This post picks up on something I wrote previously about the Royal Academy of Music and comes in a week when I went back to RAM for an extraordinary celebration of the work of Erik Satie. It was an impromptu visit; an expected evening with friends having fallen through I was at a loose end between finishing in the library and going to work in the evening. Impromptu often turns into serendipitous though doesn’t it?
Satie is someone whose work most people will be familiar with if only for its overuse by ‘thoughtful’ documentaries. The Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes can become hideously groan-inducing when used to accompany fuzzy slo-mo footage of falling autumn leaves.
Of course Louis Malle was the man who saw the steel below the melancholy of the pieces in using them for the sound track to Le Feu Follet, and I think if you’ve seen the film it’s hard to hear them again without recalling the quiet despair of Maurice Ronet. By contrast it’s enough for one to reach Alain Leroy-like for the service revolver when one hears yet one more hackneyed documentary reaching into the Satie back catalogue for pathos.
But that’s beside the point, the evening on Friday was a joyful one. A wide variety of Satie’s short pieces, accompanied by his very funny, crystalline aperçus delivered by a talented bunch of performers.* The treat of the evening was a showing of Entr’acte, René Clair’s surrealist silent film, accompanied by Satie’s music on piano and percussion.
I’d seen the film twice previously (and you can see it here on youtube) – once at the Man Ray/Picabia show at Tate Modern and another time at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with full orchestra under Charles Hazelwood. The Tate was in a small, dark room with tinny music (as I remember) … it being in the show because Picabia also collaborated on the film (there’s a very funny scene of him and Satie jumping up and down in slow motion).
The Hazelwood was okay as I remember but didn’t have as profound an effect as Friday. A big show at the QEH lacked the intimacy of being right next to the musicians and squeezed into a small auditorium at the RAM. Two pianists sharing one piano with two percussionists performing the score was perfect at capturing the home-made essence of the film, which is a ramshackle series of sketches using primitive special effects that have the paradoxical effect of giving a feeling of modernity.
And the good humour of it! Satie and Picabia bouncing around in middle age and having a whale of a time in a way that really radiated from the screen. Looking at the crowd it reminded me of the scene in Malle’s Au Revoir les Enfants where the camera watches the joyfaced schoolboys watching Charlie Chaplin and it made me think that in these days of monster festivals (yes, it’s Glastonbury weekend) isn’t it a pleasure to be able to sit somewhere quiet and companionable for an hour that you didn’t even know you were going to have.
Such surprises can come through music but also in museums. I decided this year to privilege visiting those museums that I’ve never got round to visiting. So much as I love the big beasts it’s the Year of the Small Museum for me. Of which the RAM has an excellent example.** One of the regrets of the Satie evening was that I hadn’t slunk out of the library earlier in order to go to a concert of baroque and classical keyboard music held in the Keyboard room of the Museum.
On my first visit to the museum this was the absolute highlight. But imagine seeing and listening to these machines in action! A selection of instruments that tell the tale of the development of the instrument, and more pertinently to my own work the centrality of London in that development. John Broadwood is probably the most famous of the London piano makers but they have a map there which shows how there were piano workshops all over Soho, Fitzrovia and beyond in the nineteenth century, competing and innovating in a thriving market.
And it made me wonder if there were a possibility that in this back to the analogue age there might ever be the chance to revive a piano workshop on Great Pulteney Street. Where craftsmen produce bespoke machines to rival the big beasts of Steinway and Yamaha in the same way that small bicycle manufacturers are now finding a niche in their market.
It’s a dream. I want a hipster joanna.
* The individuals are named below …
** And it’s free
Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).