GUN UPON THE PIANO: SATIE & COCTEAU
"I stood on the corner my feet drippin wet, stood on the corner my feet drippin wet. I asked every man I met, if you can't give me a dollar give me a lousy dime..." 1
She left, I was never home any longer and had been putting off handing over my share of the rent check as I myself was preparing to jump ship. For once she insisted on having the last word, racing through the afternoon with her sister to move out before I could get home from the hospital and a series of X rays which had shown that it was not tuberculosis.
I might be assigning more of a diabolic impetus behind why she left a lot of her junk behind; a final bite back. Most likely, she did not want to risk seeing me face to face again unless we were in a public place with witnesses and by the time that eventually happened I was several lives older, "us" becoming an old movie, the gist of which I remembered but with a complete emotional detachment.
She had been from a good family, a good girl, holiday dinners with the whole family around the table and clarinet lessons.
She had given up playing it long before I had met her but she kept it, perhaps as a connection to a possible past, in its little blue felt lined case in a box along with a bunch of ribbons from school and a few ratty stuffed toys.
I threw all the stuff out, a minor bite-back as any desired things would surely have been packed, not even bothering to pick through it. Although it was the first time, I did not like her getting that last word.
I liked the clarinet. Once she had been away to see a cousin who had just had a child and I had a few friends over. Although I had not touched it, when she came back she was sure it had been moved, and that I had been messing around with it. After that I started playing it when ever I could. The cork was dried out though and the little crumbs of it on the floor gave me away. She would hide it, a different place every day.
Now that old Selmer was mine. I brushed up on my sight reading as I saved to have it completely re-corked. I would sometimes sit in with Lapin, not being a professional musician like him, I would sit next to him on the piano bench to play. This allowed him to give me signals when the rest of the band was going to come back in. Also not being at the forefront of the stage I was not distracted or psyched out by the audience. In keeping things casual it was fun and I gave a better performance. I was a sort of Johnny Dodds going for emotion over technique. I only played really well when extremely upset or aroused. Mainly I just wanted to have drinks with Lapin and shoot the breeze.
Lapin got a plumb gig at a supper club which was too good to last. The band had to wear jackets and Lapin, well established on the local scene, felt that he was unnecessarily compromising in his old age. We all turned out to show our support although the most any of us could afford was a few rounds of drink which was better than nothing to the management's way of thinking.
The gig went well but afterwards Lapin was still fretting. He wanted to get back to his roots. He was king of the late night jam session, no matter what city he was in he could ferret one out. He insisted I come with which I agreed to do despite being a little buzzed and half asleep.
The place was small. A dark wood bar deeply pitted with its end replaced by a piece of plywood now all tattooed with black marker graffiti.
Lapin sat down at the upright and did a few songs while the rest of us watched him become more himself again.
One of his friends whose name I always forgot and who to me, always seemed to be faking his enthusiasm for jazz, approached Lapin after a song. They shook hands and the friend shook his head. There was a girl, she also shook Lapin's hand and sat down at the piano. I was motioned over.
She was from Poland. In a black turtle neck with a long nose under which was a thick set of lips giving the overall effect of an exclamation point, there was something about her I liked.
She wanted me to duet with her. We quickly agreed on a slowed down "Melancholy Baby". It turns out she liked to go slow too, our lines intertwining in an exchange of understanding, the blues and the joy of having them. It seemed intimate almost to the point of being a little embarrassing.
Lapin felt I gave more of myself when Winnona was in my hands than in conversation, there were now some pretty girls just come in from some party and the drinks were free so he was in his element and wanted us to continue.
I had not noticed at first but when in the throes of enjoyment while playing Marina sort of made come faces. Stealing glances when it was her turn, I found it erotic but a group of college age tourists had come in. They stood by the bar talking too loud as to compete with the music. They then started loudly making kissing noises in Marina's direction while giggling and high fiveing each other.
Before anyone could react she took the first opportunity during one of my solos to reach into her boot and pulled out a small pistol which she loudly placed on top of the piano making the same knocking noise as the door closing behind the departing tourists.
Paris in the 1880's many composers( D'Indy, Chabrier, Chauson, Duprac et al) fell under the spell of Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Aside from what he was actually doing orchestrally, Wagner was also writing the librettos and controlling the over all aesthetic of his operas and persona creating new possibilities in the minds of Parisian composers.
