Fascinating article by Matthew Shlohmowitz on Cage and Satie found at Satie Archives. Shlohmowitz examines the degree to which our current understanding and reception of Satie is due to Cage. He begins by stating that if it wasn't for Cage, Vecations, arguably Satie's most well known and influential work, might never have been discovered, let alone performed:
Before Cage discovered the piece (Vexations) in 1949, few knew that it existed. This claim is easily supported: the first two biographies on Satie (by Templier,1932; Meyers, 1948) make no mention of it, not even in the "catalogue of works" of Meyers's book. Soon after he discovered the score, Cage had it printed in Contrepoints. Furthermore, and of even more significance, in New York in 1963, Cage organized the work's premier performance, seventy years after it was composed! Vexations is now one of Satie's most famous pieces. It has been performed many times all over the world; equally, a literature on it has developed. Testimony to this development, is that even the shortest articles about Satie in music dictionaries make mention of it.
From a 1969 performance by mini-Eric Idle-alike:
... and later John Cale performing it on a game show on telly:
A 9 hour 'complete version exists here, in very low bitrate.
Shlohmowitz also talks of Cage's understanding of musical structure, which he articulated only in relation to the music of Satie and Webern, as opposed to that of Beethoven (and everyone else):
Cage states that many new materials have emerged in the twentieth century: quarter tones (Haba); electronic instruments (Varese); and the prepared piano (himself) to name just a few. Cage sees the big development in methodology as the ability to create "continuous invention", be it through "means of the twelve-tone row" or "secundal intervallic control". And he states that there is a "new contemporary awareness of form: It is static rather than progressive in character." When it comes to structure, however, as we have said, Cage believes that there is has been only one new idea since Beethoven. He writes:
"And that new idea can be perceived in the work of Anton Webern and Erick Satie. With Beethoven the parts of a composition were defined by means of harmony. With Satie and Webern they were defined by means of time lengths. The question of structure is so basic, and it is so important to be in agreement about it, that one might ask: Was Beethoven right or are Webern and Satie right? I answer immediately and unequivocally, Beethoven was in error, and his influence, which has been as extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music."
Cage believed that the "fundamental" aspect of music is duration. His argument is that the only "characteristic" which both sound and silence share is duration. Silence is important, as it is the opposite of sound "and, therefore, a necessary partner of sound."
Cage's interest in Satie led him to Paris where he sought more information on Satie and Milhaud's musique d'ambleument, 'furniture music', or more accurately, as I recently learned, 'furnishing music'.
In 1949 Cage went to Paris with a grant to do some research on Satie. He was particularly interested on this research trip on finding out more about musique d'ameublement (Furniture Music). In collaboration with Milhaud, Furniture Music is best explained by the creators:
"We are presenting today for the first time a creation of Messieurs Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud, directed by M. Delgrange, the "musique d'ameublement" which will be played during the intermissions. We urge you to take no notice of it and to behave during the intervals as if it did not exist. This music, specially composed for Max Jacob's play claims to make a contribution to life in the same way as a private conversation, a painting in a gallery, or the chair 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 or commissions."
Furniture Music was the first ever "Muzak"; as Milhaud wrote, "Satie was right: nowadays, children and housewives fill their homes with unheeded music, reading and working to the sound of the wireless. And in all public places, large stores and restaurants, the customers are drenched in an unending flood of music. It is 'musique d'ameublement', heard, but not listened to". And although today it disturbs many of us that Muzak is so ever present (that it is the soundtrack to our lives), in the 1920s this was a revolutionary idea. For Cage, Furniture Music was important, as it was a new context for music, and a context that broke from the traditions of the concert hall. It was also important in a way that Satie had not conceived. Namely, for Satie, Furniture Music would be a part of the sounds of the environment, whereas for Cage, the noise of the environment are the music. This manifested itself in Cage's work the empty spaces that are incorporated into many of Cage's works during the 1950s. The best example of this is 4'33".
'Children and housewives'?! Not all menfolk sit in their living rooms listening to Brahms and Wagner!
Satie's Furniture Music pieces are among his strangest and most charming works, pithy melodies drawn in strings and woodwind, looped into go-nowhere repetition, yet too kooky, even today, to satisfy their creators' demands for ignorability.
Oddly they remain largely unknown, with only one commercial recording in existence, of only three of the five works (Part 1:Tenture De Cabinet Prefectoral (Curtain of a Voting Booth), Part 2: Tapisserie En Fer Forgel (Tapestry of Wrought Iron: for the arrival of the guests - grand reception - to be played in an entrance hall), and Part 3: Carrelage Phonique (Phonic Tiles - may be performed at a luncheon), by the Ars Nova Ensemble under Marius Constant on an Erato LP, along with an excerpt of Vexations and the short trumpet fanfare Sonnerie pour réveiller le roi des singes (Trumpet call to awaken
the kind of the monkeys, who sleeps with one eye open). It has been reissued on a budget APEX CD, alongside the equally unknown Concerto for Trautonium and Strings by Paul Hindemith. This remains one of my most frequently played CDs.
For those who can't be bothered with the CD the Satie works are all freely available to download at Ubuweb.
What led me in a roundabout way to Satie was a friend's mention of the Fugazi song 'Furniture'. It's lyrics are noteworthy:
This is a song with no words.
But no one can hear the missing.
They just look at my mouth
And look at my mouth
And say hey man, I know where you're coming from.
Furniture has no say in life,
It was made to be used by people.
How many times have you felt like a bookcase
Sitting in living room gathering dust
Full of thought already written?
This is a song with no words.
But no one can hear the missing.
You can see my mouth and see that it's moving
I think you alreay know where I'm coming from
I saw Fugazi live in Perth in 1993. It was an early evening show, filled with sweaty Australian stage diving men and boys, and me and a friend drank a bottle of Bundaburg rum.
There is also the early Handsome Family song 'Moving Furniture Around', a band I have never seen live but long wanted to. Here too furniture is equated with torpor and malaise:
The Handsome Family's 'Moving Furniture Around':