DEBUSSY & Toshio HOSOKAWA: Point and Line –  Momo Kodama (p.) – ECM

DEBUSSY & Toshio HOSOKAWA: Point and Line –  Momo Kodama, piano – ECM 481-4738, 79:22, (3/17/17) ****½ :

Debussy Etudes in dialog with challenging avant-garde etudes by Toshio Hosokawa.

The deeper I delve into the music of Debussy, especially the piano and chamber music, the less I care for the term “Impressionism,” with its image of blurred edges and dentist office wall art. Nor do I care for the association of Debussy with Maurice Ravel on recordings or in textbooks. Debussy’s originality and genius are comparable to that of Chopin or Scarlatti. As for his paternity in music history, it is not at all clear. While Ravel opened at least one fruitful path to Jazz by way of his admirer, George Gershwin (there is a photograph of a young Gershwin looking over the shoulder of Ravel seated at the piano), Debussy’s influence is harder to trace. Perhaps he should be placed adjacent to the great experimenters of the mid-20th century, such as Messiaen and Ligeti, rather than stuffed in the same boat with Ravel, Faure and the like.

Manfred Eicher and Japanese pianist Momo Kodama have a more provocative idea, that the cosmos of Debussy can be explored to advantage by placing in juxtaposition with a major 21st century composer, Toshio Hosokawa, whose avant-garde style will certainly not “sweeten” Debussy, which may be what the conventional Ravel additive typically tries to achieve.

The project under review here is called Point and Line. The cover art is an apt representation of the abstract aesthetic of Hosokawa, chalk threads against a grey ground, with a central deviant squiggle which looks like a knot, the only thread to assert itself, for reasons mysterious.

The Etudes of Debussy alternate with those of Hosokawa, starting with Pour les arpeges composes. (The liner notes remind us that there is no special reason to play the Etudes in numerical order.) Momo Kodama plays the startling work convincingly, and by the end of this five minutes of supernal beauty and mystery we begin to doubt that any composer could challenge this colossus of pure musical invention. We are not surprised that Point and Line Etude II takes an indirect approach. Of melody, harmony and time signature, there is little evidence. Instead, we hear a loosely connected sequence of gestures, calligraphic strokes or chirpings of an insistent bird. These initially appear to gloss the cover art, but an unstable element, call it the assertive squiggle, begins to enlarge the musical scope from its minimalistic refinements. At the end, by way of heavy pedaling, large billows of sound, still pulseless and outside any recognizable harmonic idiom, arise at the other sonic extreme. It is very much the kind of thing that ECM has perfected, refined, clear, and spacious, and in this case, with a more reasonably dialed-down reverb, making for an even icier surface.

Our reception of Pour les quartes Etude III is affected, which is clearly the point of the dialogue. It is as if a special Japanese tint of blue has been added to the whole-tone scales. There is some fierceness to the playing, anticipating the next piece, a sharpening of the swords. Calligraphy, Haiku I line, dedicated to the pianist, arrives with a clang and a slash, as if the calligrapher has been given a machete. Dramatic pauses and vehement strokes make short work of a cryptic two minute Haiku. The subsequent Debussy Pour les sixtes brings us back to the pianistic world and back into winter sunlight.

The finest moment on the disc may well be Toshio Hosokawa’s 2 Lines Etude I. It is here that we finally see how well this purely abstract art can work. It is also the only title that makes obvious sense. There are, indeed, two lines that dance and play across a shifting dimension of time and tonality. It pays homage to Japanese visual arts at the same time that it seems to play with a Debussy aesthetic at its most refined.

Three especially strange Debussy Etudes follow, ranging from the troubled dreams of Pour les sonorites opposees etude to the zany Pour les tierces. By now, the interest is in the opposition to the unyielding works, which provoke an impatient wait for the next Hosokawa, oddly named Lied, Melody, also dedicated to the Ms. Kodama. Needless to say, there is no turning towards the human voice or melodic line; the title must be a riddle of some sort. Instead, the piece begins with great rumblings from the bass range. It feels like an evocation of a prebiotic world in which activity is of the volcanic or tectonic sort, with some mists and fumes cloaking the the geologic exertions. At five minutes, it evokes an epic and remains a difficult piece on several listenings.

The brainy parody of Czerny Cinq doigts follows, and it demonstrates, yet again, that Ms. Kodama has the requisite panache for the most demanding material. Pour les accords and pour les agreements move from dark to light, with characteristic whole tone effects in the latter, sounding alternately jazzy and acidulous. There is little repose in a recital that forces you to pay attention to one challenging design after another for nearly 80 minutes.  The dialog continues for five more pieces with the standout Etude V Anger the last of the Hosokawa set, a study that comes closest to notional musical representation. The listener may be struck with amazement that this music communicates so much without relying on the tonal or harmonic language, which even in all its subversions, still holds in the Debussy experiments.

This is bracing music to be sure, and the austerity of Hosokawa might be a challenge for some.  Altogether, it is more likely to improve your posture than to make your baby smarter.  It will certainly enlarge your horizons and understanding of just what a “Debussy influence” might look like. Heartily recommended.

—Fritz Balwit

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