Des pas sur la neige (Claude Debussy) (2011)

arr. for alto flute, clarinet, bassoon, harp, 2 violins, viola, cello, contrabass
4 min.

Debussy’s Préludes were the first modern music I grew to love as a young musician, and some of the works to which I return constantly in search of ideas. Though less hard-edged than some of his contemporaries, Debussy’s modernism was no less radical for being subtle. Aside from the obvious kinship as a fellow nature poet, Debussy was the first composer, to my mind, to build music from sound itself rather than contrapuntal or motivic abstractions. His approach to form was equally visionary, eschewing traditional linear narrative in favor of a series of static tableaux. His ideas never change; rather, Debussy recontextualizes them, constantly shedding new light on objects heard many times before. Des pas sur la neige is a particularly unambitious piece – a description I mean as the highest praise. With a few scattered notes and a simple ostinato rhythm, Debussy sketches a silent winter landscape, its features muted, softened by the snow. Subtle changes of harmonic shades take the place of moment-to-moment progress. There is no climax, only a gentle skyward rise. The work is also endlessly versatile; one could imagine it orchestrated in an infinite number of ways. That said, with its vast inner spaces, the music seemed to fit the odd instrumentation of another work the Zagros ensemble commissioned from me, which is why I offered to make the arrangement for them for the same concert.