“Then you realise that you do Rammstein with string quartet, but with your rock band, you do Debussy — and somehow, there’s just these layers and layers.” -Mathis Saunier
Mathis Saunier (b. 1999, Annemasse) is a French composer, guitarist, and bandleader, and one of the creative forces behind French-Swiss art rock collective Mauvais Sang. Passionate about cinema, Mathis’ musical world is a fusion of electronic music, acoustics, and visual art. Mathis studied composition at Geneva Conservatory and Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Arturo Corrales and Matthew Kaner, and his work has been performed by ensembles such as United Strings of Europe and Nouvel Ensemble de Neuchatel; Mathis has also recently worked with Anna Meredith, Laurence Crane, and Cassandra Miller on a conceptual guitar project replicating an ondes martenot. Mathis spoke to PRXLUDES about his recent musical projects, his rock-influenced musical background and upbringing, his collaborative compositional process, and his fusion of electronics, visuals, and audience participation in his work.
Zyggy/PRXLUDES: Hey Mathis! Thanks for chatting with me today. What have you been up to lately — have you been keeping busy?
Mathis Saunier: So we [Mauvais Sang] signed in Paris with this label called December Square— and it’s just getting really, really busy. I mean, it’s really good news. We have recorded the album, people liked it, so there’s a lot of promotion of it — that just means we’re really busy with this album. I’ve been commissioned in Germany and France for next year — they’re two big ones — so I really need to get organized.
I really want to finish my last year at Guildhall, you know, get [my] Bachelor’s and keep going. Then, I’m interested in doing a Master’s with Schubert. Do you know Alexander Schubert?
Yes! I actually saw a performance of ‘Star Me Kitten’ in Birmingham just before covid, his work is fantastic.
Yeah. I’d love to do a Masters with [him]. I’m just in love [with] his music. I think he’s opening doors for a new way to compose, a new way to [write] music.
Tell me a bit more about your band, Mauvais Sang — how long has this collaboration been going on for?
Mauvais Sang started something like four or five years ago. At the time, it was kind of like an ensemble; we would play music that another composer would compose. It was a proper rock setup — bass, drums, electric guitar, keys — [but] we would play pieces from contemporary music composers, bearing in mind that some of us can’t read scores. It was kind of fun, because you had to find another way to transmit the music, and [show] what you want. That’s something I love, because once you get a different way to express what you need, what you want, that’s a different way to create, and a different way to see your music. You get something you wouldn’t have working with a [traditional] score.
Of course — does this dividing of these alternate forms of notation filter into your own practice?
I wouldn’t say so, I’m more [of] a “traditional score” guy. When I joined Guildhall, I didn’t know how to read a score — like, bass clef [was] impossible, that was just a mess — at the interview, they asked me to sing a piece, and I could not. Which was fine, because somehow, the fact that they’ve given me that opportunity was a really good way to show that there are other solutions.
Have you encountered any difficulties within this kind of meshing between the “traditional” canon and incorporating it into your practice?
YYou know, like in more general, that’s a bit tricky, but as far as you can learn something out of it, [people] will always help you. One day, I’d be happy to learn Baroque music, or Turkish music, and you will always get something out of it. It will definitely have an impact on your personal music. Like, when I first entered Guildhall, I was like “fuck Debussy, fuck Ravel, I want to do some Rammstein with string quartet, that’s what I want to do”. And then you realise that you do Rammstein with string quartet, but with your rock band, you do Debussy — and somehow, there’s just these layers and layers. With Mauvais Sang, we’ve composed a song with a scene by Thomas Adès…
That’s super interesting — how did it work with the rock band setup?
Yeah, so the piece that inspired us is called ‘In Seven Days’ — it’s like a riff, it’s a violin riff. We decided to transpose that for guitar and harp; the guitar and the harp respond to each other with that riff. It’s much slower; it sounds like Thomas Adès, but with a rock band. It’s a very different way [to work] for a band. There’s a really nice work on the harmony, thanks to Adès.
