Wednesday, July 14, 2010

old furniture

I’ve read Slavoj Žižek’s Living in the End Times, nearly the end of which he expresses his love for Wagner and Satie. Generally speaking, Satie is deemed anti-Wagnerian, but I believe there is nothing wrong with liking both. Žižek tries to imagine what utopian music (art) should be. He first analyzes Kafka’s last novel, Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk (Žižek argues “Folk” is not good translation of the original “Volk,” because there is no folksy about it). Josephine, the mediocre mouse singer, “is treated as a celebrity, but not fetishized” by the (mice) people. Her narcissism is tolerated, but she anyway has to keep her day job like the others. And when she disappears no one miss her. Žižek argues this is it: the way a communist artist should be. According to him, Satie(who was really a communist)’s concept of furniture music was a communist idea. There was nothing private about his music, on the contrary to its appearance. His music was about “collective intimacy.”
The most famous advocate of Satie’s music was John Cage. Wagner, Satie, and Cage, these three composers more or less dealt with theatricality of music. Of course there were differences between them: while Wagner made huge complex music, the others made simple parallax; while Cage was to some extent reductionist, the others were not.
Cage’s reductionist approach toward Satie can be seen in Cage’s Cheap Imitation, in which he extracts the rhythmic structure (duration) from Satie’s Socrate, replacing Satie’s subtle chords with arbitrary single notes. It is well-known that Cage said the structure of Satie’s (also Webern’s) music was determined by means of duration, while the structure of Beethoven’s music by means of harmony, and in this regard he was for Satie. In making Cheap Imitation, his job was to reduce Socrate to the skeletons: a Giacomettian portrayal of Socrates.
On the one hand the works of Satie and Giacometti, regardless of their thin appearances, are filled with certain kind of sensations, however, on the other hand Cheap Imitation lacks things as such. I wonder if Lacanian concept of objet petit a can be applied to explain the thin flesh of Giacometti’s and the subtle gesture of Satie’s. Perhaps there is more truth in Satie’s notes (surface) than in the rhythmic structure, as Žižek often explains that truth is rather in the mask itself than behind the mask, but perhaps Cage was trying to see truth behind the mask when claiming that the structure of Satie’s music was determined by means of duration. Cage called Satie “indispensable,” and to this I could add ”irreducible.” I’m not against musical analysis. It sometimes gives you some inspiration. But, when we analyze a piece of music we examine usually its property, and I wonder if it is enough...
In his “imaginary conversation between Satie and” himself, appearing in Silence, Cage notes: “To repeat: a sound has four characteristics: frequency, amplitude, timbre and duration. Silence (ambient noise) has only duration. A zero musical structure must be just an empty time.” It shows he used to be an apprentice of Schoenberg, who suggested to apply “tone-color melody” to treat these four characteristics equally. But Cage went further. He started thinking about what makes music music, and took silence as a blank slate. For him, articulating time became creation of music. And also, he found there was no such thing as absolute silence in the real world. So what’s the closest to silence in the real world?: a drone of noise. Okay. Let’s articulate a drone of noise. Wait. Maybe setting a drone of noise is too idealistic. Why not start from everyday noise? We can start from articulating everyday noise...
Everyone who is familiar with traditional Japanese garden knows some devices which generate sounds, such as suikinkutsu (“water harp cave”), shishi odoshi (“deer scarer”), and furin (“wind chime”). These make distinctive sounds from the environmental sound, yet don’t dominate the environment. They make you listen to the environmental sound. That’s to say, they give the environmental sound “meaning,” framing time and space (you feel distance, too). They are indeed furniture music.
Unlike in Europe, in Japan no one hates malls. The mall of Queen’s Square YOKOHAMA, a large shopping/entertainment/office/city hall/hotel complex (privatized public space) basically has no background music. Sometimes a pianist or a brass band (usually local amateurs) comes to play. There is a corner I can hear something like a wind chime. It rings automatically when someone passes the corner. No wind blows. I exit and make a detour... a leisurely 15 minutes walk along the sea leads me to The Yokohama International Port Terminal, which Žižek mentions
