Lessons for Rufus: Debussy cuts in

February 20, 2007


[Email sent to M. Rufus Wainwright from M. Claude Debussy; 19 February 2007]

Mon cher,

Do not listen to that macho cowboy Ives about changing your name. He is an idiot.

I was assigned to oversee your work on your new opera, but told not to interfere. I have been in correspondence with Ms. Brown about my insistence on passing on some advice to you directly. I’ve tried to send it to you psychically but you are not getting it, so I’ve asked for, and been granted an intervention.

Your work is really quite good for your first attempt (although I can not say that I was ever a master of that form myself). Your melodies are terrific. There are still some elements that many of us are concerned about, so we will try our best to pass on what we can for your further education while you are working on the opera. Most of us see you as a ray of hope in this bleak horizon of so-called “contemporary music.” There are others who see you as a modern day Karen Carpenter, which in their eyes is not a compliment. Don’t listen to them: they are just jealous. Composers: a touchy lot. The bottom line is to NOT write for them. Write for yourself and if it is your fancy, your audience. But don’t fall into the trap of writing for composers.

Rufus, when you compose, you tend to lay down a chord as a starting point and begin from there, roving from chord to chord via your lovely melodies. This may be because of how musicians have been trained and still are.

When analyzing music, it is common for musicians to refer to “chord progressions” meaning, a series of chords that follow each other. We teach students to be able to hear and take down as dictation these chord progressions.

As music becomes more contrapuntal, or melodically elaborate, using chordal analysis to describe the texture becomes less effective to describe what is going on harmonically. Listen to the opening of my La Mer. Screw trying to analyze the chord progression, realize that these are mode progressions. I have very consciously chosen modes that govern all of my harmony, all of my texture, and all of my melody. But instead of moving to a new chord, I move to a new mode. In the opening 3 minutes of the first movement I go through the pentatonic mode, the Rimksii scale, Mixolydian, and Lydian flat-7.

If I were able to materialize and land a teaching job in some University, I would retrain my theory students to hear in MODES instead of only chords. For instance, we look at an opening of a random Mozart piano sonata. Rarely is it just chords. With my appellation recommendations, we will refer to the area that is governed by the tonic chord, or “I” will be I/Ionian. The IV will be IV/Lydian. We look at Bach counterpoint, and if we try to think of it harmonically, there are “in” notes and “out” notes. We rationalize the “out” notes as passing tones or non-harmonic accented passing tones and so forth. Referring to harmonic regions MODALLY makes ALL of the notes “in.” The “out” notes would be, in the case of traditional Western music, chromatic neighbors.

Students would learn the difference of a chord progression that goes from:

I/Ionian – IV/Lydian


I/Mixolydian – IV/Mixolydian

The first harmonic progression is typical of diatonic “classical” harmony. The second is typical of 20th Century and after blues inspired chord progression. Traditional choral analysis would call this:

I – IV


I flat-7 – IV flat-7

In terms of information and the endless possibilities alone, the first option seems a far richer way of explaining musical passages harmonically. Yes, when we are sitting on a subdominant IV chord in a classical work in C major, the most stable notes of the collection are F, A, and C, but the JUICIEST notes are the B, and D and E, and G, and why exclude them and call them “out” notes?

Before you nod off, let me make my point: set a MODE in motion to fire your inspiration. A chord is limiting. I know that you know how to do this, as I’ve heard it in your “Agnus Dei” and in “Bloom.”

Rufus, my boy, you can invent your own modes. Sit down at the piano and find 6 notes that make you horny to write music. Or 7 notes, or 8 notes. Write them down. Name them. I hate the modern trend of set theory appellation where pitch collections are referred to as numbers. I prefer names that come from history or at least the moods they evoke. I just wrote a mode yesterday that I called “Sappho.” I found that is had a slight patchouli aroma!

I have been limited to this one email until much later. Embrace modes Rufus. Learn the power of mode progressions.

Keep up the good work, and learn from Charles, even though he can be an impossible man from time to time. He has a good heart, he is just biochemically unbalanced.

Astral hugs,

C. Debussy

[Kisses to Kate.]

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

moonbug February 20, 2007 at 11:22 am

Roger: brilliant piece of writing — and funny to boot. The notion of mood vs chord progresssions was an eye-opener. Could we possibly read Charles Ives’ retort? I mean, Debussy surely CC’ed this one, didn’t he? 🙂

Roger Bourland February 20, 2007 at 1:03 pm

You can be sure that Charles, the salty curmudgeon that he is, will have an opinion!

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