Alexei Lubimov performs Claude Debussy and John Cage: Lubimov’s interpretation of Debussy’s Preludes and John Cage’s As It is

By Daniel Garrett

Alexei Lubimov, Claude Debussy Preludes

Alexei Lubimov, John Cage As It Is
Executive Producer Manfred Eicher
ECM, 2012

For his interpretation of composer Claude Debussy’s preludes, the Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov, known for his exploration of both traditional European classical music and experimental music, chose a 1913 Steinway piano and a 1925 Bechstein piano for their unique timbres, the first soft and resonant and the second sharp but light. Alexei Lubimov’s performance of Claude Debussy preludes—the entire two-disk recording contains Premier Livre, Trois Nocturnes, Prelude a l’après-midi d’un faune and Deuxieme Livre (Lubimov is accompanied by pianist Alexei Zuev on the three nocturnes and the faun piece)—at first can seem pensive, indirect, like brief glances, slight touches, but soon energy and focus emerge, a quickened tempo, with a series of connected, somewhat tense, hovering notes. The music is not imposing—it does not disrupt daydreaming or thinking, until it becomes dramatic, louder, more intense. Yet, the composer Claude Debussy was interested in leaving the listener with more than an impression, though critics did not recognize that always.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918), a working class boy who entered the Paris conservatory when young and focused on playing piano and composition, was in many ways a self-taught bohemian musician, finding inspiration in music from different parts of the world and becoming one of the great modernists. Debussy discovered then turned away from Wagner, and picked up ideas from Edvard Grieg, Modest Mussorgsky, and Erik Satie, as well as Javanese and Annamite (Indochinese) music; and Debussy’s sensuous music, though sound in structure, was shaped by his attempt to suggest spontaneity with innovations in phrase, rhythm, and harmony. Such music of both movement and stillness that accepted the fact of mystery, suggesting improvisation, contributed to the perception of Debussy’s work as one of mere impressions. A composer and a critic, and a reader and writer, Claude Debussy in his music was inspired by literature, including the texts of Poe and Mallarme, and he wrote criticism considered amusing and insightful; and, after giving the world work it has not forgotten but does not always know how to celebrate, Debussy died of cancer. “The alluring surfaces of Debussy’s works can mask the utter daring of the music,” asserted Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times (August 17, 2012), remarking upon the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Tommasini called Debussy “one of the most radical composers in music history,” for his harmonic language, use of dissonance, reference to diverse musical traditions, and idiosyncratic conception of time.

Most people want the content of art—beauty, emotion, ideas, catharsis—rather than art, but art is the only thing that delivers that content dependably and well. So one begins to look to art: The Debussy music creates a sense of mystery and its exploration and revelation. It has to—and does—create its own atmosphere. On the Lubimov first disk is Debussy music that requires attention, concentration, if it is not to be ephemeral, and the concentration takes the listener away from mundane concerns. (The music represents an alternative to mundane matters.) The sound is natural, as natural as composed music that is complex can appear. Not pretty, not showy, but impressive: the evolution of a (musical) thought.

The second disk has lovely, melodious, long lines, confidently virtuosic—yet not indulgent. The time the music takes, and its tempo, its structure and pace, are of a different era and a different sensibility: time and how it is used reveal the culture, the consciousness and sense. The variation among the segments and their detail contain more dynamism than contemporary popular music—but how are the young to learn that? Of course, it is not just energy: it is music of intelligence, and music with dignity. The music delights but it does not pander.