Unfortunately the possibilities and popularity eventually morphed into a negative, as productions and the scale of orchestras grew bloated; weighed down under a grandness which more and more would make it impossible to achieve the sort of orchestral lushness sought after, the best of which also contained components of lightness to more fully achieve the desired effects.
Claude Debussy (1863-1918) actually made the pilgrimage all the way to Bayreuth to attend the annual Wagner festivities. It was not until The Exposition Universelle (world's Fair 1889) where he encountered music from the far east including Gamelan, that he began to fight off the Wagner influence. He now would draw inspiration from new musical sources to serve as templates upon which to build.
Other composers also began to fight off this influence and find their own way. Two composers who had never fallen under Wagner's spell were Erik Satie (1886-1925) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Satie was sort of an artist's artist.
He had played piano as a sort of house pianist for Rudolf Salis's cabaret at the Montmartre bar Le Chat Noir; ground zero for an early wave of artistic modernism. Satie had been interested in various mysteries tied to medieval architecture and the arts which lead to him associating with self styled Rosicrucian Sar Merodack, the break with which caused Satie to create his own church "The Metropolitan Church of the Art of Jesus the Conductor". With tongue in cheek, Satie never tried to enlist anyone else into this congregation of one but used it as a platform to speak out against critics who did not "get him" and to amuse intimate friends.
As whimsical as Satie's persona could be he was very serious about his craft. To improve upon his compositional chops he spent three years at the Schola Cantorum working at a traditional curriculum including counterpoint under some prestigious teachers including Vincent d'Indy (1851-1931) and Albert-Paul Roussel (1869-1937).
He would often accompany his works with playful titles or instructions. Titles such as "Importune Peccadillo's" or "The Bean King's War Chant". His instructions could call for playing a motif 840 times ("Vexations"). Certainly an artistic forefather of John Cage's (1912-1992) piece 4'33 (1952) in which one note is hit on the piano followed by silence for the duration of the piece's title.
Quirky as aspects of his work could be, he was a serious musician/composer. He was an inspiration to his peer Debussy but he also became an alternative to the overly ornate heavily perfumed exoticisms adopted by Debussy and other composers once Wagner was abandoned in favor of the symbolist movement.
Satie's style was a sort of precursor to later day minimalism as can be found in some of the works of Phillip Glass and Richard James (Aphex Twins "Ambient Works Volume 2 sire/London/Rhino).
Modernism should not be seen as just breaking with the established tradition. At its best it shakes up the order of things, injecting the new and un-established but there is also always the aspect of incorporating the vernacular of the day.
With roots in the "underground" of the day, a thing for hipsters, outsiders and proto-bohemians, jazz was the perfect soundtrack for the modern age. It managed to mirror a sort of frenzied excitement and idealism of an oncoming mechanical age in which both wonders and amusements were promised.
An American art form, perhaps one of the only ones purely birthed in the United States, it had to go over to Europe due to racism and an over all cultural puritanical streak to incubate before coming back to America to achieve its maturity.
Paris was the hot house in which this musical seedling was able to grow. What was then referred to as Jazz was more akin to brass bands, but the basis of what was to come was in place, syncopated rhythms, improvisatory flights of fancy. There was a cultural cross pollination of sorts which would continue for jazz well into the 1960s. It was initially made easier by the fact that the twin wombs for jazz, New Orleans and Chicago were active port cities from which artists could easily set sail to a more accepting Europe.
Paris at turn of the century had jazz in the form of marches by Philip Sousa (1854-1932). In 1904 Satie's "Le Piccadilly" furthered familiarity with aspects of this new genre followed four years later by Debussy's "Golliwogg's Cake Walk" and "Le Petit Negre". Lifted from an idea by Scott Joplin (1867-1917), Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911) started morphing things further towards what would become "hot Jazz" moving closer to what we think of as jazz today.
An even handed assessment of Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) would paint a picture of one part prophet of the modern age and one part tireless self promoter. And depending upon whom you asked, dilettante. In his vast and varied body of works there are definitely some worth while things but perhaps the obvious manifestation of his talents lay in his ability to have had his finger on the pulse of society a thing made easier by his ability to comfortably move between the two worlds of left bank bohemians and moneyed right bank socialites.
