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Distant Voices: Piano Music of Debussy and Gao Ping - Liner Notes

The opportunity to create the first YEG Classical piano album, exploiting the possibilities of the new CFX Concert grand and the latest in Disklavier technology, immediately brought Debussy to my mind. Debussy’s music is a touchstone in my life, representing all of the revelations and transformations that came to me when I first went to live in France. The anecdote told by the great French pianist Alfred Cortot sums it up; after playing some of Debussy’s work for the composer’s young daughter, her flatly stated appraisal was, “Papa écoutait davantage” [Papa listened more.] Discovering Debussy was my discovery of truly listening to the piano, and through that to the music itself. Not only did “listening more” permeate Debussy’s own playing, it certainly formed the core of his composing. The challenge is how to configure the simple process of creating sound on the piano – hammers hitting strings – into an infinite number of nuances, colors, dynamics. It requires an attention to detail that can only be hinted at by the score and which is finally guided by the imagination and the ear. Debussy searched for an acoustic experience totally abstracted from the piano and the “classic” piano sound. I believe he thought of it like a synthesizer before electricity. No other instrument, even through today, could have provided Debussy with what is inherent to the piano: the ability to play more than one note at a time, controlling the dynamics and color of each of those note individually, and further diversifying them with the use of the pedals, and all controlled by a single individual in real time. Debussy exploited the piano like no composer before him, and few since. Debussy’s music is popularly labeled “Impressionist,” but he himself preferred the term “Realist.” But what did he intend by that term? In visual art, “realism” can refer to the raw honesty in selecting subject matter as well as the attention to the detail of how that subject is depicted. Realism can also lead to pointillism, where what one first thinks is real turns out to contain multiple smaller sets, with a deepening of that process to finally empower the specks and lines of paint themselves with the bulk of interest and meaning. While the picturesque titles given by Debussy suggest an impressionist stilllife, the image breaks down into smaller groups, divided by incoherent juxtapositions of harmonies and rhythms. Melodies are not continuous; they appear in short bursts that repeat and evolve. Finally, the interest settles not even on the phrase or the measure, but rather in the vertical chord itself, and even on individual notes within the chord. The “realism” of Debussy finally focuses not on the reality of the title but on the reality of sound itself. Debussy’s style varied over the three plus decades of his career. His esthetic began with a reaction against Wagner’s storms, in simple pieces such as Rêverie and the Suite Bergamasque. Then a life-changing encounter for Debussy occurred in the late 1800s: hearing the Indonesian Gamelan players at the Exposition Universelle. His sense of rhythm, harmony and melody were forever changed. The horizons of his field of experimentation went global, even as his domestic life became more Parisian. A very direct result of this influence is heard in Pagodes, but all of his music began incorporating complex rhythmic layerings and disruptions, non-Western scales and particularly the use of chords for their color rather than for their role in a longer progression. Debussy fractured the harmonic language of 19th century Europe. Images I & II, Estampes and later the Préludes and Etudes, defy their coquette, sitting room titles and visual references, astracting the listener from real-life representations. Debussy is inviting us to “écouter davantage.” The music of Gao Ping, one of the most prominent of the “Sixth Generation” of Chinese composers in the Western tradition, clearly displays his love of the piano and his admiration for the music of the Golden Era of the piano, with Debussy at the heart of that era. At the same time, his roots in Szechuan province are forever present, in the turn of the phrase or the gestures of Szechuan theatrical opera. The three pieces of Distant Voices draw material directly from his Chinese background, but his abstract treatment creates what could be considered a true successor to Debussy, an Images III. Three other pieces on this album introduce a new technique for the pianist, and in fact proposes a new genre: music for Vocalizing Pianist. Inspired by Glenn Gould’s enthusiastic vocalizations that can easily be heard on his recordings, Gao Ping expands the repertoire of the vocalizations beyond humming and singing, to include whisting, breathing, yelling and slapping. When listening to Concealed Voices, or the two Soviet Love Songs, the virgin listener may at first wonder who in the audience is being so rude as to sing along with the pianist, but soon the intricately balanced interactions between vocalization and pianotization make it clear that it is none other than the pianist himself. But the novelty quickly fades into naturalness, as the interplay between piano and pianist grows. When I first met Gao Ping, hearing him perform pieces for Vocalizing Pianist, I suddenly became more attuned to the pianist’s role in any performance, and began to hear the groans and stomps of the performer as a possible enhancement of the live musical experience. In a similar way, John Cage’s 4’33” makes the audience more aware of the sounds in their environment. And this is why Gao Ping is the natural companion to Debussy on this album; he also makes us “écouter davantage.”


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