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Home » Nicholas Cook – Anatomy of an encounter: Debussy and the gamelan, again

Nicholas Cook – Anatomy of an encounter: Debussy and the gamelan, again

Nicholas Cook

Why Debussy and the gamelan again? My concern in this paper is with how influence operates in the cross-cultural domain, and Debussy and the gamelan is of course a canonical example of such influence, around which quite a literature has developed. It largely revolves around the attempt to draw a highly value-laden distinction between superficial imitation on the one hand—what the pianist Paul Roberts refers to as the ‘pastiche orientalism’ of Debussy’s most explicitly gamelan-influenced composition, ‘Pagodes’—and on the other hand the stylistic assimilation that, for Roy Howat, represents ‘the essence of a really profound and creative influence’. We have on the one hand the appropriation of more or less stylised local elements within an essentially unmodified Western style, as illustrated by the nineteenth-century exoticism that has been a particular focus of Saidian critique; and on the other hand, an attempted accommodation of the musical Other within the structures of the self that might properly be called intercultural composition.

And a combination of modernist teleology and structuralist aesthetics explains the particular form that these arguments have taken: the key claim is that Debussy responded to gamelan as he did because he was musically and conceptually prepared for it. For Mervyn Cooke, ‘the experience intensified techniques that were already latent in his music and that stood apart from the conventional and soon-to-be-outmoded procedures that had dominated central European tonal music for the previous two hundred years: Cooke explains that the affinities between Debussy and the gamelan include scale types, ostinati, polyphonic textures, and sonorities, all of which were embodied in Debussy’s developing style before his first encounter with the Javanese musicians. And Neil Sorrell uses the same approach to critique the very idea of influence:

It could be argued that Debussy’s best music shows no influence of Javanese gamelan at all. The key word is influence, with its suggestion of bringing about a change of course. With Debussy a much more fruitful word would be confirmation. It seems far more plausible that what he heard in 1889 confirmed what he had, at least subconsciously, always felt about music, and this experience went far deeper than a desire to imitate something new and exotic.

But this creates a Scylla-and-Charybdis situation. On one hand we have appropriation without modification, a matter of imitation or pastiche rather than Howat’s ‘really profound and creative influence’; on the other we have a degree of musical and conceptual preparedness that reduces the impact of the Other to ‘confirmation’, so ruling out ‘a change of course’. In effect, an impermeable distinction is drawn between an ideologically valorised idea of influence and an idea of imitation seen as both aesthetically and ideological suspect, and the result is to rob the idea of influence of its usefulness. What such a conceptual scheme doesn’t allow for is the dimension of transformation that gives content not only to the idea of influence, but also to that of the intercultural encounter as a potentially significant element within the historical process. So my aim is to sketch an approach to influence that creates room for transformation, and in this way passes between Scylla and Charybdis.

This paper is extracted from a longer article in progress, most of which is taken up with the idea of cross-cultural representation, as illustrated by the very different traces of the encounters with Javanese music that took place in Paris at the 1889 and 1900 Expositions universelles: these range from published transcriptions, such as those of Julien Tiersot, to the impressionistic, or touristic, ‘portrait-in-tones’ (as Ralph Locke calls it) that is Debussy’s ‘Pagodes’. Along the way are materials whose positioning along this axis is more debatable, notably those of Louis Benedictus, which were published in souvenir booklets sold at both the 1889 and 1900 exhibitions. These provide the materials on which I draw in formulating the argument about influence that embraces them in the longer article, and that I am extracting in this paper. I can start by elaborating what I said in the first paragraph, drawing a distinction between the overt representation of ‘Pagodes’ and the longer-term process through which—to borrow Howat’s words again—elements suggested by or abstracted from Javanese music infused themselves as part of Debussy’s normal technique. This is not something that can be read in any direct way from the stylistic features of Debussy’s compositions: influence in the sense that Howat intends the term involves a changed way of thinking about music, or more precisely put, a transformation in the conceptual schemata involved in composition. And as Marc Perlman says, ‘it is never possible to extract concepts directly from a musical practice’.

