Veronika Harcsa | Anastasia Razvalyaeva | Márton Fenyvesi Debussy NOW!
In all likelihood Debussy would have welcomed the idea of his works being brought up to the minute one hundred and fifty years later by artists who knew no boundaries. After all, as the harbinger of musical Impressionism, this is what he too strove to do. Harpist Anastasia Razvalyaeva, singer Veronika Harcsa, and guitarist and sound designer Márton Fenyvesi made contemporary transcriptions from Debussy’s finest chansons in which everything becomes possible. These works, which the composer wrote to poems by Paul Verlaine and other poets, are seen in another light, thanks to the airiness of the harp, and to a more declamatory vocal technique than in classical singing, while with the live electronic effects they go through a veritable paradigm shift.
Veronika Harcsa – vocals
Anastasia Razvalyaeva – harp
Márton Fenyvesi – live electronics, guitar
About the album
Compositions by Claude Debussy, arrangements by Veronika Harcsa, Anastasia Razvalyaeva and Márton Fenyvesi
Recorded at BMC Studio, Budapest on 28-29 May, 2020
Recorded, mixed and mastered by Viktor Szabó
Artwork: László Huszár / Greenroom
Produced by László Gőz
Label manager: Tamás Bognár
Supported by the National Cultural Fund of Hungary
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Veronika Harcsa, Anastasia Razvalyaeva, Márton Fenyvesi: Debussy NOW!
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Given the artists in this project, you might well ask the question: what have a jazz singer and a harpist got to do with Debussy? After all, these songs are usually sung by a classical voice accompanied by piano, in a traditional song recital. The 20th century was one of the most productive periods for the harp, and one of the richest in terms of the development of the instrument. Thanks to French composers in this era, the chamber music repertoire for the harp expanded to include important works. Perhaps Debussy was the first to truly recognize the treasure trove of tone colours inherent in the harp, and tried to exploit them in his works. Debussy’s music is brimming with chords and chord progressions which are common in jazz and pop music. In his songs, the declamatory, recitative nature of the vocal part, which is free of any virtuosic, complicated melodic threads, allows space for parlando performance. In 1902, reacting to criticism of the premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande, and the charge that the declamation was tuneless, Debussy referred to the need to “obey a law of beauty that seems to be singularly neglected when it comes to dramatic music: the characters of this opera try to sing like real people, not in an arbitrary language made up from worn-out clichés.” 1 The composer thought it particularly ironic that the audience who demanded novelty was angry if somebody tried to shift it out of its comfortable custom. Yet Debussy’s individual voice is far from being without precedent: it derives from the music of Massenet, Chabrier, and especially Fauré, and its novelty comes from the daring use of modulation, the considered and principled application of the properties of modal harmony and modal scales. “These are the traits that triggered the charges of ‘vague’, ‘imprecise writing’, and a tendency to eccentricity, from the Paris Academie. Today it is precisely these traits that we feel to be clear, transparent, unlike many other musical creations of the era” 2 – writes József Ujfalussy, who again quotes from the composer to underline his enormous desire for freedom. “I love my freedom too much, and since I cannot choose my environment, I shall take my revenge by writing as I please. This is no mere joke: the truth is that this is the only music I am able to write.” 3 Although Debussy’s works are customarily interpreted in the light of Impressionist painting, his links to Symbolist poetry are at least as strong, if not stronger. Of the works produced between 1887 and 1893, “each one arose from Symbolist literature, and its world of thought and feeling. He consistently chose the texts by Symbolist poets for his songs: mainly Verlaine and Baudelaire, who was a precursor of the Symbolists” 4. But in order for the creative power of Symbolism to be vindicated in Debussy’s works, he had to rethink the basics of music. “The only way the great inspiration of new French poetry could take place in Debussy’s music was by him refreshing and loosening the stylistic legacy of French music. His experience of pre-classical Italian music, new Russian music and music from East Asia all provided a model”.5
