Saturday 17 December 2022

Making ancient music sound modern: Franck-Emmanuel Comte on Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu's mixing old & new music, collaborating with beatboxers, hip-hop and more

Rehearsing the 50/50 programme: Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu with Martyn Harry (Photo Florent de Gaudemar)
Rehearsing the 50/50 programme: Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu with Martyn Harry (Photo Florent de Gaudemar)
Franck-Emmanuel Comte and his period instrument ensemble Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu released a new disc on the Aparté label in September, 50/50, a project where the ensemble performs a mix of music by Lully and by Purcell alongside works inspired by Purcell by the contemporary French composer David Chalmin and music inspired by Lully by the British composer Martyn Harry. Franck-Emmanuel founded Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu in 1992 when he was still a student. The ensemble's early association was with the medical complex, L'Hôtel Dieu in Lyon, hence the name. They recorded their first disc in 1997, of Handel's Alceste and more recent discs have included one devoted to Handel's diva La Francesina, Elisabeth Duparc, recorded with soprano Sophie Junker. Other recent projects have seen the ensemble collaborating with urban artists including beatbox, slam and hip-hop, and with the contemporary choreographer Mourad Merzouki.

Franck-Emmanuel Comte (Photo: Julie Cherki)
Franck-Emmanuel Comte (Photo: Julie Cherki)
So, the 50/50 project does not come out of nowhere. Franck-Emmanuel is keen to demonstrate that ancient music can be new, and not just for a specialist audience, it can be for everyone. He feels that by collaborating with other contemporary artists and composers, they have more chances of convincing young people to listen to Baroque music. Their new creations involving hip-hop, dance and video give rise to a new type of Baroque concert. 

Alongside their regular period performances, each year Franck-Emmanuel and the ensemble do a project with guest artists. Talking to Franck-Emmanuel it is clear that he feels passionate about the need to make ancient music sound modern, to bring different colours to the repertoire and to mix languages and inspirations.

Franck-Emmanuel originally met composer David Chalmin because Chalmin wrote a piece, Sept Particules (2018), for the French-American harpsichordist Justin Taylor. Chalmin is quite an eclectic composer and has written in styles as diverse as classical, minimalism and pop, even writing for Madonna. After hearing Justin Taylor performing Chalmin's piece, Franck-Emmanuel spoke to the composer and asked him to write a work for Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu. One of Franck-Emmanuel previous programmes with the ensemble had been called The French Connection [see on YouTube], putting English music of the late 17th century by Purcell, Locke and Humphrey alongside music by their French contemporaries Lully, Cambert and Grabu, to show the influence of Versailles on the late 17th century English court.

After meeting Chalmin, Franck-Emmanuel met composer Martin Harry in Oxford. Harry had written a work for Her Majesty's Sagbutts & Cornets. Harry was enthusiastic about writing for Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu. So the idea developed to have a similar programme, but one that included contemporary music too. Hence 50/50 has music by Lully and Purcell, plus two contemporary composers, the Englishman inspired by Lully and the Frenchman inspired by Purcell. Franck-Emmanuel knew that the two contemporary composers were inspired by ancient music and excited to write for a period ensemble. With both of them, Franck-Emmanuel had conversations about what could be done with Baroque instruments.  It wasn't the first time that Franck-Emmanuel had worked with a contemporary composer. Two years ago the ensemble did a project on female composers, with music by French and Italian women composers but contemporary music too.

However, Franck-Emmanuel's passion remains for Baroque music and Baroque instruments, but he always finds it exciting to mix new sounds and new languages. When playing Baroque music, the ensemble needs to research how to perform the music, looking at contemporary treatises. But there is an instinctive element too, a freedom which comes from the fact that a lot is left unsaid in the written parts. However, when playing contemporary music the musicians need to be precise, playing just what the composer has written. For instance, the music Martin Harry wrote for the ensemble is not easy and they needed to be precise. Franck-Emmanuel noticed that after the recording sessions, this sense of precision rubbed off on the period performances as well.

