, plenty of things.

The backdrop screen is an important element of your live shows and without it your ultrascore would have a different feel. Can you imagine or have you ever imagined making a show without it?

I grew up doing concerts without the screen but now I always use it, so I’m not thinking about making a show without it because it’s too interesting. I’ve thought about it, but I’ve still got so many things that I want to try out with the screen.

Big Sun, Chassol performing at the Ancienne Belgique (2013)

What does it mean to you to be an artist?

Oh, good question. Let me tell you this. There’s our tour manager, who is a filmmaker and is doing a documentary about the tour and the next film that we’re gonna make. A few months ago we spent two nights discussing about the notion of the artist, and we couldn’t find a definition for it.

But in my mind, being an artist is living, being, trying to communicate an emotion, something that has no words, with a language and a practice that I create myself daily. I feel good with that. Every day I’m trying to make it as accurate as possible, but obviously everyone’s language is constantly evolving, like Italian or French. You find new neologism, words, techniques that you practice every day.

Talking about visual language, you exhibited your audio [art]works at the Venice Biennale and at the Museum of Modern Art in Shanghai. You’re also planning to take part in the next Venice Biennale. What have you done and what are you working on?

Yes, in Shanghai I did the music for a Chanel exhibition, and I worked with Sophie Call, who was a French artist who exhibited at the Venice Biennale [in 2007.]

For the upcoming Venice Biennale, I’m working with artist Xavier Veilhan, who is representing France. Basically Xavier wants to transform the pavilion into a recording studio [with many existing or invented instruments at the public’s disposal] so there will be a lot of musicians taking part.

It sounds great. Are you collaborating with any other art institutions?

I am. Next week I’m going to Geneva, to the Ethnographic Museum. They’ve given me lots of recordings and we’re going to do a film.

You were classically trained and I know that the impressionists are very important to you. Can you tell me more about the role of impressionism in your music?

Well, as a French guy you grow up and you have to know about Maurice Ravel and [Claude] Debussy. So, those guys, they are from another planet. They are like geniuses. I just love their musi. It’s brilliant. It’s elegant. It’s French. It’s a lot, with complex and sophisticated harmonies. So you grew up with this and you try to put some of their techniques in your work. Especially Ravel. He’s really respected by a lot of jazzmen. He’s very popular in this scene. He’s like a jazzman.

Maurice Ravel at the piano at Le Belvédère, via Maurice Ravel Foundation

While quickly watching on YouTube five minutes of your BIG SUN live show, at the Ancienne Belgique [I stopped playing the video because in a few days I’m experiencing it for myself, here in Rome] I’ve immediately noticed that you move a lot while performing. Is moving an important element in your creative process and in your shows?

Not in the creative process. But I watched a video of the show like you, and I realized I was moving quite a lot. I think it’s very natural. I don’t think about it but I can’t see myself not moving… Like the DJs, when they’re mixing. If they don’t move, something is missing. It happens [that I move] and it’s important for the show.

You did a lot of horror movie scores but we never see violence, war, or poverty scenes in your shows. Why not?

What I like in horror movies is the cinematography techniques used to scare people, and the music. Most of the time is very interesting but in my videos I prefer to speak about joy.

In a recent interview on ‘La Repubblica’ [the most important Italian newspaper] I’ve read that you told the journalist that you love Italy but that you’ve had problems here, especially in the past, over your skin colour. Can you tell me more about that?

What I can tell you, you know, is that it’s a very racist country, like France. I’ve always had problems like at the hotel “Oh, there’s no room for you,” things like that. I know exactly what it is. It was many years ago, maybe thirteen. I was touring with a [French] band called Phoenix.

So, before I was reacting to this but now I don’t care. I have no problems since I don’t care. The other thing is a money thing. When you have money, you don’t see a lot of the racism around you. I grew up, I have money, so I guess I wouldn’t go to places where I might have problems with it.

You have had so many problems in your country, with Berlusconi. He hurt your country so much. He was really bad. He was a little bit like Sarkozy. Sarkozy did a lot of bad things to this country and it’s really difficult to come back from this.

What about now?

The situation is really bad now. You know, you have Marie Le Pen, from Front National, who rides high in the polls. People are always talking about religion, the [terrorist] attacks, and identity. It’s the only things they’re talking about. It’s really, really boring. Really counterproductive. It’s a sad situation for our country. It’s really frightening.

