Tag Archives: Debussy

Snowsteps for Moog Ensemble

Snowsteps

For Will Gregory Moog Ensemble, 10 players

 

This is the second piece I have written which is based on, and is a transformation of, a Prelude by Claude Debussy. The piece, “Des pas sur la neige”, translated as “Footsteps in the snow”, is the sixth in Book 1 of the Preludes for piano, written around 1909-10. Although there is no specific literary or artistic allusion contained in the title, the romantic image of the lonely journey through a winter landscape, punctuated by moments of hope and of despair, is a common one in European art. Schubert’s Winterreise, settings of words by Wilhelm Muller, is perhaps the most famous.

 

Following the example of painter Joan Miro’s transformation of Dutch master Hendrik Martenzoon Sorgh’s “The Lute Player”click here for link, I have kept the shape of the original piece intact, but adding mirroring phrases and transforming the harmony.

 

In my first Debussy transformation “Windgames”, the original instrumentation remains. When the opportunity to write something new for the Moog Ensemble came up, it allowed me to explore some of the timbral landscape of Debussy’s piece. My first piece for the Ensemble, “Oceans of Heaven”, was based on the instrument’s ability to make a note appear from, and disappear back into silence. In “Snowsteps”, I’m exploiting, among other things, the instrument’s ability to change the timbre of a note over its duration – great for conjuring images of changing shades of sunlight reflecting and refracting on snow.  The high tones, with filters open, create a glassy quality, as of ice. The use of delay pedals, with muted swirls of notes, of drifting billows of snowflakes.

 

In a few places the progress of the piece is interrupted. One hears distant unearthly harmonies like howling wolves, or a mourning choir of angels. This is achieved on an instrument called a Swarmatron.

 

One can imagine several iterations of this piece, each getting further and further away from the Debussy – as if successive snowfalls were gradually burying and adumbrating the original contours.

 

Would Debussy have composed for the synthesizer if he were here now? A bit of a cliché question, and rather problematic considering all that has happened to musical language since his time: Stockhausen took the exploration of electronically generated sound to an extreme point half a century ago – notwithstanding that it was Debussy that opened the compositional door to timbre and colour a half century before that. Debussy conceived of his music as “the art of sound and colour”; he was interested in the sonorous possibilities that modern musical instruments offered. It would be difficult to imagine a piece like “La Cathedrale Engloutie” on a harpsichord, for example. So, yes, if the synth had been around in Debussy’s day I’m sure he would have been intrigued by its capabilities. He was never interested in the organ though – but then the timbre of an organ note cannot be changed while holding a note down…

Windgames

Windgames

https://soundcloud.com/groove-on-music-workshops/eddie-parker-windgames?utm_source=soundcloud&utm_ca soundcloud.com

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For solo piano duration approx. 2 mins 40 secs. Composed Summer 2013.

This piece is based on and is a transformation of “Le Vent Dans La Plaine”, the third piece in Book 1 of the Preludes by Claude Debussy. The dynamics and contours of the piece are retained, but some of the gestures have been amplified and the harmony transformed.

The idea for making a piece like this had been in my mind for many years. There are precedents: Berio’s “Sequenza VI” for solo viola, gradually expanding as the “onion layers” are added in successive pieces – “Chemins II” for small ensemble and then the orchestral “Chemins III”; but also, and more influential, the painter Joan Miro’s transformation of the Dutch old master Hendrik Martenszoon Sorgh’s “The Lute Player”.

Dad with the Vernon's Choir

Dad with the Vernon’s Choir

My Dad, Frank Parker, Concert Pianist manqué, whose professional career consisted of performing music for variety theatre, musicals and ice skating shows, used to play Debussy on the piano to me when I was a child: “La Cathedrale Engloutie”, “Danse Sacree” and “Danse Profane” in piano transcription; “La Plus Que Lente”; “Jardins Sous La Pluie” and “Children’s Corner”. Then as a teenager my school music teacher Len Sartin would hold one spellbound not only with his prodigious pianistic abilities (he performed “Feux D’Artifice”, the notoriously difficult final Prelude of Book 2, in a school “Speech Night”, to the utter bewilderment of assembled parents), but his comprehensive knowledge of the art, poetry and literature that each Prelude was alluding to: Baudelaire, Mallarme, Chinoiserrie,  Arthur Rackham, etc. This in a comprehensive school for boys in Liverpool.

Debussy’s music for piano, especially from the two books of Preludes, went in deep for me and stayed there.

The feeling of a kind of kinetic sculpture in sound, involving a synthesis of harmony and sonority, a precise choreography of pianistic gesture, all bound together by an amniotic envelope created by the subtle use of the pedals – “like a kind of breathing”, as Debussy himself described it – these are the alchemical elements that have been infusing in my mind over the decades.

The fingering shapes – centrally, the sequence of left and then right thumb, followed by right fourth, fifth and then fourth fingers and again thumb, leaving right index and middle fingers free to play those restless “nested” melodies – I have retained, played with and expanded upon, and sometimes mirrored symmetrically in the left hand.

The four-note minor 6th and 7th chord inversions, signifying the loneliness of the homeless howling wind, have mutated: they are similar to the original, but the two hands are transposed and in contrary motion.

The thunderclaps are angrier, closer overhead, and more immediately threatening than in the original.

This piece is difficult to play. The recording I have made of it is – I hasten to admit – a bionic, computer enhanced performance recorded at a slower speed. However, nothing in it is physically impossible. Any difficulties – for example, of maintaining the feeling perpetual motion; of achieving continuity of phrasing; and moulding the dynamic contours – can be readily addressed, I believe, by studying the Debussy.

There may be more: one could foresee a series of Debussy transformations (or “Busygames”!): “Snowgames”, based on “The Snow Is Dancing” from” Children’s Corner”; “Raingames”, based on “Jardins Sous La Pluie”;   “Soundgames”, based on “Les Sons Et Les Parfumes…” from Preludes Book 1;  “Chordgames”, based on “Pour Les Chordes” from “Pour Le Piano”…

It may take me a while.

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!