Thursday, May 1, 2014

Satierical Gymnasium

It's hard to say for sure what Erik Satie had in mind when he titled his three most famous pieces "Gymnopédies." I used to think he'd invented the word, but Wikipedia is telling me maybe not - well, that hasn't stopped me from making up my own gymnowords. The word "gymnasium" also has a wide range of meanings, from more playful to academic, and so it seems a suitable word to house these reflections on my playfully serious deconstructions of the especially famous "No. 1." Alex Ross refers to these quietly revolutionary works (hard to believe they're from 1888) as "oases of stillness," and it's this quality of directionlessness which inspired the idea of redirecting the order in which Satie's musical events happen.

To review/summarize.
  1. My first gymnopédésign just involved separating the piece into 20 phrases and having them shuffled randomly - a "Randomnopédie." As detailed here, I went through a variety of experiments in making this work before finally arriving at this solution. Note that this solution features a homemade recording on my naturally detuned 1891 Steinway, an instrument born only three years after Satie's pieces.
  2. My early experiments from summer '13 also led to this video in which the phrases are played in reverse order. I borrowed Égor Lacsap's recording for that, although you can also set the Randomnopédie player linked in #1 to play the phrases backwards.
  3. Next came the idea of rewriting Satie's music to be performed backwards, and that led to this performance of his "Eidéponmyg" on a nicely tuned, state-of-the-art recital hall Steinway. (If you follow that link, you can choose either to follow my backwards score forwards or Satie's score backwards.)
That seemed like it would be enough, but then I couldn't help but wonder about seguing randomly from bar to bar (there's a joke in there somewhere) instead of phrase to phrase. This didn't seem like a very promising idea, but I was intrigued by the task itself - coming up with a way to make the segues seem seamless, and also finding a nice way to "show" the music as it's happening. So, I went back to Scratch (MIT's programming language designed for children and, apparently, me) and found a way to make it happen, and the result is much more engaging and successful than I'd guessed it would be. 

This project required separate recordings of all 78 measures, and they needed to be sufficiently un-nuanced so that any one could lead into any other. For programming purposes, it also would help a lot if each measure was identical in length. Thus, I decided the easiest solution was to let the little piano player in my computer do the work (via the Garritan "Steinway" in Finale) and, with a little subtle reverb added, that came out pretty well. If you're keeping score, that's three different Steinways in play here, although I'd guess Satie played an Erard. (The aforementioned Égor Lacsap is also a Steinway artist.)

When the new measure-by-measure randomizer started generating music, my first thought was that it didn't work as music - too silly and stilted as musical expression, but as the music kept playing, things started happening. In such cases, I'm reminded of Terry Riley's absolutely true prediction that "fantastic shapes" will "arise" in performances of his iconically indeterminate In C. Fantastic new shapes and surprises did start emerging (I promise this wasn't because I'd been seguing randomly from bar to bar) and a recognizably Satie-like soundworld settled in. Satie's own Vexations can easily last 18 hours or more, but this can go on for as long as you and your computer can stand it.  

I think there are a lot of worthwhile musical/philosophical lessons to learn from these experiments, but for now I'd just encourage you to give them a listen. (Sadly, the Flash-based programs inside most of these pages won't work on iOS devices and the like - full-screen viewing is ideal, at any rate, if you want to view the scores.) All are linked together, but I'd suggest you start with the new, measure-by-measure version...

P.S. Yes, I am aware that the possibility of seguing from beat to beat exists (I even toyed around with it briefly, of course), but that brings up vexing problems at the sub-atomic level, since there are so many dotted half-notes sounding for three beats. I don't think I'm going to go there...

No comments: