Linguistics and Musical Meanderings – Sophie Tassignon on “Mysteries Unfold”

Sophie Tassignon CD cover

The new CD from Sophie Tassignon, “Mysteries Unfold,” has a potpourri of sounds dancing in many different corners of jazz: the cabaret-like “Don’t Be So Shy with Me” (a perfect lilt and bounce with a dash of cynicism), its echo-chambered voices in the bridge unexpectedly bringing a quick change of temperature and tempo. “Cum Dederit” is a sonorous madrigal; and “La Nuit” seeps its way in, Tassignon using whispers and indecipherable chatter as musical elements. Veering into the experimental, drenched in clarity and a study of the shimmer between consonance and dissonance, this CD is as fresh as a newborn idea.

The best takeaway from your early training in music?

I feel extremely fortunate to have had the chance to learn piano when I was very young. This gave me the opportunity to absorb a large amount of excellent music while providing me with a primary focus for a number of years. I remember practicing many difficult classical pieces which felt impossible at the time. Then the day would arrive when I would be performing these same pieces for an exam or a recital. This experience gave me the power to pursue dreams which at first seem difficult or even impossible, and to turn them into truly feasible goals.

How have you grown and developed as a musician, and what challenges you now?

Music has had a huge part in my life since my early childhood. I began piano lessons at the age of four and practiced classical repertoire thoroughly until I was 17. I also had a few years of drum and trumpet lessons during my teens which broadened my musical horizon, and at age 20 I decided to study jazz vocals at the music conservatory in Brussels. During those years I started writing music seriously and formed my quartet, Zoshia.

After my studies I attended the Workshop for Jazz and Creative Music in Banff, Canada led by Dave Douglas where I was able to develop my own style much further, and began incorporating everything from free improvisation to songwriting into my music.  

A very important part of my development was the creative work I undertook for theater director Elzbieta Bednarska, involving six theater pieces over the span of ten years. I am very inspired by her work which I find exceptionally creative and strong, and is reminiscent of Andrej Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman.

At the moment I’m challenged by something totally new: I am working on composing a series of songs with Arabic lyrics written by Syrian writer and poet Mohammad Mallak. Just pronouncing the words correctly is a challenge, as I am far from fluent in Arabic. When composing music with these lyrics, I have to carefully check the length of each syllable and figure out whether I have to add a short vowel or not between two words, which naturally depends on the length of the notes. This may result in the need to change the melody from what I originally intended. The rhythm of the text also needs to be considered.

When the rhythm of the poem changes suddenly in the middle, the music must change similarly and in a fluid way. This process is very complex as I don’t speak the language fluently, especially when using poetry which involves yet another set of rules. But once the composition begins to flow with the text, it’s one of the most gratifying things in the world!

How did you find your voice, so different from conventional jazz vocalists? 

I think I was always more drawn by melody and sound vs. text and lyrics. I transcribed a lot of instrumental solos and practiced them intensely. I’ve always been interested in challenging myself, so when musicians wanted to play their instrumental compositions, even those involving challenging lines and intervals, I was very happy to join and find a way to sing the intricate melodies.

I had a bit of classical vocal training but never truly mastered the correct classical singing technique. I did, however, take some inspiration from my classical studies and tried to merge much of what I had learned with my approach to jazz singing. David Linx, who was my main teacher at the conservatory, was also very much interested in teaching how to phrase and to tell a story with the music. All of these aspects of my training have had a distinct effect on my personal singing style.
 
Do you feel that artists who are authentic are also brave?

Absolutely! All musicians strive to sound as good as the fantastic artists who have inspired them, and it’s a wonderful feeling to master your instrument and musicality to the level of your heroes. I think though that expressing something personal is emotionally challenging, and can be even more so when one faces criticism of their artistic work.

People like what fits in a box, and to be able to label or categorize all forms of art; however, there are luckily also people who appreciate the discovery of something new.

What musical elements are you drawn to when you compose?

I am extremely fascinated by the textural capacities of sound. This is an element I like to incorporate into my music. I also find the aspect of tension and release to be exceptionally important, especially in the form of harmony and melody, but also within the timbre of sound.

For example, I enjoy when a note is sung with a certain harshness, as long as it is very well tuned. This somehow mixes a sort of tension with a sense of physical equilibrium. I also like to work with a variety of contrasting elements within my music and strive for consistently strong musical development within a composition.
 
How does your fluency in five (soon six) languages help you as a musician?

The Arabs say that every language has a different face, and so for each language you speak you have a different personality. This made me reflect on my own feelings while speaking in different languages and indeed, I realized that I have a tendency to encompass a different character depending on which language I am speaking. For example, I am much more diplomatic in English than in other languages. In Russian I feel noticeably intimate yet also direct and when speaking French I tend to feel like I’m from a different era.

It’s going to take me a long time to be fluent in Arabic, but even a short conversation in that language provides me with a completely new feeling and a very warm atmosphere. I think my background in various languages has helped me to develop the wide range of sounds, textures and personalities that one hears in my music, which I think is especially represented on “Mysteries Unfold.”

What was the inspiration behind the current album?

In 2010, theater director Elzbieta Bednarska invited me to write and perform music for a theater piece based on the novel House of Day/House of Night by Olga Tokarczuk. A year later we worked together on another piece based on the novel Snow White and Russian Red by Dorota Maslowska. These experiences gave me the idea and the inspiration to create a solo project incorporating some of the material I had worked on during these two productions.

I then chose select songs which had a specific emotional impact on me, and incorporated those as well as some of my own more developed compositions with the intention of creating a full-length album.

Highlight of production?

My favorite moment was when I made the decision to include some harmony to the theme of “Jolene.” This part was normally sung a cappella in my live performances, but while recording the album I decided it needed some more weight behind it. The chords and harmonies came very naturally to me. I worked for about three days straight on that part and I was in a complete flow the entire time. Nothing else mattered and every note felt right.

Favorite track and why?

It’s hard to chose one favorite track but I am very drawn to ‘La Nuit’ as it is the most unusual track on the album. I like the different and often odd textures throughout the piece and the somewhat strange form of it. It constantly develops into something new, I find it totally psychedelic. At the end the melody becomes completely muffled by this huge pounding sound which phases from one side to the other, annihilating everything on its way. Traditionally a melody is placed upfront but here it is pushed into the background.

To me this represents the subconscious feeling of surrendering to the darkness of the inner self which reflects the meaning of the lyrics. Therefore the melody should be overwhelmed and small, almost drowning. I love the way this piece turned out.

For more information visit www.sophietassignon.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Sophie Tassignon.
© Debbie Burke 2020

All About Jazz review

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