Let’s talk about your influences; it’s amazing to find another composer who’s come into contemporary music from a rock environment! Were there any particular musical experience you had that catalysed that development for you?
Before Guildhall, I was with my rock band — I didn’t even know it was possible to teach composition, I thought that composition was Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and that was it. I didn’t know there were people doing classical music today. -laughs- I joined the Conservatoire [of Geneva] playing classical guitar — I was playing classical guitar with the conservatoire, electric guitar with my rock band — and one day, I discovered Radiohead… And with Radiohead, you hear Penderecki, you hear Messiaen, and [I] was like “what was that”? That just blew my mind, you know. I fell in love with Radiohead, kept doing classical guitar, and one day the conservatoire offered me the opportunity to play for a composer; his name is Mathieu, he’s now a really good friend. I played classical guitar for Mathieu — it was a piece for three classical guitars and a harp — and I discovered Jonny Greenwood. There’s a video [at] the Boiler Room where he’s playing with the London Contemporary Orchestra… it’s a black-and-white video, they play Messiaen [alongside] some stuff of his own. I just fell in love with that video. I was like “fuck, he plays electric guitar with classical instruments” — like, you can do that? People can actually do that?
I remember when I first discovered the potential of electric guitar in contemporary music — it’s a pivotal moment, right?
I just spend my whole life on that video — just this video. So I go to Mathieu, the composer, and I’m like “please man, let me play electric guitar”, and he was like “of course! I love Dream Theater, I love Metallica, I know what to do with you”… Yes! -laughs- So I play electric guitar for his piece, we start rehearsing, and during the rehearsal we met a manager — someone external who’s leading rehearsals, making sure everything’s okay — and his name is Antoine Francoise. He’s a really good pianist. And one day, midday, we’re having lunch, and I’m in the rehearsal room playing electric guitar… I play a piece by Jonny Greenwood — this piece called ‘Loop’ — and there’s this counterpoint between two voices, and Antoine enters the room. He’s like “I know that piece, what is that” — and I [explain] — and he’s like “yeah, I composed that with him!”
Oh, shit! What a moment…
Yeah! There was that moment — and I watched the video, the famous Manchester video, and he’s the pianist! And in one afternoon, he told me about London, he told me about Guildhall — and after that discussion, I knew I wanted to be a composer, I wanted to go to London, and I wanted to go to Guildhall. It was that afternoon that changed what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I’m really glad I met Antoine.
I’ve had a similar experience with Birmingham! I’d say that coming into composition from a rock background is such an advantage — it creates this osmosis of different styles in contemporary music…
Yeah, absolutely. I think that Greenwood, or people like him — [and] Trent Reznor, the singer of Nine Inch Nails, they’re doing soundtracks too — nearly none of these guys learned how to write a score in a traditional way, they’re not from a “traditional” or “classical” music background, but their sounds [are] amazing! You know, that echoes what I was saying about composers composing for rock bands [with Mauvais Sang] — that’s just the other way round, rock players composing for orchestras. As long as you’ve got good ideas, and you know how to transmit and express what you want, music is music.
You’ve also done an impressive amount of work with visual art and audiovisual projects — where do you see your visuals in relation to your body of work?
I’ve always been into cinema because of my dad. My dad always wanted to be a director; he’s working in a hospital, but he was doing short movies. He gave me and my sister the passion [for cinema]. I’m really influenced by people like David Lynch, Gaspar Noé, Lars von Trier. I really love them because they’ve [got] a strong aesthetic. I really like visuals, in general.
That’s the thing about Alexander Schubert [as well]; when you go to a concert, you’ve got your eyes open. There are so many ways to listen to Stravinsky, [for example] in a room with really good speakers. It’s not for me to say you don’t need an orchestra — obviously when you hear the Rite of Spring, it’s just a different vibe [with a live orchestra] — but what I’m saying is that I think it is worth considering what you’re gonna see in the music hall. You can listen to it, but you also need to go and watch it, live, and see what’s happening. I guess I want [to create the same impact] in my pieces. Schubert is using a lot of light shows, all this work is connected to techno music, [and] his external background. I think it connects really well with Lars von Trier, or Lynch; once the visual becomes a pattern in your music, [they become] parameters to consider, you see the music differently, etcetera. It just brings ideas.
