Debussy Comes At You Fast

Stumbling through an inadequate description of how Khatia Buniatishvili’s interpretation of Claire de Lune got such a strong response out of me

Last night, as I was trying to get to sleep, I watched a video of Khatia Buniatishvili playing Debussy’s Clair de Lune from her video album Motherland Live: Concert in the Woods. (The embedded video, assuming it still works, is from the same performance, but for some reason has lower audio quality. For me, at least, it was enough to “break the spell.”)

There’s a part in Clair de Lune that always makes me gasp, as the tension of the song “breaks;” in this performance, it’s around 2:15. Hearing it last night, though, I didn’t just gasp. I burst into tears, to the point I was a little concerned for myself.

Suddenly I was like the women in Mulholland Drive listening to “Llorando,” except I wasn’t in an extra-dimensional concert venue; I was lying in my bed watching a performance of a song I’ve heard thousands of times before. Yet there I was, crying like I was auditioning for St. Vincent.1I couldn’t decide which reference I liked better, so I stuck with both.

I started experimenting on myself, like a surgeon with questionable ethics poking different parts of a patient’s exposed brain, to see what kind of reaction they can get. Here’s another video of Buniatishvili performing the same piece, with just as much expression, but while it’s no less beautiful, it didn’t provoke the same response. I watched this neat video from “Rousseau” that all but explains how the song works, and as I’d expected, I got no more emotional than I would have reading (and not understanding) the sheet music. But then I went back to the original, even fast-forwarded to the part that got me last time, and then boom I was crying again.

I have to admit that the music of Claude Debussy kind of scares me. As someone who can barely read sheet music and has little frame of reference for classical music apart from what shows up on compilations, I just don’t understand Debussy’s music at any kind of intellectual level, or how or why it has such an impact on me. I can explain why I burst into tears reading The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager. I can explain why I still gasp every time Raymond Burr looks at the camera in Rear Window, and I can explain why the seemingly mundane image at the end of The Blair Witch Project is more chilling and creepy than any of its contemporaries. I could even make a reasonable attempt of explaining why you can stare at a Magic Eye painting and suddenly see a dolphin.

Another classical music moment that always makes me gasp is Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. (In that performance, it’s the section that starts at around 2:50, and the part that gets me every damn time (even now, as I’m surgically picking it apart) is at 3:35). But at least with that, I feel like I get it. As in a performance of Peter and the Wolf for children, I can pick out the different parts of the orchestra, and I know what kind of emotional response they’re designed to provoke. I can imagine Copland going to the Adirondacks or Yosemite or wherever he went, looking out over the vistas, hearing this kind of instrumentation in his head, and building a traditional melody into an anthem for national parks and beef commercials.2Yes, I know it was Rodeo and not Appalachian Spring in the beef commercials.

I can’t, however, imagine Debussy standing at the beach for a bit, cracking his knuckles, saying “Très bien, faisons cette chose!”3Or however you actually say “All right, let’s do this thing!”, then sitting down and coming up with La Mer. I’ve listened to that performed dozens of times, and I try to conjure images of the ocean because of the title, but I never “see it.” Instead, it seems to fill my brain with ideas and emotions in the abstract — wonder, suspense, victory, sadness, awe, mystery, calm — glowing words floating in a black void, like an educational cartoon. I realize that it’s not intended to conjure images of the ocean, but make me feel exactly how Debussy felt when he saw the ocean.

At that moment in Clair de Lune last night, I felt a similarly profound sense of connection. First, to Buniatishvili, because even though her connections to the song (which she describes in an interlude at the beginning of the video as being those of a woman realizing she wants more from the world) aren’t familiar to me, the emotional response is. And then Debussy himself, who seems to be reaching out across a century to transfer his feelings, Brainstorm-style, directly into my brain. And then, because I inevitably trace my strongest memories directly back to Disney parks, the Impressions de France film at Epcot, which might be the first time I heard Debussy’s music — in particular, an orchestral version of Clair de Lune is set to a flight over the French Alps at around 10:40 in that video — and I remember how much my mother enjoyed that movie. And it was one of the few attractions that we could share together. It was a sense that every human who’s ever heard this song performed has this exact same feeling in common with each other, even if we all have our own interpretations of and emotional connections to it.

So what I’m ultimately saying is that Debussy’s music feels unsettlingly intrusive to me. Even more when it’s being performed by someone with as much expressiveness as Khatia Buniatishvili. (Slightly less when it’s put at the beginning of “Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Pink Martini and the Von Trapps, which implies that everyone has their own emotional connection to the music and associations with it). He’s a dangerous alien, and he must be stopped.

Edited to add: I’ve been informed that M. Debussy passed away on March 25, 1918, and is therefore no longer an immediate threat. And it was raining. His music still has emotional volatility that seems to last beyond years and beyond death, so I recommend listening to it with caution.