Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Landmarks (39)

Erik Satie: Pièces Froides (1897), piano solo.

Cold Pieces: three songs (without words) and three dances (without steps).  Familar textures are reduced to minima.  In the three Airs à faire fuir (Airs that chase away) a right hand melody hangs over an elemental accompaniment of bass notes alternating with middle register chords.  The three Danses de travers (Crossed-up dances) are each made of ascending, open fifth-at-the-bottom arpeggios with only a bare suggestion of a melody emerging from the top notes of the accompaniment.   Although notated without barlines, songs and dances alike are in unrelenting and dispassionate, indeed cold, four-quarters measures. 

But, as usual with Satie, things are not as simple as they first sound.  The regularity and familiarity described above are essentially framing elements, a dull construction upon which interesting things stand in relief. The tiny, tender melodies here are modally unstable (sometimes suggesting the chromatic genus of classical antiquity).  Harmony functions locally with absolute clarity, but the progress from one measure-long block to another and, globally, over the course of an entire Air or Dance seems arbitrary and unpredictable.  Thus while each of the constituent parts is clear, familiar, even banal, the sequence of those parts is eccentric, even complex, creating vivid little worlds in which the outlines of patterns and tunes are are stable memories but precise tonal memory is only short-term and prone to wandering.  A fine example of that which I like to call disfunctional harmony.

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