06 June 2005

Monday Menagerie I

I plan to devote some regular Monday space to esoteric things. Not necessarily every Monday, but as much as I can. Hopefully, these will supply learning experiences for us all.

I've been a classical music aficionado since high school. I'm not a musician myself (though I do know how to read music); I'm a listener. The only actually performing I do is whistling along. I know, I know; that's gauche and loutish. But I can't help myself.

Erik SatieAnyway, Darlene has developed a taste for some classical music by listening over my shoulder. She seems especially drawn to early 20th-century French composers, and I like her taste. (I'd rather hear Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin than anything written since then.) One of Darlene's favorite composers is Erik Satie, whose most familiar composition you will probably recognize. It is the first of his Gymnopédies, three proto-minimalistic piano compositions that are hauntingly beautiful. Try this: Gymnopédie no 1.

Update: Here is a much better recording, with oboe, by Bonnie Isabel.

Satie called some of his work "furniture music"—music not to be listened to, but to be played as background. That's what most music has become these days, but it was a radical idea in Satie's day.

Now, don't tell Darlene this, but Satie was a supremely aberrant individual. Yes, he was even more outlandish than me. Way more. Look up the French word for "eccentric." Instead of a definition, they've just put Satie's picture in.

Satie was born in the French harbor town of Honfleur in 1866 and died in Paris in 1925 (just nine days before my dad was born). So we're coming up on the 80th anniversary of his death.

How weird was he? You get a little glimpse from the titles he gave to some of his own compositions: "Chilled Pieces," "Vexations," "Drivelling Preludes (for a Dog)," "Dried up Embryos." Satie was Frank Zappa at least 75 years before anyone ever heard of Frank Zappa.

He wrote humorous notations, drawings, and puns in the margins of many of his compositions, intended as private jokes between him and the performer. When he learned of instances where the jokes had been shared with the audience, he wrote, "To whom it may concern: I forbid anyone to read the text aloud during the performance. Ignorance of my instructions will bring my righteous indignation against the audacious culprit. No exceptions will be allowed."

Satie lived alone in a room in Arcueil, France for 27 years. No one but he ever entered that room. At his death, friends discovered an unbelievable hoard of personal memorabilia, including a large collection of umbrellas, drawings he had made, letters he had collected, and dozens of previously unpublished works. The manuscripts of his compositions were all stuffed in odd places—such as the pockets of his trademark grey velvet suits and behind the piano (which, as it turned out, was covered with junk and cobwebs, revealing that he never used it in composing).

My favorite Satie item is his description of a typical day:

A Day in the Life of a Musician

An artist must regulate his life. Here is an exact timetable of my daily acts:

  • Get up: 7:18 AM
  • Be inspired: 10:23 to 11:47 AM.
  • I take lunch at 12:11 PM and leave the table at 12.14 PM.
  • A healthy horse-ride, around my domain: 1:19 to 2:53 PM.
  • Another bout of inspiration: 3:12 to 4:07 PM.
  • Various pastimes (fencing, reflection, immobility, visits, contemplation, calisthenics, swimming, etc.): 4:21 to 6:47 PM.
  • Dinner is served at 7:16 PM and finished by 7:20 PM.
  • Next are symphonic readings, out loud: 8:09 to 9:59 PM.
  • I go to bed regularly at 10:37 PM.
  • Once a week (on Tuesdays) I awake with a start at 3:14 AM.

I eat only food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones; fat from dead animals; veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water; mouldy fruit, rice, turnips; camphorated sausage, pasta, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (minus their skins). I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with juice from the fuchsia. I have a good appetite but never talk while eating for fear of strangling myself.

I breathe carefully (a little at a time). I dance very rarely. When I walk, I hold my ribs and look behind me steadily.

My expression is serious. If I laugh it is not deliberately; I always politely apologize for it.

My sleep is deep, but I close only one of my eyes. My bed is round with a hole cut for my head to go through.

Once every hour a servant takes my temperature and gives me another.

I have subscribed to a fashion magazine for a long time. I wear a white hat, white stockings, and a white waistcoat. My doctor tells me to smoke. His advice, in part, says: "Smoke away, dear fellow. If you don't, someone else will."

Some excerpts from Satie's humorous prose are posted on line: Memoirs of an Amnesiac.

Erik Satie was a living example of the fact that even though sin has badly marred the image of God in man, the image is still there. We can see it clearly in the way fallen creatures, no matter how outré, are still capable of amazing creativity. I think our love for the beauty, humor, and artistry of creaturely creativity is also an expression of the imago Dei.


frostykaiser said...

If we are created in His image, would we not also be made with a desire to create? A simple look around is enough to realize the great joy God must take in building, forming, combining. Because of this, we have an inherent desire to construct.

Whether it be art, concept or purpose is irrelevant; we search for ways to put together the materials that surround us. It is exciting to see something come from nothing.

Brad Huston said...

Satie is an aquired taste in my book...but I understand what you're driving at Philip.

"I think our love for the beauty, humor, and artistry of creaturely creativity is also an expression of the imago Dei."

Agreed, but I've always wondered if such passions also aren't a higher cry in our seach for His perfection, approval and love.


c.t. said...

Renaissance Mass

then? 20th century?

then you have to throw in some of the French dudes who are pleasant enough...

