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Nicholas Cords Invites Debussy To Dinner

Claude Debussy counted a number of artists, musicians and socialites among his friends at the turn of the 20th century.
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Claude Debussy counted a number of artists, musicians and socialites among his friends at the turn of the 20th century.

All this week, we've been asking you to tell us which composer you'd love to bring back from the grave to have dinner and drinks with. Below, Nicholas Cords, violist for the quartet Brooklyn Rider, plans a long evening with Claude Debussy.

I suppose there are some composers I would rule out right off the bat: I might fear for my life to share a meal with the Italian madrigalist Gesualdo, who killed his wife and her lover in a jealous rage. The conversation might be a little difficult with Beethoven, and I think I might be too intimidated to clink glasses with Bach.

So, monsieur Debussy, would you care to dine with me?

To break the ice, we could start by describing our respective communities and artistic circles.

Debussy’s career straddled the extraordinary era of fin-de-siècle Paris. His life intersected with a veritable who’s who of culture: he played for Franz Liszt; he had a summer job in his conservatory days entertaining Nadezhda von Meck (friend of Tchaikovsky); he counted amongst his musical friends Erik Satie, Ernest Chausson and Igor Stravinsky;  he ran in similar circles with artists Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin and Odilon Redon; he befriended leading poets of the day, like Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, and he collaborated with the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. He even had occasion to meet Charlie Chaplin!

To me, this is an incredible model to operate in as an artist: cast a wide web and draw inspiration from as many sources as possible. One of the reasons I love living in Brooklyn is the amazing community of artists who inhabit the borough. Brooklyn Rider’s circle of friends includes musicians of so many different traditions, dancers, visual artists, writers, designers, architects, arts administrators, etc. We live in a time of intense creativity because artists of many disciplines are talking with each other. Debussy’s world serves as an inspiring model of this kind of musical ecosystem.


We hear so much about how the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889 affected Debussy's music. He claimed that the Javanese gamelan orchestra he heard there expressed "every shade of meaning, even the unnamable. I would love to know what his visceral impressions were. What were the sights, sounds, smells of the exhibition? My life in Brooklyn Rider and the Silk Road Ensemble is such an explicitly itinerant lifestyle (a literal world expo), but I am intrigued by Debussy’s ability to be a great creator of music that travels geographically, despite being a man who rarely ever left France.

For a man who once declared that musically, "Pleasure is the law," I think he would get a real charge out of today's diverse musical landscape. I would want to share some music with him from my iPod to witness his sense of discovery and the joy of hearing something extraordinary for the first time. Perhaps some Ali Farka Touré or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Maybe some Sigur Rós or Antony and the Johnsons might capture his imagination.

And maybe by that point, we would be comfortable enough to transition into some live music. I would absolutely love to hear Debussy play the piano -- his approach was said to have been very dramatic, full of deeply etched colors and extreme dynamics, hardly thought possible to achieve on the piano. Of course, it would be amazing to play his string quartet for him with my Brooklyn Rider colleagues. What a unique chance to discuss the sound and style that he was used to hearing, and how that has changed so radically through the 118 years since he wrote the quartet.

This might have to be a multi-course affair with lots and lots of wine…

Nicholas Cords is a violist and member of the string quartet Brooklyn Riderand Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble.

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Nicholas Cords