Interview: Snowdrops

When you really choose with heart the people with whom you want to play and with whom you share the same musical sensibility and spontaneity, it happens that there are suspended moments, "des moments de grace" as I like to call them. That's what happened with this album sometimes too. There is a real musical encounter that lies essentially in listening to each other and a beautiful reactivity.

(Photo credit: Paulina Myśliwiec)

In late November, Snowdrops released their third album Missing Island via Injazero Records. This album sees this France-based chamber collective continue to create beautiful and meaningful work. Adriana Ciccone had the incredible opportunity to interview multi-instrumentalists Christine Ott and Mathieu Gabry and ask about this new album and more.

E&D: How did the two of you meet and what led you to decide on forming Snowdrops?

Mathieu: It was in 2014. I was a member of a group and we were rehearsing in Alsace from time to time. Christine, who was in the area was invited to participate in a session. I didn’t know her at all, so we found each other first in music. It was a beautiful session, Christine had just come with a toy piano and her hand-pumped organ. The same one which is very present on Missing Island … I then discovered her work with her cine-concert on Tabu, the film by F.W Murnau and Robert Flaherty, which she gave in Paris. Her music and her relationship to the film really impressed me that day.

Christine: Yes, during the sessions with the band and during some breaks, both Mathieu and I continued to improvise and musically it all seemed very natural and intuitive. We created Snowdrops a year later in 2015, and our first achievement was surprisingly a music for a theater play, Le passage des Anges. We then spent a few years playing a few rare duo concerts, but in unusual places. I’m thinking of the archaeological crypt of Notre Dame in Paris for example, or a special concert at the Lyon Opera in 2016.

E&D: Is there a story behind the band name, Snowdrops?

Christine: For me, this name is very strong, as it evokes the first flower to emerge from winter: it is the power of life, and the power of nature that returns after winter. This force of vitality of nature that comes from the earth speaks to me a lot.

Mathieu : Christine came up with the name, and I think I made it my own the next day, when it started to snow. Probably a sign! (laughs)

Christine : In a way, our representations of the band’s name are symmetrical, me in the ascending verticality (life emerging from the depths) and Mathieu in the descending verticality (the falling snow). It’s a duality that suits us, that suits our music in the end maybe…

E&D: Violist Anne-Irène Kempf also joined you on this release. This isn’t a new collaboration. How did your collaboration with Anne-Irène first start?

Christine: I was already working with Anne-Irène on other projects, in particular a film-concert created in 2014 on the fairy-tale world of Lotte Reiniger, a pioneer of shadow cinema and animation. We opened our shared garden of Snowdrops to her for the recording of Volutes in 2018, released on the Injazero label in 2020, after having also invited her to a “Carte Blanche” concert, with many guests / musician friends.

Mathieu: Things happened a bit impromptu, not premeditated, but there was still a desire to have her playing, her musical sensitivity and this string sound for Snowdrops. And then we get on well, things happen quite naturally. As a nod to Christine’s album Chimères (for ondes Martenot), Volutes opens with a variation of ‘Comma’, which is heard here in a version for strings, keyboard and ondes, like a small miniature symphony.


E&D: On your newest release, Missing Island, I read that you both recorded it in a single session. That’s incredible considering the length and breadth of the release. When that happens, I often think there’s a little bit of magic involved. Was it always the plan to record it in one session or did it just happen that way?

Mathieu: Snowdrops develops a hybrid music, half-composed and half-improvised. So yes, there is surely something magical about creating music in this way. The sound of “Snowdrops”, if it exists, is based on this experience of “playing together”, at least Christine and I, and also Anne-Irène. Everything is played live. Together. And we react a lot, live. This gives our sound a kind of humanity that is certainly important to us. And sometimes we are there, “in the zone”, and something magical indeed, unique, happens. It’s very precious. It’s a bit like witchcraft with a Nordic influence (laughs). Snowdrops concerts are also like laboratories open to the public. We invite the audience to come in, to vibrate, at least we try… and often we experiment things on stage depending on the place, the possibilities… the audience too…

Christine: Yes, when you really choose with heart the people with whom you want to play and with whom you share the same musical sensibility and spontaneity, it happens that there are suspended moments, “des moments de grace” as I like to call them. That’s what happened with this album sometimes too. There is a real musical encounter that lies essentially in listening to each other and a beautiful reactivity. But I must also say that the recording session is only the tip of the iceberg. Without the tireless work of Mathieu who follows the recording, a real work of patience and of ant, to unhook, locate and mix the various pieces, in a way his work as a ‘producer’, to imagine the whole, the album would never have been able to see the day. For the end of mixing and for the flow of the tracks and the fluidity of the album, I really like being at his side. But unfortunately I don’t master the technical stage before, the editing and mixing, which is very important.

