Christophe Chassol

After he penned the concept of the ultrascore in 2005, Parisian-born Christophe Chassol has gone on to create three projects with this idea. An ultrascore uses documentary video footage as music matter. For Chassol's third, he returned to Martinique. An island in the Caribbean where both his parents were born

On 16 August 2005, West Caribbean Airways Flight 708 fell from the sky at 31,900ft. It crashed on a cattle ranch in western Venezuela, killing its eight crew and 152 passengers.

Travelling from Panama, the passengers were, bar one Italian, all from the flight’s intended destination at Martinique. Among these were Eugène and Georgette Chassol, parents of Christophe and Carine.

This is how I feel about life; it is just structures

“I was in my house in LA when I heard,” recalls Christophe Chassol, who was in his late 20s at the time. “At 5am, I received the call from my sister.”

While tragic, the event strengthened Chassol’s will and creativity. He subsequently wrote a song entitled ‘Les Oursses for his parents – featured on his first album X-Pianos.

“I like to speak about them because, in a way, they are here,” he says. “With my body, they are not here. With my spirit, they are.”

Undoubtedly, 2005 will always be a significant year for Chassol. But it is not only because of the accident.

Earlier that year, the pianist and composer had conceived a new method of harmonising video footage with music. It was one that had come about shortly after the emergence of a particular website. Founded in California on 14 February 2005 by three former Paypal employees.

“When Youtube came out, I realised I could take any video and edit it with my software,” says Chassol. “I realised that the sound from the video was music matter. So I started to take excerpts from pop culture and films and score them.”

Thus in 2005, the year when both his parents died and Youtube was created, Chassol had realised the concept of the ultrascore. A form in which the filmed image serves the musical score.

He went on to develop the idea by harmonising his own documentary footage. Filming in locations as diverse as Calcutta and Varnassi for Indiamore (in 2012), and New Orleans for Nola Chérie (in 2011).

For his third ultrascore, Big Sun, Chassol returned to Martinique, several years after his parents death, to reconnect with his roots.

Les Oursses
While born in Martinique, Eugène and Georgette Chassol met for the first time after immigrating to France. They married in 1972 and had Christophe in Paris four years after.

The piano is the main thing, it is the love of my life

In Paris, Eugène Chassol had also discovered his passion for music, playing the clarinet and saxophone.

“He was from a poor family,” says Chassol. “So he started playing music in France and going to the conservatory by himself. He was not a professional player but had a lot of bands.”

Eugène played a mixture of Martiniquan biguine, zouk, as well as Haitian music, salsa and Latin jazz. Having been introduced to the joys of music later in his life, he felt compelled to give his son and daughter an early start.

At the age of four, Chassol and his sister Carine were enrolled at the Conservatoire National de Musique – the same conservatory that their father went to. There, Chassol started with percussion and began his longstanding relationship with the piano. “The piano is the main thing,” he says. “It is the love of my life.”

His father was also teaching him and Carine music at home on the family piano.

“When he taught us,” says Chassol. “He told us to say the notes for everything that we were playing. Then you associate the sounds with the name of the notes. This helped me to develop my ear.”

Musical Image
After a few years at the conservatory, Chassol discovered another love – American musicals and film scores.

Particular favourites were John Williams’s music for The Towering Inferno. As well as Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s film adaptation of Robert Bernstein’s musical *West Side Story.

I was enjoying the synchronicity

It was through the latter that Chassol began to appreciate the combination of music with the moving image.

“I’d learnt the score by heart, playing it on the piano and singing it,” he says. “I’d watch that movie everyday with my sister. I was enjoying the synchronicity. I really wanted to do music like this, that was contemporary.

“It was so complicated – harmonically and rhythmically. There’s Latin music, orchestral, jazz and avant garde. Along with Jerome Robbins’s choreography, you can feel exactly what the score is doing. This counterpoint is great stuff.”

Chassol would take his obsession with the film into the classroom. He remembers drawing a bloody rendition of the famous ‘Rumble’ scene, in which Bernado and Riff are stabbed.

“The teacher thought I was this violent kid,” he says. “But I wasn’t violent at all, I’ve never had a fight in my life.”

Kidz No Longer
As a teenager, Chassol started expanding his musical interests beyond the conservatory’s classical curriculum.

He discovered British punk and rock. So, he shaved the sides of his head, wore a Harrington jacket and formed a band.