Jean Cocteau's manifesto "Le Coq et l'Arlequin" (1918) envisioned the coq as French culture and the harlequin as foreign influences. It was not so much a pro-xenophobic stance as one of anti-romanticism (Wagner)/ anti-symbolism. A call to lesson huge myth laden spectacles from opera/ballet/theater and embrace the modern and the real. This manifesto can be seen to be the articulation towards a call to arms Cocteau had already been working on for several years.
Cocteau had begun to gather a loose knit group of young composers, rallying them around Satie and calling themselves l'Ecole d'Arcueil. The name itself being somewhat of a wry joke, as it was the area on the edge of Paris where Satie lived isolated from other artists and unlike Montmartre, Montparnarsse and later St Germain des Pres containing no centralized studios or groups of artists aside from himself and those who came to see him.
Later the group would become more and more formalized branching out from just sitting at Satie's feet, at first being called Les Nouveaux Jeunes then Le Six. The moniker itself was coined by composer/man of letters Henri Collet (1885-1951) in his article "The Russian Five, The French Six and Eric Satie" (1920)
Satie had avoided both Wagnerism and the ornate trappings of the symbolists. Le Six were initially banded together in response to these two dominating musical poles, wanting to create more artistic roads to choose from.
All the composers affiliated with the group (George Auric, Francis poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud; Germaine Tailleferre, Lois Durey) sought to inject new blood into musical composition and performance. All the members to varying degrees would interact with their contemporaries in other mediums on collaborations which while not all successful or remembered blurred the lines of the conventional definitions of ballet, opera and theater helping to inspire new artistic routes.
Being cited as a sort of patron saint by this new generation Satie found his name once again on the public's lips. At this time Cocteau sensed now was the time to do something to cement his reputation not just as a Keene observer of trends but a tastemaker himself.
The Ballet Russe was founded in 1909 by impresario Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) who was revolutionary in his own field, boldly staging new works with "shocking" new music and ways to stage and costume them. Equally as important was the choreography.
The Ballet Russe had gained notoriety through seasons which wrapped real art around novelty and controversy presenting Debussy's "L'Apres D' un Faune" (1912) and lynch pin moment of modernism composer Igor Stravinsky's "Le Sacred du Printemps" (1913) during the Theater de Champs Elyseees premier of which a riot broke out.
If one looks at all the artists associated with or commissioned by the Ballet Rusee it is clear that Serge believed in the artistic progress made possible by modernism. He was also however also a producer and promoter who knew novelty and scandal could only but help a production long term. Ever searching for the next artistic evolutionary step he challenged Cocteau whose need to now go the next step to "astonish me".
Cocteau, Diaghilev and Satie's stars seem to be aligned. Cocteau was able to interest Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) to do the stage sets and costumes. At this point Picasso had parleyed his notoriety as a painter's painter into more wide spread fame via his collaboration with Georges Braque (1882-1963) in creating cubism. Being an important stepping stone in modern painting, cubism was running its course; becoming almost as regimented as the academy/salon painting it has railed against. Always in need of tensions to spur and evolve his creative process, Picasso had never done nay costume or stage design work. The challenge as much as the prestige attracted him.
Satie had never done a ballet score. He saw an upcoming generation looking to him for inspiration but did not want to rest on his laurels. He refused any existing compositions to be used for the score volunteering to write new ones and hopefully cementing his reputation in the Parisian art world once and for all.
Cocteau would write the scenarios off of which the two artists would riff. Diaghilev had a sincere appreciation of what everybody was bringing to the table, the fact that they were all at the artistic vanguard or in Satie's case, outside meant there would also most likely be a whiff of controversy which could only help the show.
Work was begun during the outbreak of World War 1. The frivolities of prewar life and the fairy tale aspects of a lot of art quickly became glaringly obvious as countries were conquered and reports from the trenches came in. Cocteau famously said:
"The war rid us in Paris of foolishness."
Although through the lens of time "Parade" would not be viewed as important as Stravinsky's "Le Sacred du Printemps" it did serve well to usher in the next artistic evolution. Cocteau sought to replace some of the traditional stylized ballet movement with those from every day life. A task made necessary also by the fact that some of Picasso's costumes were made of cardboard and allowed for minimal movement. The movement of everyday actions would be present, starting a car, taking a photo. The heavily scented perfumed air of fin de siecle Paris and its heirs, the symbolists would be blown away by the everyday which was emphasized by Cocteau's subtitle of "Ballet Realiste".