I can best explain what I mean by focussing on a familiar element of Debussy’s later style that is adumbrated in ‘Pagodes’ and commonly attributed to his encounter with the gamelan: his habit of composing in superimposed rhythmic strata, with a tendency for the higher notes to move faster than the lower ones. Roy Howat has shown that it is possible to understand various textural elements at various points of ‘Pagodes’ by reference to the rhythmic interlocking that is characteristic of gamelan music: he likens the opening to the relationship between kempul and gong, the triplet figure at bar 11 to the rhythm and timbre of the bonang, bar 37 to interlocking gender, and sees the coda as a combination of high, rapidly moving and lower, slower metallophones together with the gong. These are not so much imitations as schematised references: in Pierce’s terms they are signs, incorporating elements of iconicity alongside symbolic conventions of representation, which is why it is fair to see ‘Pagodes’ as an outgrowth of nineteenth-century traditions of exoticising representation.

However the idea of influence as opposed to representation become more appropriate in relation to the opening of ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’, from the second set of Images and dating from four years later. Howat points out that the rhythmic relationship between the As in the two lower staves of bars 3-4 from ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’ ‘exactly matches that between kethuk and kenong‘, but the point is that here the rhythmic stratification no longer has a specifically exotic association: the three-stave format equally places ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’ within a tradition of nineteenth-century pianistic virtuosity, for example, while such well known orchestral examples of rhythmic layering as ‘Rondes de printemps’ (from the orchestral Images) and in particular the late ballet score Jeux might be seen as precursors of Ligeti’s micropolyphony or even spectral composition.  All this lends credibility to Sorrell’s claim that ‘It is pointless to go through the famous music of [Debussy’s] maturity looking for traces of gamelan like fossilized footprints of some rare animal…. The greater the composer the less likely such marks are to show, for the simple reason that they have been completely assimilated within the style’. Think this through, and the paradoxical conclusion that the best evidence of influence is when there is no evidence of it.

It is at this point that Sorrell critiques the idea of influence (‘with its suggestion of bringing about a change of course’), and continues, ‘It seems far more plausible that what [Debussy] heard in 1889 confirmed what he had, at least subconsciously, always felt about music’. I want to suggest that we can be much more precise about this, and that the role of Debussy’s encounter with the gamelan was one not just of confirmation but of transformation. The rhythmic stratification illustrated by the opening of ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’ resembles an aspect of gamelan music, but it also resembles another musical practice with which Debussy was already extremely familiar as a consequence of his conservatory education: species counterpoint, which was taught at the Paris Conservatoire on the basis of the Cours de Contrepoint et de Fugue authored by a distinguished former director, Luigi Cherubini. Looking beyond the immediate contrasts between the music of a metallophone ensemble and a pedagogical genre based on idealised voices, the relationship between gamelan music and species counterpoint is a mixture of diametric opposition and striking similarity.

On the one hand is the principle of hetereophony or simultaneous variation that is built into gamelan music, and that is as different as could be from the independence of voices that lies at the heart of species counterpoint. On the other hand is the parallel between gamelan and the maintenance of rhythmic layers that defines species counterpoint, and that gives it a continually flowing rather than cadentially articulated quality: species counterpoint looks much like one of Tiersot’s gamelan transcriptions. Indeed Tiersot himself made the comparison between gamelan and early music :

Aren’t there curious similarities to be drawn between the procedures of Javanese music and those of our Western polyphony from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? The part of the rebab is like the cantus firmus from a messe de l’Homme armé or a polyphonic song by one of the masters of that time; the variously elaborated patterns of the other instruments of the gamelan are counterpoints which, while not having the stability of those of Josquin des Prés or Palestrina, evidently proceed from exactly the same principles.

It might seem perverse to associate the notoriously anti-academic Debussy, with his contempt for pedagogical rules and regulations, with species counterpoint. But that is just the point: as Debussy told his teacher Ernest Guiraud in October 1889, a month before the end of the Exposition, ‘I don’t write in the fugal style because I know it’. And the fact that Palestrina is singled out as representative of ‘the most classical composers’ in the Cours, and is the only composer other than Cherubini whose music is included in it, lends particular resonance to Debussy’s obviously provocative claim that ‘Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint that make Palestrina seem like child’s play’. By combining the rhythmic layering of Cherubini’s exercises with the small-scale repetition and ostinato that were already part of his style, Debussy refigured the schema of species counterpoint in terms of what Karol Berger would call a circular rather than arrow-like conception of musical time. And after all, the compositional models on which species counterpoint is based long predate Mozart’s arrow, so in a sense Debussy was drawing out something already latent in species counterpoint, but ignored by Mozart’s and subsequent generations. Seen this way, it is the possibility of mapping the rhythmic layering of gamelan music onto the already deeply internalised schema of species counterpoint that explains Debussy’s ability to respond to the gamelan as he did. This is an example of what Perlman would call intra-domain rather than cross-domain mapping, but as with conceptual blending in general, what is crucial is the emergent quality of the blend, that is, the generation of qualities that are inherent in neither of the input spaces (in this case species counterpoint and gamelan texture), but result from their interaction.

