Debussy’s music has a certain effect on people—a quiet way of enveloping the listener in its chromatic waves and cloudy washes of color. It’s a captivation that is difficult to put into words exactly; it’s almost as though his music softens the surrounding world and transports its listener into a hazy memory.
New York-based pianist and performance artist Kathleen Supové explores our collective fascination with Debussy in her newest album, The Debussy Effect. No stranger to new music, Supové has carved out a name for herself in New York and far beyond as an artist who is continuously pushing the boundaries of creation, composition, and even costume in classical music.
Perhaps best known for her performing enterprise the Exploding Piano, Supové’s performances consistently feature cutting-edge new music paired with electronics, video, costumes and theatrical elements, visuals, speaking, and even choreography. The Debussy Effect, though perhaps more introspective and impressionistic in nature, boasts every bit as much personality.
For this two-disc album Supové enlisted the talents of six composers to create brand new works inspired by Debussy and written for solo piano or piano with electronics. The resulting music spans the gamut from Gamelan to ragtime, bowed piano to ambient atmospheres, musique concrète to sound paintings, a sprinkle of stride piano—and a whole lot of sparkling virtuosity.
The album opens with Joan La Barbara’s “Storefront Diva, A Dreamscape,” inspired not only by Debussy but also by journals of artist and sculptor Joseph Cornell. Scored for piano and sonic atmosphere, the piece unfolds like an oceanfront dream, the hazy piano melodies twinkling amidst a tangle of bells, breath, chirping birds, ocean waves, Tibetan cymbals, and surreal storm clouds. Short flurries of bowed and plucked piano string embellishments blend the raw timbres of the piano right into the natural world around it.
It’s followed by a more cinematic (but no less dreamlike) take on Debussy: Matt Marks’ “Dr. Gradus vs. Rev. Powell.” The piece is a duel, of sorts, between Debussy’s virtuosic “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” and the 1955 film noir The Night of the Hunter. Lofty piano melodies dance amidst patches of Debussy’s harmonies and time-stretched clips of Robert Mitchum with Lillian Gish singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”
Eric Kenneth Malcolm Clark’s “Layerings 3” evokes the living, breathing nature of Debussy’s works: the piece layers a number of different recordings of Supové performing and interpreting the piece in full—and never the same way twice. When superimposed on one another, these distinctive recordings blend into an entire kaleidoscope of sound, the piano melodies ringing and reverberating in ever-changing harmonies and rhythmic textures.
Randall Woolf’s “What Remains of a Rembrandt” explores the elusiveness of Debussy’s music—the way it floats dreamily from one idea to the next, drawing from sources as wide-ranging as Indonesian Gamelan, early jazz, and in this case, ambient electronica. Supové’s nimble fingers dance up and down the piano keyboard in gorgeous washes of sound which valiantly defy all traditional Western notions of structure and musical form.
An electroacoustic storm gathers in Annie Gosfield’s four-movement “Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind,” a piece which combines fragments of Debussy’s dramatic piano prelude “What the West Wind Saw” with musique concrète recordings of Hurricane Sandy, which struck New York while Gosfield was composing the work. The two sound sources are intertwined and electronically morphed, creating an eerie soundscape that oscillates between tumultuous winds and ghostly silences.
Daniel Felsenfeld’s “Cakewalking (Sorry Claude)” takes a more lighthearted approach: in three short movements he deconstructs Debussy’s famous Children’s Corner classic, “Golliwog’s Cakewalk,” and turns it into a brand new swirling, twirling jazz tune with cheeky references to the original.
The album draws to a close with Jacob Cooper’s “La plus que plus que lente,” a twinkling dreamscape which incorporates time-stretched fragments of Debussy’s dazzling waltz “La plus que lente.” Supové’s fingers glide effortlessly across the densely textured piano melodies, each note sparkling like a star amidst a glittering night sky.
In fact, the whole album glistens. Supové brings personality, precision, charisma, and boundless creativity to each work, crafting a distinctly 21st century dialogue with the unforgettable work of Debussy. Equally at home in the soothing, calming color washes as she is amidst the stormy, chromatic chaos, Supové pays tribute to Impressionist master while also exploring the furthest reaches of his musical influence.
The effect Debussy has on listeners is difficult to describe—but this pianist just may have put her finger on it.