From Stravinsky to Steve Reich, the art of making a good first “record” often resides in the time shift involved, that painful period of incubation that forces listeners and journalists to take a look back, once in a decade, in order to contemplate the distance traveled and to give thanks for these incomplete acts. Far be it for us to entertain the idea of comparing Christophe Chassol to the above-mentioned master standards, and still less to predict that he will suffer the fate of a musician crucified on the cross of modern pop music, but if we had to summarize this new signature on the Tricatel label in a single phrase, false modesty would not prevent us from making comparisons.
Chassol’s first album, x-pianos, is thus a shift in itself. It is a double album that contains 35 tracks, with several quite dazzling ones remaining confined within the three-minute straightjacket imposed by radio play. In other words, it is an object that sets itself apart with nobility and one that, in these times when the record industry resembles more than ever a parade of accountant metronomes, takes the tempo on the off-beat. We could go on at length here about the 1,300 pieces composed by Chassol, all of them stored on hard disk, but before singing his praises as an insatiable composer, let us return to his story.
Born in 1976, Chassol discovered music at the age of four. Son of an amateursaxophonist father, this “black kid” joined the Conservatory as others join the army. He would spend sixteen years there, starting out by learning harmony, scales, and melody as essential illumination for what would follow. Traumatized at a very tender age by the soundtrack for the film The Towering Inferno, the young Chassol quickly understood that he would not release his first album at 20. No, indeed. His initial ambition was to compose for the cinema, covertly uniting sound and image in order to produce movie music of great elegance in the tradition of Jerry Goldsmith, Michel Magne, and Quincy Jones, among others. In the mid-1990s, Chassol practically disappeared. He headed for darkly-lit movie houses with immediate boarding for fifteen years of composition for the big screen, television, and advertising. Chassol was the shadowy composer for films he indefatigably illustrated by stamping his own story on them. For Igor Stravinsky (to get back to him), music was “wallpaper” for film. One could not have said it any better. Between advertising jingles, Chassol found the time to become an orchestra conductor from 1994 to 2002 and then discovered the world of pop music while accompanying Phoenix and Sébastien Tellier on Politics (2004), for which the young double of Jean-Michel Basquiat did most of the arrangements. That same year, Chassol met up with that bearded musician again on the original film soundtrack for Narco, which he sprinkled with an erotic languidness and violins caught in an embrace.
One of the quirks of such shifts is the confusion they create between the avantgarde and one’s own ambition. “I am a musician who makes serious and accessible music in a pop-music format”, Chassol says in order to pull himself out of ghetto niche markets, where so many others bask. As much a disciple of the Minimalist school of music (Steve Reich, John Adams) as he is a passionate enthusiast for pop culture, this Parisian loves to wander off the beaten path, as is shown by his “ultrascores” (“absolute film music” composed on the basis of a film’s sonic elements) for Animal Conductor and Nola Chérie, the latter of which accompanies this first record as a DVD supplement. This same desire to create original formats is to be found again, as one might suspect, on x-pianos - in La Négacra (a composition based on a poem by Gherasim Luca) or in U were in love (sampling a dialogue from West Side Story), not to forget the pop-music minuet Wersailles, which was specially written for Xavier Veilhan’s exhibition at Louis XIV’s place. What we have here, in short, is bizarre beauty, where the instrumental rubs shoulders with the oneiric and Chassol’s keyboards often curl up around the voice of Alice Lewis, another French person who loves the fine arts without the uppercase letters.
Condensed from fifteen emotional years spent in the service of dreaming, x-pianos is thus a layer cake that finally weds together the varied universes of Chassol, who is quite happy finally to offer his music to a larger audience: “This first album arrives late in my career; it’s a summary collection that closes a first loop”, he says. “Each piece reflects my desire to harmonize the world.” With brushes worthy of the artistry of Fantasia and a certain talent for arranging his palette’s colors, the painter from Tricatel takes his time to work with care, and x-pianos is to be listened to like a slide show of timeless memories. “X” for infinity; “X” for unknown. So, how does one recognize a good first album? By its shifting nature, as you will have understood. In Chassol’s work, the strange simply takes the form of a sidestep, like an invitation to rejoin the danse.