Friday, August 10, 2018

Satie - Trois Gnossiennes

Erik Satie was an eccentric French avant-garde composer of the late 19th-early 20th century whose music influenced many composers.  He didn't consider  himself a musician, but referred to himself as a gymnopedist and a measurer of sounds - a phonometrographer:
Everyone will tell you that I am not a musician. That is correct. From the very beginning of my career, I classed myself as a phonometrographer. My work is completely phonometrical. Take my Fils des Etoiles, or my Morceaux en Forme d’une Poire, my En Habit de Cheval, or my Sarabandes — it is evident that musical ideas played no part whatsoever in their composition. Science is the dominating factor... 
Satie took lessons from a local organist as a child. He attended the Paris Conservatoire beginning in 1879 and immediately was labeled as lazy and untalented by his professors. His piano playing was called worthless, and soon left the school. He began to re-attend in 1885, but created the same impression and left once again. It wasn't until he was 40 years old that he finally got a diploma (barely) from music school.

He lived by himself in a very small apartment for much of his life, and his life truly was an eccentric one. His apartment was in a rough part of Arcueil, a suburb of Paris, and when he went out for a walk he always carried a hammer for protection.  He changed his clothes from a frock coat, long hair and untidy beard to a gray colored corduroy suit which he bought multiple pairs of and wore exclusively for many years.

He also wrote prose and articles which were full of his own style of weird logic and nonsense. In 1912 he wrote the book the full title of which was Memoirs of an Amnesiac: To be Read Far from the Herd and the Mummified Dead, Those Great Scourges of Humanity. One of the articles in the book is titled: Intelligence and Musicality In Animals. an excerpt: 
Very few animals learn anything from humans. The dog, the mule, the horse, the ass, the parrot, the blackbird and a few others are the only animals to receive even a semblance of education, and that can only be called education in that it isn't clearly anything else. Compare, I beg you, the teaching given to animals with that given by the universities to young human undergraduates, and you will have to admit that it is not worth speaking of and couldn't possibly widen or make easier the knowledge that an animal can pick up through its work and steady industry. But what about music? Horses have learned to dance; spiders have remained underneath a piano during the whole of a long recital put on for them by a respected master of the keyboard. And what then? Nothing. Now and then people will mention the starling's musicality, the crow's ear for a tune, the owl's ingenious harmony as it taps on its stomach to accompany itself — an artificial method yielding only slender polyphony.
There has been suggestions that Satie had a high-functioning form of autism that was previously known as Asperger's Syndrome. Other composers like Anton Bruckner and Beethoven for instance have been thought to have had the same syndrome. Asperger's Syndrome people can have the ability to zero in on one thing to the exclusion of other things. They are of average to high intelligence, and can also suffer from anxiety and depression more than most people. There social skills can be lacking as well, and repetition of actions and sounds can be a comfort to them. Perhaps Satie self-medicated himself with alcohol and absinthe for many years because of depression. Whatever the reason, he died from cirrhosis of the liver in 1925. When his friends went to his small apartment after his death (no one ever was allowed to visit it when he was alive) they found it in squalor with over 100 umbrellas chaotically strewn about.

He began to compose in the early 1880's with his earliest music being written in the salon style of the time. His lack of formal education was no deterrent to writing some of the music he is most remembered for; the set of 3 Gymnopédies. These pieces were followed by the first set of 3 Gnossiennes about 1890. There are a total of 6 Gnossiennes for piano.

The title of Gnossiennes was created by Satie, and no one knows exactly what it means. Some have thought that it refers to the word gnosis, a Greek word that means knowledge. Although Satie did not call them dances, they seem to be like the Gymnopédies, written with a simple melody over a slowly moving accompaniment of block chords.

Gnossienne No. 1 - Lent (Slow) - Satie wrote the Gnossiennes in free time,  without bar lines or time signatures. They move slowly, with simple harmonies that tend to repeat, a type of musical minimalism that preceded the Minimalist movement in art and music by many years. There is a timeless quality to the first one in the set. Tinged with a touch of sadness, the music has no real beginning or ending. It only starts and stops.  No. 1 has the key signature of F minor, and most of the harmony is in F minor, with only 2 other chords appearing in the piece; C minor and B-flat minor, the chordal structure followed by countless pieces of music all the way to modern rock and roll and pop, tonic, dominant, subdominant. The melody flows above these chords and is punctuated by grace notes that give an exotic feeling to the plainness of the harmony. Most of Satie's piano music is not technically difficult, but the austere appearance of it on the page is deceiving. It requires an almost imperceptible subtlety of variation. Appearing at the end of the Romantic era of music with all of the excess that could go along with it, Satie's music is elegant and something new.  As was Satie's habit, the first three Gnossienne had what may appear to be performance directions sprinkled throughout the music. Whether they make any sense or are even supposed to make sense is anyone's guess. The words and phrases that appear in this first piece (of course originally in French) are: Shining, Questioning, From the tip of the thought, Wonder about yourself, On the tip of the tongue.

Gnossienne No. 2 - Avec attonnement (With astonishment) - Much shorter than the first piece in the set, No. 2 has more harmonic variety and melody. Perhaps that is why the tempo indication reads 'with astonishment' as the harmony shifts from major to minor, from G minor to F-sharp major, F major, D diminished and E minor 7th. And the chord that goes with the key signature of no sharps or flats, C major, does make an appearance near the end. The words and phrases appearing in this piece are: Don't leave, With great kindness, More intimately,. Lightly with intimacy, Don't be so proud.

Gnossienne No. 3 - Lent - The final piece in the set begins in the same way as the first one, harmonies used are the tonic A minor, subdominant D minor, and dominant E minor. But the melody is more chromatic and leads to mild dissonance and use of other chords such as E major, B minor and F minor. The key signature is no sharps or flats, and the piece ends in A minor. The words and phrases that appear in this piece are: Counsel yourself cautiously, Be clairvoyant, Alone for a second, So as to be a hole, Very lost, Carry this further, Think right, Muffle the sound.