Série Noire – Writing process (2009)

1. SERIE NOIRE was commissioned by the Orléans International Piano Competition in 2006 . Did you have to follow any specific parameters ? What were you free to decide ?

Well, two problems could not be ignored : first of all, this composition had to include a soundtrack and secondly, I had to take the question of virtuosity into account. Françoise Thinat, the Competition Director knew of my works and thought it would be interesting to ask me for this project.This seemed very appealing to me as the issue of virtuosity is really at the heart of my work and as it's closely linked to those of energy and musical gesture.Therefore,it was very exciting for me to write for this final ! However,what was at stake wasn't enough  and I felt I had to link this specific work to previous ones and particularly to their film approach. 

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2. Do you intend to write any other piano compositions after SERIE NOIRE and SERIE BLANCHE ?

As a matter of fact, I'd love to go on with this cycle devoted to colours and have a SERIE ROUGE and a SERIE BLEUE for instance. We feel attracted by particular colours and although this can be explained by our cultural background, it is certainly associated to more personal experience. The problem of how to musically convey the idea of meaning is at the heart of my work. Every composition offers me the opportunity of giving life to a mental space composed of narrative elements, sensations, energies and colours… I do hope that in the future,I'll have the chance to develop this work for piano and soundtrack in relation with those principles of how transforming an imaginary world into a musical project. Besides, and still initiated by the Orléans Piano Competition, I started a cycle of educational pieces with soundtrack. This cycle is called TYPOLOGIES DU REGARD and focuses on our ability to watch a landscape or things which are moving. Each composition is the musical transposition of a mode of watching : Contemplation equalling resonance ; quick glances leading to deconstruction;and bedazzlement suggesting crescendo.

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3. Could we think that SERIE BLANCHE and SERIE NOIRE echo Scriabin sonatas LA MESSE BLANCHE  and LA MESSE NOIRE ?

No, not really although I very often listen to Scriabin music. I feel he's a composer who has succeeded in producing powerful mental images. There, abstraction which is inherent to music vibrates under the weight of emotions referring to the state of the world or telling about our way of considering things.

SERIE NOIRE and SERIE BLANCHE are very different musics and have been written according to specific principles. But ,as I said, they both question our link to images and film spaces. 

4. How do you use the piano, as a composer and an interpreter ?

Like most musicians, I began my musical studies by learning the piano and my first compositions were of course written for this instrument. Although I gave up studying piano technique in order to devote myself to composition, I still play and improvise on this instrument. Besides, as I am working on recorded sound, I have interested myself to its amazing resonance capacity. When considering the piano like a soundboard only, we're faced with its capacity at transforming matter. In a similar way, I have worked from improvisations on soundtracks which develop this rather unique feature in the instrumental field. Contrarily to many instruments, the piano has its own acoustics. I remember as a child being fascinated by the sound produced when you use the middle pedal. I used to spend a lot of time listening to this sound and trying to understand it. 

5. How did you get the idea of a thriller ? Could you tell me which films are included in the electroacoustic device ?

In French literary publishing, the phrase “Série Noire” always refers to thrillers. I know rather well the movies of the sixties and seventies ; most of them were adapted from these novels. So, here, I felt like paying a tribute to this genre and at the same time compose my own thriller and its musical adaptation. Therefore,I imagined a kind of story mixing several film and books references... many sounds come from these movies (they are short and usually hidden in a more complex matter) but I also elaborated my own, through imitation in order to re-create a typical thriller atmosphere.

6. What are you finally aiming at with this work ? Are you trying to create a space for the listener's imagination ?

Yes indeed ! I believe that music should aim at stimulating our imaginary capacity. When I  go to a concert, I don't focus on interpreters and their performance only. Music has to carry me away on new paths and reveal unknown areas... I also believe I 've been very much influenced by the cinema and that I unconsciously expect my music to be a sort of film. I very often write film-scripts and stories and I eventually use them when I'm composing. I'm not really trying to tell a story ; I rather create a situation where one is bound to ask oneself questions. Well, yes, I think my music tries to stir up memory and curiosity.