That’s exactly how I feel, too — the aesthetic of the orchestra, or concert hall setting, is still an aesthetic. As a composer, that’s worth taking into account.
In your own work — how have you played around with different visual and performative aesthetics? I remember you wrote an album for harp and balloons…
Oh, L0VED! That could be a nice example, [with] techno. We never performed it live, we were supposed to but because of covid we had to cancel. The first idea of L0VED was the idea of balloons; the first second of L0VED is a sample of balloons exploding — “takatakataka” — so basically, she [Sara Flores Montes] enters the hall with the harp, and balloons attached to the harp. The first thing she does is pop one balloon, then it echoes through delay [pedals] — I’m doing the electronics as she’s playing. It’s full pink [aesthetically]; everything’s pink, pink lights, pink balloons attached to the harp. There’s a party vibe [to that] that we liked. Visually, you think about popping balloons, and you think about what the sound and what you can do out of it. I think that’s what L0VED is about.
What I loved about the record was the explosive intensity surrounding it. That really creates a feeling combined with the pink aesthetic…
Yeah. And that was really fun — we were supposed to have really funny sunglasses, as well. I’d love to programme that piece again, if I get the opportunity to.
It’d be lovely to be able to see it. Are you still collaborating with the harpist?
Yeah, Sara [Flores Montes] was the harpist of Mauvais Sang before, that’s how we met. We were both in Geneva, and she joined Guildhall the year after me. We still make music together, perform together. When Mauvais Sang signed with the label, she could not do it, but she’s a great harpist; she’s kind of crazy. I love the harp — it’s such a brilliant instrument, and there’s so many things you can do. The repertoire — Debussy, Ravel — is small, but there’s just so [many] things to do. I just love it. And so Sara, she was this crazy harpist who wanted to put a mic on the harp… There’s a bit in L0VED where she’s playing with a Mastercard — you know, like a credit card — and she’s rubbing that on the strings; and the card was decomposing, so it was kind of snowing around the harp. It was really misty, and you could see the thing decomposing as if you were playing with raw materials… That was really fun. It was really fun to record.
Do you consider your craft to be interdisciplinary?
That’s a really good question, I’ve never thought about it. I think I like to reason that I’m a composer using visuals, and a guitar player and that’s it, simply. -laughs-
I remember you’ve used technology and audience interaction in your work before, as well? Tell me a bit about how you’ve utilised those concepts, particularly in your string quartet ‘Odyssey Y’…
The concept [of ‘Odyssey Y’] is basically interaction and people voting. You’re on your phone, and at some point you’ve got a vote to do. That’s all about where the audience decides where we’re going. There’s that Black Mirror movie called ‘Bandersnatch’… I’ve just used the concept and done it in music. I really wanted to see things live; I really like that Black Mirror piece, but the thing is, because it’s video, you can turn [it] off and come back and see all the possibilities, and then it doesn’t have any mystery because you have access to everything. Whereas with a live process, you’re gonna just see the piece once — and therefore it [has] more impact, what you decide. With Bandersnatch, you can be alone to choose, whereas with ‘Odyssey Y’, there’s a democracy aspect — people vote for the majority, the majority wins. And therefore, that brings out this question…
I think this is one of the last votes, but at some point, you’re in front of a girl in a hospital room, and [the vote] is whether you decide to kiss her, or whether you decide to kill her. And so depending on what the majority has chosen, at the end, people look at each other and are like “why? We chose to kill someone, or we’ve [chosen] to do that?” I wanted people to tell us about why — I want people to be proud of themselves, I want them to be ashamed of the majority. That’s basically what happens with elections.
Do you feel like there’s some sort of critique of the democratic process going on?
