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…