An Exploration of Musical Impressionism: Building a Library of Claude Debussy

I am by no measure well-versed in the realms of classical music. The principal foci of my archive center around minimalism, ambient works, the classical avant-garde, and early milestone compositions of electroacoustic / musique concrète. But with that said, I understand and greatly revere the foundational soundworks which directly inspired much of what came to pass in 20th century music. Paramount among these are the musical impressionism of Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, and Maurice Ravel, (though Debussy, himself staunchly rejected the “impressionist” label). These composers’ use of musical “color,” unique chord combinations, ambiguous tonality, extended harmonies, use of modes and exotic scales, parallel motion, extra-musicality, and evocative titles were together fundamental in inspiring what came to be known as “ambient” music in the West later in the 20th century.

So it seemed only fitting that I obtain for my library the finest and most complete collection of these composers’ works. For the first stage of this endeavor, I selected Debussy as the target of my research. I began by securing collections and compilations and researching the release history of interpretations of Debussy’s work by various performers, and reading up on the mastering and performative quality of each.

 On compact disc I obtained –

  • A multi-volume collection of Alexis Weissenberg’s interpretations of Debussy on Deutsche Grammophon issued in West Germany in 1986
  • The Orpheus Trio’s renditions of Ravel, Faure, Debussy, and Devienne issued by Vanguard Everyman Classics in 1987/1980
  • Four of the five volumes of the 1991/2 EMI Classics France albums comprising unparalleled performances of Debussy by Aldo Ciccolini
  • The London Philharmonic’s performances of La Mer, Prélude à l’aprés-midi d’un Faune, and Jeux conducted by Serge Baudo issued by EMI Eminence in the UK in 1986
  • The Solomon Trio interpreting Ravel, Debussy, and Gabriel Fauré’s Piano Trio issued by Masters Pickwick Group in England from 1992
  • Simon Rattle conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s performances of Debussy’s Images, Jeux, and Musiques pour “Le Roi Lear” issued by EMI Digital in 1990
  • Debussy – Images performed by Simon Trpceski issued by EMI Classics in 2008

Then I collected the following digital releases – 

  • Claude Debussy – The Debussy Edition [17CD+18th bonus disc of historical recordings] box set issued by Deutsche Grammophon in 2012
  • Debussy · Ravel – Orchestral Works [8CD] set directed by Jean Martinon featuring Aldo Ciccolini on piano, recorded by Sale Wagram, Paris, 1973 & 1974 issued by EMI Classics in 2002
  • Claude Debussy – The Complete Works For Piano performed by Walter Gieseking [4CD] set issued in 2006

I found some particularly interesting details about the Gieseking 4CD set.

Cristofori on Amazon reviewing Gieseking’s The Complete Works For Piano stated:

There aren’t many historical/mono classical recordings that I can firmly say have not been bettered by more modern renditions but Gieseking’s Debussy are among a handful that have yet to be surpassed. Gieseking’s use of tones and colors is amazing. Listening to his playing puts you in a dreamlike state. There may be more technically perfect pianists out there but I have yet to hear one that gives the same kind of feel and nuance as does Gieseking’s.

These recordings, made in the mid 1950’s near the end of Gieseking’s death, are his final say on the piano music of Debussy. Many aficionados will point to his 1930’s renditions as superior but truth be told I can’t give an opinion as I haven’t listen to those much. I do know that his first Debussy cycle has always been harder to find and sound quality may be hit or miss depending on who is doing the transfers.

The mid 1950’s mono sound on these recordings actually enhances the listening experience rather then take away from it, giving it a ghostly, ethereal quality that cannot be duplicated today. This new 5CD box by Warner is probably the cleanest these have ever sounded but I actually don’t mind the “haze” on some of the older editions as it adds to the dreaminess of Gieseking’s playing.

Curiously, upon researching this release further, I discovered that the original 1990s CD release was later remastered for Super Audio CD and issued as a hybrid 4xSACD set in Europe in 2012.

Additional commenters on Amazon described the noticeable improvements on the Super Audio edition. Leeber Cohen said:

This is an incredibly wonderful box !!! I learned the Suite Bergamasque and Chidren’s Corner Suite decades ago and I forgot how much I enjoyed Gieseking’s performance which was one of my favorite LPs as a child. Gieseking is a perfect pianist for this music. His range of color and dynamics is very close to perfect. I agree with the other reviewers that the quality of the recorded sound in these CDs is a vast improvement. I compared my 1990s copy of the two books of the Preludes to this CD and the haze is pretty much gone. Please obtain these 5 CDs while they remain available. The box is budget priced and is an incredible bargain.

