Whimsy Now and Then: "Roll Credits Redux" and Relache - An Essay by Bill Morelock

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
January 23, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. — Here's a belated thank you for tuning in to "Roll Credits" last summer. That's the show where every week they threw me and the excellent Lynn Warfel into a broadcast studio with a pile of movie score CD's just to see what catalyzed. Who says there's precious little risk-taking in public radio? This bordered on the reckless. By-products included an average 26.5 laughs per hour (at least between the hosts; can't really speak for you), and one of those upticks in the audience numbers which under a microscope and an eye trained for these things suggest: okay, guess we gotta bring 'em back.

So, thanks to your scientifically measured interest, you're stuck with us and "Roll Credits" for a two-month run Monday nights at 7 on Classical MPR. Sorry.

In case you don't know the show, our approach is whimsical, the structure, haphazard. Our commitment, to keep it that way. After, all, it's movie music. Popcorn and lemonade, consumed and spilled in equal measure are highly encouraged. The occasional listener spit take is a secret aspiration.

This time round we'll offer up more of those good old reminders of the gravity-defying (Fly Me to the Moon), steadfast (I Believe in You), and dusty (Westerns!) reasons we all love film music. Plus, a nod to the Oscars, past and present, and Lynne's latest mania: constructing over the next few weeks a big family tree of movie scoring's Royal Family, the Newmans — from Alfred to Randy to Thomas and all the cousins and uncles and protégés in between. Hope you enjoy the show.

Obviously, a mix of facetiousness, self-promotion and reportage above. Which is okay, if it provides information and/or elicits a chuckle. However, as an indentured servant to history, i.e. Living in the Past (and remind me later to tell you about the real-life Jethro Tull), I'm duty-bound to compare any easy talk of risk-taking, caprice or goofiness by fierce old standards — in this case the Parisian hotbed of whimsy nearly a century ago. And then how winnowed down, sanded off, numb and conventional am I revealed to be! In fact, we all might acknowledge a debt to Dada, which began in Zurich as an artist-led anti-war movement and spread, encouraging the kind of politically potent music and movies, dance and display, attitude and edge, which today's indie artists imitate whether they know it or not.

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 the war years 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. Some 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 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, Francis Poulenc and friends.

"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? But 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, here:

That's Satie himself in the bowler hat, and the poet and painter Francis Picabia (the creator of the "Relache" scenario) bounding into the frame and "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 are beyond my powers to decode.

All in all, it's a striking (or tedious?) document of a time that specialized in antic, defiant Statements. It is, of course, absurd, but more than a little prophetic of our own cultural anarchies. And, yes, M. Satie, we know. It means nothing, nothing at all.

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