“We covered the Exploited, Sex Pistols, the Clash,” says Chassol. “I was also listening to the Cure a lot.”

Another interest was jazz, which he had developed an ear for at the age of 12 but began studying at 17. Doing so with an Argentinian teacher named Sergio Gruz.

I feel that everything is culture; I don’t think for instance that I have predispositions for music

“He made me see music in a different way,” he says. “In the freer way that jazz allows.”

Chassol was also learning how to summarise harmonies in his jazz lessons with Gruz. “He taught me jazz voicings that I’m still using today. I spent two, nearly three years, when I was 18-20, working on those chords for 10 hours a day.”

At 20, he left the conservatory – having spent 16 years there. For six years after, he worked as an arranger and musician. Then in 2002, he was given a scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music, Boston. “I did orchestration and composition. My mind was free because I wasn’t working as a musician then.”

After Berklee, Chassol went on tour with the French group Phoenix. While touring with the group, he met the Martiniquan drummer Lawrence Clais. He would later collaborate with Clais on all of his ultrascores. “He knows how to find the inner-rhythm of things,” says Chassol. “He’s a drum machine.”

When he had finished touring with Phoenix, Chassol moved to LA in 2004. A year later he returned to Paris, after losing his parents to the plane crash.

Back in Paris, he began developing his newly realised concept of the ultrascore.

After experimenting with videos from Youtube, Chassol decided to create his own footage. With his own video material, he would then have matter to compose music around.

We were coming back from the shoots crying

His first destination was New Orleans, during Mardi Gras, where he shot the marching bands. Though at this point, the idea of the ultrascore was still fresh.

“It was rough,” he recalls. “But I had already practiced with videos before. I already knew how to harmonise. For editing, the process just got better.

“When I was out there, I had to improvise something musical with them [singing etc]. Sometimes I would write chords for them before filming.”

In other instances, Chassol and his small team would look for musical moments they could manipulate in the edit. Such as a panning shot of a marching band, which Chassol created a harmonised loop around. “I feel that making a frame can be easy,” he says. “Everything can be interesting within a frame.”

Aside from trying to work out the practice of the ultrascore, Chassol also experienced other difficulties on the field.

“We were coming back from the shoots crying,” he recalls. “The houses had crosses on them from the number of dead people. This was after Hurricane Katrina [in 2005] but the people were extra-strong.”

While it was hard work, the result of Chassol’s graft in New Orleans paid off. He had created his first ultrascore Nola Chérie in 2011.

The following year in July, Chassol visited Calcutta and Varanasi. Inspired by the likes of Ravi Shankar and Hariprasad Chaurasia, as well as documentaries on India by Louis Malle and Johan van der Keuken.

Filming sitarists, dancers, the Ganges and local children, he then created his second ultrascore Indiamore.

“To my father, his country was very important,” says Christophe Chassol. “And he used to feel that my sister and I were not rooted in our culture because he raised us in Paris.

This Caribbean culture, I had to get it from my heart

“I mean, we had white friends, we were watching white movies and listening to the Cure. Imagine, a guy with a pale face moaning. It doesn’t fit with the vibe of Martinique.”

So in March 2014, Chassol set off to the island to create his third ultrascore Big Sun. Nearly 10 years after his parents had passed away.

“This Caribbean culture, I had to get it from my heart. For Big Sun, I think I did something that I like a lot. I’m good with the West Indies now.”
A particular element to this third ultrascore is its structure. The inspiration for which goes back to when Chassol was 18.

Before leaving the conservatory, he had attended philosophy classes at Le Sorbonne. Which he continued till he was 22.

“For me, philosophy was such a refreshing topic” he recalls. “It provided me with a new way of thinking and helped my perception. It taught me how to ask questions well, while not necessarily having the answers.”

Of particular interest were the pantheistic ideas of 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Explained in his posthumously published text Ethics.

“I was really moved by Spinoza’s conception of nature,” he says. “He replaces the word God with Nature.”

For Big Sun, Chassol partly implemented these ideas.

“It is divided into three parts,” he says. “Nature (birds etc), Culture (language, dominos) and then the Synthesis of Nature and Culture (the carnival scene at the end). It is a typical dissertation structure.

“Nature and culture are two big things in philosophy. Myself, I feel that everything is culture. I don’t think for instance that I have predispositions for music.

“This is how I feel about life. It is just structures.”