Make Better Music 46: Satie, Reich, Schoenberg and the Limits

make better music. Trebuchet magazine
make better music. Trebuchet magazine

Erik Satie’s music is for the most part quite easy on modern ears.

The famous piano pieces, the “gymnopedies” are quiet, slow and melodic. The more technical minded listener might also note that they are modal – that is that they use scales aside from your standard major and minor sets. Some of them were written without barlines or a time signature – although you wouldn’t know that just from listening  – it was simply that these things were not needed to get the music across. Using them was just a convention that he was pragmatic enough to finally omit.

I think Satie’s music contains many lessons, most obviously and famously are the virtues of simplicity and clarity in music, but also that the composer is writing for many different people. He is writing for himself, to satisfy an emotional and intellectual desire to create. The composer needs some technical skill to do this, along with a creative drive and artistic aim. He is potentially writing for performers, who need the score as “instructions” to tell them what actions they need to perform to make the music come out as it should. Finally he is writing for the audience – who need to know nothing about anything, they just need to listen and try not to cough a lot.

I think Satie’s music contains many lessons, most obviously and famously are the virtues of simplicity and clarity in music

For me, one of Satie’s great lessons was that being an oddball is ok. Not sticking to conventions is ok. However I cannot agree with him that dreaming up imaginary buildings and then trying to rent them out to people is a great thing to do, but he’s ticked enough boxes with me already so I’ll forgive him that one. He reminds me a little of Steve Reich – another composer who’s music is very popular and also easy on modern ears, appealing to many people who might not listen to a lot of other orchestral music.

Both composers seem to exist outside of the establishment (perhaps less so with Reich now, but certainly the case in his earlier years). The “easy on the ears” remark is a bit of a throwaway comment, but that’s the part I want to explore a bit more. Both composers imposed quite extreme limits on their music. Satie stripped his music back to the bare essentials and stated that he  “did not think it permitted that a composer take more time from his public than strictly necessary”.

Young children throw paint onto the paper with complete abandon. Is it fun? Of course!

Reich has noted that he got interested in music as a process that would work itself through – and that the audience should hear that process and be able to follow it. These are both audience focussed composers – they want the experience of the music to be positive.

It is also limiting – neither composer is able to do as they please, they have considerations, if not a full-on rulebook to obey. The greatness of the music, and the reason the music is enjoyable is precisely because of the limitations. Creating is a challenge, and the less restriction you have, the more of a mess you can make.

Young children throw paint onto the paper with complete abandon. Is it fun? Of course! Should more adults re-learn to play like that? Absolutely! Is it art? Yes it sure is. Is it great art? Probably not.

It’s play, and play is good. Musicians get to play (notice how what we do is called ”playing”?) around more than perhaps any other sort of artist. You can jam, and mistakes are ok, copying is ok, messing about is ok. Novelists and sculptors don’t often get that sort of interaction. Us musicians are pretty lucky really, we can join up and play together a lot more easily. But the more freedom there is, the less likely you are to have a solid gold classic piece of music on your hands.

But the more freedom there is, the less likely you are to have a solid gold classic piece of music on your hands.

How many free-jazz tracks blow you away? There might be a few, and that’s good! But how many free jazz blow-outs do you think you could listen to? How many need to get played until all the random stuff comes together and sounds amazing?

Steve Reich’s music was sort of influenced by Schoenberg. Yes, he of all that serial and twelve-tone stuff. Admittedly it was more like a reverse imprint than an influence – but a negative influence is surely an influence nonetheless, right?

Reich didn’t like how Schoenberg’s musical theory was weighted in favour of the composer. In fact it was entirely about the method of composition – the audience was not considered at all.

Reich was bold (and smart) enough to combine extreme compositional organisation, with “stuff that is nice to listen to”. Essentially harmony. Frank Zappa once noted that an audience can handle pretty much any kind of rhythmic madness if the harmony is diatonic. Reich noticed the same thing – you could have all the complex compositional integrity of a Schoenberg serial piece, but make the harmony “nice”, and a hell of a lot more people would like it.

How many free-jazz tracks blow you away? There might be a few, and that’s good! But how many free jazz blow-outs do you think you could listen to?

There is a small detail that pops up at this point which is that Steve Reich then did a similar thing with rhythm…but it’s a much longer story and needs more explanation. The user is required to do their own research here! The point that I’m spiralling around like a ship being sucked into a whirlpool is that musical greatness comes from just a few simple ideas combined.  Wannabes take note!

Combine intellectual ideas and emotional expression (the composer-imposed part of the contract) with playability and maximum simplicity and clarity of expression(the performer-imposed part of the contract) and wrap it all up in “stuff that sounds nice” (the audience-imposed part of the contract) and, with Lady Luck on your side, you might just have a solid gold classic on your hands.

 

About Dave.

David Learnt composition (harmony, counterpoint and orchestration) to degree level through studying Schoenbergs Fundamentals of Musical Composition. He is a founder member of Avant Pop duo Cnut, and orchestral doombience outfit Regolith.

Make Better Music is updated every Tuesday. To catch up on the series search for ‘Dave Graham’.

Image: Francesco Marino / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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About Dave Graham 70 Articles
David Learnt composition (harmony, counterpoint and orchestration) to degree level through studying Schoenbergs Fundamentals of Musical Composition, the classic text on twentieth century harmony by Vincent Persichetti, Henry Mancini's Sounds and Scores, Rimsky-Korsakov's excellent books on orchestration as well as studying any scores that intrigued me. He is a founder member of two bands, avant pop duo Cnut, and orchestral doombience outfit Regolith, and have performed across Europe with them.

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