If the task of correctly interpreting musical wunderkind Erik Satie's work were to be given only to a precious few, I think we can safely say that the esteemed Philip Corner would be one of them. His issuance of Satie Slowly is an exercise in exactly that, correct interpretation, and the gent has gone to great pains not only to showcase what Satie's charts have all along dictated but to also explain why, in a highly entertaining, curious, quite didactic, sometimes baffling, but always convincing fashion. Corner's credentials are impeccable in a 60s offbeat fashion, having been a founding participant in Fluxus, part of the John Cage circle, a student of Messaien (the rhetoric about all this is a tad skewed, but I think I'm getting it right), an active civil rights volunteer and Freedom School teacher during Mississippi Freedom Summer 1964 and a while thereafter, and a good deal more than I have room to cite. In other words, the guy's been around, rubbed elbows with the greats, picked up a few things, and done it all with eyes wide open.
The work here, though, is perhaps best exemplified in the capacious booklet accompanying the 2-CD set, wherein a real or imagined critic remarked to him "You're devoting yourself to Satie? There's nothing there. You need so much patience." Corner zen-cryptically replied "Yes, but once you have it, you don't need anything else". Cage, I have no doubt, from wherever he is now, would approve.
I possess quite a few Satie LPs and CDs in my collection, most of which I'm very fond of (the sort, I must reveal, of items Corner emphatically is not too pleased with), especially the unusual Hat Art label's twofer The Minimalism of Erik Satie; the three Camarata albums, Velvet Gentleman, Through the Looking Glass, and The Electronic Spirit; the beguiling Satie for Two by guitarists Peter Kraus & Mark Bird; the Monotones ballet accompaniment; the Homage to Satie twofer; and various other issuances—few if any of them ever re-released—including Entremont Conducts Satie, which finally introduced me to Erik's Parade, a composition for some reason steadfastly ignored by just about everyone.
I have to say, though, that Corner's evocations stand alone, and I found maself struck and fascinated by his 10:05 version of Gnossiene No.1, which almost completely transforms the opus away from every other version ever recorded…and when I say 'almost completely', I mean you'll recognize it but it'll take a while and, by that time, you'll understand why Corner's adamant about his feat in this collection. The song is solemn and beautiful, reverential, reminding one of some hitherto unknown very quiet kin to Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun on piano (Dan Jackson & Margee Bracken turn in a really nice four-hand version of Faun on YouTube) perhaps now due to its, to these ears, large arboreal spaces.
Other cuts can be very much what one is used to, the Gymnopedies for example, the tunes responsible in the public's ear for Satie's rise from the status of puzzling curiosity to one of the most esteemed modern classicalists…I imagine that, in the afterlife, he and Van Gogh even now commiserate rather pointedly on such things as their fellows' and their audiences' frustratingly retarded perceptics. Even there, though, the shift in tempo is noticeable, the emphatics more (if the word can be used properly here) radical, the pauses longer, the flow more gently oceanic rather than from a mountaintop glade.
Reading the fascinating notes, collected from Phil's papers over a span of forty years, reminded me very much of my interview with Copernicus (Joseph Smallkowski), and this shouldn't surprise those familiar with heady days 40 to 50 years ago: Copernicus was a part of the Living Theater running in much the same circles as Fluxus and various enterprises. Everyone back then held views that now would be called at least 'highly opinionated' but were actually convictions derived from non-ordinary consciousness, whether gained through drugs, meditation, the arts, study immersions, or otherwise. That sort of thing's difficult to locate nowadays, so banal and corporatized has our world become, but we're still, thank God, feeling the reverberations of the past.
There's a depth of profundity to Corner's ruminations and, even when you might not agree with them, you find his performances very difficult to argue, his take as valid as anyone's, often a good deal more so than everyone's. I'm sure he'll be called 'eccentric' by many, but that almost always means 'more intelligent and perceptive'. I'm just as positive he's already familiar with occupying such a position, and his perhaps fabulist critic was right: patience is required, now more than ever in this frenetically decadent culture. To understand the sometimes striking but more often subtle corrections back to manuscripts, one cannot just listen, that's too much an act of artificially slowing interior gabble and frenzy, but instead exist fraternally with the musics documented here, in essence become the player's third hand, lest one run the terrors of returning to the pack and its hideous brainless normalcies, a fate I'd wish on no one.
Well, okay, maybe a few.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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