Since early 2010, Mathieu has composed bespoke music on prime-time UK Entertainment, Children’s, Comedy and Drama shows for major UK networks as well as for prized independent filmmakers worldwide and UK celebrities. Aside from Film and TV, he has recently released his first E.P., “Ichi.” We had an opportunity to speak with Mathieu about his career. Check out the awesome interview below.
Hello Occhi and thank you for having me!
‘Ichi’ (Number one in Japanese) is a collection of ideas I had developed for a while, composed for a string quartet, percussion and synths: https://soundcloud.com/mathieukarsenti/sets/ichi-e-p
I was very influenced by my last trip to Japan in 2016 and by anime soundtracks such as ‘Akira’ and ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and I wanted to write freeform music that was cinematic, recorded live, mainly for strings and percussion. I realized after years of making music that I pretty much always have a contrapuntal approach to what I do (where different melody lines or elements coexist but are also independent of each other) rather than always being dictated by underlying chords or a fixed meter (4/4 for instance). For me, this yields more flowing sounding music, more mental images and ‘Ichi’ was a way of ‘painting’ all of this in a simple format.
As an add-on I’ve also created remixes of these tracks called the Dandy Remixes:
It is absolutely crucial and just as well that soundtracks are receiving more attention!
To me, a good soundtrack not only underpins the existing emotion of a scene, it also informs you on the psychology of a character, what they’re going through, it illustrates what we cannot see but what is suggested. Overall, a score can also represent the essence of the film, its soul, through a particular sound palette or interesting arrangements. The power of music is so great (and so often undermined) that it can really make or break your experience of a film. In the last decade or so, we’ve seen more and more soundtracks that offer an enhanced sonic experience; for instance in the works of Clint Mansell and Cliff Martinez. Their scores add an extra layer that compliments the film but also makes you think more about the characters and the storyline in a non-linear way.
When I work on a film, the inspiration is the picture. I am always guided by what I watch and it’s always amazing when you ‘discover’ a film for the first time and you start to feel your way through it creatively, it’s like trying to solve a puzzle.
Sometimes, an instrument itself is a source of inspiration. A while back, I was working from a small recording studio that had an old Bechstein upright piano. Each time I sat down and touched the keys, I got so many more ideas than when I normally use a computer piano sound: the acoustics, the heavier keys, and the extra noise made my music come alive. This came in handy when I scored my first feature film ‘White Colour Black’ – pretty much all composed at the piano.
Musically, I seek to be challenged whether I listen to Jazz, World or Baroque music for instance, and somehow I pick up a few things here and there that I incorporate into my music.
Yes, I think setting the film’s tone is crucial and personally, I really enjoy a healthy amount of dialogue with a director. A lot of directors don’t always know how to communicate their ideas or needs and that’s fine because it’s down to me to dig and find the music thread that will guide the viewer through the film. It’s a very organic process that takes time but also a lot of trust on both sides.
When I scored ‘Kathmandude’ my last short directed by Jacob Kirby, we first tried to identify the tone by finding reference tracks. As we wanted music that crossed over between West and East, we listened to a lot of Prog Rock and Psychedelic bands that made very adventurous music. In the end, that process really worked for us as a strong starting point to go further.
With my background in Design and my self-taught musical approach, I also find that I am able to visualize music as creating an identity (like a logo or using an image to represent a company for instance), and to me that’s hugely important because it makes your film stand out from the rest: music gives personality and life, and it really shouldn’t be underestimated! Theoretically, I realized that my contrapuntal approach allows me to find the tone by putting together different sounds that wouldn’t normally work and creating freer music that operates on many levels.
