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About the Author
Hervé Vanel teaches art history at The American University of Paris and is the editor of Francis Bacon, Entretiens.
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Furniture Music, Muzak, Muzak-Plus
By Hervé Vanel
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
A Musical Irresolution by Erik Satie
That the French composer Erik Satie (1866–1925) could be considered—at least until the 1970s—as a "musical analphabet" certainly motivated John Cage's respect for his art. If nothing else, his analphabetic status signaled the degree to which Satie had shaken the tradition of "serious music" and infuriated the guardians of its flame. Satie himself gladly upheld his reputation, introducing his 1912 Memoirs of an Amnesiac by saying, "Everybody will tell you that I am not a musician. This is correct." Who else but such an analphabet could have posthumously received—more or less ironically— the questionable title of "father of muzak" for having coined, in the late 1910s, a genre that he called furniture music? By conceiving an unassuming music that would be "part of the noises of the environment," Satie could only vex established conventions that required, as Michael Nyman puts it, a piece of music, or any work of art for that matter, to "be interesting and dominating at all costs."
It is true, however, that it may be difficult to take some of Satie's music entirely seriously. William Austin summarized quite aptly the kind of critical perplexity that part of his work may (still) trigger. One may indeed conclude that "1) Satie was cynically joking in a ponderous way; 2) he was deeply committed to a fantastic ideal, which he abandoned by 1900; 3) he served a subtler ideal, to which he remained faithful while protecting it with a shell of irony; 4) he was uncertainly groping his lonely way amid conflicting ideals." Is Vexations (1893), for instance—a short piece consisting of four repetitive phrases to be repeated 840 times—really meant to be performed?
Even John Cage, who eventually organized a full performance of Vexations in 1963, taking turns with a team of pianists for eighteen hours and forty minutes, had not always been convinced that the piece should ever be performed. As a matter of fact, Cage had written five years earlier, "one could not endure a performance of Vexations ... but why give it a thought?" It seemed more reasonable not to give it any thought indeed, and at this point, at least, Cage considered the value of the piece to reside entirely in its concept. One could end up thinking of Vexations as a musical equivalent of some of Andy Warhol's (painfully long) movies. After all, as Warhol himself suggested, these films may be "better talked about than seen." As its very title intimates, Vexations would thwart any conventional expectations of variations and comforting resolution.
Satie's pieces of furniture music (often assimilated with Vexations in the 1960s, and still today) are each fundamentally based on a short musical fragment, to be repeated ad lib (at one's pleasure). As such, they are intrinsically monotonous and can retain the attention of the active listener for only a short span before boredom inevitably sets in. Vexations, as Robert Orledge noticed, was thus only one of Satie's "numerous ways to cheat the passage of time" through an "absence of any climax or movement towards a goal." Furniture music is grounded on such principles, forever eluding resolution. Repetition, of course, is not an uncommon musical feature and does not necessarily deprive the listener of a conventional sense of linear, passing time. Yet, to this effect, as Theodor Adorno insisted, repetition is meaningful only if it elucidates differences and develops nuances. To make his point, Adorno relies on the famous example of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. After the "short and precise motif" has been presented and once it starts to be repeated, "it remains clearly recognizable as the same" throughout the movement. Yet, Adorno continues, "there is no mere repetition, but development: the melodic content of the basic rhythm, that is to say, the intervals which constitute it, change perpetually." Thus, balancing repetition and difference, "the richness prevents the simple from becoming primitive, while simplicity prevents richness from dissipation into mere details." Such balance, concluded Adorno regretfully, was fully lost in a radio broadcast of the piece that compressed the successive stages to a point where the processual character of the work was lost and "the static repetition becomes purposeless: the material repeated is so simple that it requires no repetition to be understood." Thereby broadcast into humdrum repetition, the only escape for the Fifth would be to turn itself into a piece of furniture music: something to be heard but not listened to.
