Christine Ott has returned with her second record, Only Silence Remains.
Renowned for her compositions and extensive collaborations, including Radiohead and Yann Tiersen, her new work extends from her previous musical project, 24 Hours of a Woman's Life, which explores the connection between female destiny and nature. Her approach on this album creates a space where the piano is the focal point and is accompanied by harmonium, tubular bells, percussion and one of the earliest electronic instruments, the Ondes Martenot.
Andrew Darley talked to Christine about her creative process, the record's themes, and the magic that can be found in silence.
When did this album begin for you?
I think just after the release of my first album, Solitude Nomade, in 2009. I composed the majority of these songs between 2010 and 2013, but some even before that. I found the skeleton for the song 'Szczecin' in 2007 while on tour with Yann Tiersen in Poland. I found a good piano and the inspiration for the song came from the city. The first steps of composing is spontaneous improvisation. Any time I can find a piano is marvellous as I find new ideas. I record them for memories, and after I can work for the structure and arrangements.
Is there a story or narrative within the record?
Yes, for sure, the album is a story - it's a journey. Some people have written about it as an instrumental concept album and I think it can be viewed in this way. In fact, it is very linked to a previous show I wrote with Michel Druez called 24 Hours of a Woman's Life, which its idea was "From sunrise to night, from childhood to adult life, this show introduces a woman's destiny, closely linked to the nature that surrounds her." Only Silence Remains also arises from this idea. I had the desire to keep this as the main theme for the album.
This album takes its title from a line in the poem in the final song 'Disaster'. How does it reflect the whole album?
'Disaster' is a very important track on the album, as the preceding song 'Tempête' is the climax. I wrote the piece and it's read by my friend Casey Brown. It's about my feelings of how important it is to be aware; to keep our mind, our eyes, our brain and our heart alive and always open to what is going on around you. It speaks of the beauty of nature around us and how quick it can disappear if we don't care.
At the end of this song, I wanted a moment suspended in mid-air. Silences are precious and can be more important than a rush of words. People and musicians are often terrified by the silence. I have a very special relationship with it - I love it. Sometimes I can stay a long time without listening music when I'm composing. In my first improvisations, I played too many notes. With the passing years, I've learned to listen to and let the music breathe. Music is the sculpture of sounds - if you want to have contrast and relief, you need silence, breaks, culminations and pauses. It's the same in our lives; we are overdosed in sounds and images so it's cool sometimes to appreciate real silences. Even in music. Silence is magic for me.
This may be follow-up record to your 2009 debut but have you been working on lots of other projects in between.
Yes, fortunately! I quit the Yann Tiersen band in 2010, for personal reasons and also because of some health troubles, which didn't give me the possibility to stay on tour. I realized that we can sometimes find good things in some bad situations and I could find the time to go forward with my own projects and my own music. I also began to work and compose for the cinema, composing the soundtrack of La Fin du Silence by Roland Edzard, and also some collaborations with Stuart Staples (Tindersticks) for some soundtracks of Claire Denis' movie. This wonderful association between music and movies gave me the desire to compose some live soundtracks. I was completely moved by F.W. Murnau's 1931 silent-film Tabu, which I created and performed a ciné-concert with in 2012 inspired by it.
Have any of them shaped this new work?
For me, these three projects (Tabu, 24 Hours of a Woman's Life and Only Silence Remains) are very linked. The tracklist of the album is a synopsis of 24 Hours of The Life of a Woman and my song 'Tempête' stems from Tabu, which I wrote based on the final scene. The power of images gives me wings, inspires me and allows my imagination to take flight. For example, with 'Disaster' I had Blade Runner in mind which I have strong memories about its atmosphere. I would be happy to work more on original and contemporary soundtracks. Maybe film directors don't think of me because I'm hidden behind the Alsace mountains and Black Forest!
There are a number of moments on the album which sound almost unnerving, like 'Tempête'. Do you think comfort can be found in music that makes one uncomfortable?
Strange question, I think it depends on your ears. 'Tempête' is more experimental as it's the storm, literally, but also, like in in the film Tabu the malediction which is coming, destroying the love between the two main characters of the movie. The composition is also very much based on 'matière sonore', which means musical material of the piano strings and different effects inside the piano that I love to use. So, yes maybe, as I wrote the album in that way. The last three songs are a triptych. 'Danse Avec La Neige' is the calm and then comes the big, violent storm. 'Disaster' is desolation and paradise lost, as well as the calm after.
Does being a multi-instrumentalist allow freedom in the creative process?
It's just nice when you can play some instruments you hear in your head, so that you can follow your intuitive instinct.
One instrument that you worked with is the electronic instrument Ondes Martenot. Can you tell me more about it?
This instrument has since a long time now been beside and with me, but maybe a very special and sometimes heavy choice with the maintenance of an artisanal instrument. I forget its difficulties because it gives me so much happiness. I learned with this instrument to listen in another way, it has given me amazing possibilities of sounds, colours, and amazing sensory and sensitive possibilities.
A lot of artists today who work with classical and electronic elements are referred to as 'neoclassical music'. Do you identify with this the genre idea?
That's one of the terms used by my label, Gizeh Records, to describe the music they're producing. Yet, for Gizeh and for me, I think we would prefer to say it's just a musical frame. I prefer to feel free of any genre because they are very formal. Maybe "neoclassical" seems to become also a fashion and I'm quite afraid of that. It means that the way of recording is sometimes more important than the composition. I don't recognize myself in it. It seems to be organic, but in fact it's not. Not at all. Just an illusion.
What's the most rewarding part in creating a song?
There are different favourites moments. The first musical gesture is often an amazing feeling. For me, it's mostly an improvisation on the piano which presents the harmony. I love is when I'm fixing the arrangements. I feel like a sculptor who is refining her creation. I can hear them in my head and I think I have this chance for an orchestral experience.
In terms of composing and arrangements, are there any challenges in bringing a whole album together and making it sound cohesive?
I don't know if challenge is the right term. But it's clearly important for me to make it cohesive. Good transitions between the tracks, musically, a good wire through the album. For the CD, and also for the LP. That's why the CD playlist is different than the LP. It didn't make sense to me to keep 'No Memories' at the beginning of the B-side of the vinyl. But it was clearly indispensable for making the connection on the CD, between 'Raintrain' and 'Danse Avec la Neige'.
You have collaborated with so many other musicians over the years, such as Yann Tiersen and Radiohead. Do you prefer working on your own or with others?
I like both, when there is a real collaboration, which is not always the case. I had the chance to play with great people, musically and on a human level, such as Yann, Radiohead as well as Oiseaux-Tempête, Foudre, Syd Matters and DAAU. I also had the chance to invite people to play my music and redefine my compositions altogether, like Jean-Marc Butty (PJ Harvey live-band member), Yann Tiersen, or Marc Sens. It's always nice to open your musical language to other musical worlds without frontiers and explore new musical areas or paths you wouldn't take.
Some reviewers have written that your music takes them to another time or place. Do you hear that yourself or do you feel it's very present?
Yes, for me it's very present and I like the idea that the music can be the starting point for our own imagination, like a book story or an open book.
Only Silence Remains is out now.