” The blessed damozel leaned out / From the gold bar of Heaven.” Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s lines caught the attention of Claude Debussy in 1887, when the author was twenty-five. His setting of “The Blessed Damozel,” in the form of the orchestral cantata “La Damoiselle Élue,” is amongst his very first fully particular works, opening a door to a landscape of unearthly radiance. The prelude begins with a spare procession of separated consistencies: E small, D minor, C major, D small. The secret of C is the obvious house ground of the piece, but for some thirty bars we roam through numerous nearby tonalities and unclear zones, in a narcotizing haze.
Lastly, at the start of a passage significant “ Un peu animé,” or “A bit animated,” C major arrives– but it, too, feels new. The music might not be easier, with a lilting, rising-and-falling tune over block chords, but the addition of B’s and A’s to the harmony, flavorings tart and sweet, conjures the café and the cabaret, not to discuss jazz clubs and lounges that had yet to come into existence. Four bars later, Debussy falls back on a stark E-minor chord that has a vaguely medieval quality, as if this torch song of the future were being performed in a cold room in an ancient castle.
I ‘d heard “La Damoiselle Élue” several times throughout the years, however a recent rendition of the start, by the young Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson, made me listen anew. It appears on an album entitled “Debussy Rameau,” on the Deutsche Grammophon label. Ólafsson plays Debussy’s own transcription of the work for piano, and it sounds more modern than the orchestral variation, which has traces of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” The pianist’s technique is remarkably exact and clear, nearly translucent. He avoids ostentatiously rolled chords, misty articulation, blurry pedalling, and other atmospherics in which Debussy is too often smothered. There is a gentle sway to the rhythm, as though a stable breeze were pressing the music forward.
A lot more terrific is what happens next. Ólafsson segues from the prelude’s last, undetermined E octave to “Le Rappel des Oiseaux,” or “The Rally of the Birds,” a delicately swirling piece by Jean-Philippe Rameau. It was written more than a hundred and sixty years prior to “La Damoiselle Élue,” but there is little sense of a sharp stylistic break– an indication both of Rameau’s forward-thinking, freewheeling creativity and of Debussy’s intense consciousness of the French past. Ólafsson inevitably modernizes Rameau’s music by transferring it from the harpsichord, for which it was written, but the dancing delicacy of his touch avoids any advancement of Romantic heaviness.
Debussy as soon as stated of Rameau’s opera “Castor et Pollux” that it is “so personal in tone, so new in construction, that space and time are beat and Rameau appears to be a modern.” The same sense of historic collapse takes hold as one listens to Ólafsson’s recital, which changes backward and forward in between Rameau’s “Pièces de Clavecin”– among them “The Rally of the Birds”– and choices from Debussy: the Préludes, “Estampes,” “Children’s Corner,” “Images.” The idiomatic brilliance of the playing and the ingenuity of the programming combine to make “Debussy Rameau” among the most entrancing piano records of current years.
If Ólafsson’s disk provides a haven of otherworldly appeal, “Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus,” a 2018 work by the Australian author Liza Lim, faces us with the disastrous truth of the world as it is. The piece can be heard on a brand-new recording by Klangforum Wien, on Kairos. It is scored for twelve musicians– four winds, three brass, 3 strings, piano, percussion– and it is dominated by seething, roiling, destructive textures. At the same time, it echoes the fragmentary tunes of animal voices that have yet to be crushed by the anthropogenic apocalypse. The author cites Shakespeare’s Sonnet 65 in her program note: “How with this rage shall charm hold a plea?”
Lim likewise makes mention of the “vast conglomerations of plastic garbage” that drift in the oceans and disintegrate into toxic particles. She alludes to the terrible image of albatross chicks choking on plastic pieces that their mothers have mistaken for food. The extinction of types is likened to the passing away of cultural types: musical designs, languages, maps. In ball game, these processes of obliteration are mimicked in distortions of instrumental voices: coarse attacks, underblown and overblown notes, tongue slaps, glissandos, all manner of scraping and scrubbing noises in the percussion. Sonic eddies form, with a motif getting caught in a repeating pattern before breaking free. At one point, we hear the sound of crinkling cellophane. Birdlike calls occasionally call out, however they are restricted, desperate, strangulated.
This turbulent soundscape never feels unnecessarily assaultive or harsh– a homage to Lim’s keen ear for critical writing and to her flair for tracing musical gestures that have the fluid shape of natural life. She appears to embrace the perspective of the suffering earth, or perhaps of the lifeless items that we have actually ejected into the environment. “There is broken magnificence,” she writes, “and there are efforts to sing.” The phrase “damaged magnificence” captures the music’s enchanting impact. Ruin is ennobled without being prettified, aestheticized, pressed into the mental range.
The final area of the piece, “Dawn Chorus,” takes a turn toward the hopeful, though it is a low, muted sort of hope. It is a chorus not of birds but of fish– different “chatterbox” species that inhabit Australian reef and make grunting, hooting, and droning noises as the sun increases. To approximate these routine calls, Lim has her performers set aside their instruments and twirl wind wands (resonators with stretched elastic band) and operate waldteufels (little drums that make a croaking sound as a cord is drawn through the membrane). Brass tones emerge from those textures and construct to a magnificent roar prior to fading to a below ground murmur, with the contrabassoonist utilizing a tube extension to produce tones below the range of human hearing. As I listened to “Extinction Events” during the coronavirus shutdown, I was advised of how the long-suppressed music of nature has actually swelled in volume as humanity goes into momentary retreat.
During the weeks of quarantine, homebound music fans have actually been depending more than typical on recordings and streaming music The likes of Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube have doubtless profited from the rise, as have major labels and super star artists. The paltry royalties doled out by the streaming services will not save the working artists who have actually lost earnings throughout the shutdown. The virus has actually exposed more clearly than ever the vicious financial logic of the streaming period, which favors monopolistic combination and consumer benefit over an equitable circulation of revenues across the musical ecosystem.
A termination event is looming over the performing arts, and it requires a modification of practices. When we take music free of charge off the Web, we need to look for methods to offer concrete support to the people who made it. Sites such as Bandcamp have a far more generous method of sharing profits, though absolutely nothing equates to the impact of paying for a recording directly: the income from a single CD sale is comparable to that of more than a thousand streams. Streaming likewise exacts a hidden environmental toll, in the type of increased carbon emissions generated by electricity-consuming servers. If the carrying out arts are to retain a place in our society, we will have to reconsider how we value them– economically, culturally, politically. For now, we can attempt to repay artists for the tremendous library of music that we have been provided, or, more precisely, that we have actually taken. ♦