Gun Upon the Piano: Satie & Cocteau
Wayne H.W Wolfson
I stood on the corner my feet drippin wet,
stood on the corner my feet drippin wet. I asked every man I met, if you
cant give me a dollar give me a lousy dime
She left, I was never home any longer and had been putting off
handing over my share of the rent check as I myself was preparing to jump ship.
For once she insisted on having the last word, racing through the afternoon
with her sister to move out before I could get home from the hospital and a
series of X rays which had shown that it was not tuberculosis.
I might be assigning more of a diabolic impetus behind why she
left a lot of her junk behind; a final bite back. Most likely, she did not want
to risk seeing me face to face again unless we were in a public place with
witnesses and by the time that eventually happened I was several lives older,
us becoming an old movie, the gist of which I remembered but with a
complete emotional detachment.
She had been from a good family, a good girl, holiday dinners
with the whole family around the table and clarinet lessons.
She had given up playing it long before I had met her but she
kept it, perhaps as a connection to a possible past, in its little blue felt
lined case in a box along with a bunch of ribbons from school and a few ratty
I threw all the stuff out, a minor bite-back as any desired
things would surely have been packed, not even bothering to pick through it.
Although it was the first time, I did not like her getting that last word.
I liked the clarinet. Once she had been away to see a cousin who
had just had a child and I had a few friends over. Although I had not touched
it, when she came back she was sure it had been moved, and that I had been
messing around with it. After that I started playing it when ever I could. The
cork was dried out though and the little crumbs of it on the floor gave me
away. She would hide it, a different place every day.
Now that old Selmer was mine. I brushed up on my sight reading
as I saved to have it completely re-corked. I would sometimes sit in with
Lapin, not being a professional musician like him, I would sit next to him on
the piano bench to play. This allowed him to give me signals when the rest of
the band was going to come back in. Also not being at the forefront of the
stage I was not distracted or psyched out by the audience. In keeping things
casual it was fun and I gave a better performance. I was a sort of Johnny Dodds
going for emotion over technique. I only played really well when extremely
upset or aroused. Mainly I just wanted to have drinks with Lapin and shoot the
Lapin got a plumb gig at a supper club which was too good to
last. The band had to wear jackets and Lapin, well established on the local
scene, felt that he was unnecessarily compromising in his old age. We all
turned out to show our support although the most any of us could afford was a
few rounds of drink which was better than nothing to the managements way
The gig went well but afterwards Lapin was still fretting. He
wanted to get back to his roots. He was king of the late night jam session, no
matter what city he was in he could ferret one out. He insisted I come with
which I agreed to do despite being a little buzzed and half asleep.
The place was small. A dark wood bar deeply pitted with its end
replaced by a piece of plywood now all tattooed with black marker graffiti.
Lapin sat down at the upright and did a few songs while the rest
of us watched him become more himself again.
One of his friends whose name I always forgot and who to me,
always seemed to be faking his enthusiasm for jazz, approached Lapin after a
song. They shook hands and the friend shook his head. There was a girl, she
also shook Lapins hand and sat down at the piano. I was motioned over.
She was from Poland. In a black turtle neck with a long nose
under which was a thick set of lips giving the overall effect of an exclamation
point, there was something about her I liked.
She wanted me to duet with her. We quickly agreed on a slowed
down Melancholy Baby. It turns out she liked to go slow too, our
lines intertwining in an exchange of understanding, the blues and the joy of
having them. It seemed intimate almost to the point of being a little
Lapin felt I gave more of myself when Winnona was in my hands
than in conversation, there were now some pretty girls just come in from some
party and the drinks were free so he was in his element and wanted us to
I had not noticed at first but when in the throes of enjoyment
while playing Marina sort of made come faces. Stealing glances when it
was her turn, I found it erotic but a group of college age tourists had come
in. They stood by the bar talking too loud as to compete with the music. They
then started loudly making kissing noises in Marinas direction while
giggling and high fiveing each other.
Before anyone could react she took the first opportunity during
one of my solos to reach into her boot and pulled out a small pistol which she
loudly placed on top of the piano making the same knocking noise as the door
closing behind the departing tourists.
Paris in the 1880s many composers (DIndy, Chabrier,
Chauson, Duprac et al) fell under the spell of Richard Wagner (1813-1883).
