Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Phonic Tiles


Today’s formative-album replay: Ars Nova Ensemble Erik Satie, Selected Works. I’m hard pressed to think of any musician as singularly double, as neatly divided, as was this eccentric French/Scot genius, who graced posterity with both the limpid, aching “Gymnopedies” and “Gnossiennes,” as well as a riotous gaggle of droll capers with titles like “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” or “Desiccated Embryos.” With Dadaist stunts like the 9-plus-hour “Vexations” or the found-object ballet score Parade, Satie presaged both minimalism and indeterminacy by several decades.

This record was my happy introduction to Satie's jester mode, from the hectoring pseudo-pomp of "Cinema Music From Relache," music composed for a nonsensical Rene Clair film that struts and frets with faux-naïf enthusiasm through a po-faced theme-and-variations roundelay for 18 exhausting minutes, to the so-called "furniture music" he wrote for an art opening, and which he famously implored gallery-goers to ignore. Fat chance: Though all this odd occasional music has the feel of chamber music stuck in a Sisyphean loop, like Buñuel dinner guests too polite to leave, Satie's native delicacy and incision, even in leg-pulling japery, gives these pieces real verve and drama and feeling, even if one of those feelings is creeping vexation.

Speaking of "Vexations," the excerpt offered here closes the record on a note more gnomic than impish. Perhaps Satie wasn't so Janus-faced after all: The most heartbreaking piece here, at just a minute long, is a loping modal duet for two trumpets with a risible yet evocative title that may serve as an apt summation of Satie's quietly wild, synchronistic imagination: "Fanfare for Waking the King of the Monkeys (Who Sleeps With One Eye Open)."

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