Epithalamium Redux
If You Study the Statistics
and Heuristics of the Mystics
You Will Find That Their Minds
Rarely Move in a Line

Satie's Faction, Guaranteed

I have been remiss in not putting in a good word for Dan Hull's very fine weblog, What About Clients?  Dan's principal focus, as his title suggests, is on how to provide best-quality client service in law and business, but WAC? has a dual personality.  It's name has been known to change with some frequency -- and especially when out on the weekend -- to What About Paris?  Dan and his fellow blogger, the mysterious (and seemingly indestructible) Holden Oliver, may at any moment turn tail from the law and post some little gem relating to writing well in general, or to writing well as exemplified by John Dryden, or to the occasional toe-tapping ditty on the deployment of self-help remedies in 19th century English labor disputes.

By far the kindest thing WAC? has done lately is to wonder aloud when this weblog you are reading right now might reinvigorate itself.  Dan approves of my occasional inclination to write about Salvador Dalí.   A WAC? commenter suggested a preference for lawyers to write about Duchamp or Bunuel.  As it happens, I have written about Duchamp, and I have at least once referenced Bunuel's personal martini recipe, so I suppose I'm giving the public what it wants.  (Ever responsive to his audience, Holden also obliged with a bit of Duchamp.)

Erik_satie In that same spirit, the topic for today is Duchamp's contemporary and sometime compatriot, the composer Erik Satie, whose 142nd birthday was this past weekend.   (Wired Satie birthday link via The Morning News.)

Satie was a fixture of the early century Parisian avant-garde, friend and/or collaborator with the likes of Duchamp, Picabia, Diaghilev, Cocteau and Picasso.  Picasso sketched Satie in 1920, sitting in the same chair as appears in his similarly posed and better known sketch of Stravinsky of that same year.  Picabia sketched him as well, affixing Satie's head atop one of his scores.  Rene Magritte's Hommage converts Satie to a classical bust, with bird and mystical sphere.  (Given that Satie is a sartorial link of sorts between Toulouse-Lautrec and Magritte, it is odd that the latter's portrait omits the trademark bowler hat.)

The first of Satie's Trois Gymnopedies for piano is probably his best known work, for the dubious reason that it is just So Darned Pretty: it makes a perfect accompaniment for, say, sentimental montages of autumn leaves or clouds or ducks.  Such is the fate of avants-garde with the passage of sufficient time: if they do not drop from sight altogether, what was once revolutionary becomes either a comfortable joke [Dada, the Surrealists] or else downright cuddly [Impressionism, Gymnopedie No. 1].

At the opposite end of the Satie warm-and-approachable scale is "Vexations."  The single-page manuscript lays out a brief -- albeit extremely difficult to memorize -- passage for solo piano.  It is accompanied by the instruction:

Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses,

that is,

In order to play this motif 840 times consecutively to oneself, it will be useful to prepare oneself beforehand, and in utter silence, by grave immobilities.

The manuscript did not see publication until 1949.  The suggestion that the piece should be repeated 840 times in succession may or may not have been meant literally by Satie, but it has been taken so by those who have presented it publicly over the last half century. 

Generally, as with the ascent of Everest, "Vexations" is attempted as a team sport, with multiple pianists trading off keyboard duties.  The effect of all those repetitions on players and audience varies.  Here is the redoubtable Alex Ross, after attending a "Vexations" performance on behalf of the New York Times in 1993:

One pianist has even attempted the feat solo; he stopped after fifteen hours, experiencing intense hallucinations.  On Saturday and part of Sunday,  the downtown performance space Roulette brought 'Vexations' back to New York.  Once again, a crowd of pianists participated; there was also a procession of official counters, assisted by computer.  The audience waxed and waned, from five to thirty people.  There was, unfortunately, only one reviewer covering the event.

(Note that at least two future bloggers were present during that performance: Ross himself and, among the participating pianists, Kyle Gann.)

John Cage was the contemporary "discoverer" of "Vexations" in 1949, and he organized the first actual performance of the "complete" work on September 9, 1963 in New York.  John Cale -- two years before forming the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed -- was one of the rotating corps of ten pianists (with two alternates standing by in the bullpen) in that performance.  Here is the young Mr. Cale -- very serious and accompanied by the only member of the audience to have remained present for the entire 18 hour, 40 minute adventure -- appearing as the mystery guest on I've Got a Secret:

"Thank you, Mr. Cale, you have a whim of iron . . . ."

For Further Reading, Viewing and Listening:

  • Musician Mike Dickson has paid tribute to Satie by arranging several of his best known pieces for an eclectic array of instruments, heavy on the synths and Mellotrons.  The set includes a 6 minute version of "Vexations" performed on four different pianos and a clavinet.  It is all available for listening or free download at Dickson's Honfleur site.  Put "Vexations" on endless repeat on your iPod and see what happens!  a fool in the forest disclaims all responsibility for any intense hallucinations that may ensue.  (Link via DGM Live!)
  • One of Satie's final projects was to compose the score for Picabia's 1924 ballet production, Relâche, which anticipated the sort of multimedia extravaganza we take for granted today by incorporating a film -- Entr'acte, the directorial debut of René Clair -- between acts.  Satie and Picabia, as well as Duchamp and Man Ray (playing chess), appeared in the film.  That's Satie, bowler and all, jumping in slowly from the left about forty seconds in, with Picabia entering from the right:

Entr'acte can be viewed in slightly better fidelity at UBUWEB

  • UBUWEB also features several versions of "Vexations" performed on everything except the piano, as well as examples of Satie's "Furniture Music" -- music that was intended to be disregarded as much as or moreso than it was heard.  Furniture music is an acknowledged ancestor of Brian Eno's experimentation with "ambient" music in the mid-'70s:

I was trying to make a piece that could be listened to and yet could be ignored . . . perhaps in the spirit of Satie who wanted to make music that could 'mingle with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner.'

See also Kenneth Goldsmiths' introduction to Furniture Music, "Flabby Preludes for a Dog: An Erik Satie Primer."


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