This is an interesting topic. I tend to proceed with caution when scoring emotional scenes. Oftentimes, emotions are more complex than sad versus happy, sometimes they’re ambiguous, sometimes a scene is bittersweet, often silence is your best ally and I like to leave enough mental space for the viewer to process the scene in their own way. An amazing composer and a strong influence on my work is Thomas Newman. His ability to convey the complexity of emotions with seemingly simple but sophisticated melodic structures and unpredictable arrangements actually shows that this is possible, that we can keep an open mind when watching the movie. Anything that repeats what we already see is redundant for me. So my process really tends to take the viewer into account. I’d hate to dumb down my music ‘just to make sure’ the viewer gets the message. The viewer isn’t stupid and will quickly know when he/she is being manipulated! So for me, less is definitely more. It’s about guiding them to the director’s vision in a way that makes sense with the help of musical ideas and trying not to be too on-the-nose about it all!
What has been your most elaborate music production?
I view each project as being elaborate because my music has to do so many different things when it is put against the picture. In terms of the amount of work, of course, something orchestral will usually take a lot more time if a big sound is needed (more instruments to compose for!). Also in the past, when I’ve scored a TV show, a documentary or a feature film there’s just a bigger amount of cues you have to produce. But personally, I treat each project with care and a dedicated elaborate music production.
When I work on freeform compositions away from the picture, I try to challenge myself to create more elaborate or more complex work to convey something more nuanced. When working to picture, I am always guided by the framework and sometimes I have to compose less elaborate cues.
For me, the challenges are slightly different because of different ways of telling a story, whether based on truth or imagined. At the end of the day, the music has to work to complement what we see and either make it more believable or support an emotion or a concept. My added direction is to create or bring out the identity of each project with music that works in synergy with it.
I guess over the years, I’ve been attracted to a type of filmmaking that is steeped in reality but that has a twist, another dimension added. That dimension brings inspiration and a reflection on reality, such as in ’90Grad Nord’, a fantastic short I scored for director Detsky Graffam. The grotesque and funny premise of the film makes us think about making the right decision, about our survival instinct and about being controlled. Check out the trailer:
A while back I scored my first feature documentary’ Made You Look’ and the challenge was more to create underlying music that reflected the film conceptually rather than adhere to the action of each scene. ‘Made You Look’ documents the relationship between Analogue and Digital means of creating in the UK Graphic Arts scene with relevant interviews from current artists. What was interesting to me was the parallel with the music I was creating: I composed using a mix of analogue instruments and digital computer sounds. So the score directly reflects the concept of the documentary: https://vimeo.com/10466.
What is your expectation for any soundtrack you compose?
I don’t usually have any expectations as I try to keep an open mind as much as possible. Once I’ve worked out the direction the music will go in and I’m in a good place musically, the only expectation is that it should sound as great as possible, regardless of the budget. That’s always my aim, to create high-quality music that works with the film. As a musician, I am always seeking ways to have real live instruments playing on my music, it’s essential to me as it brings life a human feel into it.
Follow your gut and know yourself creatively.
So often, we might be guided by the prospects of money, awards, recognition, credit etc.. that we will take every project that comes along. I figured out a while back that there was a common thread in all the projects I scored, that they all brought out the best in me creatively. There was a reason why certain gigs didn’t come to me and that’s more because of who I am as a creative person, attracting the right projects and people for my career to grow and to learn lessons. Also, establishing and developing strong relationships is crucial to keep going in this industry. Making films is such a personal endeavor and music goes straight to its core, so composers have to know and understand the people they work with. Composers also have to know themselves creatively, their capabilities, their inabilities etc in order to best assist the director’s vision, and they have to keep flexing their creative muscles in order to get better at it.
Is there anything you would like to add that we haven’t asked?
This week, I have just released some brand new compositions for solo cello called ‘Cello Prayers’. These are cinematic explorations that were inspired by Sir John Tavener’s ‘The Protecting Veil’, you can hear these here:
Last month, I was also awarded Best music score at Shorts Film Festival in Bournemouth UK for Jacob Kirby’s ‘Kathmandude’. The short is doing the festival rounds at the moment, check out the trailer here:
Connect with Mathieu: