As a doctoral candidate at Eastman School of Music, where I am finishing up my terminal degree, I am required to present a lecture recital as a culmination of my studies at the school. They asked us to come up with something original, something that shows creativity, and a thorough research into a topic that can be based on pedagogy, performance, music theory, or musicology.
As I am trying to find what is it that I'm passionate about for me to talk for 30 mins or so, something comes up to mind. As an Indonesian musician, I am situated in a unique position to present the idea of identity. Who am I? As a musician and as a person? What is it that I have to say? And why is it important for me to say these things?
Born, raised, and now living in a global world, everything seems to blend together, and yet there are a lot of segregations that happens in life. I want to do music because I think this language is something that is universal, something that is neither mine nor yours, but ours. Debussy and Sukarlan exemplifies this, and I hope that in some little ways, art, and especially music, will bring people together. There is no such thing as an exclusive music.
Below is a transcript (well, technically my script) of the lecture recital.
Videos of the lecture recital can be found here!
Debussy's Images, book II and Ananda Sukarlan's Rapsodia Nusantara:
Cultural Mirroring, Adaptation, and Integration in Art Music
Hello, and welcome to this lecture recital.
I want to start by saying that as an Indonesian pianist, it has always been fascinating to listen to how gamelan or other Indonesian traditional music influenced Western composers, but yet there is not much said concerning Indonesian art music, regardless of its own identity or how it fits within the bigger scheme of art music in general. Cultural influences, especially the idea of exoticism in western art music, are common. But what of the Western influence in Eastern art music? How far does the influence carry, and what are its musical implications? Two composers, Claude Debussy and Ananda Sukarlan, are remarkable examples of such exchange, adaptation and integration of an outside culture into musical output. Through this lecture recital, focusing on piano repertoire, I will try to identify and analyze the connection between Western and Eastern cultural influence in art music, including how prevalent the influence is and how it affects the musical aesthetic of these two composers by exploring Debussy’s Images, book II and a couple of Sukarlan’s Rapsodia Nusantara.
I would like to start the discussion of this cultural mirroring and influences with Debussy. Debussy’s fascination with the East is well-known, particularly in his Pagodes (the first piece of Estampes), but how prevalent is the influence? And how does it affect Debussy’s musical aesthetic?
Let’s begin with a deeper look into Images. In the second book of Images for piano, written in 1907, Debussy was inspired by musical elements of the East. It consists of three separate pieces: Cloches à travers les feuilles (with rhythmic allusion to Indonesian gamelan), Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut (“tonality” resembling that of Indian Raga, and possibly many other allusion to various cultures), and Poissons d'or (in reference to the Koi in Japanese paintings). The idea of exoticism, defined by Bellman as “the borrowing or use of musical materials that evoke distant locales or alien frames of reference. . . . a matter of compositional craft, of making the notes do something different from what they usually do,” can be applied to Images in various levels of integration.
This definition, however, can be limiting in our perspective of exotic music, which prompts us to consider Ralph Locke’s definition of musical exoticism as “the process of evoking in or through music - whether the latter is “exotic-sounding” or not - a place, people, or social milieu that is not entirely imaginary and that differs profoundly from the “home” country or culture in attitudes, customs, and morals. More precisely, it is the process of evoking a place (people, social milieu) that is perceived as different from home by the people making and receiving the exoticist cultural product.” Locke’s definition helps us open a world of possibility of how exoticism might be perceived in a musical context: Does the music have to sound exotic - that is, using exotic style - or can exoticism happen both with and without exotic style? This integration of musical language and exoticism is what he calls the “Full-Context” paradigm of exoticism, where the work that is being analyzed does not have to “display stylistic oddity at all.” It is worth mentioning Adorno’s 1928 “Schubert” article (translated by Dunsby and Perrey), where Adorno posed an idea of exoticism in Schubert’s music evoking a culture which never in fact existed, where “transcendental distance became directly accessible to him.” Schubert himself functioned in a “language (that is) a dialect, but it is a dialect from nowhere. It has the flavor of the native, yet there is no such place, only a memory.”
Using Ralph Locke’s notion of “exoticism with and without exotic style”, we can try to focus on how Debussy incorporated the exotic elements, but at the same time translating it into a French aesthetic. Eastern elements, both in musical characteristics and idea of symbolism, can be traced in the Images, but how exotic is this music, technically?
The first piece, “Bells through the Leaves,” is known to have been inspired by Indonesian gamelan. Looking from a historical perspective, Debussy was introduced and became infatuated with the Javanese gamelan that he saw in the 1899 International Exhibition in Paris. In 1913, he wrote, “There was once, and there is still, despite the evils of civilisation, a race of delightful people who learnt music as easily as we learn to breathe. Their academy is the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, thousands of tiny sounds which they listen to attentively without ever consulting arbitrary treatises.” Debussy didn’t specifically talk about Images when he wrote this, but we can see his infatuation with the elements of the gamelan, and how it functions within society. Gamelan is a communal activity and provides a sense of social and cultural obligations in Indonesia, both in Java and Bali. Both religious and cultural ceremonies would employ the use of gamelan, and its function is very much integrated within the society.
Even though “Bells Through the Leaves” can be easily connected to the influence of gamelan, there is another possibility of how this piece could be understood, or thought of. Louis Laloy wrote a letter to Debussy about the time Debussy was composing this piece. He wrote about the sound of the church bells on All Saints’ Day in French villages and also the custom “between vespers and the mass for the dead, when the bells toll from village to village, across the golden woods in the quiet of the evening.” Whether or not this piece is directly or indirectly influenced by either or both of these influences, we can only make assumption, but a thorough look into the music could be enlightening.
Many aspects of the music could support these possible influences quite clearly. In terms of texture, Cloches is evocative of the multiple layers of sound that characterize gamelan music. Gamelan texture is constructed by the stacking of rhythmically subdivided levels of sound, with each layer played by different instrument that functions within a cycle. Gamelan is formed with combination of various instruments in register and timbre, with the gong as the lowest sounding instrument. The gong keeps the cycle, while other instruments build upon it, with variations on rhythmic complexity, tunes, as well as harmonies. In the first few measures of Cloches, we can see how layers of sound are build upon different paces of rhythm, variety of register, and also duration. The specific articulations that Debussy inscribes show us the details of which he conceptualized the different layers of sound, which will need to be carefully executed in performance. Accents, tenuto, marcato, and staccato markings within or not within a slur must be observed carefully, with consideration of note length, the conception and execution of sound colors and pedalling as well.
In terms of tonality, Debussy combined various scales - whole-tone, chromatic, diatonic, pentatonic and octatonic - which create a rich contrast (and also blend) to the overall harmonic structure and resonance in the piano. Evocative of gamelan’s heterophonic texture, Cloches and later on, Et la lune, shows Debussy’s significant effort to create similar texture in Western art music, which later on is taken by other composers such as Boulez, Messiaen, and Britten. Cloches, however, is written in a traditional ternary form, with synthesis in tonality, rhythmic motives, and thematic materials at the return, which lends a sense of familiarity despite the exotic influences.
Debussy never specifically identify the influence of gamelan in Cloches, or Laloy’s letter’s influence, for that matter. However, the notion of certain images being evoked in the music would also suggest the possibilities of prevailing influences. “Bells through the leaves” suggests a hearing outside, where nature and music become intertwined, just as nature and visual art were becoming to integrally entwined among contemporaneous impressionist painters. Gamelan, being a metal instrument that is struck with a mallet has a similar qualities to bells, in terms of resonance and timbre. As a communal activity that provides a sense of social and cultural obligations in Indonesia (both in Java and Bali), gamelan is usually played outside, where the music is interacting with nature that is all around. Both religious and cultural ceremonies would employ the use of the instrument, and its function is very much integrated within the society. This image, however, can also be easily replaced by Laloy’s description of bells ringing through French villages, which is also tied to religious and cultural aspect of life. The duality of which we can think of the images portrayed is very much reflected in the music, where one could not say for certain whether Cloches is influenced by the East or the French. As Roberts puts it, “the bells of the Jura … can only have merged with the potent memory of the gamelan.” Locke’s idea of submerged exoticism, defined as a “tendency for general musical style to incorporate distinctive scales, harmonies, orchestral colors, and other features that had previously been associated with exotic realms” can be applied here. Similar claim could also be made for Ravel’s La Vallée des Cloches (The Valley of Bells) from Miroirs, which written essentially during the same time. The ambiguity of the piece and the juxtapositions of elements do not make the image or the music less powerful, it just gives more possibilities of how one could interpret Cloches.
While influences in Cloches might be easily determined, it is the complete opposite with Et la lune. The title, “And the moon sets over the temple that was” (as translated by Roberts), already presents an enigma by the use of vocabulary, syntax, and grammar. The many possible interpretations of the title, however, could be related to Debussy’s fascination with symbolism, as Mallarmé puts it, “To name an object is to suppress three-quarters of the pleasure of a poem … to suggest, herein lies the dream.” Et la lune, then, suggests quite a number of possibilities. Boulez describes the piece as the “transmutation of oriental influences at the deepest level, a piece in which oriental concepts of time and sonority are clearly determined,” while Cortot’s commentary suggests “a place on which Time has set his hand, as the misty night falls on the dreamy silence of its ruins.”
The ambiguity of the title is reflected in the music, both in terms of identifying exotic influences and standard musical elements such as tonality, rhythmic materials, and texture. Howat argues that there are elements of Indian music presented in Et la lune, but unfortunately it is not quite as easy to pinpoint. Juxtapositions of various elements and influences - Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and even some allusion to gamelan as well - permeates throughout this piece. The oriental associations, with the idea of a temple (reminiscence of Pagodes, although not quite as explicitly stated), is further emphasized by Laloy, the dedicatee of this piece, who defines the title as “in Chinese style.” The chant-like melodic idea in Et la lune can be related to a fragment titled ‘Bouddha’ in one of Debussy’s sketchbook around 1907-08, which was intended for Siddharta, Victor Segalen’s ‘Buddhist drama.’ This fragment of a melody in Et la lune, clearly, in Debussy’s mind, tries to emulate Indian musical feature. A similar melodic material is also found in Ravel’s ‘Le Paon’ from Histoires naturelles, characterized as a quasi-Chinese and uses similar ornamentation. However, Debussy’s real exposure to Indian music technically did not happen until a meeting with Indian Sufi Inayat Khan in May 1913, which brings us back to the idea of exotic influences in Et la lune. Is it Indian, or is it what Debussy thought as what might be Indian? And is Indian the only influence that we can find in Et la lune, or is there any other allusion to other cultural influences? As ambiguous as it is, Et la lune displays verbal cues from the composer, and that chant-like melody that is presented in the music becomes a musical allusions to the context of what the title suggests. The influence of the exotic on Et la lune, while not being as musically obvious and contributing little to our understanding of the piece, certainly brings a pictorial sense to mind, especially when combined with the suggestive title.
The notion of dreams, a suggestion of something that is never quite defined as portrayed by the title, creates a conundrum in terms of performance. How can a performance “suggest” something? Isn’t every performance technically a suggestion, as one performer’s interpretation could be different from others? In Et la lune, this idea of suggestive images could be interpreted as vagueness of sound, as if the sound comes from far away, distorted, and quite unclear. Debussy’s use of chromaticism and added notes in the beginning of the piece adds to this ambiguity of sound, tonality, and resonance, as if the overtones are so complex that we can’t have a perfect fifth sonority - something that we can hold onto in terms of tonal function. Dynamic markings that never goes anywhere louder than a piano conveys the notion of dream-like state to a new level, as if the listeners are not quite sure whether or not they hear the music. Of course, decibel level is not the only concern in terms of performance, but also the use of color and how much focus of the sound should be displayed, where clarity is not what one would want to portray in this music.
The quest to establish whether exoticism permeates in this piece then becomes more than just identifying the musical attributes that contributes to the wholeness of the piece. Unlike Cloches, Et la lune‘s exoticism is built from more than just one facet of the music. Locke’s idea of “exoticism with and without exotic style” comes back, with Et la lune as a representation of both. The dichotomy and ambiguity of how these elements work together, the subtle shift from one tonality to the others and the use of sonority define its identity. Exoticism, in this case, is presented as a nuance, both influenced by the musical and non-musical features in such a way that is inseparable, where one could not exist without the other.
The “Goldfish,” pushing the boundaries even more than Cloches and Et la lune, brings us even further away in the realm of exoticism, since it is written almost entirely without any exotic style. Poissons d’or was said to have been inspired by a “small Japanese-lacquer wooden panel, an exotic and beautiful creation depicting two gold-colored fish against a jet-black background” that Debussy owned. The details in the painting, from the “exultant and sensual motion of the fish,” to the “delicately curved lines and patterns of flowing, golden seaweed,” conveys a sense of “refinement of this modest piece of visual art, its breath of rich exoticism overlying an inherent simplicity,” which corresponds with Debussy’s general aesthetic. Tracing the elements of exoticism in Poissons, however, inevitably involves a degree of speculations.
In terms of tonality, texture, melodic quality, or rhythm, there is nothing quite exotic, and yet the idea of exoticism is clearly conveyed by the image evoked by the title. An allusion to jazz influence could be identified in the middle of the piece, especially since Debussy was at the same time also working on Children’s Corner (written in 1906-08, with the last movement written as a cakewalk). The improvisatory character of jazz, the rhythm flexibility, as well as the use of harmonic progression could be an element of exoticism in musical sense, but it has no relation to the Japanese Koi evoked in the title. This juxtaposition of influences elicit quite a different perspective of exoticism than the previous two pieces of Images.
Poissons, then, could be considered as the most ‘traditional’ out of the three. It provides the greatest clarity in terms of musical elements, yet is the most puzzling in trying to determine the connection between the music and the extramusical detail. How exotic is this music, actually? And is it enough to call it exotic because of a title that might be inspired by a Japanese painting?
This piece, more than anything else, is a virtuosic piece that not only requires high technical proficiency, but also the combination of extreme opposites in means of expression, from the nuances of soft passages to the powerful climax utilizing the full resonance of the instrument. Debussy’s idea of virtuosity, however, is not comparable and should not be compared to his predecessors in the Romantic era, as Poissons “serve(s) an exultant humor and joie de vivre far removed from Romantic angst.” Not that Debussy didn’t write virtuosic pieces. L’isle joyeuse, for example, would be one of Debussy’s output that exemplify the kind of Romantic virtuosity that we know he had acquired from his years in Paris Conservatory. As an accomplished pianist himself, Debussy’s virtuosity (both Romantic and otherwise) and distinctive ‘great pianist’ sound has been captured in the many piano rolls, as documented by Howat. However, this particular non-Romantic virtuosity and attitude towards pianism is obviously characterized by Debussy’s own presence at the piano, with his compositions for the instrument “reveal an understanding of the instrument second to none, and many who heard him play towards the end of his life marveled at the quality of sound he could produce.” Freedom, grace, elegance, simplicity, the immaterial. These five, according to Dumesnil’s memoir and its recollection of the insightful words of Debussy, need to be “searched for and brought to life behind the notes and instruction on the printed pages.” But Roberts argue, that imagination is not enough for Poissons, where one needs the “nerve of the virtuoso, the willingness … to take risks, to respond to the audacity of the music and to its air of improvisatory freedom. … above all to recognize the … humor.”
Looking at the dedicatee, Ricardo Viñes, who is a Spanish virtuoso pianist who premiered much of French and Spanish pieces (including Ravel’s notorious Scarbo), an assumption could be made about Debussy’s initial intention for the piece. To have a piece played by Viñes is to declare a certain flair of virtuosity, and so, pianism of transcendental kind can definitely be thought of as one of the many inspirations for Poissons.
Musically direct, organic and logical, Poissons presents a different type of ambiguity in terms of its association between the title, the influence, the music, and the evoked imagery. The gracefulness of the melodic idea paired with an active accompaniment, almost to the point of aggression, creates a musical language that is both contrasting but yet blend well together. Just like the image of Kois in a pond gives a sense of serenity, their physical motion in order to swim is vigorous. The duality of the same imagery, presented from two different perspective becomes the center in Poissons, just like the idea of exoticism to be presented with or without exotic style. Is Poissons exotic, then? The answer is a resounding yes, even though the exoticism that is portrayed lies more in the ideas conveyed instead of in the music. The presentation of something that is familiar and yet “evoke distant locales” is translated into the duality of stillness and agitation, just like the swimming Kois in the pond.
Now that we have seen exotic influences in three different settings, we can shift gears and see how this exotic culture could be mirrored in from the Eastern perspective.
Ananda Sukarlan is an Indonesian composer and pianist who was born and raised in Jakarta, studied in the Netherlands and resides in Spain. His Rapsodia Nusantara(s), or ‘Rhapsody of the Archipelago,’ are a collection of (mostly virtuosic) pieces written for solo piano and each based on a particular folk tune (or tunes, in some cases). These pieces were inspired by Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, not least in the sense that they carry in them some sense of national identity. As much as the raw material is Indonesian, they are clearly influenced by the Western piano tradition. As a Western trained classical pianist, Sukarlan employs various common classical, romantic, and some impressionistic compositional approaches.
Two Rapsodia Nusantaras will be presented in this lecture recital to further emphasize the idea of cultural mirroring and its adaptation and integration into Sukarlan’s personal musical language and aesthetic, while still maintaining the integrity of both Indonesian and Western identities. Starting with the 10th Rapsodia Nusantara, we can see Sukarlan’s attempt to transcribe the sound of gamelan as directly to piano as possible. Inspired by the sound of the instruments, and based on a Balinese folk tune, Janger, this 10th Rhapsody focuses on the idea of virtuosity, but yet stays within the same aesthetic of its inspiration. Similar to Cloches, this piece makes use of the idea of subdivision and layers of sound, evocative of gamelan’s heterophonic texture, but as to emulate the gamelan faithfully, Sukarlan uses a version of pelog (a pentatonic scale that uses scale degrees 13457) throughout the whole piece. Pianistic tendencies occur everywhere in this piece, and it is clearly written with a western pianism in mind. The composer himself, when asked about this, said that the idea of counterpoint is clearly seen in this composition, and that the various layers (especially towards the end with the tremolo in the lower voice of the right hand) reminds him of the third movement of the Waldstein sonata, even if it’s just in the technical execution. It is also worth mentioning that Sukarlan uses similar writing style and effects to Debussy’s chant passage in Et la lune, evocative of bells from afar. In a way, exoticism that is displayed in this piece is very much Locke’s exoticism without exotic style, in that Sukarlan is trying to completely emulate the traditional music in a non-traditional instrument. But of course we can argue that the use of a western instrument already evokes “distant locales” and that these music wouldn’t be played in this instrument, or in this setting, for example.
Rapsodia Nusantara no. 8, however, couldn’t be more different. It is a clear example of exoticism where it employs the exotic style almost exclusively. Then again, it seems quite ironic to me that what I call exotic style in this particular piece is common practice period harmonic progressions, Western formal structure, and Western pianism techniques. This rhapsody is based on a folk tune from the province of North Sulawesi, O Inani Keke. The opening passage actually recalls the beginning of one of the early twentieth-century’s most influential piano sonatas, written by Alban Berg, published in 1910, which in my mind is quite an appropriate opening to establish the idea of structure and form right away (just as German composers usually do….), even though technically this Rhapsody is not written in a sonata form, but as a theme and variations. Exemplifying the Western pianistic tradition in terms of technique, harmony, and form, it is one of the clearest examples of Western influence in Indonesian art music. His musical aesthetic and language, however, is quite idiosyncratic and that the music sometimes moves in an unexpected manner. Looking through the different variations, we can see the influence of counterpoint, and also Lisztian passages with arpeggios and octaves across the keyboard, and the first variation, as Sukarlan says, is “inspired by the second movement of Appassionata, although it doesn’t stay like that for very long.”
Again, we ask what is the balance in this music between the Indonesian and the Western. Does incorporation, assimilation and integration of another culture (or in this case, mostly the tradition of pianism) change how we are able to and perhaps should perceive this music? The answer, in my opinion, is yes. It is important for us as interpreters to realize how big a task we are given to try to understand what this music is built upon, whether directly or indirectly. It happens in this case, that what the music is built upon is the idea of cultural mirroring between the East and West. Just as Images gives us a variety in which exoticism is understood, absorbed, and depicted in various ways and degrees of influence, so does Sukarlan’s pieces, but from the other side. The depth of which the exotic style permeates these pieces goes from the surface level to full integration, and later on is also contextualized within the composers’ own aesthetics and compositional styles. Does this all make this music Western, or Eastern, or both? I would like to think that each of them still maintains their own integrity, but it is worth acknowledging the Western influence in Indonesian art music, just as we recognize and acknowledge Eastern influence in Debussy’s music, with or without exotic style.
With the presence of this global exchange, it is worthwhile to think about how far these influences carry and how culture, art, and music can influence people significantly. Perhaps we can think of it as a tribute, as we approach the centenary of Debussy’s death in 1918, to his extraordinary modernistic vision that he was addressing creative issues in the early twentieth century that are clearly still alive in our own times in a country and culture 7,000 miles from Paris.