Peer reviewed journal - published through Research Catalogue, NMH portal

Debussy: Beyond Black and White

Stephen Emmerson and Bernard Lanskey



Some initial perspectives and ensuing questions

Debussy’s pianos

New instruments, new Nords, new possibilities

Chronological and geographical outline of the process

In Singapore

In Brisbane

In Oslo

Showing a few settings



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Claude Debussy, letter to Paul Dukas, February 1901:

To you I confess that I am no longer thinking in musical terms or at least not much even though I believe with all my heart that music remains for all time the finest means of expression we have. […] There is no need either for music to make people think. […] It would be enough if music could make people listen, despite themselves and despite their petty, mundane troubles […] It would be enough if they could no longer recognize their own grey, dull faces, if they felt that for a moment they had been dreaming of an imaginary country, that’s to say one that can’t be found on the map.[1]

Some initial perspectives and ensuing questions
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Naturally, the answer to the question “old instruments, yes or no?” is: it all depends! (Nikolaus Harnoncourt)[2]

At the heart of this experiment is a desire to bring to the foreground for interrogation the potential relationship between actual and imaginable sonorities in relation to some of Debussy’s key piano works. In an age where claims about the importance of respecting a composer’s actual sound-world have become ubiquitous, our argument may appear disingenuous but we believe that a case can be made for exploring possibilities which embrace current technological developments particularly in connection with digital sampling. Such first-principle interrogation – what might happen if a playful attitude is brought to mainstream contemporary performative practice? – lies at the heart of a number of both authors’ projects across the past decade.[3]

In exploring timbre in relation to Debussy’s music, this project raises several questions, although it neither attempts nor pretends to provide more than preliminary answers to them. Our primary aim was to investigate how our perception and experience of Debussy’s music for piano(s) may be altered by exploring its performance on a new instrument. Provisional answers may be suggested more through the performances, traces of which can be found here via recordings, than through this written text.

Beyond the case of Debussy, this project also raises some other broader background questions to consider. These include:

Such questions would undoubtedly provoke a range of subjective answers and opinions from different individuals but, in our digital age, where control of sound production is freed from the physical constraints of acoustic instruments, they are more pertinent than ever. Further specific questions relating to Debussy and his music would include:

Questions of this kind become particularly pertinent in the context of a recent paradigm shift in some quarters away from considering performance as primarily a reproduction of the work and towards its being a collaborative act between composer and performer, a view that encourages a more creative and indeed experimental approach (Cook, 2013; De Assis, 2018). Multiple sources could be cited that reflect this more recent set of approaches to performance, descriptions of which range from “Radical” (Leech-Wilkinson, 2016) and “Challenging” (Leech-Wilkinson, 2019[4]) to “Divergent” (D’Errico, 2018). Within the possible spectrum of provocative approaches, ours is relatively conservative. While we acknowledge the performer’s right to explore well beyond what we might understand to be the composer’s intentions, we are most attracted to possibilities that we believe nonetheless to be congruent with what we know of his aesthetic concerns and values. From our current perspective, interpretation can be most compelling when teasing out the borders between convention and innovation.

By exploring on recent instruments, our intention, of course, was not to replace traditional acoustic ones. Despite the many possibilities afforded by digital instruments, we do not wish to imply that they are preferable for this or any other repertoire. They are hardly likely to replace modern or historical pianos any time soon in public concerts and, presumably, will continue to be explored by only a small minority of classical pianists in the foreseeable future. Our intention, however, is to welcome and explore the different affordances and resistances that different instruments provide and to see whether this approach might illuminate new possibilities of what can be said through this music. As is articulated in one of the questions above, it has been fascinating for us to observe how our experience on the new instruments has affected our approach to sound when we return to playing on the familiar, traditional instrument. Suffice to say that, rather than breeding dissatisfaction with modern grand pianos, our experience on the digital instruments has led us to be more inclined than ever before to search for new imaginary colours on our familiar instruments. The project has implications not only for listeners, whom we hope may experience new perspectives within familiar repertoire, but for performers, whose relationship to their instrument is challenged and, ultimately expanded, through such a process.

