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Raphaël Languillat

For the French composer and visual artist Raphaël Languillat (1989) there is no difference between his works in these two domains. In fact, he often combines his music with visual elements like lighting, live projections or video’s. A lot of his music is inspired by paintings. Besides aesthetic reasons, it’s just as much a reflection on the present-day composer: “In twenty years the cliché of the ‘classical composers’ will no longer exist, because of the complexity of our life. Composers need to become more flexible in other domains than music to reconsider the idea of a concert.”

Take Languillat’s work Crucifixion (d’après Le Pérugin) (2015) for a chamber ensemble. He wrote this composition after seeing Pietro Perugino’s painting of the crucifixion of Christ from 1496. While the influence of the painting is quite obvious—as can be seen by the placement of the musicians on stage in three duos like Perugino’s triptych—the composition itself focuses on visual and aesthetic questions, as Languillat explains: “How can one represent such suffering in such a peaceful scene? What is a landscape in music? What can a Renaissance fresco mean to us in the twenty-first century? And how can I reinterpret Perugino’s masterpiece in my music?” These questions often inhabit Languillat’s mind. Even so that he envisions a new visual element for the performance of Crucifixion (d’après Le Pérugin) during Gaudeamus: “The painting is really calm, especially the landscape in the background. The details are fabulous: the material of the wood for example, the metal of the nails or the positions of the hands of the people. I want to realize a new video that will blur together photography and slow-motion video to underline the peacefulness of the painting and the Umbrian landscape.”

While visual art and music are often seen as two different things, they are for Languillat about one and the same thing: “Composition is a very abstract word, but an image or a building is also a composition. It’s mostly a question of line, of shadows and light. In photography you have all these questions too. I like both art forms, because both music and photography share the same issues. How can a series of photographs be musical and what does it mean? When there are two separate fields I want to find what they have in common and unify them.”

Another exemplary piece is La Flagellation du Christ (d’après Le Caravage) (2016) for solo piano, based on the painting of the same title from 1607 by Caravaggio. The style is completely different from Perugino’s painting and so is Languillat’s music. It is a fast repetitious sequence of notes, almost a torment to perform in itself. The contemplative pace of Crucifixion makes place for a much darker atmosphere: “For me, Caravaggio is in-your-face studio photography. It’s always very dark. There are lots of nudes and really athletic people. The scenes are brutal. The light is harsh. I had the chance to see this painting in Milan. It’s very big and fills the whole space. It was tilting a bit forward, almost as if it was falling on top of me. Amazing, then I understood the weight of the painting.” Languillat transfers the darkness of the painting and the typical chiaroscuro—accentuated contrast between dark and light to suggest volume of the depicted subjects—to the ambient lighting of the performance. The hall must be as dark as possible, with one light on the pianist who will be filmed close-up during the exhausting performance, to visualize the physical and psychological suffering of the flagellation itself.

While these painting are beautiful in their own right, there is, for Languillat, a more profound layer beyond mere aesthetics: “I’m interested in these paintings because they question the loss of spirituality in our European society today. Spirituality has to do with space, focus and silence. Not with the agitated time we are living in now, filled with acceleration, superficiality and progress.” The silence and contemplation that Languillat looks for in these paintings and that he transposes to his own music, offer him an alternative for our present-day society: “Our time is very complex, there’s too much information. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the newspaper, there’s a constant flow of information that we don’t need. We need to concentrate more. I want to unify my visual art and music, because I think there is a possibility to create new psychological spaces, where there is room for spirituality, contemplation and beauty.”