A Lemonade-Genius, Tart and Incisive, Sold by the Sip: On _A Mammal’s Notebook: The Writings of Erik Satie”
by Joyelle McSweeney on Jul.21, 2014
When I wish:
…I live in France
“in the days of Charlemagne.”
thanks to a friend of mine who is a Wizard…
(Return to the Past)
We haven’t yet made it to the Dog Days of summer and yet it is time for something completely different—A Mammal’s Notebook: The Writings of Erik Satie, edited and introduced by Ornella Volta, translated by Antony Melville, and just out from Atlas Press, London. This volume, like Satie, aka ‘The Velvet Gentleman”, is good-looking, hilarious, charming, insane, snippy and visionary, all at once.
Volta, a Satie scholar who established and oversees his archives and runs the Satie museum in Paris, notes “Satie still seems, even now, contemporary, because the problems he brought to light remain unresolved.” In the wake of Wagnerism, those problems included how to wave away self-seriousness and bring lightness, exuberance, play, modern flexibility into modern musical composition. Satie’s innovations were nimble, direct, cussed, literally childish, and endlessly inventive, and feel, to this day, fresh, completely free and freeing. First, he writes very short pieces, often quoting and satirizing both friends and enemies (Satie is truly contemporary in the quantities (and quality) of his frenemies). Next, he titles them after decidedly un-serious, anti-musical and/or formally paradoxical topics—Desiccated Embryos, Bothersome Globs, Sports & Recreations, Three Compositions in the Shape of a Pear, etc. Next, he annotates his extremely brief pieces with hilarious indications to the performer—“As if you were congested”; “Almost invisible”; “Be an hour late”; “Corpulentus” ; “On yellowing velvet”; etc. The brief, stanzaic texts which accompany many of the compositions have the barmy precision (Volta’s word) of Crevel (and/or Paul Legault’s playlets) (or Mallarme’s translations of English nursery rhymes) (or Stein) and are plenteous and delightful. In a piece for children, which reads half-Tzara, half-Richard-Scarry–
3. Steps of a Grand Staircase
It is a grand staircase, very grand.
It has more than a thousand steps, all made of ivory.
It is very beautiful.
No one dares to use it for fear of spoiling it.
The King himself has never used it.
To leave his room, he jumps out of the window.
And often he says:
“I love this staircase so much I am going to have it stuffed.”
The King is right, isn’t he?
In addition to these charming texts to accompany compositions and the vitally bonkers performance indications, A Mammal’s Notebook includes hilarious lectures, complete with loopy loaded ellipses which anticipate Jack Smith (note: all ellipses in the below passage Satie’s):
A critic’s brain is a store,–
— a department store
You can find anything there: –orthopaedics,– sciences, –bed-linen, –arts, –travelling rugs—a wide range of furniture,–French and foreign writing paper;–
–woolens,– hats, –sports, —walking-sticks, –optician’s,– perfumery,–etcetera
The critic knows everything, —….. sees everything, –hears everything,— touches everything,…
moves everything around….., eats anything….., confuses everything…….– & thinks nothing of it…..
What a man!!…..
Tell the world!!!……
All our wares are guaranteed!!!……
In hot weather,–
All the merchandise is kept inside!!!
Inside the critic!!!!!
This is the kind of delightful, crazy jousting we find throughout Satie’s compositions, verbal, textual, or otherwise. The maddening elliptical pacing is like a tonal, Loony-Tunes powder keg being tossed back and forth between speaker and audience. One imagines ‘the critic’ fuming alongside on tiny shoes like Yosemite Sam, about to provide the flame that explodes the proceedings.
In addition to the lectures, notes, annotations and libretti, (texts not to be read aloud, texts to be danced, sung, etc), and texts written for publications, the most intriguing ‘specimens’ in this mammal’s notebook are two further uncategorizable texts. First, the “Catalogue of Erik Satie’s Musical and Literary Works with Comments by the Same Gentleman”, which I take to be a collaboration between Volta and Satie: a timeline of the composer’s life work with notes retrieved from Satie’s manuscripts and inserted alongside the dated texts, such as, regarding Medusa’s Snare:
This is a play of pure fantasy… with no reality.
Do not see it as anything else.
The role of Baron Medusa is a sort of portrait… Even a portrait of me… a full-length portrait of me.
This catalogue is a dotty and engrossing piece of collaboration between the scholar and her subject and I’m delighted by the little spark of occult flame that jumps across, as Satie appears to provide the scholarly annotation for his own life. Satie is also quoted as writing, of himself, “His music is senseless & makes people laugh & shrug their shoulders.”
But the final, mysterious wealth of this book is the nearly indescribable “Private Advertisements”—selections from a collection of 4,000 cards which were found in Satie’s apartment after his death. These close set, printed or hand written cards read like cryptic advertisements, musical scores or even architectural renderings. These are impossible to truly quote here—“Forge-on-the-Bubble/The White Pine Inn:/Manor & Farm/ (1253)/Entirely in cast iron/Gift of the Devil to his Godson”—but suggest an endlessly ingenious mind following a path of inspiration truly beyond what contemporary genres or media could accommodate—are these scores? cards for a player piano? computer programs? advertisements? parts of a Darger-like novel? The novel of the 19th century dying into the 20th? I think also of the endlessly inventive work of Ray Johnson, whose inexhaustibly playful correspondence art has just now been reissued by Siglio in gorgeous large editions, & might be read alongside Satie’s.
Volta’s frontmatter and annotations record the life of an artist always slipping in and out of synch with his contemporaries, prefiguring and racing ahead of them, claimed as this one’s forbear, that one’s follower, leader to this group, émigré from that. I almost picture a figure like Ray Johnson, or like Chaplin’s tramp in Modern Times who enters the clockwork wrongways and so is shot out by the machinery into force-driven, yet farcical, free, plastic, elastic space. Perhaps this paradox describes the way Satie participates in and even generates the musical language of his time while also seeming thrown completely wide of it, making work for future aliens and holothurians to play back with delight.