Debussy’s pianos
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It is probably easier to locate a piano that meets the contemporary aesthetic requirements of Mozart’s music than a piano historically appropriate for Debussy. (Jonathan Harris)[5]

Whether Debussy had a particular ideal instrument in mind for his piano music is questionable. There are reported instances that suggest that he had the qualities of a particular instrument in mind for certain pieces at particular times. For example it has been reported that he wanted the specific sound of an Erard for the piano part to his song “Le Faune” where he wished the left-hand ostinato to evoke the sound of a tambourine.[6] Other evidence suggests that, unlike Ravel and Fauré, he seems to have had a general preference for Pleyels over Erards.[7] As Roy Howat has expressed it: “Debussy’s taste in pianos was happily polygamous.”[8] We know that he owned and played a range of pianos across his life. Among these, he is known to have expressed fondness for the pianos that were not French. It is claimed in online advertising today that Debussy’s favourite piano was a Bechstein upright[9]. As Francis Poulenc observed, “A composer is influenced by the sound of his piano. At least this is my firm belief. Debussy composed on a Bechstein, rich and creamy, Ravel on an old Erard, dry as a guitar”.[10]

Be that as it may, another instrument challenging Bechstein’s advertising claim would be the 1903 medium grand Blüthner Debussy purchased while vacationing in Eastbourne, England in 1904 with its extra ‘aliquot’ resonating treble strings. The 2012 CD set of all his piano music recorded on a reproduction of it make a persuasive case for hearing his music on such an instrument.[11] But the fact remains that no single instrument has exclusive priority. The composer himself accepted that his music can be well served on a variety of different pianos.

While Debussy is known to have made some disparaging comments about the piano as an instrument – “a box of hammers and strings” was one description[12] - he made even more withering ones about pianists: “poor musicians [who] for the most part, cut up music into unequal lumps like chicken”[13] (elsewhere, he complained “I can’t tell you the extent to which my piano music has been deformed [by pianists]”).[14] As Alfredo Casella recalled:

He detested almost all the greatly celebrated virtuosi, who are so generally quite unmusical; on the other hand, he was well disposed toward certain cultivated and intelligent interpreters who enjoyed no clamorous reputation, but who loved music with the same disinterested, sacred love as he.[15]

Despite the exacting musical standards Debussy expected from pianists, he was evidently open to interpretative approaches that departed from what he had in mind. To mention just a couple of examples regarding “Reflets dans l’eau”, he did not disapprove when, on separate occasions, both George Copeland and Ignaz Paderewski played the piece quite differently from what he had expected. Although he evidently felt the closing bars differently, he insisted that Copeland should “Go on playing them just as you do”.[16] And despite informing Paderewski that his performance of the piece was “not at all what I had in mind”, he went on to say “But please do not change an iota in your interpretation!”.[17] Evidently the composer was not opposed to alternative approaches provided that a musical imagination was present and the pianist’s musical intentions were convincing.

According to Marguerite Long Debussy frequently implored pianists to “Above all, make me forget the piano has hammers”.[18] As Roy Howat has underlined, this injunction was “(f)ar from suggesting anything anaemic, [but] can be read as a call for imaginative boldness effectively meaning ‘Make me forget it’s a piano’”.[19] Howat underlines how Debussy’s piano music evokes a range of sonic images beyond the sound of the piano itself, thereby reinforcing the composer’s evocation of “an imaginary country that can’t be found on the map”. These range from:

[…] orchestra to voice (including Spanish cante jondo), whistling, gamelan, guitar, shepherd’s pipe, harp, café violin […] horns, trumpets, bugle, cathedral organ, bells large and small, finger cymbals, timpani, tamtam, brass band, and banjo – or just the patter or rain and roar of the wind.[20]

This suggests that the experience Debussy sought for his listeners was not so much linked to the ‘substance’ of realised sonority as to what that substance might suggest to the imagination. One might, in fact, propose that the ability of pianists to transcend the instrument with their imagination was much more important to Debussy than their conventionally idiomatic mastery of the particular instrument on which they played. Such ideals were consistent with the underlying tenets of Symbolism where suggestion was more important than realistic portrayal. Such associations might imply that he would have approved of an instrument that could evoke non-pianistic sonic imagery effectively, perhaps even – dare one say – of an imaginary instrument, capable not only of imitating all musical and natural sounds but, potentially of summoning up sonorities not to be found in his world. On whatever instrument they played, Debussy evidently wanted pianists to respond imaginatively and creatively to the possibilities latent in his scores which would thereby evoke an imaginative response from listeners. As such, our exploration of his music on a contemporary digital instrument was encouraged by this priority of stimulating the imagination of both pianists and listeners.

In the preface to his Images of 1894, Debussy referred the pieces as “conversations” between the pianist and the piano. In this spirit, we welcomed the ‘conversations’ that arose between us and our keyboards as we explored his music on instruments that the composer himself would not have imagined.

New instruments, new Nords, new possibilities.
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The instruments handmade by the Swedish company Nord[21] are now widely used worldwide by musicians in jazz and contemporary popular styles but rarely in the performance of Western classical music. Nord released its Stage 3 instruments in 2017 and they represent a significant step forward from their Stage 2 instruments first released in 2011.[22] MusicTech magazine (March 2017) referred to the Stage 3 as “Possibly the best piano you can buy that is not made of wood”.[23] The centenary of Debussy’s death in 2018 seemed a good reason to explore what fresh perspectives/experiences such an instrument might offer us in performing his music.