Aside from what he was actually doing orchestrally, Wagner was also writing the
librettos and controlling the over all aesthetic of his operas and persona
creating new possibilities in the minds of Parisian composers.
Unfortunately the possibilities and popularity eventually
morphed into a negative, as productions and the scale of orchestras grew
bloated; weighed down under a grandness which more and more would make it
impossible to achieve the sort of orchestral lushness sought after, the best of
which also contained components of lightness to more fully achieve the desired
Claude Debussy (1863-1918) actually made the pilgrimage all the
way to Bayreuth to attend the annual Wagner festivities. It was not until The
Exposition Universelle (worlds Fair 1889) where he encountered music from
the far east including Gamelan, that he began to fight off the Wagner
influence. He now would draw inspiration from new musical sources to serve as
templates upon which to build.
Other composers also began to fight off this influence and find
their own way. Two composers who had never fallen under Wagners spell
were Erik Satie (1886-1925) and Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Satie was sort of an
He had played piano as a sort of house pianist for Rudolf
Saliss cabaret at the Montmartre bar Le Chat Noir; ground zero for an
early wave of artistic modernism. Satie had been interested in various
mysteries tied to medieval architecture and the arts which lead to him
associating with self styled Rosicrucian Sar Merodack, the break with which
caused Satie to create his own church The Metropolitan Church of the Art
of Jesus the Conductor. With tongue in cheek, Satie never tried to enlist
anyone else into this congregation of one but used it as a platform to speak
out against critics who did not get him and to amuse intimate
As whimsical as Saties persona could be he was very
serious about his craft. To improve upon his compositional chops he spent three
years at the Schola Cantorum working at a traditional curriculum including
counterpoint under some prestigious teachers including Vincent dIndy
(1851-1931) and Albert-Paul Roussel (1869-1937).
He would often accompany his works with playful titles or
instructions. Titles such as Importune Peccadillos or
The Bean Kings War Chant. His instructions could call for
playing a motif 840 times (Vexations). Certainly an artistic
forefather of John Cages (1912-1992) piece 433 (1952) in which one
note is hit on the piano followed by silence for the duration of the
Quirky as aspects of his work could be, he was a serious
musician/composer. He was an inspiration to his peer Debussy but he also became
an alternative to the overly ornate heavily perfumed exoticisms adopted by
Debussy and other composers once Wagner was abandoned in favor of the symbolist
Saties style was a sort of precursor to later day
minimalism as can be found in some of the works of Phillip Glass and Richard
James (Aphex Twins Ambient Works Volume 2 sire/London/Rhino).
Modernism should not be seen as just breaking with the
established tradition. At its best it shakes up the order of things, injecting
the new and un-established but there is also always the aspect of incorporating
the vernacular of the day.
With roots in the underground of the day, a thing
for hipsters, outsiders and proto-bohemians, jazz was the perfect soundtrack
for the modern age. It managed to mirror a sort of frenzied excitement and
idealism of an oncoming mechanical age in which both wonders and amusements
An American art form, perhaps one of the only ones purely
birthed in the United States, it had to go over to Europe due to racism and an
over all cultural puritanical streak to incubate before coming back to America
to achieve its maturity.
Paris was the hot house in which this musical seedling was able
to grow. What was then referred to as Jazz was more akin to brass bands, but
the basis of what was to come was in place, syncopated rhythms, improvisatory
flights of fancy. There was a cultural cross pollination of sorts which would
continue for jazz well into the 1960s. It was initially made easier by the fact
that the twin wombs for jazz, New Orleans and Chicago were active port cities
from which artists could easily set sail to a more accepting Europe.
Paris at turn of the century had jazz in the form of marches by
Philip Sousa (1854-1932). In 1904 Saties Le Piccadilly
furthered familiarity with aspects of this new genre followed four years later
by Debussys Golliwoggs Cake Walk and Le Petit
Negre. Lifted from an idea by Scott Joplin (1867-1917), Irving
Berlins Alexanders Ragtime Band (1911) started morphing
things further towards what would become hot Jazz moving closer to
what we think of as jazz today.
An even handed assessment of Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) would
paint a picture of one part prophet of the modern age and one part tireless
self promoter. And depending upon whom you asked, dilettante. In his vast and
varied body of works there are definitely some worth while things but perhaps
the obvious manifestation of his talents lay in his ability to have had his
finger on the pulse of society a thing made easier by his ability to
comfortably move between the two worlds of left bank bohemians and moneyed
right bank socialites.
