- One reason for techno music's rapid increase in popularity worldwide is that electronic music artists create an aural environment resonant with the diverse, eclectic lifestyles and energies of the urban center. In addition, the techno music aesthetic has long valorized the art of reinterpretation. Remixes and sampling both strive to recontextualize sound, and thus direct a preexistent work towards a groove of greater rhythmic and harmonic intensity. The Art of Noise's new album, The Seduction of Claude Debussy takes this diversity into a new, yet unusually old, arena: the world of late nineteenth-century French art music. The result is not unlike an ambient techno event in a fin de siècle Parisian salon.
- By appropriating the musical language of a time quite removed from ours, The Art of Noise foregrounds the interpretive capacities of techno and drum & bass music. Their new release also posits important questions concerning our understanding of historyspecifically, our perceptions of the European classical music tradition. Of course, other progressive musicians have declared their debt to art music; Björk, PJ Harvey and Beck come to mind. Yet this album represents a greater historically-minded artistic project than this genre has seen before. Encountering Debussy's music at the turn of this century is this album's raison d'être, and The Art of Noise grasps many of the musical challenges at stake. Upon listening, one senses the band meeting with a force that is intense and luscious in its harmonic language, and far from the world of drum & bass and techno. Overall, while the interaction has inspired some exciting interpretive results, The Art of Noise seems also to have been seduced by Debussy's music in ways that compromise the raw power of such a reconnaissance.
- The Art of Noise was among those bands active during the genesis of drum & bass music in England in the early 1990s, and its members have been near the forefront of electronic dance music for even longer. Their tone has been playful and self-indulgent from the start. The band's website (as tediously clever as their liner notes for this album) tells their story: "The Art of Noise fell into being in 1983 as part studio experiment, part pop group, part play, part theory . . . While Frankie Goes to Hollywood most popularly communicated this new high tech, high gloss, high flying pop sound, Art of Noise formed the R&D department for this technically extravagant, radically glamorous way of making new pop records." (www.theartofnoise.com).
- The chief success of The Seduction of Claude Debussy lies in how the band transports Debussy's music to a radically different rhythmic context. Debussy's music is integrated into a mix of rapid programmed drumbeats, technological sound effects, and electronic sampling. Selection from the Preludes for piano, Clair de Lune, the chanson "Il pleure dans mon coeur," and other compositions appear throughout the album, yet not as remixes. Instead, The Art of Noise interweaves phrases from different works to construct new works. The band seems to have been concerned with inducing a particular state of mind for the listener, drawing upon Debussy's work to create an ambient sensibility.
- The opening track is one of the album's most compelling achievements. Its aural palette contains shades of new-age ambience, sparks of flashy beats and swirls of high-pitched, ethereal auras. The piano and voice are supported by light guitars, bongos, fast drum patterns and bass licks. Their contrast produces an introspective, relaxed sound that suggests steady motion within a calm and content demeanor. The operatic female voice is both supple and maternal; graceful and yet full of corporeal conviction. As breakbeats entering with minimalist bass melodies propel the music forward, Debussy's music seems to offer gentle resistance, providing full-bodied content to complement the crisp and pulsating structure beneath.
- Debussy's music fares well in this act of appropriation. While he derived much of his musical language from the German school of the mid-nineteenth century (especially Richard Wagner's intensely chromatic style), his reliance on mode effected a different aesthetic goal. His modal writing manages to coax the ear away from the teleology of tonality, toward a more amorphous and circular plane of listening. Through modal harmony, Debussy (like many of his contemporaries) managed to prolong musical events differently from German Romantic music, creating a more relaxed and differently sensuous intensity. As a result, Debussy's music tends to operate less through the deployment of tension-release patterns and more through the maintenance of a set of energies that emanate as if from a body in a state of continuous rapture. His compositions usually provoke contemplation: we are not meant to know where we are headed, but to experience how lovely it is wherever we areusually in a lush harmonic landscape, and/or an erotic situation where the ear is persuaded to acquiesce control over expectation.
