When Debussy wrote La Mer he had a print of The Wave from Katsushika Hokusai's Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (1830) hanging in his studio. It was reproduced on the cover of the first edition of the score. The premiere of the piece in 1905 sparked a controversy in musical circles: Debussy's followers felt let down by the lack of abstraction, nuance and suggestion in the piece; others found it too abstract. In Paul Dukas' words:
"Some can't find the sea, others the music."
The criticism that hurt Debussy the most was that of Pierre Lalo, son of the composer and critic of Le Temps:
"For the first time listening to a picturesque work of Debussy's I had the impression of confronting not nature, but a reproduction of nature..."
This question of naturalism versus abstraction is a sub-issue in a debate which has run through the mainstream of 20th century music, right up to today: What is music about? itself, or something outside itself? To what extent does or can music refer only to itself? in other words, to what extent can music be abstract?
Composers' responses to these questions have split them into two main camps: conceptualists and materialists.
The conceptualists begin with an idea. Their concern is primarily with the way in which music is put together. Materialists concentrate on the nature of material itself, and attempt to allow the material to determine the piece.Very broadly speaking, the European avant garde have tended toward conceptualism (Schoenberg, Bartok, Berg, Webern, Stockhausen, Boulez) while the Americans (Ives, Varese, Partch, Cage, Feldman and the early minimalists) have inclined to take a greater interest in letting the material speak for itself.
The problem of expression (in the sense of portraying emotional states) has not been central to compositional discourse in the 20th century, although like a younger brother or sister it has always hung around and refused to go away.
The attraction of Japanese art, particularly for non-conceptualists, lies in the success with which the artists have combined a deep feeling for nature with a high degree of formalism and abstraction. Neither in visual arts nor in music and poetry is there an emphasis on the development of an argument. Rather, the aim seems to be to capture a moment as clearly as possible. The approach is contemplative rather than introspective The presence of the materials and means of presentation are given equal emphasis with the subject.
I have tried to make the subject of my piece the materials of orchestral music. There is no narrative, no drama, no hidden agenda. As such it is the most abstract of my pieces to date.
I chose the title One Hundred Frames only in passing reference to Hokusai's later One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji.(1834). with Frames rather than Views because I was interested in the elusive qualities of surface rather than content.
As a concession to conceptualism, I decided to write the piece on one hundred sheets of paper using one hundred chords. Like Hokusai I overshot the mark somewhat (there are 102 Views in One Hundred Views...).