The Stage 3 instruments come in three models, ranging from a full 88-note keyboard via one with a 76-note range to a compact version with a span of 73 notes. We purchased the smaller and the compact forms – one of each - partly for practical reasons as we wanted to be able to travel with them (not least between Brisbane and Singapore, but also as far afield as Oslo). In comparison with the 88-note instrument’s weight of 19 kilos, the 76-note one weighs 12.5 kilograms and the 73-note 10 kilos so, together with their reduced length, such enhanced portability was preferable for our purposes.

But beyond such practicalities, we also welcomed the extra challenge(s) arising from their smaller range (Stravinsky’s famous claim about setting constraints to stimulating creativity may be relevant here: ‘my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles’).[24] The pitch range of the instrument can easily be raised or lowered an octave at the push of a button, so there was never any question of not being able to cover all the notes called for in Debussy’s music (although, at times, some creative solutions were needed to get around textures that explore the outer registers in close succession). In an interesting way, the additional requirement of awareness necessary for pitch extremities arguably proved an asset for imaginative consideration, just as, elsewhere, technological and programming challenges in layering diverse sonorities in the texture enhanced our focus.

The Nord Stage 3 instruments offer a vast range of sounds that can be combined in endless ways. As the image below shows, there are three separate sections: organ, pianos, and a synthesizer that offers an extraordinary diversity of both sampled and synthesised sounds.

Among the finely nuanced sampled piano sounds are those from around 12 grand pianos (including Steinway, Fazioli, Bösendorfer, Bechstein, Kawai Shigeru and Yamaha instruments) as well as a range of upright pianos. A good selection of instruments comes loaded on the instrument from the factory but one can change those on one’s own instrument via downloading from the Nord website.[25] We were delighted to find some historical pianos among the sampled instruments available. These include replicas by Chris Maene of a Walter fortepiano (c. 1780) and an 1847 Broadwood “similar in every detail to the [1817] instrument owned by Beethoven”.[26] There are no late 19^th^- or early 20^th^-century Erards, Pleyels, or Blüthners with aliquot strings (yet) but, unquestionably, the Nord instruments offer a wide range of piano sounds to explore. To give one example of their differences, the video below allows direct comparison of the low B flats on 10 different pianos, each with a different quality. Which one of those would work best in Debussy’s prelude “Voiles”? Across the project, we were continually faced with such aesthetic decisions.

The different quality of the sounds is unmistakable and the number of available options forces the pianist to make aesthetic decisions from the start. As all of the instruments are anachronistic in one way or another, we did not feel that our preference/choice should necessarily be for the one closest to what the composer may or may not have known.

Chronological and geographical outline of the process
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The performance/presentation we gave at the Performance Studies Network (PSN) conference in Oslo (early July 2018) was reporting on a relatively early stage within a larger ongoing collaborative project. We have maintained a piano duo partnership over many years despite the geographical challenges of living and working in different countries.[27] Our collaborative work on the Nord keyboards did not begin until Stage 3 instruments were available for purchase in Australia/Asia in February 2018. We first brought our Nord instruments together in Singapore in March of that year in preparation for our first public performance on them in May in Brisbane. Our performance of the second movement of En blanc et noir concluded our presentation at the PSN conference in Oslo in July. As that performance was not documented, we recorded it a few weeks later back in Brisbane, that is, in early August, to capture the sounds of the settings we had arrived at by this stage.

The performances were part of various events in our institutions in both Singapore and Brisbane that were commemorating the centenary of Debussy’s death. As the experience of some of these events fed directly into the PSN presentation they are discussed briefly below.

In Singapore
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The centennial anniversary of Debussy’s passing offered opportunity to explore, in different forms and with the involvement of different personnel, a number of the concepts touched on here. These also linked to currents of thought which, at the time, were being explored institutionally in the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, National University of Singapore (YST). Following a curriculum review and branding exercise in 2015-16, the focus of activity had moved towards a more outward-facing re-imagining of repertoire so that performance, collaboration, production and engagement values intermingled, including an ambition to ‘play with’ material, embracing contemporary technologies and mindsets. YST’s January-April 2018 season was entitled Dreams & Apparitions, a phrase derived from a quotation in a letter from Debussy to Durand in July 1910: “After all, an artist is by definition a man accustomed to dreams and living among apparitions […]”.[28] Of a number of core productions which invited participants to ‘Listen in New Light’[29] to Debussy’s music, two alternative realisations of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (L. 86), seem particularly pertinent here:

  1. A project entitled YST Electone Orchestra Presents[30] led by Professor Thomas Hecht involved a re-imagining of the Prélude for an ensemble of pianists playing from the full orchestral score on a set of eight electone organs. Given Debussy’s original joint working on two-piano and orchestral versions, there seems to the authors to be something deliciously authentic here about such an unorthodox approach.