Alexei Lubimov has explored the work of modern composers, including John Milton Cage (1912-1992), as well as Schoenberg and Stockhausen and Boulez, Ives, Ligeti, Part, and Webern. Alexei Lubimov’s presentation, with singer Natalia Pschenitschnikova, of John Cage’s work is quite interesting too: John Cage, an eccentric American, is known for invention, generosity, and his relation to fascinating cultural worlds: that of dancer Merce Cunningham, and painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, and writers such as Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, E.E. Cummings, Kenneth Patchen, and James Joyce, and the philosophical traditions—Buddhism and Hinduism—of the oriental sphere. An admirer of Henry Cowell, Erik Satie, Arnold Schoenberg, and Anton Webern, John Cage experimented with prepared piano, allowing new sounds. He encouraged appreciation of everyday noises, and unusual instruments, and chance, including the I Ching, as part of music; and Cage—who once declared that everything we do is music—could be said to be as much a philosopher of sound as a composer. The Russian pianist Lubimov had championed John Cage’s work in 1960s Moscow, causing a disturbance upon the academicians, although, eventually, Cage himself—in 1988—would be invited to Leningrad to perform his own music.

Here, pianist Alexei Lubimov’s presentation, with singer Natalia Pschenitschnikova, on John Cage As It Is, are twenty-one pieces of music: 1. Quiet, solitary, peaceful, this eight and a half minute piece is called “Dream.” Not abrasive, angular, or angst-ridden, but thoughtfully pleasant. 2. Chanting and percussion. The voice evokes something old, the percussion something new, in “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs,” with words by James Joyce: including, “how all so still she lay neath of the/ whitethorn, child of tree,/ like some losthappy leaf/ like blowing flower stilled,/ as fain would she anon,/ for soon again ’twill be,/ win me, woo me, wed me,/ ah weary me!” 3. Wonderful sound—strumming, percussive. Texture, a thick tone. An appealing rhythm. (A unique sound. Presumably, prepared piano.) Dramatic. 4. Humming. Trilling. Duck-like iterations. Vocal experiment. 5. A strumming that almost sounds oriental. A thick tone in empty space. A ringing echo. Seemingly full of stops and starts—like short excursions. 6. What is the substance of the singing (chanting)—which has, possibly inevitably, an old liturgical sound? 7. Tribal, playful, light and resonating. Gonglike, but quick. 8. Short high-voiced interlude. (Pieces 8 through 10 are three songs based on Gertrude Stein, with the first about time, the second about possibility and surprise, and third featuring repetitions regarding “East and ingredients.”) 9. Operatic voice. Repeated phrases involving “to be” and “as it is.” 10. “As it is”—the phrase is repeated. High, keening voice. Becoming sound more than meaning? 11. A few introductory piano notes. Silence. Notes beginning again—and sudden dramatically heavy notes. Silence. Beginning again. Something speculative, exploratory. 12. Beauty and tension, rhythm and abruptness, and changes in volume. Rhythm, not melody. Striking out—as if to see what is there. The piece seems to end several times, and then goes on. 13. The compositions 13 through 17 use the texts of E. E. Cummings, but the musical voice, the singing voice, does not seem particularly or specifically American. It certainly does not seem to contain a trace of Africa, as much American music does. And that is, of course, because the singer, also a flutist, is Russian; and she, Natalia Pschenitschnikova, has performed the compositions of Dennisov, Mozart, Scelsi, Stockhausen, Varese, and Xenakis. 14. There is something old, traditional, yet quirky about the voice. 15. Voice dominant in duet. Again, English language but it has a sound that could be Americana or operatic. 16. Playful, somewhat accented voice. 17. A more sorrowful sound. (Most of these latter pieces are short—some would not seem to need breaks between them, so similar are they, but the change of tone here renders it singular.) 18. Lone notes. Space between them. Quiet, short piece. 19. Unique sound—tone. Sparse notes. A regularly piano sound is shattered by notes of a different timbre, an experimental sound. Maybe an oddly humming voice too. Could be a wildlife score. Becomes an intriguing, moody piece, akin to a meditation or incantation—something suggesting an unrevealed depth. 20. Thunderclaps. High voice, alone. Hard to make out statements. Percussive accent, emphasis. More voice, then silence. 21. Quiet piano playing—as at the beginning of the album. There is some dramatic emphasis but it is mostly sedate, thoughtful. Of course, such brief notations can only suggest some of the surface sound of what is found there.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.