On the occasion of the release of his new album, “Un coeur simple”, based on a novel by Gustave Flaubert, we had a chat with Stephen Mathieu, a skilled self-taught German composer whose intriguing sound focuses on early instruments, environmental sound and obsolete media (including wax cylinders and 78rpm records) which get transformed by means of re-editing techniques, experimental microphoning techniques and digital processing. Since his debut in 1999, he has released 30 albums on a number of labels such as 12k, Line, Cronica, Dekorder, Minority, Faellt, Orthlong Musork and collaborated with a lot of notorious sound artists such as David Sylvian, Taylor Deupree, Sylvain Chauveau, Akira Rabelais and Robert Hampson. In order to sonically tell the story of Flaubert’s Felicit (the main character of the above mentioned novel, a love-deprived maid subjugated by religion and fascinated by a parrot from America), Mathieu modelled intriguing and delicate soundscapes, which swallowed bits of recordings of religious and Medieval music. The final result is really charming and imaginative… a new level of felicity! Matheiu’s “Un coeur simple” comes out on the appreciated French indipendent label Baskaru.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi Stephan. How are you?
Stephan Mathieu: Hi Vito, how are you? I’m good, the week has just begun and winter made a return here last night with grim cold, ice and sunshine. Streaming a lovely mix by my friend Joe Gilmore (http://www.studiomusic.fm/index.html -> Qubik) as I type.
Chain D.L.K.: I’m fine, thanks. I’ve just listened to your brand new album “Le Coeur Simple”… impressively fulgid stuff! Before speaking about that, could you introduce yourself to our readers?
Stephan Mathieu: I’m a musician based in a small town in Germany, I work mainly with obsolete media and early instruments. Since last Summer I’ve been running my own label Schwebung (www.schwebung.com). “Un Coeur Simple” is my 9th full length solo studio work, recorded at home and in Buenos Aires during Winter 2010 as a soundtrack for a stage play after Gustave Flaubert’s novel published in 1877. The music was created with a zither from around the same period, played with Ebows, and mechanical-acoustic gramophones. For the final track “Trace” I used recordings made in 1999 with an ARP 2600 synthesizer which formerly belonged to the Centre Européenne Recherche Musicale in Metz, France.
Chain D.L.K.: Is there any specific experience of life or listening which sparkled your passion for composition?
Stephan Mathieu: I grew up in a music collectors family, so I was always surrounded by a lot of different sound. What I’m doing nowadays largely goes back to my time as a drummer in Berlin’s improv scene during the 1990s, when I had the chance to collaborate with some of the most outstanding players in that field. This school shaped my interest in details for sound and I approach my material as characters, pretty ones, angry ones, dark ones, focusing on putting them in the right light instead of turning them upside-down.
Chain D.L.K.: Your album was inspired by Flaubert’s novel “A Simple Heart”… could you summarize it? How did you pour it into your music?
Stephan Mathieu: When I was invited by (director) Christoph Diem to write a score for “Un Coeur Simple”, I had to admit that I was not familiar with the piece. Once I started reading it, I was totally consumed by Flaubert’s story after 5 lines in. Once I finished reading the novel for the first time, I got sick for 2 days, it affected me deeply. It’s a killer writing, extremely rich and sad.
Chain D.L.K.: “Felicity… now”… before referring to the main character of Flaubert’s novel, in your opinion, is felicity a free choice or a conditioned one today?
Stephan Mathieu: It’s hard for me to detach this term from the context of the novel right now, where it seems connected to a form of religious bliss, something I’ve never experienced myself. I consider myself lucky if I can be with the ones I love (my kids, my girl, friends and family), and if I can focus on my work without having to worry. The latter became more rare recently, but then, as George Michael puts it – Luck is a Lady.
Chain D.L.K.: I forward to you a bizarre question by a friend of mine, which made me smile. It’s about musicians who orbit around ambient and chilling sounds… he wonders: do they ever get angry about something? Is there something which unsettles your supposed aplomb?
Stephan Mathieu: I don’t see my things in the context of ambient, quiet the opposite. Although I rarely play my own stuff, once it is finished, I couldn’t stand to have it as a background. Personally, I look at it rather as challenging, opposed to chilling and think it unfolds best if you listen to it at room filling volume. I’m used to working on my music like that, squeezing out the very micro details.
So if you think of me as a someone sitting on a fluffy cloud, that’s certainly not true. I’m not necessarily like him (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vms_6_TSQuc), but life sometimes is what it is. In fact, “Un Coeur Simple” is to me an extremely sad and desperate piece of music.
Chain D.L.K.: 30 albums in 14 years… I know it would be a hard choice, but if you had to suggest 3 of them to someone who doesn’t know your music, which would they be?
Kapotte Muzik by Stephan Mathieu
The Sad Mac
Chain D.L.K.: You’re a self-taught electro-acoustic composer… any piece of advice for the novices who would like to follow a similar path without paying expensive fees to notorious schools?
Chain D.L.K.: Even if you’re a DIY composer, you’ve collaborated with a plenty of trained musicians and artists… what did they teach to you? Is there anything in particular that you have learned and you will never forget?
Stephan Mathieu: Most of the people I work with are self-tought, highly individual artists. I think, in a way that’s how we find each other. I’m learning all the time from those exchanges.
Chain D.L.K.: Let’s imagine you have unlimited budget to create a live exhibition for “Un Coeur Simple”… how do you imagine it?
Stephan Mathieu: As a straightforward thought, since I never thought about it before, an outpost cottage that has my harp and ebows that you can play for yourself. Water, fruits, bread, cheese.
Chain D.L.K.: Just out of curiosity… what’s the source for the samples of “Devenir Sourd”?
Stephan Mathieu: The piece is played live with six mechanical-acoustic gramophones from the 1930s, set up on the floor in my studio and recorded with two microphones, the way you would record an ensemble of acoustic players. I’m using several 78s with early sound effects and field recordings – animals, morse code, machines -, a recording of the Sistine Chapel Choir, a song by early Renaissance composer Guillaume Dufay and two of my own acetates with recordings of a viol consort. It’s an all acoustic piece.
Chain D.L.K.: Flaubert’s novel “Un Coeur Simple” belongs to a collection of three stories… does it mean your album is the first of a trilogy?
Stephan Mathieu: Haha, no, as I have mentioned, this was a commissioned work for this specific novel. As much as I like the idea, there are too many ideas to follow-up with the dedication they will ask for.
Chain D.L.K.: Any forthcoming projects?
Stephan Mathieu: I’m working on a version of Carlo Gesualdo’s “Libro Quinto”, played with five Farfisa organs and a mixer, which will be premiered on his 400 birthday in September. If all goes right, I will also show re-works of two installation pieces for this occasion.
visit Stephan Mathieu on the web at: www.bitsteam.de