Discarding, for now, this accidental contribution to Satie's concept, the small number of existing pieces of furniture music (five in total are known) still cannot justify the relative oblivion into which they have fallen after Satie's death. While a single piece—Vexations—has acquired a near-mythical/ legendary status following Cage's performance, furniture music still stands for little more than a footnote in the exegesis of Satie's oeuvre, and by extension it does not bear much weight in the history of twentieth-century music and art. While not entirely ignored by scholars devoted to his oeuvre, furniture music is nonetheless discussed in frustratingly brief terms. Not concert-oriented music, and entirely lacking any clear temporal boundaries, such pieces stood no chance at becoming integral parts of anyone's general performance repertoire. More than Vexations, the pieces of furniture music possess an intrinsic and inherent marginality, which has prevented them from becoming "classic," even within the permissive landscape of experimental music. And finally, the question and by extension the definition of "functional music" remains a fundamentally uneasy one and, to this extent, a topic generally avoided by scholars. Satie, observed Wilfrid Mellers, may have composed "functional" or "circumstantial" music, which with its "intended banality" and refusal to express or illustrate anything "only serves as background 'music.' " Still, a music of that type—concluded Mellers—"has obviously no intrinsic value, but at a time when the emotional and intellectual life of the 'masses' is continually brought down by the low standard [infériorité] of the art they are offered, it was important to ask clairvoyantly the question of the 'emotional material of music' and of the quality of this material." In other words, furniture music has no value (no function, no interest) beyond addressing critically the poverty of music "for the masses" by bringing such poverty of emotional content to an extreme degree. And this being said, the case of furniture music is closed.
As the musicologist Stephen Hinton puts it, the concept of "useful music" may appear either as a tautology (after all, music always has some use) or as an oxymoron: "if music has a specific use then it is not really music at all." Mellers's appreciation exemplified this latest conviction, and the implicit understanding of art as an autonomous activity has rarely ceased to motivate, if not to dominate the critical discourse. As Hinton continues, "the shared and tacit assumption of music's autonomy had been unreflected; music had been considered autonomous, as it were ontologically." The following study is, from a nonmusicological point of view, an attempt to grapple with both the challenges and the legacies of furniture music. Subsequent chapters examine the relationship of furniture music to industrial and functional music as they develop in the 1940s, as well as the influence of Satie's conceptions, in the second half of the twentieth century, on the artistic endeavors of John Cage, especially his attempts to formulate a "Muzak-plus."
"It is important with Satie," once remarked Cage, "not to be put off by his surface." The warning is indeed necessary for, as with Warhol, Satie's personal surface can be quite essential to the study of his compositions.
Francis Picabia once described the composer as "a very susceptible man, arrogant, a real sad child, but one who is sometimes made optimistic by alcohol." Also known as "the Velvet Gentleman" for his manner, in the 1890s, of confining his wardrobe to seven identical velvet suits, Satie was by all means a complexly self-fashioned, dandyish character. Whether or not one considers him a dandy from the top of his bowler hat down to his socks, his persona was part and parcel of his art. Satie might have defined himself as a fantaisiste, but he was one of a serious kind. Bereft of most public and official recognition, he applied three times to l'Académie des Beaux-Arts in the 1890s, only—it seems—for the sake of being repeatedly rejected, a scenario that allowed him to express with some irony, in 1912, his "colossal chagrin" ["cela me fit grosse peine"]. But it is also clear that Satie genuinely resented negative criticism—to the point of deliberately misconstruing some critiques as praise. His career is paradoxical and offbeat, very much in the image of a "gentle medieval musician lost in this century," as his friend Claude Debussy depicted him in 1892. On the one hand, Satie received delayed recognition in the 1910s for his earlier compositions, ones written without much formal training. On the other hand, his later work—composed after he received a diploma in counterpoint in 1908—was, to his consternation, mostly dismissed by a younger generation of musicians (known as "Les Six") who nonetheless adopted him as a "father" figure. The gap that Satie carefully maintained between his public life and his pitiable living conditions became manifest to his friends only when, after his death, they stepped foot for the first time into the composer's sanctuary in the suburbs of Paris.
A narrow corridor, with a washbasin in it, led to the bedroom into which Satie had never allowed anyone, not even his concierge, to penetrate. It was with a feeling akin to awe that we approached it now. What a shock we had on opening the door! It seemed impossible that Satie had lived in such poverty. This man, whose faultlessly clean and correct dress made him look rather like a model civil servant, had literally nothing worth a shilling to his name: a wretched bed, a table covered with the most unlikely objects, one chair and a half-empty wardrobe in which there were a dozen old-fashioned corduroy suits, brand-new and absolutely identical. In each corner of the room there were piles of old newspapers, old hats, and walking sticks. On the ancient, broken-down piano with its pedals tied up with string, there was a parcel whose postmark proved that it had been delivered several years before: he had merely torn a corner of the paper to see what it contained—a little picture, some New Year's present no doubt.... With his characteristic meticulous care, he had arranged in an old cigar-box more than four thousand little pieces of paper on which he had made curious drawings and written extravagant inscriptions.
