Thirteen Times of Listening to Debussy’s Arabesque in E major (1888)

I am trying to ignore the thousands of times I have heard this piano piece and recover what it meant to me when I first heard it as a child. Is it ever possible to return in memory or imagination to that artless state when the cells of the body imprinted our first impressions?

The tranquillity of the first notes evokes my earliest memory, of watching the sun dappling leaves overhead. I must have been in my pram and the marvel of the movement of the leaves and the changing patterns of light made me feel that I was laughing inside, that the leaves were laughing inside me.

After a while the tempo, and with it the mood, changes, speeds up, slows down, as if a breeze gets up, or the sun goes behind a cloud and then comes out again. It’s an April day: cool, like daffodils, the world fresh and new. This music is one of the things I sing to myself, hardly knowing I’m doing it or what it is or where it comes from. As a child, with no understanding of ownership of music, I sang all the time. If I wanted to change anything, I did. I thought the person who wrote it down hadn’t heard it properly, and anyway music belonged to everybody. Music was me, me and the weather and the flowers and the water and my relationships and my home and everything. Like another sky.

I almost don’t want to write about it. I don’t want the profound connection between music and body to be explained away.

The particular mood and colour of the Arabesque is as familiar as my own skin. It moves from turquoise to violet-blue with occasional dark blue bruised bits. I think of Winifred Nicholson trying to paint pure colour, to find the unseeable colour the other side of violet.

Tried to listen while doing something else after hearing exciting news. Couldn’t concentrate on it. It has become so much a part of me I can just tune it out. Then the CD player stopped, perhaps the speakers became disconnected. When I tried it on another player that one didn’t work either.

Debussy valued transparency. His piano music has specific and sometimes complex markings. He wanted the player not to interpret. I don’t think he would have approved of my writing this. A good performance has slight hesitations before the end of some phrases so you’re not quite sure whether Debussy is going to resolve them … and sometimes he doesn’t. Like a good novelist does, he puts a ‘hook’ at the end of many phrases, so you want to turn the page, or go on listening.

Today I am appreciating this piece as I would a painting, a still life or a Dutch interior perhaps. Arabesque is a very good title. Its decorations and patterns are reminiscent of Islamic art, in vogue at the time it was written. The phrases wind up and down and around each other in curving s’s with long slides and tighter twirls. However, what makes it so interesting and involving is its surprising depth and intensity. It isn’t just decorative. Its meditative, mantra-like surface clothes a great sadness. I can find no words to express this properly and it’s why I don’t normally like to write about music. I don’t like to use words like sadness and spiritual but that’s as near as I can get. Some music seems to contain the meaning of the universe, to resonate with something in us which opens us up to connectedness, as if we were the instrument being played.

Scene: A fountain in a Sultan’s palace in a dappled courtyard. The women of the harem peep out from behind screens with cut-work decorations and wish they could go out into the world and not be stuck forever inside with the same companions, women and children and eunuchs, fratching and complicating life. Perhaps it’s only one of them who yearns for her freedom. A blue bird briefly flies in and takes a drink from the fountain then flies off again out of the courtyard and the palace. She looks at a hibiscus blossom and thinks that’s what she is, at the end of the day she will droop and fall off the bush, and a slave will come and brush away her remains.

A little girl sits on a black horsehair sofa in an ugly room in front of a miserable coal fire, feeling sorry for herself on a Sunday afternoon in a gloomy town. Out of nowhere, it seems, come the first notes of the piano, swirling her away on a rainbow of colour, a moving cloud which lifts her gently out of her bad mood, away from the scratchy sofa, to a country she has never seen, where it is warm and bright, where she’s in some sort of a garden with orange and lemon trees and water lilies on a pond fringed by some tall elegant flower she doesn’t know that smells wonderful. The music leads her up and down steps, along a little path which winds in and out of trees swaying and rustling in a gentle breeze. And then the piano stops, and she is back on the sofa with a sense of profound engagement with something in herself she doesn’t understand. She and the room have undergone a sea-change.