Notes by Anastasia Razvalyaeva, using the Debussy biography by József Ujfalussy
Translated by Richard Robinson
1 In: József Ujfalussy: Achille-Claude Debussy, Gondolat Könyvkiadó, Bp. p. 156-157
2 Ibid. p. 85-86.
3 Ibid. p. 55
4 Ibid. p. 85.
5 Ibid. p. 90-91.
THE LAW OF PLEASURE
Rebel, visionary, impressionist, a pantheistic soul, a poet of chords, a composer of light and colours, the great-great-grandfather of jazz. Just some of the labels that have been tacked onto Debussy, while he referred to himself simply as a “French composer”. With such a long list, perhaps we can be forgiven for adding another attribute: Debussy, the translator, who shifts the focus from without to within, who transplants experience from image to sound, who moves symbols from poetic language to music. The seemingly endless list of his compositional innovations can perhaps all be derived from one single shift – which places the subjective in the stead of the objective. This may be the reason he never tired of tossing aside musical dogmas which for 150 years were presumed to be incontestable, in order to give the most faithful musical translation to his experiences gleaned from the natural world, or from reading the Symbolist poets. Rather than an undisciplined rebel, he was a grand improviser: extant sources show that he chose each note with the greatest of care, so that the work should sound exactly as he imagined it, exactly as the experience abstracted into music within him, arrived at through thorough inner contemplation. Yet in each of his works there is something of the breezy freedom of randomness. He did not flatter himself with dreams of stormy success, perfectly aware as he was of the relativity of perception, which can alter the experience music gives not only individually, but historically. For instance, when writing of the premiere of La mer, Pierre Lalo stated that “I do not hear, I do not see, I do not smell the sea”, Debussy retorted: “you will likely agree with me that not every ear hears the same way. The heart of the matter is that you love and defend traditions which, for me, no longer exist. […] the dust of the past is not always respectable.”6 Paradoxically, today Debussy occupies pride of place not only in the canon of classical music, but we can find him in the “relaxing music” playlists of music platforms, the sea billows in ringtones, and advertising jingles tease our ears with locks of the flaxen hair of which he sang. What is more, today the themes of his melodies – the sunset, the sea, cornfields, red lips, or the wheeling seagulls – are in the danger zone: the realm of kitsch, with a red alert for pre-packaged effects, where the artist addresses themselves to a consumer rather than an active explorer. This shows not just the pitfalls of mass culture, but perhaps also signals the possibility of a new shift, a retranslation, in which Debussy’s music gains a new meaning in an unaccustomed context.
Harpist Anastasia Razvalyaeva, singer-songwriter Veronika Harcsa and guitarist and electronics artist Márton Fenyvesi undertook the demanding but pleasurable task of retranslating this music. They have transplanted Debussy’s songs to a language where the expressions “jazz”, “contemporary music” and “electronica” are not patchwork slang or neologisms in the texture and text of classical music, but much rather serve as linking elements that help the content to find its way to the listener even more smoothly. Staying with the linguistic metaphor, the three translators clarify the agreement of subject and predicate, enabling us to identify who sings, who plays the harp, and who turns this into a spatial experience with electronic effects, and why. This is about being personal. About what the three of them have always sought, and what Debussy himself urged: “Let us not listen to anybody’s advice, unless it is that of the passing wind, which tells us the tales of the world.” Behind the project was the harpist Anastasia Razvalyaeva, of Russian origin, who was very sensitive to the “tale-telling wind”; she continues to seek for new paths in music in spite of having been born into a classical music life paved with tradition: her mother was her first harp teacher, and she managed to break with the shackles only by taking a short break. At the age of 18 she gave up making music, and when she returned, she redefined her relationship to the harp. Ever since, every one of her musical projects is driven by a desire to affirm her identity. She has played in a light music lineup (Deti Picasso), she has founded a saxophone-harp duet with Erzsébet Selello under the name Duo Sera, and in 2018 she and Emőke Baráth adapted Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise for female voice and harp. It was in her search for authentic means of performance that she came across Veronika Harcsa, who like her was drawn by a constant desire for development to become one of the most outstanding singer songwriters of the Hungarian vocal jazz scene. At the time Veronika had wended her way not just through jazz and underground genres (including work with guitarist Bálint Gyémánt, who she did concerts with in several continents), but she also had a few exploratory journeys into classical music behind her: she’d sung Ravel songs and a singspiel by Kurt Weill, and the main role in a Dadaist opera directed by Jiří Menzel. Just like Anastasia, she too battled with “what’s allowed and what isn’t”, though while Anastasia struggled with the restrictions on interpretation, for Veronika the conflict was with expectations embedded in the jazz traditions, taken to be irrevocable. Now the two musicians have met at the crossroads of jazz and classical music, both have donned their seven-league boots to leave their comfort zone behind. Anasztázia has made headway towards jazz and improvisation, while Veronika has moved towards a classical vocal technique.
