Kathleen Supové: The Debussy Effect
New Focus Recordings

Kathleen Supové gave the seven composers whose works are featured on her double-CD release The Debussy Effect the best possible direction: “write something for solo piano (with or without electronics) based, in some way, on Debussy, and make a piece that would bring him into our century”—a brief that's ideal in providing a clear focus for the composer without imposing creative constraint upon the imaginative possibilities. Taking her direction to heart, the composers produced pieces for her that are respectful of Debussy but not overly reverential and irreverent but not disrespectful. Many works are distinguished by an appealing playfulness, with Matt Marks' Dr. Gradus vs. Rev. Powell and Daniel Felsenfeld's Cakewalking (Sorry Claude) offering inspired riffs on “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” and “Golliwog's Cakewalk” from Debussy's Children's Corner.

Inspiration for the project came from a couple of sources. When curating the NYC-based Music With a View series, she was struck by the fact that almost every composer interviewed at the event cited Debussy as an influence, no matter how different they were from one another; perhaps even more importantly, as she performed Morton Subotnick's work for solo piano and sound processing, The Other Piano, she found herself thinking that it sounded like something Debussy might have written were he alive today.

Supové's a theatrical performer, something clearly shown by a simple image search, yet while she is flamboyant, she's also one of America's most acclaimed pianists and a champion of contemporary composition (indicative of the regard with which she's held is Felsenfeld's comment that “with this piece I am proud to join the ranks of so many composers who have written pieces for Kathy, a hero of us all”). She's known for an annual series of solo concerts called The Exploding Piano that showcases her theatrical side in adding vocal performances, electronics, and performance art to the piano presentation. Certainly her future-thinking attitude regarding the keyboard's sound-generating potential is well-served by Joan LaBarbara's Storefront Diva: a dreamscape in the way it embeds the piano within a painterly soundscape. Featuring everything from storm sounds and Tibetan cymbals to bowed and plucked piano timbres, the sixteen-minute setting is an encompassing exploration that sees Supové fully embracing the experimental possibilities such material affords.

Electronics play a bold part in many other pieces, too. During Annie Gosfield's four-part electro-acoustic work, Shattered Apparitions of the Western Wind (inspired by Debussy's stormy prelude “What the West Wind Saw”), on-site recordings of Hurricane Sandy interweave with Supové's live playing, resulting in an oft-turbulent, violently churning swirl. For his haunting Dr. Gradus vs. Rev. Powell, Marks drew for inspiration not only from Debussy but the predatorial preacher played by Robert Mitchum in Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter. In fashioning the material as an imaginary battle between the two, Marks juxtaposes elegant Debussy-esque pianisms and dream-like atmospheres sprinkled with the ghostly presence of Lillian Gish, who shields the children from the preacher's advances in the noir classic. For his What Remains of a Rembrandt, Randall Woolf poses an answer to the question “What does it mean to be like Debussy?” by blending into the classical realm associated with the composer elements of ambient, Gamelan, and stride piano, and by adopting an open-ended, intuitively driven approach to the work's structure.

Elsewhere, Eric Kenneth Malcolm Clark makes good on his Layerings 3 title by weaving multiple Supovés into an ever-tinkling colossus that alternately dazzles, shimmers, and blurs. Similarly dense is Jacob Cooper's La plus que plus que lente, whose endlessly rippling, ‘Continuous Music'-styled shimmer temporarily transforms Supov into Lubomyr Melnyk. Echoes of "Golliwog's Cakewalk" conspicuously surface within Felsenfeld's Cakewalking (Sorry Claude), even if, as the composer states, his deconstruction imagines “a 21st-Century Golliwog put through his peregrinations and paces, until he comes out, at the end, somewhat more enlightened.” Composition aside, one of the most pleasing things about the piece is that it presents the piano sans electronics and thus affords the listener a chance to hear Supové's playing in its purest form.

Though Supové's virtuosic command is evident throughout the ninety-seven-minute collection, her playing isn't marked by self-indulgent displays. Instead, she unwaveringly uses the piano as a means by which to realize a particular musical end in keeping with the composer's vision for the piece in question. For Supové, it's all about achieving the intended effect.

November 2016