Listening to Jeux

This is an attempt to describe an intense listening experience – perhaps a recording on headphones turned quite loud, or (if you are lucky) sitting very close to, or amongst, a live orchestra. This is our first problem, and the problem of all orchestral music: how to close the distance between ourselves and the source of the sound. Unless listened to at high volume or on headphones, recorded music suffers from a flattening out of the aural image – a de-spatialisation which neuters both the physicality of gesture in the music and the antiphonal geography. At a concert one is often far away from the orchestra, again flattening the peaks out. One hears the orchestra as a homogenous entity rather than a changing palette of sound sources which have the property of physical location.


Swings and roundabouts: one can turn a CD’s volume up, play passages over and over, and at atime of one’s own choosing.


So let’s play some selected sections of Jeux over and over at high volume, and the change the magnification of our ears to CLOSE UP.


In a piece as complex as Jeux there are so many layers of detail, so many frames of magnification involved, so many connexions to be made, that a totalising analysis is probably impossible. It’s certainly inadvisable: this is one of the most complex works of a most advanced musical mind, and a work which has resisted traditional academic analysis in a notorious (and triumphant!) way.


So what follows is not a traditional academic totalising analysis. It is an attempt to sensitise to some aspects of the piece.


First, in reference to the physical location of the sounds mentioned above, I’ll identify the aspect of the social co0ordination of the piece – the way that the piece moves through the gamut of ensemble forces from tutti sections to small groupings to duos and solos (at about 1 minute 34 seconds; our second problem: timings may differ from recording to recording). All of these human co-ordinations also involve the mediated palettes of instrument type and combinations thereof; registration, timbre change, dynamics, articulation, harmony. All of these ‘parameters’ vie for our listening attention at different times, but as an agent of social co-ordination rhythm is the over-riding force – I’ll stick my neck out and say this.


Think of the orchestra in Jeux as a kind of very sophisticated chain gang and the musical material of Jeux as its worksong. That’s quite a flippant and overstated way of drawing your attention to a certain aspect of the piece.


Secondly, extending from this co-ordination of gesture, we may identify many different kinds of motion in the various layers of the piece: swirling (at 5 mins 22 secs and 6 mins), rushing (at 8.07 and 10.29), slowing (2.09, 16.46), stopping (5.54), trembling (17.18), twitching (17.34), shivering (13.20), ascending (7.43, 10.39, 15.05), descending (10.45), rocketing (10.10, 14.00, 16.20), plummeting (12.41, 17.11), swinging (12.40, 14.20), oscillating (6.40), turning (11.23), gliding (15.40)… to mention just a few! AND sometimes several at once – witness the broad gestures of string writing with the swirling chromatic flutes (2.45)… the curious, intriguing tambourine twitches over long bowed notes.


…turning inside out, 11.20…


There is also at certain points the sensation of ‘gear change’. The trumpet phrase at 3.03 is just such a construction: the waltzing 3/4 rhythm becomes quadruple – 4 beats in the time of 3 as the harmonic progression surges towards the tonic. On arrival, behind the trumpets, are hemiola pizzicato notes; this section of music is closed by basses articulating the dotted crotchets. Quite a deployment of different layers of rhythm and metre! Inputting these rhythmic combinations into a sequencer (or even just clapping them) reveals another aspect of the kind of motion involved in Jeux: that of the speed of the bow, the speed of breath; and the combination of these with the speed of the fingers.


This is the third aspect I want to bring out. There are many passages in Jeux in which a ghostly second presence is hovering around the notes – the sound of air. Those rushing passages where the strings are playing double-bowed quavers sometimes conjure this presence (1.58) as do the chromatic flute swirls. The opening and the end of the piece also bring this air into existence.


(It could be, I’m prepared to admit, that these are not the singular province of Jeux, and that many orchestral works contain this sound. What I’m not going to concede is that this is a simple accident of instrumental writing: Debussy was the consummate artist of orchestral sound and enough of a musical magician for these more hidden aspects of sound to be an intentional, deliberate part of his work. It’s no accident!).


One of the most exquisite moments (and there are many!) in Jeux is the passage at 9.16 marked ‘tres serre’ in the score. There is an arrival, an arrest of harmonic motion on a minor (tonic). The melodic minor scale is held in trembling suspension. Here is that most precious moment in the natural world where a sudden and tangential change in the vectors of the wind cause the leaves to tremble – sussurus is the name for this sound which is the paradox of motion in arrested suspension: the fingers move in a blur – a sustained spasm called a trill, except that this trill is across an interval rather than adjacent notes. Vocally this would be a yodel – how ungainly! (I don’t want to get into trouble with Maggie Nichols for saying this!). For a yodel involves a full-on exhalation, and in this moment in Jeux the speed of the breath and bow is slow while the fingers move rapidly.


Impossibly delicate!

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