Debussy (again)

for Kendall Briggs

In the last year, I’ve once again attempted to “leave” New York. And yet I’m sat on the corner of Waverly and Gay in the West Village, writing in exactly the same spot where this slightly disastrous blog began. My harp lives on the Upper West Side (as harps are fairly easy to source in Paris), my stuff lives in a storage unit in Brooklyn, I pay rent in Paris. My billing address for my online subscriptions seems to alternate between three or four legal addresses I’ve had in the last 5 years. My life is scattered, chaotic and I increasingly answer the question “where do you live?” with the honest answer “I don’t know.”

What I do know is that I’ve “checked out” of New York to a certain degree, or rather I’ve come to experience my old haunts without any feelings of baggage. I stood on the corner of 72nd and Columbus for a while today (where I’d lived with an ex) and I struggled to find those emotions which had made even going back there so hard once upon a time. I noticed which businesses had changed, which dogs were the same, which of their owners had gained weight. I looked into my old office on West 69th Street and I was happy to see that it was no longer mine. There was different art on the walls, better lighting and a new inhabitant (an old colleague in fact).

I’ve been told in times past that such feelings are a result of age, and that the process of returning becomes easier and more lighthearted. “Checking out” isn’t giving up; it’s resigning oneself to the reality of change and the inability to control where life goes, and learning to enjoy where it takes you in the process. The twists and turns, be they mundane/unnoticeable or unexpected/jarring are increasingly navigated with poise, ease and a realization that they are what makes life interesting.

If there’s any way in which I’ve checked back in, it’s returning to a place where I see life reflected in music. The personal upheavals of Covid were such that I intentionally insulated my musicianship from my life experience, trying to avoid seeing metaphors in my music making or transplanting my own issues into a practice session or a collaboration. Everything was too uncertain, so I gave up trying for a while. I’m glad to say that such has changed as I’ve started teaching again, attempting to find ways to communicate to students about how minutiae and minuscule changes in a piece of music are not to be overlooked, but to be devoured as they are breadcrumbs left behind by composers we’ll never have the chance to meet.

In a recent masterclass, a student played a transcription of Debussy’s En bateau from the Petite Suite. Everything was more or less in place: fluid technique, an even sound, a sense of sweep in some of the gestures. What lacked was a sense of direction – or rather, a demonstration of constant wavering between stasis and motion which gives the sense that one is in a boat, adrift and subtly out of control. One might call it the absence of direction.

As much as any teacher will try to avoid it, the opening bars of a piece become the obsession point in a masterclass, and I’ll own up to not working with the student on much else. Debussy gives us the Barcarolle arpeggio in G major, but it stops in midair. What next? It repeats in the next bar in the relative minor, with the melody line leading the listener into a reiteration of the first bar back in G major before heading back to e minor for another go. How many times is he gonna do this? There is some relief, as we hear a D in both the melody and the bass – a dominant chord, finally… except that it’s a D minor chord which repeats itself not once, twice or even three times, but FOUR times before giving way to a modulation to C major.

The piece is in G major, but that key relationship between D major and G major has not yet been exhibited at all, as not a single chord has included that absolutely essential F-sharp which should resolve to a G. It is in C major that we are given that initial satisfaction, the point at which we also hear that barcarolle arpeggio go and and then come back down again, reinforced by a plagal cadence (indeed, more F natural in a piece in G major) after.

Bar 12, the F chord becomes an F-sharp diminished chord. There’s hope. Might G major’s rightful place might be yet established? Nope. That F-sharp becomes a dominant in disguise and we are treated to four soupy bars of B major, which trail off into literal nothingness.

A tertiary relation drags us back to G major and the material from the beginning rears its head again. Or does it? The melody is now in thirds. And that E minor chord now has an ugly D-sharp in it, which nevertheless gives way to a Lydian C major, though a little earlier than before. At last, at bar 23, Debussy gives us what we want: D major and G major harmonies. An A minor seven chord gives us a lovely modal secondary dominant, and a C natural to connect to a D Major 7 chord – but with a melody in the bass to almost give us what we want: a perfect cadence.

The more I’ve been teaching, the less I’ve become focused on dealing with students’ hands, their tone or their “sound” (whatever that means). Instead I’ve become obsessive with trying to show students that the infinite details left behind by composers, the false returns, allusions to memory and constant denial of the expected isn’t for nought: all of these infuriating lost illusions are the very building blocks for drawing an audience in. They are in fact gifts which composers give performers to hold audiences in the palm of their hand and transport listeners out of themselves, their own lives and indeed, their own expectations.

Once identified, these subtle details pose the questions that we have to answer. What speed? How do we suspend the ideas in midair? How do we breathe on an instrument that resonates into infinity? How do we pose the questions to the audience that only we can solve?

Seeing beyond the score also comes with age and experience. The finger patterns, the anxiety over accuracy and dogged attention to making things as black and white as they appear on the page isn’t just unappealing, but rather simply impossible. We also learn that when we sit down to play, the slight human variations in volume, warmth or depth have to be accounted for, welcomed and responded to. Perhaps a chord was played too deeply. How can you compensate for it in the moment? How can you go with the flow and recalibrate?

I admit to loving the overwhelmed looks I receive from students, as perhaps I haven’t yet recovered from the 15 years of studies I undertook with Ur-pedagogues who handed me fingerings, tempos, phony aural traditions and a sense of authority which aimed to instill competency, though little more. One teacher assured me we ought to see a work from “Debussy’s standpoint,” which in fact meant just using a fingering that she’d been handed by her own teacher and maintaining a metronomic pulse. I asked her jokingly if I could have Debussy’s mobile number and ask him myself, as she appeared to know him quite well. (She didn’t laugh. The lesson ended early.)

Of course, students have to be shown standards, but what of the standards of giving students a glimpse as to how they will have to make the decisions for themselves? What of the reality that once we’re out of school, we’re on our own (thankfully) on the water, be it on the sea or up shit creek without a paddle? That our technique has to keep with it? And our tone? And our sound? What of the glorious and exhilarating relief that we all feel when we return to a piece years to find that it’s different, charming, and even liberating to play? And what of the utter terror they will face in looking at a student one day and telling them that making decisions will be harder than any one piece they master at school?

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