Jean Cocteaus manifesto Le Coq et
lArlequin (1918) envisioned the coq as French culture and the
harlequin as foreign influences. It was not so much a pro-xenophobic stance as
one of anti-romanticism (Wagner)/ anti-symbolism. A call to lesson huge myth
laden spectacles from opera/ballet/theater and embrace the modern and the real.
This manifesto can be seen to be the articulation towards a call to arms
Cocteau had already been working on for several years.
Cocteau had begun to gather a loose knit group of young
composers, rallying them around Satie and calling themselves lEcole
dArcueil. The name itself being somewhat of a wry joke, as it was the
area on the edge of Paris where Satie lived isolated from other artists and
unlike Montmartre, Montparnarsse and later St Germain des Pres containing no
centralized studios or groups of artists aside from himself and those who came
to see him.
Later the group would become more and more formalized branching
out from just sitting at Saties feet, at first being called Les Nouveaux
Jeunes then Le Six. The moniker itself was coined by composer/man of letters
Henri Collet (1885-1951) in his article The Russian Five, The French Six
and Eric Satie (1920)
Satie had avoided both Wagnerism and the ornate trappings of the
symbolists. Le Six were initially banded together in response to these two
dominating musical poles, wanting to create more artistic roads to choose from.
All the composers affiliated with the group (George Auric,
Francis poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud; Germaine Tailleferre, Lois
Durey) sought to inject new blood into musical composition and performance. All
the members to varying degrees would interact with their contemporaries in
other mediums on collaborations which while not all successful or remembered
blurred the lines of the conventional definitions of ballet, opera and theater
helping to inspire new artistic routes.
Being cited as a sort of patron saint by this new generation
Satie found his name once again on the publics lips. At this time Cocteau
sensed now was the time to do something to cement his reputation not just as a
Keene observer of trends but a tastemaker himself.
The Ballet Russe was founded in 1909 by impresario Serge
Diaghilev (1872-1929) who was revolutionary in his own field, boldly staging
new works with shocking new music and ways to stage and costume
them. Equally as important was the choreography.
The Ballet Russe had gained notoriety through seasons which
wrapped real art around novelty and controversy presenting Debussys
LApres D un Faune (1912) and lynch pin moment of
modernism composer Igor Stravinskys Le Sacred du Printemps
(1913) during the Theater de Champs Elyseees premier of which a riot broke out.
If one looks at all the artists associated with or commissioned
by the Ballet Rusee it is clear that Serge believed in the artistic progress
made possible by modernism. He was also however also a producer and promoter
who knew novelty and scandal could only but help a production long term. Ever
searching for the next artistic evolutionary step he challenged Cocteau whose
need to now go the next step to astonish me.
Cocteau, Diaghilev and Saties stars seem to be aligned.
Cocteau was able to interest Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) to do the stage sets and
costumes. At this point Picasso had parleyed his notoriety as a painters
painter into more wide spread fame via his collaboration with Georges Braque
(1882-1963) in creating cubism. Being an important stepping stone in modern
painting, cubism was running its course; becoming almost as regimented as the
academy/salon painting it has railed against. Always in need of tensions to
spur and evolve his creative process, Picasso had never done nay costume or
stage design work. The challenge as much as the prestige attracted him.
Satie had never done a ballet score. He saw an upcoming
generation looking to him for inspiration but did not want to rest on his
laurels. He refused any existing compositions to be used for the score
volunteering to write new ones and hopefully cementing his reputation in the
Parisian art world once and for all.
Cocteau would write the scenarios off of which the two artists
would riff. Diaghilev had a sincere appreciation of what everybody was bringing
to the table, the fact that they were all at the artistic vanguard or in
Saties case, outside meant there would also most likely be a whiff of
controversy which could only help the show.
Work was begun during the outbreak of World War 1. The
frivolities of prewar life and the fairy tale aspects of a lot of art quickly
became glaringly obvious as countries were conquered and reports from the
trenches came in. Cocteau famously said:
The war rid us in Paris of foolishness.
Although through the lens of time Parade would not
be viewed as important as Stravinskys Le Sacred du Printemps
it did serve well to usher in the next artistic evolution. Cocteau sought to
replace some of the traditional stylized ballet movement with those from every
day life. A task made necessary also by the fact that some of Picassos
costumes were made of cardboard and allowed for minimal movement. The movement
of everyday actions would be present, starting a car, taking a photo. The
heavily scented perfumed air of fin de siecle Paris and its heirs, the
symbolists would be blown away by the everyday which was emphasized by
Cocteaus subtitle of Ballet Realiste.