I at one time was a 33rd degree initiate into classical music and recordings. After hearing everything I was only left with 20th century composers and recordings (and I mean post-WWII), that I couldn't say I was thoroughly knowledgable of, and I left it all. But I periodically do epic listening sessions to the great works (I have too many classic recordings to not use them) to re-infuse them into my being.

BlackCalvinist aka G.R.A.C.E. Preecha said...

Wow.... I knew us 'musician' types were weirder than others in some quarters, but this guy makes me look normal. TOO normal. Thanks for the enlightenment, Phil. I'll check out some of his stuff when I get a break.

Random Apologist-African-American-Calvinist and Musician....

Nutriaboy said...

Love the post... I've always made the point that artist-types seem to be bent to eccentricity.

Perhaps you can create of feature called: Freak of the Week


David said...

I feel obligated to inform you that Ravell is not classical, he's romantic. The obligation stems from the immature need to pretend I know more than someone who is clearly smarter than I am.

Great blog, Phil.

c.t. said...

The term 'classical music' is the overarching term for some Renaissance music (Palestrina can be called 'classical music') to baroque to classical to romantic to modern such as Debussy, but it probably doesn't apply to minimalists like Adams or people like Cage, yet there is of course much modern 'classical' music being composed (string quartets you would include under that term, etc.).

Classical music as an 'era' or specific type is, say, Haydn to Beethoven prior to the Eroica symphony.

Caveat: everything above can be nit-picked. I've speaking in very general terms.

Other terms have been attempted to be put forth to replace the confusing 'classical music' such as 'art music', but none of them have caught on...

What really separates 'classical' music, for me, from popular music is the level of emotion or intellect or both in the music. Beethoven's late string quartets evoke higher levels of emotion than popular music, which tend to exist at the sentimental level of emotion or giddy level or nostalgia level or high energy of youth level or 'all things love' level.

Of course there is popular level music within music that is called classical. A Strauss waltz would be a blatant example, but alot of party type music that a Mozart could turn out in his sleep would qualify too. Divertimenti, that type of thing.

The work of classical music that truly scale the heights are not that many. Works like Mozart's last six symphonies, Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier or Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Beethoven's late string quartets or Missa Solemnis or 3rd symphony...these and other summit level works of classical music are rare and relatively few in number compared to the entire body of classical music...

Phil Johnson said...

Ravel (note spelling) was an impressionist who experimented with neo-classical, baroque dance, and even jazz styles.

But it's OK to use the word "classical" to describe all kinds of serious music—in contrast to rock, rap, folk, easy listening, and CCM. Note that the record companies' "classical" labels publish everything from Palestrina to John Adams.

c.t. said...

Phil, why not list your favorite composers? It's a way to let people know about you, or just to promote composers...

My top ten specific works (not necessarily in this order) -

1. Beethoven's String Quartet in C sharp minor (actually all the late string quartets)

2. Mozart's 38th (and 41st) Symphony (actually all the final six symphonies)

3. Sibelius' 2nd Symphony

4. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier

5. Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

6. Beethoven's 3rd (and 7th) Symphony (Furtwangler's 1942 Berlin live recording (BPO) of the 9th is titanic)

7. Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli and Missa Brevis (Byrd, Victoria, Dufay as well)

8. Beethoven's late Piano Sonatas

9. Bruckner's 4th (and 7th, 8th, and 9th) Symphony

10. Beethoven Missa Solemnis

I cheated...

David said...

Yes, I know classical can be used generically. I was being intentionally obtuse. It's OK, my wife doesn't think I'm funny, either.

Momo said...

That kind of music gives me flashbacks to my days in IFBx. You'll have to have read the Tales to understand. I do enjoy it every once in a while, though.

Could an alternative term be symphony or orchestral music? I think modern writers of movie themes are in a class with the old composers too, but hey, I grew up in the *0s. What do you expect?

Momo said...

That should have read 80s.

c.t. said...

Symphony or orchestral music doesn't cover it because classical music has more forms than that.

solo instrument

(Some is mix and match.)

Film soundtrack music gets into the difference between program music (like film music) and absolute music. (There's usually also the matter of emotional levels that gives the music away. Film music is usually mirroring - or provoking - the level of emotion found in the average film, which will be popular level, or common level. The higher levels of music require more attention, some initiation, some knowledge, developed discernment, and some of the seeming eccentricity (compared to more normal/average puruits) of a person who pursues higher influences to begin with.)

It's interesting that even the greatest of classical music can be mere background music if you aren't bringing something to it. The highest influences effect one relatively* in this sense. Without (good Biblical word coming up) zeal you get less from the influence.

*'relatively' not used in any postmodern sense above. The music itself is what it is (in terms of its absolute level), the level of sleep or awakeness to the music in the hearer is what will be relative...

Anonymous said...

I'm a big fan of Satie, actually. You can hear me performing an arrangement of his Gymnopedie #1 for oboe and piano on my blog. (www.thegladsurrendering.blogspot.com) I did not care for your recording of it here, however. The tempo, I believe, should go much faster--not sound like a music box that has wound down to the last few painful chords. Just my thoughts...

Phil Johnson said...

Bonnie: point taken. I TOLD you I'm no musician. I should've posted an .mp3 of myself whistling along with a better recording of the piece. Next time, perhaps.

Anonymous said...

You could always use mine. *wink, wink* :)

Phil Johnson said...

Done. Today's our 27th wedding anniversary. I'm burning a copy on CD for Darlene. I hope that's OK.

Anonymous said...

Awesome!!! Happy Anniversary! I'm honored. :)