“Coming from classical music, I had naive ideas about improvisation. I thought that jazz musicians who were worthy of it received the divine gift of improvisation and scattered it throughout the world. It was very instructive to see that actually it is a composition process conducted live on stage, where the broader the musician’s toolkit is, the more nuanced, exciting the composition they are able to create” says Razvalyaeva about her discovery of extemporizing, and indeed as a harpist she was stepping onto virgin territory, because in the classical repertoire improvisation is no longer part of performance practice. The improvised phrases on this CD cannot be linked to traditions or schools in this sense. What makes them fresh and alive is that she does not use ready-made learned and practised blocks; these are rather comments, footnotes, born of personal impressions, which during the translation she uses to comment upon Debussy’s music, in a spirit of narration, and which inevitably contain the near two-hundred years of knowledge of culture and music history that has been amassed since the composer.
On the other side of the scales, in the person of Veronika Harcsa, we find a performer for whom improvisation is the strong suit. On her own admission, the challenge was to find a tone colour based on classical technique but closer to a natural voice. “I come from a world of vocal technique where it’s an advantage if someone doesn’t sing in a standard, scholarly fashion, but in classical music, audiences expect the work to sound in the customary manner. I needed a teacher who would help me to find the most natural voice possible within classical vocal technique, and I found one in the person of László Kéringer”, said Veronika, who when she sings Debussy songs uses a gamut of colours and inflections that she collected in her experiments in jazz and free music. The use of these is highly relevant to singing Debussy’s songs, because the very reason he was drawn to poems by Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Pierre Louys was because he was enchanted by their sensuality, the colour, and sound of the words and syllables, the physical aspect of the language. This plasticity of performance is put at Debussy’s service: “When I’m singing, I strive for a parlando manner, like a chanson singer who chops off the ends of the words, whispers, and uses a whole range of prosodic elements. Classical singers generally exploit these much less, but I am using them very deliberately, to bring the songs closer to those who might not necessarily understand the French text” says Veronika.
The two of them faced the difficult translational problem that derives from the relative nature of beauty, which shifts from age to age. Debussy, for example, was attracted to irregularity, and thus he did not always resolve dissonant chords – yet today his music strikes us as beautiful. In this translation we have one of the most progressive figures in Hungarian jazz, Márton Fenyvesi, also a producer of pop and jazz lineups, to act as a kind of reviser, ensuring that we get the unadulterated beauty that Debussy himself followed, not defined by aesthetics, but based on experience. Márton Fenyvesi also contributes to the CD as a guitarist, and his live effects weave a magic of spatial experience around Veronika Harcsa and Anastasia Razvalyaeva’s dialogue with Debussy, making the music almost palpable. The listener seems to have stepped into a space with special acoustic properties, and becomes a true participant in this artwork. Fenyvesi, who seeks for living, physical contact in both the instrumental music and the effects, sometimes goes so far as to conjure up the characteristics of the natural world in the text, and like the wind, this may change from one performance to the next.
“I am not saying that what you do isn’t beautiful, but it’s theoretically absurd,” said Debussy’s teacher at the Paris Conservatoire of his parallel chords, to which Debussy replied: “There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.” This is the pleasure these three musicians translate for today’s listeners.
Translated by Richard Robinson
For the original French lyrics and their English translation click here: