We begin the evening with a selection of different pieces by the turn-of-the-20th century composer Erik Satie. Satie was quite the unique individual, both in terms of his life and lifestyle, and in terms of his compositions. He was a minimalist when minimalism didn’t exist. He rebelled against the strict compositional forms taught at the Conservatoire, which eventually served him well, given the evolution of composition in the early 20th century. But it is one thing to talk about him, and another thing to simply listen to his music. There is such beauty in these melodies that he wrote. The simplicity of his minimalism allows us to soak in his music, not unlike a languorous bath. I’ve often said that his music could be considered an early precursor of our modern ambient musical styles (for instance, Sigur Ros).
So we heard:
Trois Gnossiennes – Satie composed these mostly in 1890, and they were published in 1893. One of the three pieces may have been written in April of 1893, as they were about to be published. This was relatively early in Satie’s career. By this point, he has already established his practice of engaging in a written discussion with the person reading his sheet music – he directs the performer to play “avec étonnement” (“with astonishment”). Eventually, the dialogue between composer and player would take on surprising and, at times, humorous turns. In this manner, Satie wanted his music to be a personal experience for the pianist, as opposed to those listening (in addition to the comments, he also wrote his sheet music as calligraphy), and he in fact forbade the reading aloud of these instructions: “To whom it may concern: ‘I forbid anyone to read the text aloud during the musical performance. Ignorance of my instructions will incur my righteous indignation against the presumptuous culprit. No exception will be allowed.” In later years, long after Satie’s death, a set of pieces were discovered that are often tacked to the end of the original three portions. Tonight’s recording of the original set of three is a lovely 2008 recording by Claire Chevallier.
- Ogives – an 1886 composition, published in 1889, that he wrote without bar lines. He is said to have been inspired by the form of the windows of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Indeed, ogive is a term for one of the more notable facets of gothic architecture, the ogival arch. Tonight’s recording is a 1992 recording (released on Phillips in 1995) by pianist Reinert de Leeuw.
- Messe des Pauvres (“Mass for the Poor”) – Satie composed this in 1895, with the original arrangement being for pipe organ and unison voices singing wordless plainchant. Satie was not religious, but he did become involved from time to time with quasi-mystical cults, primarily the Rose-Croix du Temple et du Graal, for which he was made “official composer”. After this, he founded his own church, “The Metropolitan Church of Jesus the Leader”, of which he was/is the only known member. J.P. Contamine de Latour left a description of the church’s “sanctuary”:
“A nondescript room, square and tile-floored, which was untimely crossed by the…ventilating pipe. No altar, no object which could be used for the cult, nothing that reminded one of a religious sanctuary: simply the unfinished furniture brought down from the attic where it had been rotting for months and which gave to the room an aspect both of a monk’s cell and of an NCO’s room.”
It was during this period that Satie wrote Messe des Pauvres. Here, instead of the piano, Satie applies his minimalist sense to the pipe organ. While the piece has a church-like feel, the mix of Satie’s slabs of harmonies with the size and scale of the pipe organ, make for a unique experience, even when considered alongside Satie’s other music. So we heard a 1993 recording by organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent that omits the vocal parts, but which retains the overall power of the piece.
- Trois Gymnopédies – written in 1888, this is easily Satie’s best-known piece, with numerous re-interpretations by artists ranging from Blood Sweat and Tears (who won a 1969 Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Performance for their “Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie”) to Janet Jackson (who used the theme as the basis for a loop on Someone To Call My Lover, from 2001; that song was nominated for a Grammy for Best Female Pop Performance in 2002). The piece has also been used in multiple movies over the years. The piece was possibly inspired by a poem by the above-mentioned de Latour (whom Satie knew personally), The Ancients:
- Oblique et coupant l’ombre un torrent éclatant
- Ruisselait en flots d’or sur la dalle polie
- Où les atomes d’ambre au feu se miroitant
- Mêlaient leur sarabande à la gymnopédie
- Slanting and shadow-cutting a flickering eddy
- Trickled in gusts of gold on the shiny flagstone
- Where the atoms of amber in the fire mirroring themselves
- Mingled their sarabande with the gymnopaedia
- When Satie published the first Gymnopédie in 1888, the verse quoted above was included. But there is no certainty as to which came first, the verse or the composition. The third Gymnopédie was published later that year, but the second was not published until 1895. Claude Debussy orchestrated the first and third of the pieces, publishing this in 1898. Tonight, we heard Michel Legrand performing the three pieces on piano, in a 1993 recording that comes with some excellent liner notes that feature a sampling of Satie’s elegant calligraphic sheet music (with a few of his notorious comments – in French, of course).
We then heard some early material from the fine English techno band, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. We heard Almost and Messages, from their first, self-titled album from 1980, then we heard VCL XI and Statues, from their 2nd album, Organisation.
We then heard a few songs from a live recording of the Who, from 1970, made as they were in the process of preparing the music for what would eventually become Who’s Next. At the time, they were intending to do another “rock opera”, having just enjoyed the immense success of Tommy. But the concept for the project fell apart. Giving up on the concept, the music that had been recorded was assembled, and the resulting album is now considered one of the great recordings in rock history. From the Deluxe Edition of Who’s Next, we heard live renditions of Getting in Tune and Bargain, both of which ended up as part of the original album, along with Water, a long-time concert staple for the band.
We finished off the show with some metal: I’ll Cast a Shadow, a classic from Pantera’s Reinventing The Steel, and United Forces, from SOD’s (Stormtroopers of Death) Speak English or Die.