And Thomas said:

I like this remastered version better than the remastered version of 1992. In this newer version, all the notes are clear and resonant. In the older version The notes sound shallow and muddy.

Also, on vinyl, my library already included the following – 

  • The Debussy – Leonard Slatkin, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra – La Mer • Prélude À L’Après-midi D’Un Faune • Danses Sacrée Et Profane LP issued by Telarc Digital from 1982

  • Tomita – Snowflakes Are Dancing (The Newest Sound Of Debussy), comprising Tomita’s arrangements of Claude Debussy’s “tone paintings” performed on a Moog synthesizer and a Mellotron

Snowflakes was released by RCA Victor in 1974. It was nominated for four Grammy Awards in 1975, including best classical album of the year, and it was NARM’s best-selling classical album of the year.

The release notes for the La Mer Telarc Digital LP state the following about the recording and mastering:

During the recording of the digital masters and the subsequent transfer to disc, the entire audio chain was transformerless. The signal was not passed through any processing device (i.e., compression, limiting, or equalization) at any step during production.

Sampling frequency conversion of Telarc’s Soundstream digital master to the Compact Disc format was accomplished with the Studer SFC-16 sampling frequency converter. The digital information was not subject to any analog intersteps, thus preserving the integrity of the original digital master.

My goal was to acquire as complete a library of Debussy’s work as was available in the vinyl format. I performed a search on the Discogs database for complete box sets of Debussy’s works issued on vinyl and I found the following:

  • Claude Debussy, Werner Haas – Complete Works For Piano Solo • Das Klavierwerk • Œuvres Pour Piano Seul – 5LP (Netherlands) and 6LP (Spain) complete piano solo box set
  • Claude Debussy, Walter Gieseking ‎– L’Œuvre De Piano5LP box set
  • Claude Debussy – Louis De Froment, Orchestra Of Radio Luxembourg – His Works For Orchestra Volume I: La Mer, Prelude A L’Apres-midi D’un Faune, La Plus Que Lente, Le Martyre De Saint Sebastien, Le Triomphe De Bacchus, Le Roi Lear, Marche Ecossaise, La Boit A Joujoux, Excerpts From L’Enfant Prodigue, Berceuse Heroique – 3LP box set of Complete Orchestral Works Vol 1 which is concluded with:
  • Debussy – Orchestra Of Radio Luxembourg, Louis De Froment – His Works For Orchestra (Complete); Vol. II – 3LP box set
  • Debussy*, Peter Frankl – Complete Piano Music Volume 1 & 2 – Volume 1 is 1LP, Vol 2 is 3LPs
  • Claude Debussy – Jörg Demus – Complete Piano Music – 8 single-LP volumes issued by the Musical Heritage Society

My interest was primarily in Debussy’s solo piano works, so my ideal choice of these vinyl editions appeared to be Claude Debussy, Werner Haas – Complete Works For Piano Solo • Das Klavierwerk • Œuvres Pour Piano Seul which was only issued in the Netherlands and in Spain.

When I researched the production history of that particular release further, I discovered that some of those  recordings were issued on two CDs in 2007 by Philips Classics, though reviewers on Amazon make note of the noticeably quiet mastering and subtle hiss present on the CDs.

Listener on Amazon had this to say:

Debussy’s music is not meant to be performed with exaggerations, as many other pianists do in their recordings of his music. Haas offers what is on the page and does it beautifully. The playing is also, from a technical aspect, absolutely perfect. I cant find any “Teutonic” qualities as the other reviewer said. Instead I found much tenderness and subtlety as there should be. There only bad quality I could find is with the recording. Since it is old, from the late sixties, there is a noticeable hiss, especially in the quieter passages. It is, as with the case of all Philips CDs, slightly expensive for the amount of music, but nonetheless still a great purchase. This is a must buy. I only lament that this, along with his equally great recording of Ravel’s works, is all there really is from Mr. Haas. 

This vinyl box set includes an 8-page LP-size booklet with musicological notes in English, German and French. There are a few differences between the Netherlands and Spanish editions, most noticeably the language of the cover text. The Spanish edition also includes a sixth LP, featuring the works for two pianos or piano 4-hands, but I opted for the English packaging to facilitate interpretation of the track listing.

