Monday, November 7, 2011

Deconstructing Ravel (or Debussy)

I never studied deconstructionism—that was after my time, thank God—but reading an on-line article in the Brittanica a few minutes ago, I learned that it was rooted in an effort to expose unsubstantiated and often false oppositions that guided intellectual inquiry implicitly. The authors of the encyclopedia article cite “nature and culture, speech and writing, mind and body, presence and absence, inside and outside, literal and metaphorical, intelligible and sensible, and form and meaning” as examples.

Personally, I don’t see what’s wrong with any of these oppositions, and would be hard-pressed to choose which is supposed to be “primary” and which “derivative.” I also begin to wonder what those (French) deconstructionist blokes would make of Hume’s oft-quoted set of oppositions between a)the natural and the unnatural; b) the natural and the artificial; and c) the natural and the supernatural. In each case, the meaning of “natural” changes slightly to fit the opposition. All three oppositions are illuminating, it seems to me.

I’ve thought of a similar set myself: truth and error, truth and falsehood, truth and darkness-and-confusion.

Among my great library-discard book finds of the last few years has been The Mirror of Ideas by Michel Tournier. I have never been able to enjoy the man’s novels, but this little volume stole my heart. It examines a long series of oppositions, some analytical, others poetic, such as willow and alder, railroad and highway, pleasure and joy, left and right, salt and sugar, tree and path. The analysis stands in the glorious tradition of Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of Space), though the essays are much pithier and more entertaining.

There are also classic historical oppositions of personality to consider. Plutarch wrote several books about it. In our own day we have Grant and Lee, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Rousseau and Hume, Miles Davis and Chet Baker. I could go on and on.

One of the classic oppositions of our time is that of Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy. Ravel is certainly the more popular of the two. In fact, based on revenue, Ravel is the most successful French musician of the twentieth century! This is, in part, a testament to how BAD French rock-n-roll has always been. But the statistic also reflects how wildly popular such works as Bolero and the Concerto in G have remained over the course of many decades. But we’re wandering from our point.

Ravel and Debussy both write in a shimmering “impressionistic” style. They probably influenced one another (little matter) and both were deeply influenced by “ethnic” music. Debussy drew from the gamelan music of Bali, Ravel drew from his Basque roots and from Greek and Hebrew melodies. Debussy was a closet Wagnerian. Ravel was a closet classicist, and that closet door was always ajar.

In the end, most of Debussy’s compositions turned out to be wandering, self-indulgent drivel. (That’s a little harsh.) Ravel never wrote a bad piece of music in his life. Some criticize him for never writing anything BIG.

Debussy’s greatest composition is an opera, Pelléas and Mélisande. Ravel’s is a smallish, but devilish, chamber work, Trio in A Minor. Both composers wrote a single string quartet, and the two are invariably paired on recordings. I’ve heard them both a thousand times, and until recently, I couldn’t tell you which was which.

But on Sunday I heard the Parker Quartet perform the Debussy Quartet in St. Paul, and the music poured forth. It’s so rewarding to hear the individual voices sing out, and to palpably feel how hard it must be to hold all that sinuous stuff together. Astounding.

So tonight I pulled out my seldom-played 3-CD set of Debussy’s Complete Chamber Music (Delos D235914). These are the box-sets you get for free from your “record club” when you’ve earned a bunch of “points” but no longer really want anything they have to offer. Back in the day.

Well, the CD I happened upon is one I’d never heard before. (In general, I don’t think that much of Debussy. Can you tell?) The entire CD contains music for piano four-hands. Great stuff!

The lesson being—never give up. Never shut the door…and never quit the record club.


niceBrice said...

How is that the English Channel is all that separates a land which has produced most of the all-time great rock bands from a country which has given us only a handful of really good ones? Gong, Catherine Ribeiro + Alpes, Gojira, Alcest... Magma and Eskaton are sort of rock bands... Daft Punk is a stretch... and I had to rake my brain just for those!

Michel said...

Thanks for telling me about the Parker Quartet. I looked them up on youtube and they were really excellent!