And that is what marks the impact of the gamelan on Debussy as an instance—indeed a canonical instance—of cross-cultural influence. The effect of Debussy’s rhythmic layering, whether in his music for piano or for orchestra, is nothing like that of species counterpoint, and only like that of the gamelan in the broadest, and loosest, sense. It takes a pianist to describe it properly. Howat suggests that, for Debussy, the basic problem with the piano is its ‘essentially percussive nature, at odds with the sustained sound of wind or string instruments or the voice. In “Pagodes”‘, Howat continues, ‘Debussy for the first time completely accepts this percussiveness as it is, and carries his musical lines by turning it into a “carpet” of sound in exactly the way a gamelan does’. A paragraph later he refers to ‘bring[ing] from chords and textures the resonances of the strings and soundboard rather than the hit of the hammer’, and again he cites ‘Pagodes’ as illustration. Paul Roberts hints at the same conception when he writes that ‘Pagodes’ requires ‘a refined touch for creating a variety of simultaneous levels’, and he emphasises the physical dimensions of what is required to achieve the desired effect: ‘For the opening measures, the arms and body should be perfectly poised, with no movement except for the left hand coming over the right in a gentle arc, as if reaching for a slightly brighter-sounding gong’. And on the next page Roberts develops the gamelan analogy, now with reference to bar 3: ‘Each melody note needs to have the same weight, with the inner gongs (F-sharp and G-sharp sounding together) clearly audible. A gong has its own character, which is immutable once the sticks have been chosen’.

What Howat characterises in terms of sound production, and Robert in terms of a choreographed performance of imaginary gongs, is a conception of music as above all a phenomenon of resonance that developed from the explicitly exoticising ‘Pagodes’ through subsequent piano peces such as ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’ (the opening bars of which Roberts describes as ‘one of the most intricate passages to execute in all Debussy’s piano music, and one of the most perfectly conceived for the instrument’), to orchestral scores such as ‘Rondes de printemps’ and Jeux—and that lost its exoticising connotations in the process. This conception is emergent, in the sense that it does not inhere in the various components of the blend considered separately: it builds on existing conceptual schemata, with species counterpoint playing an indispensible mediating role, but in a manner that is transformative. And seeing influence this way places the agent at the centre of this process. By this I mean that, as has often been pointed out, traditional conceptions of influence present it as an action of the influencer on the influenced: gamelan music influences Debussy. By contrast, musicologists like Sorrell correctly locate the core of the process in Debussy’s act of reception, in the tacit knowledge that made it possible for Debussy to respond to the gamelan as he did, and indeed in his evident willingness—or desire—to be influenced. But they do so in a way that makes it impossible to do justice to the transformative effects of the encounter. It is by factoring that into the equation that I have aimed, as I put it, to pass between Scylla and Charybdis.

Yet there is still something vulnerable about a conception of influence that sees it as subsisting in historically irrecoverable cognitive processes, deduced through an uncertain chain of arguments from surviving documents. There is a sense in which the influence of the gamelan on Debussy exists most tangibly in the interpretation of his works, by which I mean not only critical interpretation, but also, indeed especially, the practice of their performance. By his own account, Roberts is playing an imaginary gamelan when he performs Debussy’s piano music: ‘An understanding of “Pagodes” and a technique for its execution’, he writes, ‘will come from imagining and imitating the different modes of attack required for gamelan instruments’, and he extends this principle beyond exoticising representation when he writes of ‘Cloches à travers les feuilles’ that ‘Whether or not the piece is a conscious memory of the gamelan, it can only profit a pianist to be aware of gamelan textures and sonorities’. But it is Howat from whom the most compelling testimony comes. For many years, he tells us, he considered ‘Pagodes’ to be one of Debussy’s less successful pieces. But after two years’ experience of playing in a gamelan, he came to understand nuances and instructions in the score that had seemed problematic when interpreted in ‘normal Western terms’: these were now revealed as references to gamelan music, and ironically, the key to making sense of them lay in strict adherence to the indications in Debussy’s score. In this way, and irrespective of its status as historical fact, the influence of the gamelan on Debussy continues to be enacted well over a century after the Expositions closed their doors for the last time.

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