- Furthermore, the rhythmic character of Debussy's art songs is governed largely by the text. Since French poetic meter tends to be irregular, the resultant musical phrases are asymmetrical in structure. In contrast, techno musiclike most dance musicusually organizes melody and harmony around a rigid beat pattern grouped in four-bar phrases. With a creative aesthetic that values the addition of new rhythmic and harmonic layers to a preexistent melody, techno music functions much like the reharmonizations of standard popular tunes in jazz. Björk remixes attest to this compositional strategy: the melody is left intact while the song is adapted to a different harmonic and rhythmic structure. Loops of phrases act to center the harmonic motion around a stable area, while rapid, subdivided beats move us forward. On this album, the beat's general understatement in the mix and its rapid, constant division is like that of ambient music, which tends to produce a more relaxed and trance-like state.
- The Art of Noise loops phrases of Debussy's works to fit them into the structure of dance music. (Note that the rhythmic character of the album's only work of Debussy performed in its entirety, "La Flûte de Pan," is maintained in its original state, sans drum beats.) The brevity of these sampled historical objects need not diminish their effect, however. In fact, the rhythmic forces never before felt in Debussy's music necessitate the degree of motivic repetition. Of course, repetition is a fundamental modus operandi for dance music. When the material is well-chosen, its repetition can be exhilarating.
- Unfortunately, a few production decisions failed to seduce this listener. John Hurt's narration is too frequent, and his authoritative tone is a bit too heavy-handed. (Apparently we can enter this French salon and dance, so long as we never once forget how special the occasion is.) Ironically, by offering the possibility that "it would be truly remarkable . . . if sound and color were not adequate to express ideas," the narrator makes his own narrative redundant. Even more unfortunate is the narrative's historiographic stance. It proclaims Debussy's genius and exaggerates his contribution to the music of the twentieth century, and thus constructs a biography that raises the composer to an impossibly high status. This is a common trap of projects in pop history; while it may seem innocuous to describe Debussy in a romanticized, even melodramatic manner, the work being sampled is thereby reduced to a less nuanced, culturally contingent condition, which in turn runs the risk of exempting us from a critical approach to art.
- As we approach the millenium, history is being appropriated for popular appeal with alarming frequency. The Edwardian box-office frenzy of recent years seems to indicate that the events of this past century are unimportant; otherwise, their plots would seem more relevant to our palatino than they do. In their day, most of these works addressed the sorts of controversial social issues from which historicism is especially good at deflecting one's attention away. Relevant to this case, for example: the poets that Debussy consulted led lives as problematic and complex as his own. Paul Verlaine's "Il pleure" is most likely intended be read as a love-poem to Arthur Rimbaud. In fact, the line that recurs throughout the album is Verlaine's "sampling" of a line of Rimbaud's. Though Debussy may have had little interest in this situation, The Art of Noise might have at least intimated the homosexual inspiration of the work. Instead, they associate it with the weather on the day of Debussy's death, thereby unraveling both ties in the poetic metaphor this band so dearly admires. It appears in their view that any trace of (or association with) sexual dissidence would make the composer ineligible for romantic-loner-genius status.
- This narrative's authoritative pretense causes historicism to resemble a reaction formation to cultural diversity, which tends to gravitate towards debates of authenticity and/or exoticism. Repeatedly turning the object of "foreign" music into a story with superlative drama and intensity, both reactions come into an all-too-familiar focus. On the other hand, we could regard this narrative conceit as performing a task akin to a marketing strategy for a new or foreign product, designed to ease any discomfort in confronting the unfamiliar. For it is likely that most of the techno audience has little familiarity with Debussy's music or biography. In this way, their product behaves like an object of kitsch: non-threatening and cute.
- While I doubt techno listeners need the authoritative tone of John Hurt's voice to quell their fears, if narration must occur, it might best come from Debussy's own writings, which are full of wit, candor, and prescience. This would decrease the narrative's chances of locating the ever-widening power differential between popular and classical music that irritates so. In fact, it is quite possible that my dislike of a narrative, in an album I would otherwise fully enjoy, results from the banality of being required to retrace a cultural divide that classical musicians frequently traverse in order to function in a society that has little use for their skills and interests. When classical music is sampled, it would be nice to acknowledge that the audience includes those who know it well.
- Yet for all its strengths and weaknesses, The Seduction of Claude Debussy is worth knowing. The Art of Noise interacts with the historical subject in a provocative and creative manner. The fact that they are seduced by a simplistic conceptualization of the past is disappointing, but ultimately not tragic.
University of California, Los Angeles