Well, we’ll figure it out. We are preparing a new version of the piece for Musica Festival, the 2022 season. We’re doing the app again to make it nicer — one thing that I really loved about the piece [was] that we’ve made the app to be playable by anyone. And so, We’ve started with the string quartet, but I love [the idea] that you’re in front of an orchestra, and you can decide what the orchestra is gonna do. I like this idea. You can make the piece half an hour, you can make the piece two hours, you can make [it] thirty seconds depending on what the audience choose. But the democratic aspect, I think we’ll have to see when they perform it.
I guess it depends on how often the audience are able to convene with each other. I’ve actually done a theatre commission recently with a similar setup; it’s almost like a kind of social experiment.
It is, yeah. I think the social aspect is brilliant in Black Mirror. It’s about technology, but it’s about what people do out of it, and it’s about people’s reactions. That’s something that I’m really keen to work on these days; it’s about having an immersive experience for the audience and seeing the reaction. And I think that’s something that Schubert is doing as well, a lot — the audience being the central point of the piece, and not the performers anymore. It’s incredible what techology allows us to do [with] creation, allowing people to have the central point. I strongly recommend you to have a look at Schubert’s ‘Wiki Piano’…
I saw Zubin Kanga do a fantastic performance of that piece in Birmingham a while ago!
So that’s basically a website, which is a score — so there’s videos to play, things for the performers to do, things for [them] to play, links etcetera — and that’s the piece. If you go right now on Wiki Piano, you can edit the score, you can do whatever you want [to] the score, and then the performer performs it. So the audience composes the song, somehow. There’s all these kinds of things that I find brilliant; the audience gets power, what’s gonna happen? There’s [either] some really beautiful stuff, or it could be the worst thing ever…
So I’ve heard recently you’ve been working on a project creating the sound of an ondes martenot with electric guitar?
Yeah. I discovered the ondes martenot through Jonny Greenwood. I fell in love with the tone of it; it’s just incredibly simple, but that ringing, vibrato frequency… it’s almost like singing. I’ve never had the chance to see one in real life.
What I’ve done on the guitar is basically: you take the neck — it has to be fretless — so when you move your finger on the guitar, you don’t have the [tones] of the fret. So I changed the octave with a whammy pedal, and turned all the highest frequencies down a bit on the guitar, so it’s warmer, more mellow. Then it’s all about the vibrato. To make the string ring, with no attack, I put an e-bow [on it]; and then you get it! So octave up, e-bow on, vibrato on the string…
And it really works — you’ve really captured a haunting sonic quality with the arrangement of that Messiaen quartet.
So, ‘Oraison’ — the Messiaen — was really the first experience with that concept, with the guitar. I’ve done [a] few different pieces from contemporary composers; I’ve done Ligeti, Debussy, all with the guitar, and that’s [on] an EP called ‘Siиe’. And then I [was] like “let’s do that with friends”! And I’m [now] performing pieces by composers I love — like Laurence Crane, and Anna Meredith — and we’ve worked together on different transcriptions. They’re amazing musicians.
It’s really interesting how you’ve talked about not coming from a “traditional” notational background, but then having learned how to realise a score through your time at Guildhall. What would you say your relationship is now with the score?
I really hate sitting on a chair and watching my score. The score is what it is, you [can] come back to it if you need it, but what’s interesting is what’s happening on stage right now. I have a kind of issue with the score, because what’s interesting is what’s gonna result out of the musician. The official thing — your official thing — is what they’re doing, and not what the score is saying; the audience, they don’t have the score. They don’t read scores, they don’t have the score in front of them. What’s important is what they’ve got in mind, as a picture, from the [performance]. Most of the time, what I do — even with orchestras — is leave the score for a bit, and I get close to them, and we are all in this together. It’s really about expressing my thoughts, and the imagination, and all these ideas. So when they perform the piece, I don’t need to be “here” anymore; it’s almost [like] they are the composers, they are the ones with ideas. When you get that kind of result, that’s brilliant, because that means you’re erased. They’re just so much into it, into the ideas that you have — you know, it’s not your piece anymore, it’s theirs. That’s a good result. [It’s] like in a movie: if you feel like the actors are so into their characters — you don’t recognise them — you get something different that when you can see they’ve learned dialogue. I’m just really into [that].