  2. The production of a performance of the orchestral version by the YST Conservatory Orchestra included a live-triggered visual display, with real-time manipulation of the hall’s lighting alongside some computer-generated imaging by then fourth-year viola player, Mervin Wong (pseudonym, theemptybluesky). It was on the basis of this work, that the authors drew theemptybluesky into some dimensions of their Brisbane presentation, as discussed below.

The essence of the two realisations was represented in an amalgam video[31] later shared as part of the authors’ own representations of the work in their 11 May 2018 concert at the Queensland Conservatorium.

In Brisbane
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We first presented publicly our explorations of Debussy’s music on Nord keyboards in a concert entitled Debussy: Beyond Black and White at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University on May 11th, 2018. Five pianos were utilised in the performance: two 7-foot Kawai Shigeru grands, our two Nord Stage 3 instruments and a 9-foot Erard grand from the 1880s. The programme is below.

As is evident from the above, this quasi-symmetrical programme of pieces progressed from the familiar sounds of modern grand pianos, via the less familiar sounds of the historical instrument through to the new sound worlds afforded by the two digital keyboards.

Performances of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune opened and closed the concert. The work was introduced verbally and then presented, in the first of the performances, with some visual projections that referenced Mallarmé’s poem and some of its associated ideas.

The second performance on the Nords was not only sonically different but was presented in conjunction with a richer animated visual component, that is, with the video Dreams and Apparitions prepared by Mervin Wong (theemptybluesky) for the YST Conservatory Orchestra, as mentioned above. The compilation of still images below gives an immediate idea of the range of imagery employed.

The centrepiece of the programme was the other work for two pianos, that is, the middle movement from En blanc et noir played on the two Nords. However, rather than jumping directly into that, we wanted to introduce the audience to the sounds of these instruments and so we devised a compilation piece – mischievously entitled “Des pas sur les voiles engloutie” - to demonstrate the range of different piano sonorities available on the instruments.

The piece linked some passages from the preludes – you’ll never guess which ones! – two of which had just been heard played on the Erard instrument (plus some references to a couple of other pieces) so as to underline the new sonic possibilities of the sampled pianos afforded by the digital instrument. Moving from an historical instrument to the digital instruments was perhaps no less shocking than the previous move from the Kawai instruments to the Erard (we wondered what Debussy would have thought about modern Japanese pianos?).

The prelude “Voiles” was performed on both the Erard and Nord instruments. The following audio recording is from the performance on the Erard.[32]

In preparing to perform “Voiles” on the Nord, we had to select which of the sampled pianos was best suited to this piece. Obviously, we were not trying to make the Nord sound like the Erard – quite the reverse in fact - but were looking to explore what affordances (and resistances) the digital instrument could offer. W*hich of the sampled instruments would be most suitable/ interesting/revealing - dare one say beautiful?

Of all the sampled instruments we tried, the one we found most appealing was the 1817/1847 Broadwood, ironically an historical piano from long before Debussy’s time. To our taste, the grain of its voice has a clear, precious, fragile, woody quality that seemed to us to suit the piece beautifully. While it might seem perverse to have made such a selection, we considered such an anachronism no worse than the common practice of playing his music on modern grand pianos (why should an anachronistic later instrument be more acceptable than an earlier one?). While, admittedly, that little irony was secretly pleasing to us, the audience would not have been aware of that particular anachronism and, of course, we would not have wanted them to be: "*It would be enough if music could make people listen […]".[33]

Of course, the sight of the two red keyboards, cables and speakers would have been the primary anachronism which confronted the audience that evening. Clearly they embody a different form of beauty from the historical Erard, with its appealing natural wood-and-acoustic sound. As expected, comments from audience members after the performance revealed a range of responses. As a generalisation, the younger generation of listeners in the audience that evening seemed more enthused than older ones. In relation to the Nords, many of the latter were guarded or avoided mentioning the new instrument. Comments such as “I absolutely love the sound of that Erard piano. I could listen to it all day” seemed a polite, if somewhat transparent, way of ignoring “the elephant in the room”.

