Postmodern Interpretations of Satie's Parade

By Albright, Daniel | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Postmodern Interpretations of Satie's Parade


Albright, Daniel, Canadian University Music Review


Abstract

If postmodernism can be considered ahistorically, as a stylistic category operative at any time and in any place, then there are many older works that suddenly seem to speak strongly to our present age. This paper argues the case for taking Erik Satie as a postmodernist: his music is marked by bricolage (the Edriophthalma movement from Embryons desséchés, 1913, borrows a theme, according to the score, "from a celebrated mazurka by Schubert"); by polystylism (the cabaret songs written for Vincent Hyspa, or Parade with its quotation from Irving Berlin); and by materialism of the signifier (what Satie calls furniture music).

Résumé

Si le postmodernisme peut se concevoir de façon a-historique comme une catégorie stylistique clé, quel que soit le moment ou le lieu, beaucoup d'oeuvres plus anciennes prennent tout à coup, à l'époque actuelle, une certaine importance. Cet essai illustre ce point de vue en qualifiant Erik Satie de postmoderniste. En effet, sa musique est marquée par le bricolage (le mouvement « Edriophthalma » des Embryons desséchés de 1913 emprunte, selon la partition, un thème tiré « d'une célèbre mazurka de Schubert »), par la multiplicité des styles (les chansons de cabaret écrites pour Vincent Hyspa, ou encore Parade et ses citations d'Irving Berlin) et par le matérialisme du signifiant (ce que Satie nomme la musique d'ameublement).

Early Postmodernism

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) thought that some artists led bizarre and unhappy lives because their personalities were so far out of phase with their historical eras that they were forced to wear a false mask - that is, to live as caricatures of themselves. For example, Yeats considered that he was a Romantic poet born too late: a histrionic and effortful presence, an object of mockery to the Modern age.1 Yeats indeed seemed to his contemporaries a spooky, ethereal sort of man, so superstitious that he once cut a square out of his fur coat for fear of disturbing a sleeping cat. The Romantic poet, to Yeats, lived in a subjective phantasmagoria, a delirium of private images; while Yeats regarded the twentieth century as an age devoted to the death of imagination, an age which tried to cure itself of desire by hewing to the stolid surfaces of things-as-they-are.

The French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925) was an almost exact contemporary of Yeats, and illustrates Yeats's predicament from the opposite direction. Satie too seems out of phase with his historical era - a connoisseur of paradoxes and parapluies, threadbare dandy, high aesthete of low-brow art, irritable and imperturbable, the snowman of lyric. But it seems retrospectively that this phase-shift arose, not from Satie's adherence to an outworn aesthetic, but from his remarkable anticipation of the aesthetic of the late twentieth century, what we call nowadays postmodernism. Yeats was right in believing that the age was moving toward a rejection of high metaphor, a rejection of transcendence, even a rejection of imagination. Among the artists of the early twentieth century, no one was more expert in rejection than Satie: his whole career is a gran rifiuto of all that is grand. Satie cast a cold eye on impressionism, on expressionism, on most of the vibrant movements of the age. If there is a certain aggressive quality to his reticence, that can be explained by the fact that he lived in the age of the Panama Canal and the novels of Proust, an age characterized by large projects and orotund manifestos, an age in which reticence seemed, if not a vice, at least one of the lesser virtues.

A list of some of the attributes of postmodernism shows just how easily Satie fits the category.

Bricolage

The jury-rigging of art, the assembling of the art object from the odds and ends of older art, in a denatured and desecrated fashion, in order to expose the purely arbitrary character of the signs that all artists, past and present, employ. In this sense the modality of postmodernist art is ironic quotation - or a kind of quotedness so thoroughgoing that it disables irony by providing no stable meaning to be ironic against. …

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