Another composer that they have worked with is Steve Reich, and an arrangement of a movement from his Electric Counterpoint is included in the ensemble's Metamorphosis programme. Franck-Emmanuel loves Reich's music, though the American composer was somewhat surprised when Franck-Emmanuel asked for authorisation to arrange his music. However, Franck-Emmanuel sent Reich a score and recording, and Reich was enthusiastic. Franck-Emmanuel feels that this sort of cross-pollination helps to show audiences that the sound of period instruments can be modern.

Also, Franck-Emmanuel likes to surprise his audiences, to play Vivaldi and then follow this with Steve Reich. It always gives listeners a shock, but he doesn't do it simply for shock's sake. He wants to keep the audience open to new ideas and projects, and he wants the audience to stay awake. Franck-Emmanuel admits that he hates the idea of the audience being asleep. So, the idea is not to shock but to build new connections between 17th and 18th century music and that of the 20th and 21st centuries. To show how some of the earlier music still sounds modern.

Also, Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu is playing more and more concerts in modern venues, not just churches. Franck-Emmanuel thinks it is good to mix old and new repertoire in modern venues which attract more mixed audiences. These are not specialist audiences, but people that go to dance, theatre and other art forms as well. With the right venue and acoustic, the ensemble can take the opportunity to perform Steve Reich, Bartok and Webern, especially if the more contemporary pieces are dynamic and with energy. There is no specific strategy, Franck-Emmanuel and the players simply experiment and enjoy the freedom that promoters give him in France.

Franck-Emmanuel and Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu will be bringing their 50/50 programme to St John's Smith Square in May 2023 as part of the London Festival of Baroque Music.

Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu's FugaCités programme with Tiko (human beatbox), Mehdi Krüger (slam), Jérôme Oussou (hip-hop dance) choreographed by Mourad Merzouki (Photo Julie Cherki)
Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu's FugaCités programme with Tiko (human beatbox), Mehdi Krüger (slam), Jérôme Oussou (hip-hop dance) choreographed by Mourad Merzouki (Photo Julie Cherki)

Around ten years ago, Franck-Emmanuel met the choreographer Mourad Mezouki who asked Franck-Emmanuel to arrange music for one of Merzouki's dance pieces. Franck-Emmanuel showed Merzouki music from the ensemble's repertoire, Vivaldi and so on, and Merzouki asked if they could include some electronic music too, to bridge the gap between the period music and the hip-hop dance. As a result of this project, Franck-Emmanuel met many of Merzouki's hip-hop dancers and became more comfortable with this style of dance. Moving in this world he met other urban artists such as the beatboxer, Tiko who Franck-Emmanuel describes as very creative. So projects with various urban artists developed. This is not Franck-Emmanuel's main job, but he tries to create a new project by collaborating with hip-hop and other urban artists each year [see the FugaCités project on YouTube]. Franck-Emmanuel find such projects interesting artistically, but also they attract audiences who have never heard period instruments, never heard early music and may have never heard classical music. So as well as exploring a new musical world, Franck-Emmanuel feels they are introducing their musical world to a new audience. 

Interestingly, despite all the complexities of Britain's relationship to Europe, Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu's 50/50 project received money from the British Council so as well as French performances of the programme there are three UK performances, in Ludlow, Oxford and London (at St John's Smith Square), and in Oxford, there will be further events including a masterclass working with Martin Harry's students on how to composer for period instruments. 

Franck-Emmanuel Comte & Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu (Photo Julie Cherki)
Franck-Emmanuel Comte & Le Concert de l'Hostel de Dieu (Photo Julie Cherki)

Another programme is their Metamorphosis project [on YouTube] which explores music that is arranged and reorchestrated, including Bach's transcription of Vivaldi, Reynier Guerrero and Franck-Emmanuel's new version of Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint, and Karl Aage Rasmussen's new version of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. The concert explores how Baroque music can metamorphose, and performances will include projections of work by the French comic book artist Mœbius, a new collaboration for the ensemble.

See all the ensemble's forthcoming performances on their website.

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