"Do you not remember the Javanese music, able to express every shade of meaning, even the unnameable, and which makes our tonic and dominant seem no more than empty phantoms for the use of naughty children?"
-Claude Debussy, letter to Pierre Louys, 1895
"Debussy is never vague."
-Roger Sessions, as quoted by Andrew Imbrie
"The day when Claude Debussy heard Javanese music performed at the Paris Exhibition of 1889 seems particularly symbolic. From that point - in my view the beginning of the musical twentieth century - accelarating communications and cultural confrontations became a focal point of musical expression."
-David Toop, Ocean of Sound
"It could be argued that Debussy's best music shows no influence of Javanese gamelan at all."
-Neil Sorrell, A Guide to the Gamelan
What did Debussy learn from the gamelan? His brief writings on the subject address alternatives to the tonic/dominant system and to post-Renaissance counterpoint, and advocate a music "which is as natural as breathing," learned from "the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind among the leaves and the thousand sounds of nature." The above of course being a good description of his own music, if not that of the Javanese. As with many great artistic encounters with the other (Picasso and African sculpture, Ali Farka Toure and the blues), Debussy heard what he needed to hear, projected his own meanings onto it, and went on with his business, which at least in part was to address the esthetic concerns of his own society.
The structural devices in Debussy's music that relate to gamelan - modal shifts, heterophony, colotomic markers - can in this light be heard not as imitation, pastiche, or homage, but rather as probing and wistful cultural critiques. By positing tonality and modality as viable alternatives within a single piece, Debussy effectively undermines the entire edifice of western classical music. As we all know, tonality is global, and the dominant chord has to dominate. But a whole-tone scale has six equal steps, no hierarchies, and no fifth degree - no dominant! Incidentally, there are no whole-tone scales in Javanese music, or anywhere else in southeast Asia.
As for counterpoint and heterophony, a most beautiful example of this is the gadhon chamber music of central Java (check out Chamber Music of Central Java on the King World Music Library series). Here the balungan core melody of the larger ensembles is absent, leaving only the gentle intricacies of the ornamental instruments, all improvising softly around a hidden "inner melody" which is never revealed. While all adhere to strict rules of form, mode, rhythmic subdivision, and vertical relationships, each instrument also plays in a highly evolved, idiomatic style particular only to itself. Proponents will insist that the rebab fiddle is the leader, but the instrument is often barely audible to the listener, so one can focus attention on any layer of the music - or on the wash and interplay of the whole - with equal satisfaction and interest.
Dreams of a Dominant Culture is dedicated to Michael Gordon.
Commissioned by the Boston Musica Viva, Richard Pittman, director