The actual structure of the ballet is rather simple, a Sunday fair in Paris. A traveling theater to publicize their show, holds a parade. The ballet is the parade and there are three acts. A Chinese conjuror inspired by the Cirque Medrano which every self respecting modernist regularly attended, an American girl/pair of acrobats and then the manager as a sort of carnival barker enticing the public to come see the real show.
The show set out to purposely avoid any kind of exoticism. There was a sophisticated underlying subtext too. The emotional cadence of the piece was a sadness/unfulfillment laying behind the manufactured emotions that the performers' roles called for, their public persona's as performing artists. Rich symbolism which could be read as one of several poignant metaphors.
To further up the ante, Cocteau called for some sound effects to be in the score and performance, something Satie was not a fan of and Picasso depending upon whether Cocteau was in his good graces over their several decade long friendship professed to have liked or hated. There was a siren, a typewriter and the shots of a pistol. Aside from the shock value of the pistol, Cocteau was always a great borrower, incorporating already proven chops into his own inner store house. The author of Uboi Roi and all around great agent provocateur Alfed Jarry (1873-1907) used to bicycle around Paris, whipping out a small pistol he always had on him at the drop of the hat and firing it off into the air. After his early demise Picasso who had circled around the same bohemian society as he, literally inherited the gun. Now its artistic factotum was present in this new ballet firing one of many wake up shots to the art world which was to be heard over the next few years.
The ballet was a mixed success; it did help both Cocteau and Diaghilev in the ways they wanted. Satie would take the money the ballet's successful run brought to him and, among other things, use it to buy hundreds of umbrellas many of which were found still wrapped, in his apartment after he died. The "new" aspects of the score, the sound effects, are more a distraction than revolutionary at this point in time. The music is good but from a distance does not retain the power to shock in the way Stravinsky still can. Satie would eventually be recognized as an important modern composer and the "Ragtime" part of "Parade" inspired by jazz would go on to become a popular vehicle for solo piano and often improvised upon by the jazz minded.
Picasso would go on to do more stage work to great acclaim and technical and artistic brilliance.
Cocteau would try another ballet along similar lines a few years later and to hedge his bets, had the score composed by all the members of Le Six. "Les Maries de La Tour Eiffel" (1921) revolves around a hunch backed photographer trying to take the wedding photos for a party on the platform of the Eiffel Tower. It has stood the test of time better than "Parade" not because the concept is so much stronger or different but "Parade" can be seen almost as a dry run; an idea yet to be perfected. Also all the composers were far more familiar with the musical genre. Cocteau would spend the rest of his life filling his oeuvre with the mythic and the every day made mythic. The most accomplished of his works which tries to compel with totems of daily life was his "La Voix Humane" (1930); the whole piece of which revolves around one woman in a bedroom with a phone speaking to the lover who jilted her. Edif Piaf played the woman in the premier and to this day this piece is still performed; sometimes with all kinds of new twists and takes which Cocteau would have approved of.
Also as a logical artistic decedent or "Parade" was George Antheil's (1900-1959) "Ballet Mecanique" (1926). This score too, calls for various sound effects but the music itself is so frenzied and futuristic as envisioned by those in the past that it does not posses the clunky aspect to be found in "Parade's" sound effects. The score requires a percolated frenzy whipped up by glockenspiel, small aero plane propeller, gong, cymbal, woodblock, electric buzzer bell, tenor drum, bass drum and triangle (aside from normal orchestra).
Living the life of an American expat in Paris, Antheil quickly built up social connections with the cream of the crop of the Parisian art world which was a giant melting pot of avant gardists, lost generation bohemians and the up and coming Montparnarsians. He studied the scores of Stravinsky and Le Six while socializing with both Eric Satie and Cocteau, who used his connections to further cement Antheil's place within the community.
Later on would come a return to America and a neo-classic period (as would happen too to Schoenberg and Stravinsky) but while still in Paris living the life of a dream; Antheil would sometimes anonymously sit down at a piano in cafe and play for drinks, always putting his small silver pistol down next to his drink on the piano.
Image above: 'Cityscapes' pastel by Wayne Wolfson
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