Monday, March 2, 2015

The thrill of distraction and the agony of the absurd

Care for a game of tennis? How about a round of golf? Later, we could even go dancing, all in just a few minute's time, all set to music, courtesy of Erik Satie. Or is it?

In 1914, Satie was approached about a strange assignment to create a series of short piano pieces detailing various human activities: sports and recreations. The pieces were to be accompanied by illustrations of those activities, and the whole, beautifully bound and featuring not only the eye-catching illustrations but the composer's own impeccably attractive penmanship, would be sold as a kind of coffee table book to rich art lovers. What a plan! Stravinsky was asked to do it, and he turned it down, saying the fee was too low. Satie was then asked and thought the fee was too high. But he did it anyway.

Those are the bald facts, but they don't give one much insight into the music itself. It is just those insights that I'm trying to plumb away at; in fact, this will drive much of a concert I'm preparing to play later this spring. Are these pieces musical depictions of something, or not? And of what use is music if it is simply imitation of something which is fundamentally not musical, like a game of tennis?

Most writers on music don't seem particularly concerned with questions like these, in fact, I often get the frustrated impression that they aren't too curious about anything. When you ask,you'll get the bare facts about a composer's birth, death, and important musical contributions. They'll tell you about the structure of the music, sometimes in quite a bit of detail, but if a piece of music bears an unusual title, they don't seem concerned about where the composer may have gotten it. I've had that experience this week when learning a piece by Jean-Phillip Rameau, which is called "The Simpletons of Sologne." Now there's an odd little title; where did he get it? Nobody seems to know, or, in most cases, care.

Given that we know very little about Rameau's life to begin with, I could understand if we simply didn't know. And, frankly, when I began the search, I assumed that the prosaic reason for the title was that the composer was simply using a pre-existing folk tune with that same title, not that he was going out of his way to portray simpletons in music. But if he is, I haven't found anyone willing to tell me that. So far, I've only come up with one program writer who speculated that it had something to do with the wandering melody. This is not only a stretch, it is fairly weak as an insight, although I still admire her making the attempt, or at least her being curious about it in the first place.

Rameau did like programmatic titles. What can the musicologists tell us about this phenomenon? They can give you antecedents. Couperin did it too, and he got there first. Must be a chain of influence. No reason as to why, but we know who Rameau may have gotten the idea from. Sometimes I think musicologists and lawyers have a lot in common. They sure can quote precedent! But, for either gentleman, why? Was it just good advertising? A way to avoid having to call everything a sonata or a gavotte?

Back to Satie. Clearly there are extra-musical intentions being explored here. And it is just that very thing that embarrasses many writers on music, so that they ignore it. But in this case, apparently, some have extoled Mr. Satie for ably capturing these portraits in music. Does he?

I don't know about you, but this piece doesn't remind me at all of a game of tennis. On the other hand, if you told me that the previous piece was about fireworks, I'd buy that. You'd probably have to reveal the title first, but I can certainly hear things associated with fireworks: there are explosions, and I can definitely hear a rocket going off at the end, even if it does turn out to be a dud!

Satie's best match of music and program is probably in the water pieces. It's easy to hear someone going down the "water-chute" but I was thinking more about the piece entitled "fishing" which is a delightful little narrative beginning in stillness. Then a couple of fish swim up and have a conversation. "What's going on?" one fish wants to know. "It's a fisherman" says the other. "Thanks [for the warning]" says his friend, and they swim off, leaving the scene as serene as before.

Water is easy to suggest musically, which is one reason why you can really get into the waves in a piece like yachting, which follows the one with the fish. This is all very nice, and lets out imaginations image while we listen. But it's also a bit simple, and Erik Satie is one composer I'd never associate with the word simple. So let's muddy the waters a bit next week in part two.....

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