Next year there will be the presidential elections, and it’s gonna be bad, bad, bad. There’s a bunch of guys from the far right wing, then Marie Le Pen, who’s going to be on the second round. Then, there’s this black woman, former Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira.
griot-mag-star-chassol-ultrascore-trilogy-big-sun-ravel-impressionists-roma-concert-italy-2She’s the smartest person from the political world but, you know, any person who’s going to be presented as representing the left wing is going to lose. That’s for sure.

I see. Why do you think that it’s counterproductive and boring to speak about religion and identity?

It’s not counterproductive. It’s the way it’s being talked about. I mean, people are into passion, not into reason, not pragmatic, and most people are ignorant because they are affected by stupid media and TV shows. I think we don’t realize as much as we should but… I mean, capitalism has been winning for a long time and it’s feeding people with so many stupid things and people don’t know how to think, so they react with fear and they want to buy things. It’s very sad.

Yes, but thank God we have your music, your art. I think your work, among that of other artists and non-artists, is something that improves the way we see the world, and I guess the music industry will involve you more. Would you be happy if it would happen?

Well, the people that are coming to my show, I’m not worried about those people but the small minded ones. As for me, I’m good and I don’t care if I don’t get more involved in the music industry. I do a lot of music for movies. I want to do more accurate pieces of work. I used to have dreams like ‘Oh, I want to play at Carnegie Hall,’ or ‘ I want to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Score in Hollywood.’ But I don’t care anymore. I just want to be able to do the films I want to do, to perform them in good places. That’s it. I’m good like that.

Speaking of the Oscars, I know Ennio Morricone is a very big source of inspiration for you. If you could meet and say something to him, what would you love to tell him?

I would thank him. I would say ‘Thank you for giving us so much.’ I would also love to tell him to be nicer with journalists [laughs.] He’s like 80 and something and he is still very angry. It’s fantastic. He makes me laugh so much. Like, he finished an interview with a big newspaper in France, Liberation, and he said to the journalist “Vaffanculo” [Fuck off.]

Really? Why?

Because he considered he was asked the wrong questions.

Ennio Morricone during Cannes Festival, May 2012, (c) Patrice Terraz via Liberation

And what about you? What are some of the features of your personality you like the most and some you don’t like at all, that you would love to change?

What I like the most is my energy, my good sense of observation, and I really, really, really like to have fun, to make jokes. As for the bad things, I really don’t see anything [he laughs loudly.]


Mmmm, let me think about it. No. I really like everything about my personality. You know…this is a joke. Oh, really, I cannot invent something. Maybe, I can be lazy…and I would love to be more…but no, it’s good like that, it’s good to be bored.

I know myself and I know that I would love to be the guy that is really productive, the kind of person who can create an orchestra score in one hour. I tell you what happened some time ago. I’m playing at the Philarmonie [de Paris] in thirteen days. It’s a big venue. It’s the biggest venue in France. It’s very important. I’m playing Indiamore, a piece with three flutes, and a Steve Reich piece, and I waited until the day before the rehearsals to write the three flutes. I could have written this two months before.

Oh my God.

Yes, your God. Ahaha.

Oh sometimes it happens to me too, doing things at the last minute.

Maybe because you wanna test yourself. Or maybe because…you are fucking lazy.

Ahahah. Maybe you’re right

So…maybe I would love to change this.

There’s always time to change.

I’m not sure. You know yourself, how you function. All that time you waste, that you think you’re wasting, it takes time for the idea to come out. So you just realize that you are not as good as you think you are in your head. What we’re doing is what we can.

What is love to you?

What is love to me [he repeats the question laughing]? What do you mean?

I mean Love.

Well…It’s many things. It’s the desire of doing something. It’s something that I describe in my work. As the definition of artist, love is something I try to express in my work with a technique, a language that I create daily. It’s something that has no word on it.

Chassol live show in Rome

Friday, November 4
c/o Monk Club
h 10 pm
€ 15 + Arci memership card
Address, Via Giuseppe Mirri, 35
Get your ticket here.

Featured Image | Son altesse sérénissime Christophe-Thomas Chassol : “pipornithology” via (c) Guilhem Simbille

Last update | November 4, 1:30 pm

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Johanne Affricot

Visual and performing arts, culture and music, traveling: I could just live on this. Graduated in International Cooperation and Development, I am an indipendent Culture Curator and Producer, and Artistic Director of GRIOTmag and Spazio GRIOT.