Monday, October 22, 2012

Secret Knowledge

Good morning. What if I told you I had an elixir to keep you young and vibrant for three easy installments of $29.95? Or that I'd throw in a couple of pills to regrow your hair and a garden hoe that doubled as a Swiss Army knife and had a built in Television and internet access? Now what would you pay for all that?

It isn't just physical objects that are subject to that sort of incredible sales pitch; we mortals can do the same thing with knowledge. In fact, what got me thinking about all that is a set of three curious little pieces by their even more curious creator, Erik Satie. They are called Gnossiennes, which was a title quite unheard of in the piano literature until Mr. Satie made it up. Can you imagine somebody just making up a word like that? (::cough:: Pianonoise)

Now there are two theories about what this word means. One is that it is a reference to a secret society known as the Gnostics. Originally an early form of Christianity which stressed being able to acquire a secret knowledge known only to its practitioners (and only after a period of study and earning the requisite privileges), it was considered heretical by the orthodox church, which tried to stamp it out, though it went underground. Some minds have always considered it attractive, which is why we find it again in 19th century France. Satie himself seems to have belonged to such a group at one point. Usually they clustered around a charismatic leader who knew things others didn't. The root Gnos- means knowledge.

The other theory is that it is actually a reference to an ancient city on the island of Crete (Knossos) which had been the site of several excavations shortly before the pieces were written.

Satie doesn't let us in on which theory is correct. In fact, he is pretty tight lipped about a lot of things, including how seriously to take what he's written, musical and otherwise. But, if you stick with me (the charismatic leader) I can tell you a few things that you probably don't know (secret knowledge) about these fascinating little pieces.

There are several interesting directions in the score. I'm not really supposed to tell you about those, but I think I'll let a few slip. While most composers have helpful hints about manners of expression or speed or dynamics, Satie's directions read like you are having a piano lesson with a Picasso painting. One of my favorite instructions from Mr. Satie is to play "like a nightingale with a toothache" (that's in another piece we'll get to some other time). At one point in the Gnossiennes the direction is to play a passage "very shiny," and in another place "with the tip of your thought." One passage in the last of the three pieces is to be played as though "very lost." I'll leave you to guess which one. .....

Then there are the tempo instructions. With most composers it would some variation on slow or fast or in between. And indeed, the first and third of the set are simply marked "slow." But the second one translates to "with astonishment." I wonder if that's the only piece that's ever been marked that way.

For some minds, this kind of approach only presents confusion, or is at best considered childish nonsense.  Give us some practical instruction! How loud? How Fast? Should I speed up, or slow down? Emphasize certain notes? ...Things I can get behind. But to "postulate within yourself"--how do you do that? And can any passage of music really be played "with great kindness?" Far from practical, many of these markings seem to inhabit a parallel universe, and could not possibly be carried out in any way that would affect the musical interpretation. Or can they?

Gnossienne 1
Gnossienne 2
Gnossienne 3

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