It’s a safe bet that most readers of A Closer Listen are already familiar with the sound world of Stephan Mathieu. Active since the early nineties, he has over 30 album titles to his name (both solo and collaborative) and is a modern father figure in the world of electro-acoustic music. His work employs both analogue and digital means and often blurs the boundaries of environment, history, memory and perception. French label Baskaru has released his latest solo record titled Un Coeur Simple (or ‘A Simple Heart’ in English) and it’s available in both CD and digital formats. The music was commissioned as a soundtrack for a stage play of 19th century writer Gustave Flaubert’s tale Un Coeur Simple, which is contained within a three story novel Trois Contes, originally published in 1877.
Without seeing the production, it’s difficult to gauge the soundtrack’s effectiveness in tandem with the play – luckily, the music stands quite nicely on its own and will provide rewards for anyone unfamiliar with the story for which it was created. The first five tracks are fittingly sourced from a zither that, according to Mathieu, dates back to around the same period the novel was written. By using several Ebows on the strings of this zither, Mathieu creates a sustained tapestry of warm drones and gentle ambience. These five tracks are perhaps textbook cases for this artist, and while first rate recordings in their class, they are not all that dissimilar to many of his previous works.
Once we arrive at the sixth track, “Devenir Sourd”, a new world opens up and here we see just how far Mathieu can stretch creatively. This piece was created with six mechanical-acoustic gramophones each playing an old 78. By Mathieu’s own admission, this includes a recording of the Sistine Chapel Choir, a song by Renaissance composer Guillaume Dufay and two of Mathieu’s own acetates with recordings of a viol consort. The end result is a fascinating collage of acoustic sounds that represent a whimsical sense of modernity versus antiquity. “Félicité” is a more pastoral affair with acoustic guitar backed by field recordings of birds and environment. Mathieu concludes the album with “Trace” – a track sourced from an ARP 2600 synthesizer that is easily one of his best works since The Sad Mac.
Un Coeur Simple is a welcome addition to Mathieu’s rich catalogue of music. While some tracks are more adventurous than others, Mathieu maintains a relentless level of high quality with every release and considering the volume of music he’s released, that is no small feat. (Michael Duane Ferrell)