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7. What can you tell us about the composition process ?

After fixing up the narrative structure of the story and its concepts, (On Christmas eve, a man is missing, a woman is looking for him ; impressions of madness and fear) I imagined a few musical themes which  could express these elements. If we want to musically express that an action is taking place, that a story is going on,we must then create some characters, elements, and spaces so that the listener can physically experience this sensation. So, to come back to your question, I have first outlined a few ideas, and then I tried on the piano how to musically convey the pictures I had in mind.

Did you begin with the piano or the electronics or with them both at the same time ?

I really worked simultaneously,organizing each section as the work advanced. I also worked with an electronic piano in order to study the orchestration problem.Doing this,I could work on synchronization very precisely and also manage musical density..

8. Three elements make up the piano musical matter.What can you say about it and also about the sound matter of the track ?

These three elements are :
- The initial figure of the piece ( a C sharp preceded by two appoggiaturas ) which reminds of bells ringing
- Very violent musical gestures sounding like explosions.
The first element has a thematic function and is especially heard every time music is going to change.
The second element (which also appears three times in the piece) is there to suggest interiority,meditation,a kind of nostalgia.
- Finally,we have explosions of notes (notes exploding), thought of like visual actions. When I wrote these parts,I knew they would require a great deal of energy to the interpreters ,just as if they were fighting.
I wanted the listener to be caught in this turmoil and really experience the violence of this musical gesture. These three elements are developed in rather a similar and classic way (transposition,rhythmic and temporal development). 

9. If I am right, this composition is divided into three parts ; did you intend to reproduce the classical narrative pattern of introduction, climax and resolution ?

No, not really. We certainly have an introduction and a conclusion, the latter sounding more exactly like "an exit". Quite an amazing one as we do not expect this “ritornello”. But, in the middle, I would say music follows a kind of labyrinth full of repetitive elements. Formal progression is based on the re-occurrence of these thematic elements, but rather as if they had been trapped in a double process of concentration and purification. When we come to the second third of the composition, music fades out towards silence and becomes very minimal as if one aspect of the formal process took over... But when we hear the march of an army, we find energy and concentration again in this last section-made of very hard low chords...

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10. How would you describe the inter-activity between the piano and the electroacoustic device ?

Well, they are related in two ways : a musical and a narrative on. About the first, we could say there are many times when the electro acoustics simply dialogue with the piano, for instance at the quiet moment when quarter-toned piano sounds are only a complement of the acoustic space. On the other hand,the narrative way prevails when sounds suggest movie atmospheres or outdoor or dreamlike spaces. I quite like this double relationship where electronic sounds don't depend on instruments and are autonomous in their ability to represent something : reality or fiction ; a person or a group.

11. Would you like to add anymore comments about SERIE NOIRE performance ?

I believe the main problem in this composition is to find the right balance between piano and electronic sounds. It's always a bit tricky for a composer to produce music when the level of the soundtrack hasn't been fixed up as it is the case in strictly instrumental music. So,I have been very pleased to have recorded this composition with pianist Wilhem Latchoumia because it was possible for me to realize the final mixing and therefore determine the right balance between the piano and the soundtrack. For, if a pianist performs SERIE NOIRE with too low a level, it doesn't make any sense as both narrative interest and links with energies are lost. In such cases, the result isn't very interesting  for me as musical challenges have disappeared....

I believe this recording can serve as a reference to find the right level, both for the pianist and the sound engineer. 

Finally, the last advice I could give to the interpreter would be not to feel “overwhelmed”by the score difficulty. Some parts are obviously very hard but one has to find one's own solutions and understand that giving an idea of the global gesture is more important than strictly playing every note. Music quality will finally come through the link with the electronics and not only with the piano performance.

Interview about "Série Noire" - Katherine Suescùn