Haven String Quartet Meets Debussy In Japan

Bibliothèque nationale de France Phillip Boulanger leaned into his cello, pursing his lips as the first few notes of Claude Debussy’s “Quartet in G Minor” loosed themselves from the belly of the instrument. His eyes brightened. Wagner and his epic ring cycle were turning in a German grave far away. Mahler’s ghost coughed up a phlegmy century of monochromatic tradition. Boulanger and the Haven String Quartet left them in the dust as they played on. Behind them, Utagawa Toyokuni’s The Eijudo Fan Store sprang to life, a suite of women in pastel-toned, faded kimonos heading back to their business as a melody bloomed in the air.

A universe away, Debussy was still alive, hovering near the entrance of Paris’ “Exposition des Maitres Japonais” at the École des Beaux-Arts. The year was 1890, and he was in line to see an impression of Katsushika Hokusai’s now-famous Under the Wave of Kangawa, a print he had first seen — and become enamored of — during his time as a student in Rome and now kept in his home for inspiration. By 1905, it would lay a foundation to his influential La Mer

Boulanger moved on to another flurry of notes. Back in 1890, Debussy inched ahead in the line, praise for the evocative color and texture of several Edo-period Ukiyo-e prints springing up around him. From her corner of the Yale University Art Gallery, educator Jessica Sack watched as the worlds collided — in perfect harmony.

At least, that was the time-defying image — or panoply of images — that the revamped Haven String Quartet conjured earlier this month as it performed its first “Playing Images” of the 2015-16 academic year. Having taken on an ambitious suite of largely Western visuals in the past, the series, which pairs canonical pieces of music with artworks on view at the Yale University Art Gallery, took its September performance as a chance to turn to four Japanese works on paper, on temporary view from the Asian Art Department. The result, much to the Quartet’s delight, was a contemporary and community-friendly discussion that breathed new life into France’s very old affair with Edo-period art. 

“You’ll hear Debussy and think ‘well, why aren’t we in the Impressionist galleries?’ Because Debussy is considered to be one of the first Impressionist composers,” Boulanger said after the quartet had played a snippet of the first movement. “It’s actually a distinction that he hated during his lifetime ... the Japanese art that Debussy was drawn to is actually much more aligned to the type of colors and textures he was trying to create.”

That came alive during the performance, which highlighted how much Debussy’s craft — his ability, as one contemporary noted, to “paint in color” — was influenced by the methodical nature of woodblock printing, its emphatically nonwestern color palette, an effect of water-based printing inks, and dreamlike, pleasing depiction of the “floating world” in which Japan’s Edo-period urban centers operated. To a layered, unraveling beginning, Kitagawa Utamaro’s Persimmon Gatherers unfroze and jumped back into action, their black and pink kimonos billowing as they filled their hands with red fruit. To a handful of melodic arabesques, spilling out across the gallery, Utagawa Toyokuni’s Fourth Month Fishmonger popped out from the wall.

This, Sack and Haven String Quartet members explained, was not just Debussy the composer, but Debussy the musical master printer, a man methodically at work layering color, aligning the wood blocks, inking their faces.

“When we think about how we compose textures in Western music before the year 1900 or so, independent lines — lines from different instruments that work against each other, and sometimes towards each other — were highly valued. The textural writing that Debussy embarks on is entirely different, and it is very similar to the sort of printmaking,“ added Gregory Tompkins. “You hear how lines move in the same way ... these parallel motions going at the same time. For people who studied traditional counterpoint, that sort of motion was avoided because it produced the independence of the liens. Here, Debussy could care less about the independence of the lines.”

Around him, images of the floating world glinted anew. “He’s looking for blocking. And color.” he added.

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