Sylvain Chauveau: Des plumes dans la tête

Well-known for his acclaimed FatCat outing Un autre décembre, Sylvain Chauveau's new release Des plumes dans la tête (Feathers in my head) finds him revisiting the melancholy atmospheres of his 2001 Nocturne Impalpable. The latest collection isn't, however, a set of solo piano pieces (though a number do appear) but a soundtrack to a film by Belgian cinematographer Thomas de Their that unites piano and chamber pieces with short ambient episodes and two longer electronic soundscapes. In fact, the Paris-based Chauveau (the name pronounced 'sealvan shovo,' incidentally) plays piano on only five of the 22 tracks, opting primarily for composer duties and ceding keyboard playing on other pieces to Olivier Lageyre. (Amazingly, Chauveau's background includes no formal training, he's unable to read or write musical notation, and furthermore claims to not even know the notes he plays.)

Listeners familiar with his work will notice immediately how kin the new material is to that of the past; at once pretty, elegant, and melancholy, the typically slow and sombre pieces evidence his basic principles: the desire for naked simplicity, and the use of a sound only when it's absolutely necessary—both principles heard to good effect on this album. By pairing solo piano and small chamber group pieces with electronic drones and soundscapes, Chauveau also acknowledges the influences of classical (Debussy, Ravel, Satie, Fauré) and electroacoustic and contemporary composers (Ferrari, Parmegiani, Reich) on his work. While such a juxtaposition might seem incongruous, the intermittent appearance of the four ambient tracks makes the inclusion of the two closing pieces less jarring.

The lovely “Des plumes dans la tête (Variation 1)” opens the album with a string trio of violin, viola, and cello etching a mournful, Nymanesque theme, Aurélien Besnard's clarinet a nice addition in the later second variation. That fuller group sound appears only once more, on the buoyant “Situation finale” where piano accompanies cello and clarinet. Granted the spotlight on three pieces, cellist Géraldine Devillières etches a pensive and sombre theme on “Pour les oiseaux” and bows more passionately on the fragment “Pour les oiseaux (Variation 3).”

Nine pieces feature piano only, with most little more than a minute in length. In the elegant “Situation initiale,” Chauveau's sparse notes sparkle like raindrops, while his melancholy chords linger suspendedly in “Ferme les yeux.” Some pieces resemble piano haiku, stopping abruptly when poised to develop further. Ending after a mere 37 seconds, “Sinon le vent qui passe” feels like it's just getting started when it stops, and the same applies to “Pour les oiseaux (Variation 2)” and “Ferme les yeux (Variation).”

The four ambient pieces are interludes, with “Noir” a dark ambient drone and “Anthracite” suggesting the blurred hum of a windswept seashore. The closing soundscapes (two Webcam remixes by Chauveau) are more substantial, with “Suber” a collage of seashore sounds, hypnotic string sections, field elements, piano, and radio transmission signals, and the second, “Datebook,” seemingly indebted to Steve Reich with its bright interweave of vibes patterns and bass tones.

What's most remarkable is not the quality of the work itself—certainly fine enough—but the fact that such a rich variety of material can fit into a fleeting 39-minute package. One final note: at the risk of displacing attention from the work at hand, a word must be included about an upcoming Chauveau release, rumoured to be an album of Depeche Mode covers (songs like “Stripped,” “Enjoy the Silence,” “Blasphemous Rumours”) performed by a small chamber group and scheduled for release at the end of 2005 or beginning of 2006.

April 2005