Having lived in Singapore, I have a great interest Asian music and how it is perceived and experienced through Western ears. I have written about this phenomenon with respect to both Stewart Wallace, in his opera, The Bonesetter's Daughter, and Andrew Imbrie's interest in Korean instruments. During Paul Roberts' Master Class this afternoon at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I was reminded that Claude Debussy provided another pair of ears fascinated by the perception of Asian music. However, Roberts' efforts to convey the nature of Debussy's perceptions reminded me of the extent to which Western perceptions at the beginning of the twentieth century were far less "clinical" (if not acute) than they were at the beginning of the twenty-first.
The music in question is "Pagodes," the first of Debussy's set of three Estampes. As a point of reference, consider the introductory paragraph for the Wikipedia entry for "Pagoda:"
A pagoda is the general term in the English language for a tiered tower with multiple eaves common in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and other parts of Asia. Some pagodas are used as Taoist houses of worship. Most pagodas were built to have a religious function, most commonly Buddhist, and were often located in or near temples. This term may refer to other religious structures in some countries. In Myanmar and Thailand, "pagoda" usually means the same as stupa or chaitya, while in Vietnam, "pagoda" is a more generic term referring to a place of worship. The modern pagoda is an evolution of the Ancient Indian stupa, a tomb-like structure where sacred relics could be kept safe and venerated. The architectural structure of the stupa has spread across Asia, taking on many diverse forms as details specific to different regions are incorporated into the overall design.
The casual ear might mistake this composition for an effort on Debussy's part to depict some kind of Chinese landscape; but, as Roberts correctly observed, the musical influence is that of gamelan, which is strictly Indonesian. Thus, if one wanted to be pedantically accurate, the landscape would be one of stupas, rather than pagodas. Unfortunately, there would also be a problem of just where this landscape would be. The work begins with the gradual insinuation of the multiple layers of gamelan sound, which would be entirely appropriate for the terrain around the Prambanan temple in central Java. (This is actually where I had one of my earliest experiences of gamelan, listening to the ensemble that accompanied a performance by the Ramayana Dance Troupe on the temple grounds.) However, as Debussy builds his music to a climax, he also suddenly moves us to the neighboring island of Bali, known for its more sharply defined (and usually louder) sounds. In other words, when it came to non-Western music, Debussy was as much of a dilettante as was the fictitious foil he created for his critical writing, Monsieur Croche!