Mathieu: In reality, the album is made in three stages. The recording time is indeed very short. Then there’s the editing time, like for a film, which is quite complex, and which is very much linked to the mixing time. So the playing time was indeed incredibly short, but the time to think and shape what we played is very long… It often gives me a headache.

E&D: Did I understand correctly that the first half of the album was inspired by a quote by Rainer Maria Rilke and the second half was inspired by the documentary Nostalgia de la luz which was directed by Patricio Guzmán? Taking into account the quote and the synopsis of the film, the listener can definitely hear the impact both of these works had on your writing. Can you tell us a bit more about these inspirations and at what moment you both knew a new album was conceived because of them?

Mathieu: In fact, it’s rather the opposite, the recorded pieces reminded us of Rilke and Guzmán… The album is the result of one session, one day. Like Volutes was two days, it’s a very short time, and we had no idea beforehand what we were going to record there. Or very little – Nostalgia de la Luz maybe, or Trapezian Fields on the first one… So the thread of the album came after the editing phase. And so its dramaturgy. And so its hidden references to the film, to Guzman’s themes too. And to Rilke’s writing.

Christine: It so happens that a dear friend of mine had given me this book, Letters to a young poet by Rainer Maria Rilke many years ago. I had never taken the time to read it, but, as I firmly believe in the idea, it is the books that choose you and it is they that will decide when you will read them. It just so happened that when I was doing Retour à la Terre, I read this book which upset me and which strangely resonated with the album, but also, very deeply, evoked the process of writing and creation. I really wanted to quote these magnificent verses of R.M. Rilke, so much in symbiosis with my sensibility and my feeling, in the musical composition, but also in life. “Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life, in understanding and in creating. There is no measuring in time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without fear that after them may come no summer.”

E&D: Christine, I know that you’ve likely answered a lot of questions relating to the Ondes Martenot so I hope you don’t mind that I ask a couple more. I wasn’t aware of the instrument until I heard your music and read more about you. It’s an incredible instrument and you are an incredible ondist. You make it sing and transform it into a chameleon of sorts. At times, I think I’m hearing an accordion, a cello or an affected guitar. It’s quite incredible. Can you tell us about the first time you came in contact with an Ondes Martenot? Was it love at first play?

Christine: Yes, it was at the conservatory in Strasbourg, where I discovered the instrument through Françoise Cochet-Métairon, an extraordinary woman who later became my teacher of Ondes Martenot, piano and also my friend. I was fascinated by a contemporary score by the composer Jean-Marc Morin, with whom I am still in contact today. His score Son-Relief was visually incredible, both beautiful and complex! It’s funny to realise that it was my eyes that were attracted to this score even before I was enchanted by the sound possibilities, the material and the sculpture of the Ondes Martenot. This fascination still operates years later.


E&D: Do you have any plans on touring in support of this release? What can fans expect from Snowdrops in 2023?

Mathieu: Yes, we will finally be able to present Snowdrops in its trio form on stage this spring. It will be in Italy, as part of a carte blanche for Christine, since we will play together pieces from Chimères, but also with Anne-Irène some extracts from Volutes and Missing Island. At the Musiche Nuove a Piacenza Festival on May 12th.

Christine: We also worked last year on Phuttiphong Aroonpheng’s second long feature film. We are again signing the original music, just like his first film Manta Ray, which we presented at the Venice Film Festival in 2018. The film should have its premiere soon.

Mathieu: …and we are currently working on the mix of the next album. many migraines these days… (laughs)

E&D: Lastly, what have been some of your favorite moments in each of your musical careers to date?

Christine: There are many and it’s hard to choose some, but on a personal level, there are the big “cartes blanches” where I was able to bring together my musician friends and where my music could sound more orchestral. I’m also thinking of the creation of my first film-concert on the film Tabu, or the Snowdrops concert in the archaeological crypt in Paris where the stones surrounded us and were like part of the audience. An important moment for me… And then of course, one of my concerts “24h of the life of a woman” where I was carried like never before by the scenography and the lighting of Michel Druez, alone in front of nature, with the Martenot waves, the voice and the piano. It was a very intense moment, with stage fright too….. Afterwards, of course, there were some special collaborations. Like with Radiohead for Canal +, where we were able to have 6 Ondes Martenot sing with the group, and these two incredible records, Kid A and Amnesiac. Of course also great memories with Yann Tiersen with whom I toured for 10 years. And also incredible live concerts with Syd Matters, Foudre! or the Jean-Philippe Goude Ensemble…

Mathieu: Theodore Wild Ride‘s premiere concert recently was a special moment to me. TWR is a bit of a cousin record to Volutes and Missing Island. Theodore is a trio of Christine, myself and oud player Ophir Levy. This concert was almost a homecoming in Strasbourg, there was a great energy in the room. It was a real pleasure to play these songs live for the first time. I imagine that the Snowdrops concert in Piacenza in May will be just as special…

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