Unlike our performances of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and En blanc et noir on the Nords, where sounds from a range of sampled pianos were employed, in “Voiles” the Broadwood sample was assigned to virtually the whole piece. The only exception was the passage of pentatonic harmony (bars 42-47) that stands out so dazzlingly from the whole-tone material which pervades the rest of the piece. For these bars, the sounds of the Swedish Blue upright gave the passage a distinctive and, indeed, refreshing sound. While still contrasting with that of the Broadwood, the special, rather intimate, quality of its sound seemed to complement it well.

The performance made use of the Stage 3 instrument’s ability to assign and blend the sounds from the synthesiser or from selected digital samples to specific layers/registers of the texture. For example, in the opening section, the low B-flat pedal notes were blended with the sound of a Kalimba while the octaves in the middle of the texture blended some gamelan sounds with that of the piano. Later, in bars 32-37, hints of sampled glockenspiel sounds contribute to the ostinato in upper register. The recording below is from the performance on the Nord instrument.


In Oslo
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Our presentation in Oslo for the PSN Conference in July 2018 concluded with a performance of the second movement of En blanc et noir. That performance built on the experience gained in our first public performance in the Brisbane concert, which had followed on from little more than a week of intensive work on it together, during which we also had to come to terms with both the Nord instruments and the live visual dimensions. From that experience, many lessons had been learnt and, in the subsequent few months, as we prepared for Oslo, we still felt ourselves to be on a steep learning curve.

On listening back to recordings of the Brisbane concert, we were struck by the fact that certain sounds which had seemed effective to us while rehearsing were too subtle to carry well in the hall (this may have been due in part to the quality of the portable speakers we used or, perhaps, of the microphones in the recording devices). As will be shown later, the Nords offer the possibility of finely adjusting the balance between the piano and the sounds from the digital sampling. While subtlety was certainly still desired, overall we decided that we should be bolder in foregrounding the sounds that the Nords offer beyond the sampled piano sounds. Much of the preparation was spent employing and, indeed, developing our aesthetic judgements to adjust such balances and, when comparing the recordings, the differences between the performance outcomes in May and those in August, which used the same parameters as in the July conference, are clear.

En blanc et noir offered a fresh set of challenges to those posed by the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. When making our interpretative choices, we were cognisant of the profound differences between the two works and the contexts from which they came. With over twenty years separating them, Debussy was a very different composer by 1915 when he composed the latter work. Among other things, by then he and the musical world had experienced the impact of Stravinsky’s first three ballets for Diaghilev and the taste for exotic sonorities and cultures, once startlingly new, had permeated French culture much more ubiquitously. Debussy had played through the piano duo version of the first part of The Rite of Spring with its composer at the house of his friend Louis Laloy in June 1912, before its famous premiere the following year. As Laloy reported, “We were dumbfounded, overwhelmed by this hurricane which had come from the depths of the ages and taken our life by the roots”.*[34] Such an encounter could not fail to leave a mark upon his developing style. As he admitted in a letter, the experience haunted him – “like a beautiful nightmare and I try in vain to recall the terrifying impression it made. That’s why I wait for the performance like a greedy child who’s been promised some jam”.[35] The layered textures, juxtapositions of different sonorities and sharp clear lines and rhythms of En blanc et noir *were most likely to have been influenced by Stravinsky’s example, qualities that set it apart markedly from the earlier work. *

The Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune is of course best known as an orchestral work but the composer’s own version for two pianos is more than a subsequent piano reduction. Debussy worked on both versions simultaneously and there are some notable differences between them (in tempo indications but also in some different notes at times). [36] While evidence suggests that the orchestral version was envisaged as being the more public presentation, there is a strong case that the more intimate version resonated at least as strongly for the composer with the two pianos perhaps even embodying a potential metaphor of the two nymphs alluded to in the poem (“Ces nymphes, je les veux perpétuer”). Such arguably fanciful speculation possibly gains a little weight when considered in the context of Debussy’s ambiguous personal circumstances at the time.[37]

With the complex relationship between these two versions borne in mind, it is tempting to speculate whether Debussy may also have considered writing an orchestral version of his other major work for two pianos, En blanc et noir. Presumably he must have recognised that a performance in that form was unlikely during the war, so his reasons for holding back may have been extraneous, rather than integral to the work’s nature. An example that suggests a proto-orchestral concept can be seen in the bars below where the published piano score has the symbol for string harmonics included within it (Piano 1, bars 10-11).

The notes in the right hand are those of harmonics on open violin and viola strings and their disposition in the score, plus the indication for harmonics, seems to indicate exactly how they would be orchestrated. Few, if any, pianists could sound all the notes of such a chord at once, which further suggests a conception that transcends the piano. However, the alternative view should also be acknowledged – that Debussy may have preferred the evocation of such sonorities to their literal realisation. In such an interpretation, the indication of harmonics seems to be intended to tell the pianist what sort of sound/texture to aim for. If so, it is a clear case where the composer seems to be encouraging the performer to transcend the sound of just a piano and evoke something beyond the surface.

