Mysterious Satie: Socrate, Hannigan and de Leeuw

People may think they know you.  They can have expectations of you, and be surprised when you don’t behave in the usual way.  I don’t like being boxed in, stereotyped by old friends who think they know me better than myself.

If a musical score could talk, I wonder if it might express similar resentments.  We come to an understanding of a composer (or playwright or poet for that matter) with each new acquaintance with their work, and start to develop expectations. We may think we know their compositional habits, procedures, tendencies.  When we can’t reconcile something anomalous –that is, something outside our prediction of what’s next—do we make the effort to expand our understanding of the composer, or do we shoe-horn this divergence into the old template?

I’m thinking such thoughts after spending the last couple of weeks listening to Barbara Hannigan sing Erik Satie, on the CD Socrate, her recent collaboration with Reinbert de Leeuw.

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Reinbert de Leeuw and Barbara Hannigan

If ever there were a composer I wanted to treat as a friend, it’s Erik Satie, an artist who defies easy classification.  Do we know him and his music?  He might be the most easily approachable composer in history, in his refusal to write music of virtuosic difficulty. Anyone can play his piano music.  That fact is already reason for further exploration.

Satie is something of an outlier, having avoided the usual pedagogy and education (at least in his youth) and creative pathways.  This already suggests his scores might be unconventional if not actually iconoclastic.  But where his lifelong friend Debussy was more vocal and angry about his relationship to the establishment, Satie usually took a softer gentler and more whimsical path.  He could draw and this shows his sense of humour.  I can’t help wondering what he was like as a man, as a drinking buddy, as someone to hang out with.

Or to quote Jarrod Annis’s recent review of A Mammal’s Notebook: The Writings of Erik Satie edited by Orella Volta

If kneeling at the altar of benevolent prankster saints is your thing,
A Mammal’s Notebook needs to be on your bookshelf.

All that is a necessary preamble for me before I dare to speak of Hannigan’s collaboration with de Leeuw.  I think one can see three different aspects of Satie the composer on their recording.

We begin with two set of three songs, namely

  • Trois Mélodies (Les anges, Elégie and Sylvie)
  • Trois Autre Mélodies (Chanson, Chanson médiévale, Les fleurs)

The titles of the sets is remarkably apt, considering how little there is in the score, other than the melodies.  Yes we do associate Satie with minimalism, these songs seem to remind us, as the pianist is given next to nothing to play. In other words we’re not in the tradition of Schubert or Schumann, where the pianist’s role is challenging, where there may be an introduction to set a mood.  While Satie’s pianistic skills (or lack of same) have been captured in biographies, the elusive part is how he felt about virtuosity and how he understood music as a result. Not only is there no evidence that he would ever want to play more elaborately, but he pioneered a radically original approach. The piano plays soft chords to frame the melody but rarely calling attention to itself.  De Leeuw’s supportive playing is among the most self-effacing piano I’ve ever encountered yet rock solid in support of Hannigan.

Their rapport is unmistakable.

Hannigan sings with phenomenal accuracy, a purity of tone reminding me of the ink pen drawings of the composer. The CD itself is decorated with one of them, which i think was originally sent in a latter to Jean Cocteau, in 1917.


The CD on my desk, the drawing on the CD

Is this the authentic appropriate way to sing? We can’t really say. There isn’t a comparable tradition with these songs, as there is for the romantic song composers.  I believe these works are like a new continent to be explored and perhaps interpreted.  But I have no reason to deconstruct Hannigan’s approach, other than to marvel at her perfection.

The second of three aspects of Satie can be glimpsed in “Hymne”.  We know only indirectly of Satie’s connection with the metaphysical subculture of Paris.  In Joscelyn Godwin’s 1996 book Music and the Occult Satie is singled out as the single most esoteric composer, narrowly edging out his friend and co-conspirator Claude Debussy.

The ambiguity of these harmonies that refuse to concern themselves with the old idea of “resolution” can also be heard in “Hymne”, another work alluding to rites and rituals for a spirituality that is not documented as a religion.  When we speak of mystery it is in that old sense of the unfathomable, as in the broad discursive area we sometimes lump together under the heading of “the occult”.   While Hannigan sings this without undue forward impulse, corresponding to the score’s instruction (“CALME et DOUX” or in other words “calmly and sweetly”), I wonder if this was originally conceived as a bigger ritual, considering that at the bottom of the page it speaks of “avec adjonction d’un choeur de femmes à l’unisson”.  But for this version (with piano, unlike the later elaboration with orchestra) the communication is through the intimate voice of a soloist.

While Hannigan sings a text we’re in an elevated realm of meaning that’s more like a prayer or incantation, although decoding the implications of the text at this point is difficult.  We can glimpse something larger than life, and more than a little pompous.  Lyrics and more can be found (click) here.

The third guise in which Satie appears is in some ways the most elusive & mysterious, and gives the CD its title.  Here’s how the liner notes describe it:

From the following year he was in contact with Tristan Tzara, the initiator of the Dada movement.  He became acquainted with other Dada artists such as Francis Picabia, André Derain, Marcel Duchamp,, Jean Hugo and Man Ray.  Also in 1919 he composed Socrate, a score he told his artist friends he intended to be white, lucid, transparent and even, in the extreme, fragile, echoing the philosopher’s understanding of our common human fate. To be in the right mood for this composition he ate only white food.

Here the correspondence between Satie’s objectives and Hannigan’s voice seems especially apt.  The vocalism is clean, pristine even.  De Leeuw’s pianism is especially transparent in the three movements of Socrate.

I continue to listen to this CD as I ponder Satie’s mysteries.

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