Herbert Meets: Casual Melancholia
Casual Melancholia by Alexandre Desmidt
When I watched pianist and composer ‘Casual Melancholia,’ play the piano on an Instagram live a couple of weeks ago, there was a studious delicacy to his playing and a charm that was palpable even through the tiny screen. I went straight to Spotify and listened to the first track listed ‘Memory’ (first track of EP ‘Birth’) and was immediately transported. When we spoke, it turned out that the artist, like his playing was charming, studious and a little bit magic.
When we first exchanged messages you were in the studio for a film score project? Can you tell us about it?
Of course, I think that composing for film is something that most composers dream about, but you need to find someone that trusts you and believes in your music and for me this happened a year ago. Like most things, once you do one, the second comes faster and so on. The one I am working on now is an orchestral composition for my first … in French we say ‘un long métrage’ –
A feature film?
Exactly, and the first two were for short French films. One of them was going to be shown at Cannes this year but it has been cancelled because of the crisis.
So, is ‘Birth’ a soundtrack for one of the short films? Or is it a stand-alone project?
Ah, this one is actually a standalone EP but what you say is accurate because ‘Birth’ is very cinematographic… it was not deliberate but as a result of this record people started to ask me to write scores because they saw that my music could be a good companion for film.
It’s the release that really moved me – was there something specific that inspired you to write it?
It’s interesting you ask (pauses) something in my family life inspired me to to explore the cycle of life and that also influenced the design of the 4 track EP. It starts with the memory (to remember, to regret), the birth (this pure burst of life), then life (living this life) and finally afterlife (death, and the moment when the new generation takes over.)
Interestingly the style your latest release ‘Selfie Angel’ is quite different?
Yes, this release was a commission for a fashion show that actually happened three weeks before the lock-down. It was for a French designer called Alphonse Maitrepierre– he is a very talented rising designer in Paris.
How did it come about?
It was a very natural collaboration- he knew my work and asked me to compose something for his new collection. He loves La Callas, like you I think!? And the only direction he gave me was: ‘I want to hear the ghost of La Callas in what you create.’ His work is very post-modern, so I also explore the post-modern element of my music. I am very grateful for this collaboration as I wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to base a work on La Callas but thanks to Alphonse, I did and my relationship to her has grown.
Family Portrait « Dadame » Fall Winter presentation by Alphonse Maitrepierre
As you can imagine, that makes me very happy…You just mentioned, the post-modern element that exists in your music – is that how you would describe your sound?
I think I would call myself a neo-classical composer because I like to look to the past and confront it with the tools of today. This is why I am so inspired by artists like Nils Frahm and Ryuichi Sakamoto – they are very modern, but they always nod to the past – this is special.
I’ve never thought of it like that…what I particularity like is how modern your artwork and imagery is but how romantic your music is…
Yes, and I think my name ‘Casual Melancholia’ is a synthesis of this – the casual reflects the norm-core feeling of today where everything is normal, casual…basic and the melancholia is a very romantic word – something related to the past, to Goethe and the German writers. I like to play with the dialogue between these worlds by using the tools of Bach and Wagner (piano, strings) with the tools of today – artificial Intelligence, universal audio plugins, midi orchestra, analog synthesizers etc. as well as recordings from my iPhone and snippets from YouTube or Instagram.
Why do you think the relationship between the ‘romantic’ and the ‘zeitgeist’ is an important one to explore?
(laughs) Maybe I am wrong!
No, you’re not wrong, I am just interested as to why it is so important in your practice?
I think if you gave moog synthesizers and Spitfire audio samples to Bach or to Chopin they would have embraced these tools, so, this is my approach. In a way, musicians are a witness, we have to create testimonies of the moment – ‘zeitgeist’ is really the word.
But if you say it is in the spirit of composers like Bach and Chopin to embrace the technology of today, then why incorporate the spirit of their style…?
Ah, the answer is very simple. If you listen to Chopin, you say ‘Ah this is Chopin, this is so new.’ But it’s not, Chopin was hugely influenced by Bach except that Bach was not fashionable at the time. You never create things that are completely new. To root new practice in Bach, (because Bach for me is the cornerstone of everything) – it’s very interesting and it continues the trajectory from the very root to today.
Ah, so it’s about continuing the legacy for you?
Was it at the conservatoire where you love of music was nurtured?
