Stephan Mathieu: Un Coeur Simple

Gustave Flaubert and Stephan Mathieu would seem to be natural bedfellows: Madame Bovary's creator was fastidious in the extreme, the kind of writer who agonized over every line and attempted to live as hermetically as possible in order to prevent the world from interfering with his artistic process. Mathieu's music similarly possesses an identifiable and distinctive signature, and it's often likewise hermetic in being so wondrously self-contained. And just as Flaubert's world often looks back in time (e.g., The Temptation of St. Anthony), so too does Mathieu's reference earlier periods in its approach to sound-production (the incorporation into his computer-assembled settings of wax cylinders and 78rpm records from the 1910s and 20s, for example, as well as instruments such as the viole de gambe ténor and Columbia Phonoharp). Finally, both share a delicacy of touch that distinguishes them from others in their respective fields.

For the record, Mathieu's Un Coeur Simple is not an aural transcription or simulation of Flaubert's story (known in the English world as “A Simple Heart”), which typically is presented alongside two other pieces in Trois Contes (Three Tales), first published in 1877. Instead, it's music Mathieu created for a theatre piece adapted from Flaubert's story, which concerns a maid named Felicity who's fascinated by a parrot from America. No matter: the musical material is pure Mathieu, no matter where it originated from or how it came into being. The kind of glassy, shimmering dronescapes for which Mathieu has become known are included (“Maison,” “Mémoire”); “Eglise” breathes gently, its slow and exquisite exhale suffused with a warmth and melancholy that draw the listener in, while the undulating swirls of electroacoustic sound within “Port” and “Trace” prove entrancing.

Other pieces deviate from that style, however. Earlier eras surface explicitly during “Devenir Sourd” when the music's supplicating voices are smothered in the crackle of decades-old vinyl as well as other digital noise, and also in “Félicité,” where bits of early recordings surface amidst bird chirps and a string instrument's plucks. Mathieu's decision to include these settings proves wise, as they provide a dramatic contrast to the shimmering dronescapes, and the presence of both types of settings makes Un Coeur Simple an excellent representative recording of Mathieu's artistry.

March 2013