In a similar way, although arguably more conventionally, the preceding bars in the Piano 1 part are quite obviously evocative of a distant bugle call.[38] The fanfare-like contour makes the allusion clear but the pianist must still try for a sound that, in literal terms, is beyond the resources of their instrument.

Bars 6-11

Such a passage raises a telling issue in relation to how we made our selections from among the plethora of sonic possibilities that the Nord instruments offer. They do provide a range of brass sounds, although not actually that of a bugle. Given that a trumpet sound was available, we naturally tried it for this passage but, in fact, soon rejected it. Some of the synthesised instrumental sounds are more appealing /realistic than others and here we found the Nord’s trumpet sound to be neither convincing nor evocative in this context. However, even if the quality of the instrument’s synthesised trumpet or even bugle were better, we would probably still have opted for another sound as literal imitation would have seemed too obvious. We recognised that the sound of a piano trying to suggest a bugle may be more poetic and evocative than one that reproduces the instrument more accurately (this is why, for many of us, piano versions of orchestral works are can remain as satisfying as their fully-realised equivalents). Moreover, in the case of Debussy, as we indicated earlier, the composer’s affinities with Symbolism, in which suggestion is more highly-valued than realistic portrayal, encouraged us to approach the issue of sonority in a tangential and allusive manner.

To look briefly at one more example: one of the most magical moments in the piece comes towards the end of the work (in bars 162-166) when Debussy makes an oblique but poignant reference to the Marseillaise.

There are three distinct layers to the texture here. The lower notes in the Piano 2 part, with their dissonant diads, are suggestive of bells and we felt that the Nord’s sampled sounds of Church bells were suitably evocative here. The broken chords in Piano 1 part that alternate with these bell sonorities combined sounds of the Italian grand (Fazioli) blended with faint trumpets. The Marseilles reference called for a rather precious quality and we experimented with various options to determine our preferences. We considered how one might orchestrate the passage, asking ourselves which instrument(s) would capture that special quality. String harmonics? Harps? Glockenspiel? There are a number of good options here that can be well evoked on the Nord instruments but ultimately we went with the sampled sounds of an upright piano, again the one called Swedish Blue. To us, it has a gorgeous fragile, nostalgic old-world quality. So, it is telling that, at this crucial evocative moment, with a range of convincing orchestral sounds at our disposal, we opted for the sounds of a particular small upright piano. This decision underlines our conviction, expressed above, that a piano sound may evoke an imaginary response more tellingly than a more realistic imitation of the suggested orchestral sound. We like to imagine that Debussy would have agreed with that proposition.

As we experimented with the wide range of sounds available on the Nords, we found that the most satisfying and convincing sounds were often from samples of non-Western musical instruments. Several of these can be heard clearly in the recording. These include the Kalimba (Piano 2 in lower register from bar 3), the cimbalom (Piano 2 in lower register from bar 53), an Mbira (Piano 1 from bar 53) and even a Chinese wind band (Piano1 prominently from bar 129). Despite his fascination with things exotic, Debussy is most unlikely to have used such instruments had he orchestrated the piece but we welcomed the vibrant colours and evocative sounds that they contributed, particularly when attempting to project the music of a composer who wished his listeners might be “dreaming of an imaginary country, that’s to say one that can’t be found on the map”.[39]

Showing a few settings
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To show briefly how the sounds are mixed on the Nord, the settings we used in the opening section of the piece are examined below. The image here shows part of the Nord control interface as set by Piano 2 at the start of the piece.[40]

Arrow 1 indicates the key information: the programme number (G 50), title (eBeN as shorthand for En blanc et noir) and the two instruments that are combined. These are, firstly, the piano referred to in the Nord piano library as Grand Lady D (which is sampled from a Steinway Model D) and, secondly, the Kalimba 2 from the Synth side. One can balance the levels of these two instruments using the dials pointed to by Arrows 2 (for the piano) and 3 (for the synth). As can be seen, in this case the levels are set in the mid-range for both, although the piano is set slightly higher than the Kalimba. And so, at first, the effect is of the Kalimba being ‘within’ the piano sound. Then, some bars after the opening, when the left-hand figure is played at a higher dynamic level, the sound of the Kalimba cuts through the piano sound more prominently.

