Thursday, September 04, 2008

Gnossienne Number One, numbers one, two and three


Rather than the usual talking book, my MP3 player for the morning and evening walks to and from work recently has featured three different versions of Satie’s Gnossienne Number One, played on repeat one after the other. This is by way of research for my current project: I’m trying to work myself into a particular mindset.

Apart from the fact I think it is slowly unhinging me, it’s a curious experience. I know nothing about music, so I’m very much of the Prince Philip school – I know what I like, but I don’t really understand why. I love this music – and Satie in general – but, in my ignorance, I thought Satie was Satie, and classical music was classical music. I didn’t realise how different interpretations could be.

Number One, number one is very good, exactly as I’d expect it to be, except it has one completely bum note where, inexplicably, instead of the sinuous melodic roll of notes for which the work is famous, it jarringly repeats a note in a strident manner. The fluidity of the piece is immediately lost.

Number One, number two is disappointing. It’s frail, tame, almost timid. It sounds like somebody playing while their aged mother lies asleep in the next room, trying not to wake her. The eeriness of the piece is lost.

Number One, number three is intriguing. Originally, I hated it. Too muted and then, suddenly, TOO STRIDENT. Too much damper pedal. It’s trying too hard for effect, for dadaist strangeness. Satie wrote dadaist music, but Gnossienne Number One isn’t, and it ruins the mood. But, the more I listen to this one, the more it grows on me. Where, before, I recognised and understood the odd fluidity of the piece, I now think I’m coming to hear something slightly different, on a slightly different register, at one remove from where I was before.

Of course, this discussion might be more useful if I could tell you who was playing each of these versions, but I can’t because I downloaded them all with just the title Gnossienne #1. And I call myself a researcher…

But, in general, none of them is quite right. None of them is the Gnossienne Number One as I hear it. It’s one of those peculiarities about me (vanity, arrogance?) that even when I know nothing about a particular skill or craft I still believe I could do it better than anyone else – if only I had learned the basic techniques. Just as I believe I have a vision and sense of position for football which would have turned me into the new Johann Cruyff if I’d ever been able to kick a ball straight, I also now think I could perform the perfect Gnossienne Number One, if only I could play the piano…

But then, that’s what Gnossienne Number One is all about. It’s a process of thinking about and understanding yourself. It’s a respite from life, a brief, contained interlude in which an idea is born and toyed with and allow to fly free. That is why the fluidity and movement of the piece is so essential. Every single note is a completely logical successor to the previous one. They’re like Walter Benjamin’s seagulls, their flight patterns so diverse and fluid that ultimately the word seagull ceases to be meaningful and one just watches the movement, the life, the moment. Satie wrote on the score of the piece ‘Wonder about yourself’. It is a message for life. Wonder, and let it flow.

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