Mathieu Karsenti, composer

Who or what inspired you to take up composing, and pursue a career in music?

Because I don’t come from a classical music background but from a design one, composing was never on the cards for me. As an artist, I was always inspired by music and at the age of 15/16 I grabbed a guitar and started playing the pop classics (The Beatles etc). I continued my training in Applied Arts with music on the side, but I guess music felt more right to me and took over. Years later, I was building up my professional music career and began producing singers, in effect arranging and composing. When I worked on TV shows, I got asked to compose original music and that’s when I started thinking that I’d been composing all along. I furthered my composing education and started joining the dots between music, fine art, applied music and applied arts and where my creative ‘voice’ sits in all of this.

Who or what were the most significant influences on your musical life and career as a composer?

My first real musical loves were Soul music, Classical Indian and Arabic music, and Baroque. But was only when I started to listen to Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass and John Adams that I realised that what I always wanted to express creatively was through music, as a composer. I realised that there was a connection in me between my visual influences (Francis Bacon, J.W Turner, Van Gogh etc) and those musical influences.

When I started learning the craft of scoring to pictures [film & tv], I became influenced by Thomas Newman, Alexandre Desplat and Danny Elfman. And of course, John Williams’ music was always there to be studied.

Being a visual person, I also realised that music is architecture, it is building blocks and J.S Bach’s fugues and counterpoint resonated heavily. It meant I could listen to music and visualise it in colours, shapes and hues.

What have been the greatest challenges/frustrations of your career so far?

One of the biggest challenge is for my music (for and away from pictures) to be accepted as it is, regardless of genre or where it might fit in. Genres can be useful but when you come from film where music is functional and often crosses over genres, you see those boundaries being blurred. For instance, I love Jacques Loussier’s jazz interpretations of Bach, Ravel and Debussy. That freedom, the lack of stuffiness and pomposity, the completely creative approach that can only be explored if genres are forgotten, is amazing. Music should be appreciated on a case by case basis and not be confined by boxes. Ultimately, when a composer/artist is on a bigger platform, his/her music is accepted as is. But until then, it’s a game of convincing a receptive audience that your music is worth listening to, that it reaches into various musical levels and styles to form its own style.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working on a commissioned piece?

When I work on a film, I love the creative interactions I have with a director. Tailoring your music to picture is a real craft and when we are aligned, working towards making something great, it’s fantastic. The challenge is to find the common language and for me to find the identity of each project. Much like a fashion designer, you tailor your music to suit a format, an emotion, an idea. The identity or the world of the film can be emphasised and supported through the music. And to me that’s exciting.

What are the special challenges/pleasures of working with particular musicians, singers, ensembles and orchestras?

In my music releases, I take the opportunity to explore my composing voice further. The biggest thrill comes when I re-record parts with musicians. I work straight into the computer to put together my work but my vision always needs to be interpreted by a human being. When that musician comes in, feels your music and gives you his/her interpretation of it, it’s a very humbling experience. Being a musician myself, I also know that my music can’t truly come alive until I have real musicians playing it.

Of which works are you most proud?

I don’t tend to dwell much on what I do other than to think how I can improve myself in my next compositions. Each release is a snapshot of my creative state at that time and if I put it out there, it means I am confident and happy with it being what it is! There are definite moments in my film work where both the director and myself were on the same page and that makes me very happy and proud to have realised their vision with my music.

How would you characterise your compositional language?

Until I delved further into music theory, I had no idea what I was doing technically for many years. In my teens, I used to play around with 4 track cassette recorders, overdubbing my guitar parts, creating various lines that complemented each other, this was all instinctive, I had a need to paint a musical picture of some sort. Later on, I realised that my language was contrapuntal, multi-layered, that it used polyrhythms and sometimes polytonality. It might be fugal but it’s an abstracted, modern and simple version of a fugue that has its own rules. I like music that doesn’t resolve, that is sometimes ambiguous because it allows the listener to decide what and how they feel about the piece. Ultimately, my music is cinematic in character so it will always have a sense of theatrical direction in it but what it conveys is completely up to interpretation; I don’t want to tell the listener what to feel.

How do you work?

As I mentioned above, I work straight into the computer, composing, arranging and recording all parts myself. If a piece is meant for another musician, I will compose with them in mind and eventually create proper parts in Sibelius for them. My scores are fairly basic because I like the musician to interpret a piece based on how they feel. The overall feel and conceptual approach of the piece is there so it just requires the musician to slip into it and create what they want.

Who are your favourite musicians/composers?

They are so many. As mentioned above:

Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, John Adams, J.S Bach, Handel, Ravel, Debussy, Ravi Shankar, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Jacques Loussier, Satie…

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

To keep on living a fruitful, creative life.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Do, you!

Find out who you are creatively as an artist and don’t think about fitting in. Go deep within yourself because that’s the only way you will create something that’s true to you.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Being creative.

What is your present state of mind?



Mathieu Karsenti’s album ‘Movements’ is available now

Mathieu Karsenti is a multi award-winning music composer. As well as releasing his own music he has composed for film, TV and stage with over 20 years’ experience of making music. Over time, he has developed a distinctive language: contrapuntal, rhythmic and multi-layered.

He has studied music production and engineering at Pointblank college, Composing for Film and TV and theory at Berklee College of Music online and orchestration at the Hollywood Music Orchestration Workshop with Conrad Pope in Vienna, Austria.

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