A revolutionary feature of the Stage 3 instruments is their ability to assign different sounds exclusively to different registers of the keyboard. Four registers can be set across the range. Arrow 4 indicates that the synth/Kalimba sounds are here assigned only to the lower two registers of the instrument (by illuminating the lower two of the four lights). Comparison with the corresponding lights in the piano section (i.e. under Arrow 2) indicates that the piano sounds are applied here to all the registers of the keyboard. One can control where the boundaries between these registers are set (in fact they are not necessarily abrupt boundaries as one can set a smooth transition between them). In this case, the illuminated dot pointed to by Arrow 5 indicates to the player that a division between registers has been set at this point of the keyboard. As a result, the Kalimba sound has been applied only to notes below this, namely those below the E below middle C. The part being played is shown below.

As a result, with this setting, the Kalimba sound is applied to the rhythmic figure in the left hand but does not apply the sff chord above in bar 5.

The settings used in Piano 1 for these bars are shown below. They indicate that a different piano sound was used – in this case the Royal Grand – together with sounds of a Chinese wind orchestra in the top register.

The setting of Piano 2 was changed for the extraordinary pianissimo chord it plays in bar 15 – on its own, one so reminiscent of the Rite of Spring.

The setting used in Piano 2 is shown below.

For each program, two distinct sets of settings are possible. These are indicated as A and B on the panel button as pointed to by Arrow 1 above. These two panels can be applied together or separately. As this image shows, the setting here is the alternative Panel B setting for program G: 50 (Arrow 2) but here, a different combination of piano and synth sounds is employed. In this case, the piano has been changed from the Grand Lady instrument (sampled from a Steinway) to the Grand Imperial piano (sampled from a Bösendorfer) and the synthesised sounds are from what is termed a Hybrid Wind Band. Arrow 3 shows that both settings here apply across all registers of the keyboard but the dials above show that the levels are set so that the level assigned to the wind band is much lower than that of the piano. Of course the sound of the sampled piano sounds decays after the initial attack and so the effect achieved here is that the Hybrid Wind Band sound seems to emerge as the piano sound decays. The Nord instruments offer such aesthetically challenging/stimulating possibilities of blending, balancing and even controlling the degree of decay across a wide diversity of sounds.

These brief examples give just a small taste of the possibilities of these instruments and how we utilised them.

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By this point, it should be obvious that this is just a preliminary exposition of what might be possible in terms of conceptually re-imagining more experimental performative approaches to Debussy’s keyboard music. More intriguingly, the Nord instruments offer the potential to realise what pianists for over a century have considered the imagined ideal of transcending the monochromatic limitations (the ‘black and white’ nature) of piano sound. Previously, and unlike most melodic instruments, the piano has offered comparatively little adjustment in relation to timbre, resonance, or sonic layering. Beyond the performances we have so far undertaken, experimenting with timbres and resonance has offered our imaginations hours of play. Some sounds (such as the cathedral bells and angelic choir, for example) revealed themselves increasingly vividly through this process of reflection, in a context where we were also immersed in the composer’s correspondence. Such fanciful play becomes even more engaging and pleasurable when one notes the following from the composer himself, writing to his publisher just in advance of the publication of En blanc et noir:

The Angelus is ringing timidly, as though convinced it’s not bringing any peace to men’s hearts… I must confess I’ve made a slight change to the colour of the second of the Caprices [Debussy’s earlier title for En blanc et noir]; it was too profoundly black, and almost as tragic as a Caprice by Goya![41]

By exploring it with the extra sounds afforded by the Nord instruments, aspects of this music have been illuminated that, we believe, extend our collective experience of it beyond its original manifestation in ‘black and white’.


Bathori, J. (1998). On the Interpretation of the melodies of Claude Debussy. New York: Pendragon Press.

Cook, N. (2013). Beyond the score: Music as performance. New York: Oxford University Press.

de Assis, P. (2018). Logic of experimentation: Reshaping music performance in and through artistic research. Leuven: Leuven University Press.

Debussy, C. (1987). Debussy letters. Selected and edited by Francois Lesure, translated by Roger Nichols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

D’Errico, L. (2018). Powers of divergence: An experimental approach to music performance. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press**.**

Harnoncourt, N. (1988). Music as speech: Baroque music today. Music as speech: Ways to a new understanding of music. Translated by Mary O’Neill. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press.

Harris, J. (2018). Debussy as Early Music: The piano and the pianist in the early Twentieth century at music/ (Accessed August 2019).

Heinemann, E-G. (2012). “Preface” to Debussy, works for two pianos. Munich: Henle.

Howat, R. (2009). The Art of French Piano Music: Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Chabrier. USA: Yale University Press.

Lanskey, B. & Emmerson, S. (2016). “Playing with variables: Anticipating one particular performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations”. In Mathemusical conversations: Mathematics and computation in music performance and composition. Singapore: World Scientific publishers.