It starts before this – my mother is a pianist and my father plays the cello although it is not his profession. I was an obsessional kid and one of my earliest obsessions was Yehudi Menuhin, the violinist. I would sit at the piano copying the melody from an old vinyl again and again by ear – I would do this for hours. Then my mum taught me before I went to the conservatoire. But I quit as a teenager – it was a rebellion, you know? It was intense like sports’ training and I only really wanted to learn and work with Bach at the time…I came back to classical music much later almost 10 years later as a producer actually…
Did you stop playing completely in that time!?
Yes for 8 years, I didn’t play the piano. But I became very into production– how to use mics, gears – all the nerdy bits. I started slowly, but quite quickly I started working with people… Paris is not that big so if you work hard and do good things – people want to work with you.
Casual Melancholia by Alexandre Desmidt
Can you describe how the experience of writing score is different from writing your own music?
Well. I actually prefer the experience of working on films than for myself because you enter a dialogue with another brain. Don’t get me wrong, scoring a film is very difficult and it’s not enough just to be a great composer – you need to go into the process with no ego (laughs). Often, you need so send many versions before hitting… not even the outcome, but the beginning of the path of the outcome.
I suppose it’s like a dance?
Yes, it’s like a tango when you write for film. It takes time to create the intimacy to understand someone else’s vision and to bring this vision even further. For the film I am working on now, we tried many things before the director felt we had something. At one point I called him and said ‘I really want to do your movie, but I think you have made a mistake by choosing me…!’ (laughs) It wasn’t said with anger, I just thought maybe I wasn’t the one, but he maintained that “I was right for it, but it would take time.” He turned out to be right.
Have any scores made a particular impact on you or caught your attention recently?
This is a hard question – can I have more than one?
Yes, of course –
Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score for ‘The Revenant’ is crazy amazing. Sakamoto is so clever, he is minimalistic and with very few things he can be so… ‘big’ and create such depth. He is a genius… I also think what Hans Zimmer did for Interstellar is remarkable –
Because he blends things so well – he brings together the Phillip Glass Koyaanisqatsi organ style influence with synths and brings the spirit of Richard Strauss from 2001 Space Odyssey. He creates this amazing mishmash but also manages to create something intimate. The story is ‘big’ but ultimately it is about the relationship between a father and a daughter and he hits this in his music. It’s a brilliant articulation between the microscopic and the macroscopic.
Did you see the Joker?
Ah, I was literally about to mention this one!
Yes – this is the score that really resonated with me, it’s like Hildur Guðnadóttir creates another character with her music and it is not an apologetic score, if you know what I mean…
Yes, she is a brilliant musician. Her score for Chernobyl is also fantastic… thinking about it I also really admire what Mica Levi did for Jackie – she’s from a punk/indie background but she created a very daring orchestral score – the director was also brave, they stood up for this music… these are the dream projects, when the composer and the director unite under their belief for the music.
Have you always loved film?
Yes, I would call myself ‘cinéphilique’. In France we have a newspaper called ‘Le Monde’ and every Sunday in the 90’s you could buy a slightly more expensive version, which would include a classical DVD. When I was a teenager and very hungover, I used to watch them. I like films now too of course, but there is something –
-something so romantic about old films?
I didn’t know whether I was ‘over hearing things in your music’ but I can hear … that yawning, luxurious string that you hear in old films?
Absolutely, the Italian word for it is ‘flautando’… and now I think about it you have a point. When I was a student near the Sorbonne there were two cinemas – Cinéma du Panthéon and Le cinema de Quartier Latin which only showed old movies and I used to go all the time. It had a great impact on me…perhaps because it reminded me of my childhood, and I feel reassured to come back to these happy memories…
It’s very touching you say that. I think that if you have a happy childhood a little part of you always tries to recreate that sense of comfort and safety in what you do…
It is true. I think of that in the context of my relationship with the piano. Now that I am getting older, when I play the piano ‘pfwooo’ (a sound like a puff of smoke), I am a child again.
(Pauses) I know it’s not very fashionable to talk about God…but I believe we do music to humbly serve God. And when I say ‘God,’ it is in terms of a perfection of will that directs everything – ‘God’ as a principle. I have been listening to Mozart’s Requiem twice a day every day recently, and you know …this is the music of God. And when you listen to such a masterpiece it humbles you – you feel so small in the face of it…it’s like facing a waterfall or a grand cathedral, or even a wild storm.
(Pauses) Humility, I think this is the key to be an artist.