The actual structure of the ballet is rather simple, a Sunday
fair in Paris. A traveling theater to publicize their show, holds a parade. The
ballet is the parade and there are three acts. A Chinese conjuror inspired by
the Cirque Medrano which every self respecting modernist regularly attended, an
American girl/pair of acrobats and then the manager as a sort of carnival
barker enticing the public to come see the real show.
The show set out to purposely avoid any kind of exoticism. There
was a sophisticated underlying subtext too. The emotional cadence of the piece
was a sadness/unfulfillment laying behind the manufactured emotions that the
performers roles called for, their public personas as performing
artists. Rich symbolism which could be read as one of several poignant
To further up the ante, Cocteau called for some sound effects to
be in the score and performance, something Satie was not a fan of and Picasso
depending upon whether Cocteau was in his good graces over their several decade
long friendship professed to have liked or hated. There was a siren, a
typewriter and the shots of a pistol. Aside from the shock value of the pistol,
Cocteau was always a great borrower, incorporating already proven chops into
his own inner store house. The author of Uboi Roi and all around great agent
provocateur Alfed Jarry (1873-1907) used to bicycle around Paris, whipping out
a small pistol he always had on him at the drop of the hat and firing it off
into the air. After his early demise Picasso who had circled around the same
bohemian society as he, literally inherited the gun. Now its artistic factotum
was present in this new ballet firing one of many wake up shots to the art
world which was to be heard over the next few years.
The ballet was a mixed success; it did help both Cocteau and
Diaghilev in the ways they wanted. Satie would take the money the ballets
successful run brought to him and, among other things, use it to buy hundreds
of umbrellas many of which were found still wrapped, in his apartment after he
died. The new aspects of the score, the sound effects, are more a
distraction than revolutionary at this point in time. The music is good but
from a distance does not retain the power to shock in the way Stravinsky still
can. Satie would eventually be recognized as an important modern composer and
the Ragtime part of Parade inspired by jazz would go on
to become a popular vehicle for solo piano and often improvised upon by the
Picasso would go on to do more stage work to great acclaim and
technical and artistic brilliance.
Cocteau would try another ballet along similar lines a few years
later and to hedge his bets, had the score composed by all the members of Le
Six. Les Maries de La Tour Eiffel (1921) revolves around a hunch
backed photographer trying to take the wedding photos for a party on the
platform of the Eiffel Tower. It has stood the test of time better than
Parade not because the concept is so much stronger or different but
Parade can be seen almost as a dry run; an idea yet to be
perfected. Also all the composers were far more familiar with the musical
genre. Cocteau would spend the rest of his life filling his oeuvre with the
mythic and the every day made mythic. The most accomplished of his works which
tries to compel with totems of daily life was his La Voix Humane
(1930); the whole piece of which revolves around one woman in a bedroom with a
phone speaking to the lover who jilted her. Edif Piaf played the woman in the
premier and to this day this piece is still performed; sometimes with all kinds
of new twists and takes which Cocteau would have approved of.
Also as a logical artistic decedent or Parade was
George Antheils (1900-1959) Ballet Mecanique (1926). This
score too, calls for various sound effects but the music itself is so frenzied
and futuristic as envisioned by those in the past that it does not posses the
clunky aspect to be found in Parades sound effects. The score
requires a percolated frenzy whipped up by glockenspiel, small aero plane
propeller, gong, cymbal, woodblock, electric buzzer bell, tenor drum, bass drum
and triangle (aside from normal orchestra).
Living the life of an American expat in Paris, Antheil quickly
built up social connections with the cream of the crop of the Parisian art
world which was a giant melting pot of avant gardists, lost generation
bohemians and the up and coming Montparnarsians. He studied the scores of
Stravinsky and Le Six while socializing with both Eric Satie and Cocteau, who
used his connections to further cement Antheils place within the
Later on would come a return to America and a neo-classic period
(as would happen too to Schoenberg and Stravinsky) but while still in Paris
living the life of a dream; Antheil would sometimes anonymously sit down at a
piano in café and play for drinks, always putting his small silver
pistol down next to his drink on the piano.