British composer and experimental music artist Christopher James Chaplin studied the piano with Irene Denereaz in Switzerland before moving to London in the early 80s. In 2009 he was invited by Viennese label Fabrique to collaborate with electronic musician Thomas Pötz on “Seven Echoes”, an album released in 2010 and presented live at the Art Brut Museum Gugging in Austria. There he met electronic music pioneer Hans-Joachim Roedelius (Cluster, Harmonia) who later invited Christopher to take part in a “Late Junction” session for BBC Radio 3. The result of this second collaboration eventually led to the album “King of Hearts”, released in 2012. From there the duo Roedelius – Chaplin went on tour together, and in 2016 Chaplin released his first solo album “Je suis le Ténébreux”, which has been partly recorded at AIR’s Atlas Studio in Paris and various studios in the UK. It combines experimental musical influences around a sixteenth century text, an epitaph known as the “Enigma of Bologna”. 2018 saw the release of his second work, called ‘Paradise Lost’, translating John Milton’s most famous poem about the descent of fallen angels into hell into epic soundscapes.
We discuss Paradise Lost, talk about his most memorable experiences performing live, touring China, periods of no inspiration, his first approach to avant garde music, and some memories from his childhood while witnessing how his father worked on the music for his own films.
Cyclic Defrost: You’ve recently performed in China, was it what you expected?
Christopher Chaplin: The tour in China was amazing. I loved it there. I didn’t know what to expect. I was performing ‘Paradise Lost’ (Fabrique Records, 2018) with Luma.Launisch on visuals. We were booked by a DJ called CC from a collective called Kakoushi Independent. There is a very vibrant and emerging club scene there, and its audience is open, and appreciative of the more experimental stuff, which is great !
Cyclic Defrost: Which are your most memorable experiences performing live?
Christopher Chaplin: One of the most memorable live performances for me was the very first one I did in 2012 at the More Ohr Less Festival in Lunz am See, Austria. The festival is curated by Hans Joachim Roedelius and his wife Christine. Roedelius asked me to play with him and Stefan Schneider from To Rococo Rot. It was totally improvised. I was literally thrown in at the deep end. It was terrifying, intense, and exhilarating all the same time. I also had a very memorable improvised moment with the very talented Dickson Dee in Chengdu, China this year.
Cyclic Defrost: How was your first approach to avant garde, or experimental music?
Christopher Chaplin: My approach to Avant Garde music was not immediate, but gradual. I still have to remind myself to keep an open mind sometimes. Instinctively, I am quite conservative in my tastes. But I learned that, by not giving up on something which is not immediately appealing, one reaches a point where it all begins to make sense: an emotional response is suddenly experienced that’s wasn’t there beforehand. That can be surprisingly powerful and stimulating.
Cyclic Defrost: Have you ever faced a period of no inspiration? And if so, do you know how to deal with that?
Christopher Chaplin: I’ve never faced a period of no inspiration, and hope I never will. However, every time I work on a piece, I get to a point where I want to discard it, believing I have wasted my time up until then. I’ve since learned to fight this self doubt, and stick with what I’ve done, and battle with it. It’s never easy and can be very frustrating. But when the resolution comes, however long that takes, it’s always dramatic in shaping the piece for the better.
Cyclic Defrost: Have you ever dreamed a composition and tried to make it afterwards?
Christopher Chaplin: No. But I have dreamed of something funny, and woken myself up laughing. But then, fully awake and conscious, when I remember the dream, it’s not funny at all. So I would be suspicious of trying to recreate a composition I had during a dream.
Cyclic Defrost: I’ve read that the origin of the name ‘Paradise Lost’ started when you first heard the title. What was the first thing that came to your mind when you heard it? Have you read the full poem by John Milton?
Christopher Chaplin: It was in Brazil during a tour with Hans Joachim Roedelius. Fabricio Carvalho, who was looking after us, mentioned that he was doing a thesis on Milton’s Paradise Lost. At that time I was wondering what to do next – solo wise. Hearing those words: “paradise lost”, it suddenly clicked. I haven’t read the poem in full, but we did study big sections of it in acting school.
Cyclic Defrost: One can feel that there is a narrative throughout the composition, how did you approach that?
Christopher Chaplin: I didn’t really plan on a narrative. For the first and the last track of the album – “I Dread” and “Of this New World” – I just picked out a few verses in Milton’s poem. They express a strong sense of nostalgia. That is the whole appeal to me of “paradise lost”: a nostalgia for something in the past which has taken on a mythical dimension. The verses I chose come out of Satan’s mouth. Satan is yearning for, and looking back to a time when he was the greatest. And the middle track – “Dave the Shoe” – is Leslie Winer’s text which fits beautifully in between the first and the last track.
Cyclic Defrost: Have you thought of any other great pieces of art to translate into your own vision of sound?
Christopher Chaplin: The Song of Solomon from the Old Testament is a pretty amazing text… But, then again, maybe it should not be messed with.
Cyclic Defrost: Your father wrote the music for his films. Have you got any musical memories of him in your childhood? And, have you read his short story called Rhythm?
Christopher Chaplin: Yes, when I grew up, my father was working on putting music to a lot of his early silent films. I remember coming back from school and he would be sitting in the living room. My mother was behind him, projecting a 16mm version of “The Kid”. My father would hum the melody for a scene to Eric James, the pianist, who sat at the Steinway, played the melody and scored it… I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know about “Rhythm”. I look forward to reading it. So thank you!
Cyclic Defrost: What’s the latest thing that blew your mind?
Christopher Chaplin: The incredible geothermic activity in the whole Island of Iceland.
Cyclic Defrost: And the latest great thing you’ve heard?
Christopher Chaplin: Ryuichi Sakamoto & David Toop who performed in the Silver building, London a few weeks ago. An incredible concert !
Cyclic Defrost: Which are your plans for the rest of the year?
Christopher Chaplin: Well I’m really excited to play in Berlin in October in a beautiful venue called Silent Green, before that I’m in Poland for a festival in Bigocz. I will also be in Vienna in November at MAK which is great. As I answer your last questions, I’m in beautiful Lunz am See for the More Ohr Less festival which is always so nice.
This is a part of an interview with Christopher Chaplin that was originally published in the first issue of Soundest Zine, limited to 100 copies. Additional thank you notes for Milagros Cimadevilla, who provided some necessary insights.
You can find Christopher Chaplin here.
photo credit Peter Draxl