Leech-Wilkinson, D. (2019). “Challenging performance” at (accessed August 2019).

Leech-Wilkinson, D. (2016). “Classical music as enforced Utopia” In Arts & Humanities in Higher Education Vol. 15(3–4) pp. 325–336.

Long, M. (1972). At the piano with Claude Debussy. London: Dent.

Nichols, R. (1992). Debussy remembered. London: Faber.

Poulenc, F. (1985). Journal de mes Mélodies, London: Gollancz.

Roberts, P. (2003). Images: The piano music of Claude Debussy. London: Amadeus.

  1. Claude Debussy, Debussy Letters, trans. Roger Nichols, (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), p. 118. ↩︎

  2. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Baroque music today: Music as speech: Ways to a new understanding of music, trans. Mary O’Neill, (Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1988), p. 70. ↩︎

  3. Where here the focus is primarily on timbre, other studies have explored pitch, form, timing, communicative performance framings, possibilities for re-composition, the manipulation of the listener’s perspective as audience, and even the relationship between actual and remembered time in performative contexts. For example Lanskey & Emmerson (2016). ↩︎

  4. See ↩︎

  5. Jonathan Harris at music/ ↩︎

  6. Jane Bathori, *On the Interpretation of the melodies of Claude Debussy, (New York: Pendragon Press, 1998), p. 62. ↩︎

  7. That the Pleyel Company provided him with a succession of new pianos on complimentary loan once he had become famous might be have contributed to that preference. ↩︎

  8. Roy Howat, The Art of French Piano Music: Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Chabrier, (USA: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 310. ↩︎

  9. See ↩︎

  10. ‘Un compositeur se laisse influencer par le bruit de son piano. Du moins je le crois fermement. Debussy composait sur un Bechstein gras et onctueux, Ravel sur un vieil Erard, sec comme une guitare’ From Francis Poulenc, Journal de mes Mélodies, (London: Gollancz, 1985), pp. 52-3. ↩︎

  11. See ↩︎

  12. Cited by Paul Roberts in Images: The piano music of Claude Debussy, (London: Amadeus, 2003), p. 2. ↩︎

  13. Roberts, p. 9. ↩︎

  14. Debussy, Letters, p. 222 ↩︎

  15. Cited in Roger Nichols, (ed.) Debussy remembered, (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), p. 97. ↩︎

  16. Cited in Nichols, p. 165. ↩︎

  17. Cited in Nichols, p. 161. ↩︎

  18. Marguerite Long, At the piano with Claude Debussy, (London: Dent, 1972), p. 13. ↩︎

  19. Howat, p. 216. ↩︎

  20. Ibid. ↩︎

  21. See ↩︎

  22. See and ↩︎

  23. ↩︎

  24. Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the form of Six Lessons, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 87. ↩︎

  25. Files of the same instrument also come in three to four different sizes – XL, L, M, S - so the number of pianos you can store on the 2TB of its memory depends upon the sizes of the instruments you choose. See ↩︎

  26. See ↩︎

  27. Bernard Lanskey is Dean of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music at the National University of Singapore; Stephen Emmerson a professor at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University in Brisbane Australia. ↩︎

  28. Debussy, Letters, p. 220. ↩︎

  29. This was the then-newly released tagline framing YST’s identity. ↩︎

  30. See ↩︎

  31. See ↩︎

  32. Debussy himself gave the first public performance of “Voiles” at Salle Erard in 1913 so the Erard used here, though not in perfect condition, is not far from instruments he would have been familiar with, indeed on which he first presented this prelude to the public. ↩︎

  33. See endnote 1 ↩︎

  34. Cited in Nichols, p. 240. ↩︎

  35. Debussy*, Letters, p. 265.* ↩︎

  36. See *Ernst-Günter Heinemann, “Preface” to Debussy Works for two pianos, (Munich: Henle, 2012). * ↩︎

  37. It is notable that the manuscript of the two-piano version, complete with a beautifully cryptic reference to Gaby Dupont, (“To my dearest and most precious Gaby with surest affection from your devoted”, our translation) was only discovered in the dedicatee’s possessions at the end of her life. See Heinemann (2012). ↩︎

  38. Given the piece’s explicit dedication to ‘Lieutenant Jacques Charlot tué à l’ennemi en 1915’ it is hardly surprising that war imagery pervades the piece. Dean Kramer’s film explicitly overlays such imagery over a performance of this movement. See ↩︎

  39. See endnote 1 ↩︎

  40. As we were not using any of the organ area of the instrument here, the image focuses on the piano and some of the synthesiser controls/digital samples which can be still further manipulated by controls further to the right of the dash. ↩︎

  41. Debussy, Letters , p. 297 ↩︎