An extremely solitary and independent character, Satie merged in and out of disparate and conflicting artistic circles in the late 1910s and early 1920s. One can thus see him, in the last decade of his life, serving Jean Cocteau's neoclassical and nationalistic call for order supported by a "French music from France" ["une musique française de France"]. Conversely, he also appears in tune with the universal laws of purism promoted by Le Corbusier and Amédée Ozenfant; and he can be seen as echoing the aspirations of a painter like Fernand Léger to synchronize art with the rhythm of a mechanical world. Furthermore, he can be seen engaged in debates opposing a nascent surrealist spirit and Dadaist factions. Still, his readiness to collaborate with other artists was equaled by his capacity to mock them and turn them into enemies. One may think, as does Ornella Volta, that to a certain extent Satie subscribed or associated himself with a movement or party only to have the pleasure of leaving it loudly. Regarding Cocteau, for instance, with whom he had notably collaborated on the controversial ballet Parade (1917), Satie would subsequently point out in the Dadaist publication 391 that the formerly outrageous poet was, by 1924, avoiding any scandal, becoming serious, and even "growing a belly (morally speaking, of course)." To the end, Satie remained visibly eager to join whatever appeared to be the most insolent and potentially subversive artistic enterprise at any given time, trying his best to avoid a canonization he was nonetheless seeking. Leftist at heart, and opportunistically registered as a socialist after the assassination of Jean Jaurès in 1914, Satie nonetheless drew no correlation between progressive politics and advanced art. To the contrary, he remarked that "his dear communist friends ... [were]—in Art—bafflingly Bourgeois." In other words, Satie was well aware that a work's revolutionary content does not guarantee its revolutionary impact. Concomitantly, as the history of its premiere reveals, his innovative form of furniture music drastically failed to alter successfully the behavior of the listeners and consequently to fulfill its function.
The only performance of furniture music during the composer's lifetime took place on March 8, 1920, at the Galerie Barbazanges in Paris. As furniture, the music was only one of several ingredients of a multifaceted soirée. Following the opening of an exhibition of children's drawings titled Les belles promesses [Pretty Promises], the audience was invited to hear music by Stravinsky and by members of the Groupe des Six. The evening also included the staging of a (now lost) play by Max Jacob entitled Ruffian toujours, truand jamais (approximately: Always Wicked, Never a Crook). Satie had written, to be embedded within that play's two intermissions, two pieces of furniture music, Chez un 'bistrot' ("At a 'Bar'"; first intermission) and Un salon ("A Living Room / Lounge"; second intermission). As with all of Satie's pieces of furniture music, the titles appear to indicate a context, that is, the kind of space for which the musical fixture has been designed and where it is to be installed. Yet one can question Satie's contextual directives. The titles of the two pieces to be played during the evening at the Galerie Barbazanges refer neither to an art opening nor to a theater. Rather, the locations of a bar and a living room, as stipulated in the titles, correspond to the specific stage sets of two different acts within Max Jacob's play. It appears that Satie did not compose these pieces to furnish the event per se (i.e., the soirée) and enhance its atmosphere, but that he used the opportunity of stage settings indicated within the play to showcase his music in "real-life" situations of the everyday (i.e., a living room and a bar), and all this staged during two theatrical intermissions.
Still, the soirée itself remained the primary context for Satie's introduction of his concept of furniture music, and the audience, rather than the actors of the play, were meant to become the consumers of furniture music. To clarify the situation and prepare the audience, Pierre Bertin introduced the product (indeed, for sale) by speaking these words, which he had noted on the back of the program for another concert:
We will also present today for the first time, thanks to Messieurs Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud, and under M. Delgrange's direction, the musique d'ameublement, during the intermissions. We urge you to take no notice of it [de ne pas lui attacher d'importance] and to behave during the intermission as if it did not exist. This music, specially written for Max Jacob's play, claims to make a contribution to life in the same way as a private conversation, a painting of the gallery, or the chair in which you may or may not be seated. You will be trying it out. / MM. Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud will be at your disposal for any information and commissions.
Excerpted from Triple Entendre by Hervé Vanel. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface: Cage Free, ix,
Chapter 1. Furniture Music: A Musical Irresolution by Erik Satie, 10,
Chapter 2. Muzak Incorporated, 46,
Chapter 3. Muzak-Plus and the Art of Participation, 84,
Conclusion: The Community to Come, 126,