What are you listening to? Sam Davies on rioting and Debussy

“To listen to music is a rare and rewarding pleasure, one that transforms the everyday just by pressing the play button. What are you listening to?” Richard King

In the final post of our blog series What are you listening to? Sam Davies recounts his discovery of the revelation that is Debussy’s Jeux in a second record store.

Talking to a friend’s father once about the subject of rock’n’roll, he shrugged and said, ‘It’s alright I suppose. But The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky… There was a riot when that premiered. Now that’s excitement.’

And he’s got a point. I was already onto Stravinsky at the time, and not just his fellow modernist pioneers (Schoenberg, Varese, etc) but the whole experimental tradition, all the way up to American minimalism. Partly this was via the easy entrypoint of Naxos and their budget CD series. But I’d also discovered that keeping an eye out for avant garde and experimental classical vinyl in charity shops could seriously pay off. This stuff seems to sit, unloved, unnoticed and just plain under the radar of the typical crate-digging charity trawler, who might know their X from Y but not their Takemitsu from their Tchaikovsky . So over the years I’ve quietly amassed a good shelf of this stuff for mostly a quid or two a time.

Last year I was in a branch of [REDACTED – I must protect my sources] in [REDACTED – ditto], doing my standard high-speed shuffle through the usual classical clutter (Brahms, Beethoven, and Bruckner – always so much Bruckner, Bruckner must’ve been huge in the old days…), and, while dreaming as usual of hitting a deep seam of Xenakis LPs, when an interesting B finally popped up, in large capitals: BOULEZ. The piano music by Boulez which I’d previously checked out sounded like someone bending a keyboard into impossible M C Escher like shapes: zigzags within zigzags forming impossible and unsustainable angles. Altogether brain-frying. This was Boulez as conductor not composer – three Debussy pieces, one of which, Jeux, I’d never heard of. Still, straight in the bag.

Dropping the needle on Jeux later that day, headphones on, I froze. It was soft, eerie, sad, playful – a full orchestra playing with the chamber-like intimacy of a quartet. And then I read the sleevenotes, and realized the music was just the half of it.

Debussy called Jeux his ‘poème dansé’. It was commissioned by Russian impresario Diaghilev, and choroegraphed by Nijinsky. In other words, Jeux, like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was a Ballets Russe production, and had its premiere just two weeks before the Rite on 15 May 1913, in Paris. After a muted response, The Rite’s riots blew it out of the water. Nijinsky’s subsequent mental breakdown meant that it was rarely revived, and while The Rite’s hundredth birthday was widely celebrated last year, not a single party was thrown for Jeux.

Jeux might as well have been cursed. Yet of the two Jeux, it seems to me, is comfortably the more modern. The Rite is atavistic: it digs down into primitive folk rituals to fire up the raw power of its rhythms. It’s a throwback. Now consider Jeux and its scenario, devised by Diaghilev:

“The scene is a garden at dusk; a tennis ball has been lost; a boy and two girls are searching for it. The artificial light of the large electric lamps shedding fantastic rays about them suggests the idea of childish games: they play hide and seek, they try to catch one another, they quarrel, they sulk without cause. The night is warm, the sky is bathed in pale light; they embrace. But the spell is broken by another tennis ball thrown in mischievously by an unknown hand. Surprised and alarmed, the boy and girls disappear into the nocturnal depths of the garden.”

A garden, tennis, electric light, a menage a trois: this is instantly more contemporary than The Rite. It was even the first ballet danced in modern clothes. Its sexual politics disturbed and disgusted Debussy – but also Nijinsky, who refused to work with Diaghilev’s original idea that the love triangle be all male. Nijinsky, obviously channeling J G Ballard at this point, wanted to work in a plane crash; he didn’t get his way.

Musically too though Jeux is quietly, mischievously extraordinary. One musicologist claims it changes its rhythm every two bars. Which means Debussy beat Autechre, by some 90-odd years, to the idea behind their Repetitive Beats EP (which famously featured non-repetitive beats to flick the Vs at the anti-rave Criminal Justice Bill of the time).

But this restless turnover of ideas is there in the melodies too. In his sleevenotes Boulez writes that Jeux is ‘based on the notion of irreversible movement; to hear it, one only has to submit to its development, for the constant evolution of the thematic ideas thrust aside all symmetry in the architecture [. . .] Jeux marks the advent of a musical form which instantly renewing itself, involves a no less instantaneous mode of listening.’ In other words: start over with every bar, forget whatever just happened, keep faithful to the moment. With its ‘fleeting, feline solutions’, as Boulez calls them, Jeux is foreshadowing an entire mode of improvised music that blossomed in the 1960s with free jazz, Derek Bailey, AMM.

Normally an overload of ideas in a piece suggests commitment – a composer overdelivering on a commission he adores. But Debussy was so ambivalent about Jeux and so uneasy about its subject, that Diaghilev had to double his fee to ensure that he completed work on the score. So I wonder whether, far from being the inspired product of a single consistent vision, Jeux was a cobbled together patchwork. A portmanteau piece, its ideas constantly changing because its a collage of sketches and scraps. ‘A Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ or ‘A Day in The Life’.

And what would be wrong with that? Nothing. But I don’t quite believe Debussy’s moans about Jeux. Writing to his friend Andre Caplet that he wanted to achieve ‘that orchestral colour which seems to be lit from behind, of which there are such wonderful examples in [Wagner’s] Parsifal.’ Chords that seem to glow as if lit from behind! I’ve thought about this for a long time, and I’d struggle to think of a phrase that better describes much of the music I love. And I don’t think Debussy would gone to the trouble of finding that colour for any old piece. Who says, ‘Will this do?’ as they hand over music in which light seems to gleam from between its very strings and sinews?

Read other posts in the What are you listening to? series

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