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Classical Notes

Satie on Film

Posted at 10:45 AM on January 28, 2008 by Rex Levang

Bill Morelock passes on these thoughts about Tuesday night's Open Air show. (The footage of Erik Satie firing a cannon from the top of a building is something I had heard about, but not seen till now....)


Theatre Closed

It was a time, it seems now, of infinite innovation, unqualified creative freedom, grand audacious experiments. Even when those experiments flirted with the absurd, the banal, or the self-indulgent, Paris from 1910 to 1925 still retains a patina of avant-garde authority. Names like Cocteau, Fokine, Apollinaire, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Satie, Picabia, Picasso and Cendrars represent an apotheosis of an ideal, highly oxygenated artistic atmosphere. Much of this richness remains sublime. We forgive the silliness.

Erik Satie’s ballet Relache (1924) came late in this reign of brilliance and error. Also at the end of Satie's life. Many asserted that Relache erred more than most. Even those who'd come to respect the sly dabblings of the odd man in the velvet suit began to lose faith. Oops, he was an empty vessel after all.

Well, perhaps. But maybe these critics had already grown up and left Dada. Satie, still an unrepentent godfather of absurd delights, a nemesis of seriousness, was perfectly frank. Relache means nothing, nothing at all, he said.

Relache actually means No Performance, or Theatre Closed, as posters would announce during the summer months. Satie joked that at last he would have something running all summer long. Tuesday night at 8 on Open Air you can listen to the ballet--actually a series of quite entertaining short pieces--as well as some other products of the time by Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc.

Relache included a film specially produced for the intermission. A young film critic named Rene Clair created it, and Satie provided music he hoped would be sensed by the audience but not really listened to. In fact he floated among the audience to see if it was having the proper effect. "What do you think of the music? No, don’t think about the music!" Satie’s embryonic idea became ubiquitous in our time as Muzak.

You can evaluate the level of silliness or richness yourself, since the film is on the web. That’s Satie himself and the poet and painter Francis Picabia (the creator of Relache) "firing" a field gun into the camera. And the two fellows playing chess on the roof of the Theatre des Champs Elysees are Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. All the cameos, jokes and sly messages would require a large commmentary to decode.

All in all, it's a remarkable document of a time that specialized in hilarious anarchies. And it's absurd. And, pace M. Satie, it means nothing.