I’ve been performing similar research for the music of Erik Satie and have selected a vinyl box set of his complete piano works but it is an exceedingly rare import so I’ll have to postpone that project for the time being. Still, Haas’ Complete Works For Piano Solo is a wonderful beginning for this journey.

Innerspace Labs’ Year-End Large Library Catalog

With Thanksgiving off from work and the whole day to myself it felt like the perfect opportunity to run some metrics on my archive to provide me with some valuable insight as to the development of my larger libraries just in time to close out the year. 

And it couldn’t have come a more fitting time, as I’ve been filled with inspiration and have been actively expanding my archive thanks to the magnificent ambient soundscapes showcased on the syndicated radio program, Hearts of Space

I maintain a complete broadcast archive of every transmission of the program since 1983 – over 1200 hours of ambient space music. These tone poems accompany me for eight hours every day at the office, and all through the night as I sleep. (For someone as hyperproductive as I am, this music is a godsend as it helps to quiet my overactive mind.)

Captivated by these contemporary instrumental works, I’ve spent the last few months compiling complete discographic archives of the artists featured on the program, many of whom have over one hundred albums in their respective catalogs spanning the history of ambient and space music. It’s a labor of love, and infinitely rewarding as I enjoy the company of their music all throughout my waking and restful hours.

I had previously compiled a digital archive of all official and unofficial Tangerine Dream releases, including the Tangerine Tree live recording archive totaling 298 discs of electronic ambient music. 

Soon thereafter I assembled a complete discography of the 45 releases by modern classical composer Harold Budd. I’ve loved his soft-pedal technique ever since I first heard his collaborations with Brian Eno.

Inspired by the Hearts of Space program I continued this effort by building a lossless library of the 72 releases by veteran ambient composer, Robert Rich. Rich has been featured on 84 transmissions of Hearts of Space and is a staple figure of the genre.

From there I built an archive of the 161-album catalog of his collaborator and Hearts of Space favorite artist, Steve Roach. Roach’s recordings are informed by his impressions of environment, perception, flow, and space and are considered to be highly influential in the genre of new age music.

Next I compiled a complete 100-album discography of the late master of Tibetan singing bowls, Klaus Wiese. Wiese played tamboura on Popol Vuh’s classic Hosianna Mantra and Seligpreisung LPs and is considered by some as one of the great ambient and space music artists.

I then secured a 149-disc library of the German dark ambient / drone ambient musician, Mathias Grassow. His Wikipedia entry notes that “[his] music often has a meditative and emotional and spiritual context, which induces deep feelings of introspection in listeners.”

I did the very same for the Berlin minimalist composer Andrea Porcu, who performs under the moniker Music For Sleep, and for UK experimental artist 36 (a project of Dennis Huddleston), and for other prominent figures of the genre. 

These explorations directly resulted in a number of physical media investments like the Hearts of Space first transmission LP limited to 500 copies worldwide, Robert Rich’s Premonitions 4LP box set (also limited to 500 copies), and the limited edition Nighthawks / Translucence / Drift Music autographed vinyl box set comprising the complete collaborations of Harold Budd and John Foxx.

I last published a feature on my playlist projects five years ago so it seemed like a good idea to recalculate the number of albums and total runtimes for the artists and record labels representing the largest segments of my library as a means of both organizing large sets of data and to serve as a reminder of catalogs I still need to explore in full. And while the former project from 2015 included large-scale genre maps I thought that this time it would be more productive to focus on specific artists, producers, and record labels specializing in a particular sound to highlight large libraries in my archive.

So that tabulation is consistent and equally weighted across various collections, I’ve calculated totals based on the total number of discs, so that a 30-disc box set weighs accurately against a single-disc release.

I factored collections of greater than 20 albums as being eligible large libraries. I was going to render a set of graphs of the results as I did with large playlists in 2015, but given the sheer number of eligible sets I felt that the data is most clearly expressed in a basic table. This list of approximately one hundred artists accounts for roughly 1% of the artists in my library, but over 75% of the total albums cataloged.

Here are the results, organized from largest to smallest libraries. I’ll divide the results into three categorical sets – first complete artist / record label discographies, followed by libraries of old time radio broadcasts, and close with box sets of audiobooks.