Exactly! You need to get rid of that composer-performer dichotomy, you need to get rid of the hierarchy…
Yeah, absolutely. That’s the thing. It’s really complicated to do that with orchestras, and large ensembles, because somehow it’s not personal. It’s not that they don’t consider your work, but they’re doing [a] job — they’re paid for one hour, and then they never see your face again. So you can’t really create that friendly contact, having them get [your] ideas; I find it really tricky. I really don’t like to compose for orchestras, because it’s not really personal, and unless you have the time to create a strong relationship, and they are passionate about the work you want to do — which is often the case — the work can [suffer]. For the way I used to work, and what I like to do, orchestras are not for me.
So what upcoming projects do you have in the pipeline?
Ooh! There’s one thing — it’s really really fresh, because it’s the beginning of an idea. There’s that festival called Musica Festival, in Strasbourg — right now they’re doing a big premiere of Schubert — and [they’re the] ones who commissioned me for the one-hour version of ‘Odyssey Y’, but next to that, they’ve commissioned something else. I’ve got a piece called ‘SIT.COM’; it’s basically a piece where [a] few days before the performance, you receive an email saying “do you want to be part of the piece, do you want to experience the piece”…
That’s already an intimidating setup. So what happens next?
So you come to the concert and there’s a chair for you, on stage. You put your headphones on, you receive a link, you click on the link and there’s a voice saying “hello Zyggy, how are you today — if you don’t mind, we’re gonna play a bit of music for you”… you say yes, and it starts playing music from your punk band, when you were young. Then the voice asks you “what do you like? How’s your brother?” — it’s [like] that voice [is] seducing you — and then it’s like “okay, now if you don’t mind, we’re gonna move out of the hall”…
I’m scared. -laughs-
And so you move out, and then it [asks] “do you have Facebook? I’ve sent you a friend request”. You go on your Facebook, and the piece has sent you a friend request; you accept it, and click on the link on the Facebook page — and that’s exactly where you are, right now. You’re outside, and that’s exactly where you are on Google Maps. Everything is done so that you can experience a personal track, just for you.
So they’ve commissioned that version where we’re gonna make it for a hundred people — a hundred people in the audience, each with a personal track. So at some point, you are [told to] go to a flat, and there are your parents, sitting in one of the rooms… They are watching television and they don’t see you. You’re here with your headphones, in front of your friends, or parents, but they can’t see you. You’re not existing. It’s kind of like, living in a world where you’ve never existed. I won’t say much — but that’s one of the commissions I’ve got for next year.
How exactly would it work in the concert setting? Is everyone in the audience participating?
Yeah. The version before, you could watch — there was a lot of interaction between people participating — but that’s the thing. I didn’t want people to laugh, I didn’t want people to smile at each other; I really wanted natural faces. So at the beginning of the piece, they put masks [on], so you can’t see what people are thinking.
We’ve done it at Guildhall, and there’s one really long corridor. So at one point of the piece, there’s one participant in the corridor, and a few minutes after, there’s one other participant at the perfect opposite [end] of the corridor. For one participant, the voice is saying “cross the corridor, running”, and the other one has the instruction “don’t let that guy cross the corridor, push him”. So what’s interesting is what’s happening; you’ve got confrontation. That [time] wasn’t violent, because they knew each other, but I’m sure that once we take people who don’t know each other, and are on the street… You don’t need the mask anymore, because no one knows each other, and you know, you’re in London — [where] everyone’s wearing headphones — so you don’t know who’s playing the piece and who’s not.
So: “there’s a person in front of you — push him”…
More of Mathis’ work can be found at:
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- Alexander Schubert – Star Me Kitten, performed by soundinitiative at Klang Festival Copenhagen (2015)
- Thomas Adès – In Seven Days, performed by Kölner Philharmonie (2010)
- Jonny Greenwood, live with the London Contemporary Orchestra @ The Boiler Room, Manchester
- Black Mirror, ‘Bandersnatch’ (2018)
- Alexander Schubert – Wiki Piano (2018)
- Mathis Saunier – Siиe (2020)