Cephalophones

Instruments belonging to the remarkable group of cefalophones, with a range of thirty octaves, being completely unperformable. An amateur in Vienna tried in 1875 to play the siphon in C; after having jarred with a piercing trill, the instrument burst, broke the spine of the musician, and scalped him completely. Since then no one has dared use the powerful assets that cephalophones contain and the state has forbidden all schools from teaching the instruments.

-Erik Satie, 1866-1925, Compositeur de Musique.



Satie was sui generis, and the above - what to call it? Fantasy? Riff? - is an example of one side of his unique personality, which was a bizarre combination of the saint and the jester. And here we have the latter, pure imagination. We also have the aspect of Satie that I wish primarily to point out here, which is his status as a miniaturist, and the relationship thereof to his approximate contemporary, Anton von Webern.


Messieur le Pauvre, as Satie was called, wrote approximately five hours of piano music, more than his friend Claude Debussy. Yet in these hundreds of movements there is no piece more than five minutes long! Gone are the time-honored methods of sonata allegro form: this is music which states an idea and is done. Listening to it, one feels like small flecks of multicolored light have been thrown into the air, and left there, quietly fading. "The artist has no right to waste the audience's time," wrote Satie. Rebelling against the weighty Germanic tradition of Beethoven and Wagner, he said to Debussy, "We must have a music without sauerkraut, if possible!"

In the homeland of sauerkraut, Anton Webern (1883-1945) would explore brevity in a way both similar to and distinct from Satie. Its similarity lay in its concision, with not a wasted note; its dissimilarity lay in its bold simultaneous embracing of atonal serialism and the rigid intellectualism of the Baroque and Rennaissance polyphonic styles, primarily fugue and canon. Not, however, of the sort Bach would have immediately recognized, for in addition to its atonality Webern's music explored the possibilities of extreme instrumental techniques: squeals, screeches, hums, buzzes, and the contrast between inaudibility and volume. Webern was brilliant, and his music was tremendously influential. But unfortunately Webern had little to no sense of humor. Because of its unrelentingly serious outlook, highly formal construction, and obsession with religion, Webern's music was uniquely German: let us call it concentrated sauerkraut.

Contrastingly, Satie's music was uniquely French: in its lightness and humor one can almost see the cabarets and markets of 1920s Paris, Montmartre, Honfleurais. Admittedly, not all was joviality. Satie founded his own church, in his fascination with Rosicrucianism and Medievalism: throughout the lifetime of the First Metropolitan Church of the Art of Jesus the Conductor, the founding priest remained its only member. This didn't stop the church from publishing numerous pamphlets and statements, which primarily served as a platform for Satie to rant against to those who criticised him. Like any good Frenchman, Satie could also be monstrously rude. And yet, was it all a joke? Here we are again at the storefronts and cafes of France.

Satie is paradox: he is not to be understood, only wondered at. Was he the greatest musician of his generation, as some have claimed? Was he a practical joker, a musical ineptitude who covered up his lack of facility with humor, brevity, and sacrifice? His influence on Debussy and Les Six is undeniable; his status as spiritual progenitor of both ambient music and minimalism is clear, from the point of view of this our 21st century. He will not be forgotten.

His beloved cephalophones, however, have failed to find a lasting audience. Satie would no doubt mourn the resistance of musicians to instruments which are completely unperformable: flipping his alto overcoat in C over his shoulder and adjusting his pince-nez, he would chuckle, realizing that some people are utterly without imagination.

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