Here are the discographies:

Largest Discographic Archives by Artist / Record Label:# of Discs
Hearts of Space Radio Broadcast Archive1232
The Progressive-Kraut-Psych-Avant garde Rock Collection (Vols I-VIII)753
Underworld600
The World’s Greatest Jazz Collection500
Psybient DVD Packs Map317
Tangerine Dream and Tangerine Tree Live Archive298
Big Band Music Digital Archive259
FAX +49-69450464 Catalog (Pete Namlook)254
The KLF / Kopyright Liberation Front / JAMS / Justified Ancients of Mu Mu / The Timelords189
Steve Roach161
Ninja Tune Records154
Mathais Grassow149
Future Sounds of London & Amorphous Androgynous141
Lemon Jelly137
Keith Jarrett135
Max & Dima: Sapovnela Studio Sessions131
Throbbing Gristle131
111 Years of Deutsche Grammophon111
Miles Davis109
Daft Punk104
Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno100
Flea Market Funk: Funky Soul & Rare Groove100
Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention100
Hit the Brakes DJ Series100
Klaus Wiese100
RYM Top 100 Downtempo / Trip Hop LPs100
Sigur Ros100
Nurse With Wound99
Franz Liszt97
Thelonious Sphere Monk97
Good Looking Records: Archive of LTJ Bukem’s Intelligent D’n’B Label94
Deuter89
Franklin Mint’s 100 Greatest Recordings of all Time88
Vangelis87
Richard D. James / Aphex Twin86
Karlheinz Stockhausen86
Jimmy Smith85
Klaus Schulze81
Ravi Shankar81
Ludwig Van Beethoven80
Sun Ra and the Arkestra74
John Cage73
2manyDJS / Radio Soulwax72
Robert Rich72
They Might Be Giants72
Café del Mar71
Peter Gabriel68
Philip Glass68
Ornette Coleman66
Mike Oldfield65
Muslimgauze63
Tom Waits63
The Orb63
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers62
Spacemind Psybient Mix Series62
Cornelius60
Attention K-Mart Shoppers: K-Mart Corporate Muzak (1973-1992)58
DJ Food & Solid Steel Radio Sets58
Porcupine Tree58
Parliament / Funkadelic57
Ambient Music Guide Podcast (2015-2019) by Mike G55
Cocteau Twins52
Herbie Hancock52
Ash Ra Tempel / Manuel Göttsching50
Early Experimental Electronic Music (1940-1976)50
Bill Laswell49
Early Moog & Synthesizer Library48
Jimmy McGriff48
Harold Budd45
Ryuichi Sakamoto44
Duke Ellington42
Bob Marley & The Wailers40
Captain Beefheart40
DJ Prestige39
Fela Kuti: The King of Afrobeat39
Enya37
John Fahey36
Fluke35
Low35
Arvo Pärt33
Electronic Supper Club33
Robert Fripp33
Charles Mingus32
Jah Wobble31
Moog Indigo: Classic Albums of Space Age Bachelor Pad Music31
Claude Debussy30
John Coltrane30
The Flaming Lips30
Chant Ambrosien: Sacred Music From the Middle Ages to the 20th Century29
Music For Sleep (Andrea Porcu)29
Kruder & Dorfmeister28
Moondog28
Cabaret Voltaire26
William Basinski26
Son House: Walkin’ Blues (The Complete Recordings)25
Top 25 Psybient Ultimae Records Releases25
Autechre24
36 (Ambient Composer Dennis Huddleston)22
Biosphere21

And the Old Time Radio series:

Old Time Radio:# of Discs
Dragnet298
The Adventures of Superman171
The Goon Show168
X Minus One (1955-1973)122
CBS Radio Mystery Theater: The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes83
BBC Radio: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes79
The Shadow (1937-1954)75
The Complete Sherlock Holmes Audiobooks60
Flash Gordon26
Orson Welles Mercury Theater 193820

And Audiobooks:

Audiobooks:# of Discs
Ray Bradbury425
Isaac Asimov348
Douglas Adams268
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle207
Philip K Dick124
HP Lovecraft (Dark Adventure Radio Theatre Complete Programs)17

The next libraries I intend to collect are Conny Plank’s 122-release extended discography, Dieter Moebius’ 65-album map, Hans-Joachim Roedelius’ 115-release catalog, and the 126 releases by Klaus Schulze, Pete Namlook, and Tetsu Inoue.

This new data will prove to be immeasurably useful for my annual reports and as a mental bookmark of large libraries I’ll continue to explore throughout my work days and subliminally while I sleep each night. And I have exciting new listening equipment arriving in the weeks ahead which will further enhance my sonic experience so stay tuned for an exciting feature to kick off the year 2020!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.