I am sitting on the Rocky Beach, near my parents’ home on Vancouver Island, looking at the sea, listening to my walkman while I knit. Escaped for some peace and quiet from the strain of visiting the family, I am delighting in the view of the snow-capped mountains across the strait, the logs washed clean from their long journey from the logging camps up-Island, the bald eagle, the heron, the sea otters on the headland my only company. All my anger, anxiety and frustration are soothed by the inevitability in the music and the constancy of the sea.

During today’s listen I’m thinking of Matisse’s desire that his paintings would be like a comfortable armchair for a businessman to come home to after a day at the office. I imagine the businessman of 1888 coming home, sitting in his favourite chair, and his son playing this piece on the piano while he sips a whisky. This is always the first piece, to soothe and comfort. Its structure contains and the day. Perhaps he is Matisse’s father, coming home after a hard day at the fabrique. You can hear in the music the flow of the work, the interaction with the secretary or the deputy or manager, the row over payment, the pause – perhaps for lunch – when the machines stop briefly. There’s a quickening when he looks over at his wife in her dining chair, an impulse of love, then back to the meandering in and out and the up and down rhythms of his busy day, transformed into an understandable whole and nicely tied off at the end.

This time I notice one hand rippling along on its own for a short time. It reminds me of living alone in my twenties; then two hands are intertwining like a couple, chords in one hand then chords in both, as if more and more people are being added as the complexities and the texture of the music increases and thickens. The clarity and simplicity of the one hand playing the single notes, although beautiful, is rather lonely and maybe could not be sustained for very long.

Perfect day on Ruby Beach. There’s something special about the Pacific North West: the breeze in your face, the movement of the waves, the sun glittering on the water, the mild temperature, all contribute. It is so unlikely to have good weather here. That day, it was perfect, like this music. I am eyeballing the bald eagle eating a fish from thirty feet away, while an unknown man approaches from the other side. I’ve been writing, looking at rock pools and all the many starfish, taking in the trees, the stacks and arches, paddling with pelicans coming in to land next to me, using their feet as brakes. Now the eagle is watching from its tree on the top of a stack, waiting for us to leave before returning to its meal. Photographer friends arrive at sunset, silhouetted with their tripods against the western sky. We trudge back through the rainforest following Martin’s miner’s torch in the dark.

So tired this morning, not in tune with Debussy at all. I am being hurried along in a direction I don’t want to go. Later into the piece I am irritated by its tinkling and wish I could turn it off before it gets to the end. Then something in it (the darkness underneath) catches hold of me and I listen properly to the rest and feel reconciled. This is all oddly reminiscent of my troubled night.

Remembering Bradford, grey cold rainy city, dripping rhododendrons and fuchsia, drab greyish-brown stone, coldness in the house. And then Kenneth, the brother who introduced me to the music. Who taught me the important things which took me out of that miserable life: to read and write, to listen; that music could be funny, frightening, raw, magical – not solemn and serious at all. Who taught me mothers could be called Medea.

I am rich. I still have all of this within me, ill or well, sad or happy.

Thinking about how the Arabesque triggers memories and thoughts, of my childhood, Matisse’s paintings, Romanticism, Clair de Lune, France, my life at Kinlochard, of painting because I have painted to this music at the caravan. It has become over the years part of the fabric of my life. I remember when I first heard Schubert’s D960 piano sonata and it felt like mine, my discovery, because I hadn’t heard it first in childhood, chosen by someone else. I discovered it for myself in my twenties and that became part of my joy in it. Now though, it has been forever changed because Martin played the slow movement at Kenneth’s funeral: exactly the piece I would have chosen, but it was chosen by Kenneth, with no reference to me. He was the one who practised Debussy’s Arabesque over and over, but he could never communicate feeling like Martin could.

All the same, this piece of music living in my cells is no doubt part of thousands and thousands of other people’s, people who spent their childhood in Biarritz or Basel, not Bradford, people who heard it first on the radio, or at the National Gallery in the war, or at the City Halls in Glasgow, or on their MP3 player, or maybe even on Youtube today as they are reading this. And it might or might not go on to have personal and social and emotional meanings and resonances for any of those people. It was chance and serendipity that it landed on my wide-open, innocent, four or five year old ears.

Languid fingers playing my spine
breeze shivering the poplar trees
boats bobbing on blue water.