There is yet another variation on this gap between skin and content--the so-called “terrain buildings” where the surface-skin is constructed as a direct continuation of the surrounding terrain, with the undulations of a hill covered by grass and so on (recall the hobbits’ dwellings in The Lord of the Rings). The Yokohama International Port Terminal (designed by Foreign Office Architects) is exemplary here: a public space whose roof functions as an open plaza, continuous with the surface of the nearby park: “Rather than developing the building as an object or figure on the pier, the project is produced as an extension of urban ground,” as the designers themselves described their work. The Yokohama Terminal can thus be seen as the extreme case where, in a way, the whole Inside of the building is reduced to the interstitial space between the skin/envelope (the green or wooden surface) and the body of the earth, squeezed in the flattened domain between the two. Not surprisingly, the actual effect of such buildings is the very opposite of the intended “naturalization” (seamless immersion into natural environs): nature itself is thereby de-realized, that is, it appears as if a “natural” surface of grass is an artificial skin concealing complex machinery. (Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times, p262)
I'm back. Satie’s furniture music meant to be played by humans, actually by a chamber orchestra. Watching a You Tube clip showing the performance of this music in a concert situation makes me feel like watching Michael Nyman Band’s concert. Satie’s furniture music might have meant to be played in crowded public spaces in European urban, be it cafes, squares, stations, streets, whatever. But in the 1920s Europe there must have been many anonymous musicians, such as, bands, street musicians, brass bands, and bar pianists, playing in such places. Why did he want something more? Isn’t it like a communist composer going to Starbucks and telling “Don’t play commercial music, but mine!?” Did he want to get street musicians out of business? I don’t think so. He loved them.
Satie didn’t question the distinction between music and non-music, but the distinction between artists and citizens. Even though Cage wanted music to serve for our lives, his path to furniture music was quite different, and looks more profound (...since he questioned the definition of music). I like Cage’s materialism (isn’t it?). His questioning has been fruitful, but...
A time that’s just time will let sounds be just sounds and if they are folk tunes, unresolved ninth chords, or knives and forks, just folk tunes, unresolved ninth chords, or knives and forks (John Cage, Silence, p81).
My favorite cafe in Japan is Inoda Coffee House, in Sanjo Street, Kyoto. There two men in the center of the circular bar, scarcely talking, are just making and serving coffee. No “How’s your day?” No background music. They serve a cup of coffee, in which sugar and milk are already in it. Very simple. I’m glad I’m not forced to choose something. They just serve what they think the best (if you want sugarless one, you can ask so). I hear the boiling water, forks and plates (they also serve savory cakes), someone turning the page of the newspaper, conversations, and so on. When I lived in Kyoto as a student, I was working for another cafe. The manager of the cafe once told me that background music is necessary in order to protect customers’ privacy: so that they don’t have to worry about their conversation overheard. But in Inoda Coffee House I don’t feel my privacy is intruded. I feel no one cares what I’m doing. And I don’t care what the others are doing. It may be because of the two men’s polite and indifferent manner. They even don’t smile at the customers, but are not cold. They are like old furniture. No wonder there is no need for furniture Music. For me, “furniture” doesn’t have to be music, nonetheless I need “furniture.” By the way, their coffee is more expensive than Starbucks’s, but it is okay for me, since I’m willing to pay for Cage’s 4’33...
Among Cage’s, his early prepared piano pieces are closer to Satie’s than Cheap Imitation. What makes the sound of the prepared piano interesting is the fact that the timbre and the harmony (resonance) are inseparable. But Cage himself appears to have thought what makes those pieces interesting is rather the novelty of the sound. His egalitarianism might have led him to break the border between non-musical sound and musical sound. On the other hand, he might have become ambivalent at some point.
Who’s interested in Satie nowadays anyway? Not Pierre Boulez: he has the twelve tones, governs La Domaine Musicale, whereas Satie had only the Group of Six and was called Le Maître d’Arcueil. Nor Stockhausen: I imagine he has not yet given Satie a thought...Current musical activities involve two problems: (1) applying the idea of the series inherent in the twelve-tone system to the organization of all the characteristics of sound, viz., frequency, duration, amplitude, timbre, producing a more controlled situation than before attempted (Stockhausen: “It makes me feel so good to know that I am on the right track.”); and (2a) discovering and acting upon the new musical resources (all audible sounds in any combination and any continuity issuing from any points in space in any transformations) handed to us upon the magnetic plate of tape, or (2b) somehow arranging economical instrumental occasions (tape is expensive) so that the action which results presupposes a totality of possibility....Is Satie relevant in mid-century? (Ibid. p77)
Wasn’t “Am I relevant in mid-century?” what he actually wanted to ask? Here Cage was actually admitting Boulez and Stockhausen were “on the right track (if not, there was no trouble).” What Cage eventually extracted from Satie was “means of duration,” but the name of “Satie” should have meant more to him.

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