Monday, March 9, 2015

It's not what it sounds like

Does this sound like an octopus to you?


If you said yes, you may want to see a doctor. Or you are already familiar with Erik Satie's "Sports et Divertissments" for piano. In which case, your answer still should have been "no."

Last week, we examined some of the pieces from this collection that Satie wrote for such activities as "fishing" and "yachting" which, if you were given the title beforehand, and maybe in a rare case even if you weren't, you might get the impression captured the events musically. But I warned you, assuming a one to one relationship between a story, picture, or event, and a musical composition, is probably oversimplifying, and oversimplifying is certainly not something that applies to Erik Satie.

As with many a musicological argument, I've gotten there in the middle, but it seems that there are some folks who admire Mr. Satie for his tone-painting in this work. In particular, for the way his music relates to the illustrations that accompany each of the pieces. But in a blog I read recently, the author points out that Mr. Satie never actually saw any of the drawings that accompanied his music, and that he wrote the music first anyhow. That pretty much only leaves his music as a generalized portrait of the activity in question, which, given that they are Satie's own titles, is a fairly safe bet.

That is, it is a safe bet that he could have written his pieces with particular reference to the events of the title. Whether he chose to actually do so takes us into the world of Erik Satie.

Satie liked to work on different levels, and frequently allowed those levels to collide, or, most often, to have no relation at all to one another. In his scores he will often keep up a running dialogue with the performer. There is nothing unusual about a steady stream of tempo and expressive directions in a musical score, such as telling the performer to slow down in one spot or to play tenderly in another. But how does one play "like a nightingale with a toothache" or "very lost"? Those are just two of the endlessly descriptive, very funny, and possibly useless instructions to the performer so common to his pieces. Sometimes Satie will weave these instructions into a narrative as he does in the Sonata Bureaucratic. The running gag about a dull-witted office worker has apparently nothing at all to do with the music, which is itself a parody of a Clementi sonatina often massacred by students.

In the second movement of his collection "Dried Embryos" (yik!) Satie refers to a musical quotation. There it is a group of animals having a funeral, and the quotation is actually the famous funeral march by Chopin, only Satie tells us in the score that it is a quotation from a "famous mazurka by Schubert" who, incidentally never wrote a Mazurka, famous or otherwise. Is Satie pulling our leg?

This is why there is really nothing unusual about the instructions at the start of the movement "Yachting" from Sports and Recreations, except that it is impossible (and that hardly qualifies). Satie has clearly marked the left hand in quarter notes followed by quarter rests. Nevertheless, in the written instructions directly above this line of music he instructs to play "in half notes, the octaves of the bass" and then, to drive the point home, the quarter notes, disconnected by the intervening rests, are to be played "legato." It would be enough to drive a literal-minded, traditionally trained classical pianist to despair. After all, are we not taught that the composer's intentions must be respected to the last pen stroke? And here is something deliberately contradictory, and impossible to execute. It is either one, or the other. Satie knows this, and he knows we know, and he knows we know he knows, and....there it is. One set of instructions completely at odds with what is plain to see on the page.

Satie is also well known for never using bar lines or giving meter or key signatures, even though it is usually apparent from the music what these ought to be. Another bit of annoyance for our good re-creationist, the ever-conscientious concert pianist.

This is largely because Satie himself stood outside the establishment. He didn't get along with the pianists at the conservatory, nor they him, and his music was championed not by the respected artists of the time, but by the underground. He had friends among reputable musicians (Debussy, for one) but they didn't really take him seriously. Satie's "Sports" is subtitled "20 short pieces for piano" but there are actually 21. The set begins with an "un-frivolous" preface, called an "unappetizing chorale" which Satie has written "for those who don't like me." It is, he says, "a serious and proper chorale....I have put into it all I know about boredom."

So back to the octopus. Satie has written a little story about him. It is not to be read aloud. Satie would be piqued at violations of his edict, though it often happens in performances today. A recording available online has a narrator reading all of the comments aloud in French, while the pianist has to adopt a slow tempo and pause between gestures so she can get them all in.

The story concerns an octopus who swallows a crab and it goes down the wrong pipe. More absurdities follow. The music might mimic the rapidity of the octopus, but the repetitive, motoric gestures that dominate nearly every piece in the set sound much less evocative of nature, or people, and more like machines. There seems to be a mechanical obsession among French composers of the early 20th century, and that appears to be a reflection of the pace, and priorities, of the society around them. Short, repetitive bursts follow each other in hurried profusion which remind more of the speed of the silent movie, the dominant entertainment of the era, and which provides a key for our next installment.

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