Furniture Music, or a Kind of Boredom by Andy Mister
In “The Morning of the Poem” James Schuyler describes one of his first conversations with John Ashbery. Ashbery tested him with a trick question: “I don’t think James Joyce is any good, do you?” Schuyler writes: “Think, what did I think! I didn’t know you were allowed to not like James Joyce.”
When I was in high school the worst thing you could say about a band or song was that it was boring. Awful wasn’t as bad as boring. Boring was the worst. I was mostly listening to No Depression or alt-country bands. Once I tried playing my favorite Uncle Tupelo album, March 16-20, 1992, for a friend. (The term “No Depression” came from the title of their second album, which includes a cover of the A.P. Carter song.) Midway through the third song, he said, “God, this is so boring.” I felt embarrassed and turned it off.
The unsigned program note for a 1911 concert of Erik Satie’s early works performed by Maurice Ravel describes Satie as: “On the margins of his own epoch, this isolated figure long ago wrote several brief pages that are those of a precursor of genius.” Those “several brief pages” included Satie’s best known work, the first Gymnopédie, which has since been used in countless films, television programs and commercials.
I went to a party at the home of one of my professors after a reading by a visiting writer. My professor had conspicuously placed stacks of books around her living room where people were congregating. I noticed that she wrote a number of the books herself. I felt that sense of loneliness one feels when embarrassed for someone you’re supposed to look up to and respect. I wondered what the fuck I was doing with my life. I went to the kitchen to get a beer.
One of my classmates sat down at the piano in the corner of the room. He placed a book of sheet music on the music stand and began to play, tentatively picking out the opening notes of Satie’s first Gnossienne. After four notes he hit a grace note, a C that melts into a B natural. He couldn’t play the grace note quickly enough. It sounded clunky and wrong. He stopped and began the piece again, but he still couldn’t play the grace notes. By the time he reached the piece’s second theme, with its grace notes becoming even more frequent, he gave up and started playing something else. It was discomfiting hearing those notes played haltingly, without any of the languid confidence of the recordings. Still, this wrongness made the music feel alive. I tried to start a conversation with someone but kept hearing those notes in my head. I wanted to listen to Satie alone in my room.
At the beginning of My Dinner with Andre, Wallace Shawn walks around lower Manhattan. The city looks the same as it does now—but different. The subway cars still have graffiti on them. He crosses Canal Street, passing the Pearl Paint building. In voice-over he describes the life of a playwright, ending his monologue, “I’ve lived in this city all my life. I grew up on the Upper East Side, and when I was ten years old I was rich! I was an aristocrat, riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now I’m thirty-six, and all I think about is money.”
I was sixteen when I first saw the film and like many teenagers I imagined moving to New York. I would read the “Goings on about Town” section in the New Yorker with all the bands playing at places like Brownies and Tramps. Places that aren’t around anymore. Places that I probably wouldn’t have the time to go to anyway. Even Maxwell’s is closed now. I imagined having long conversations like the one Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn have in the film about art and life and morality. Now I’m thirty-four and I live in New York and all I think about is money.
Satie, who “made poverty an aesthetic principle,” also worried about money. Having quickly gone through a small sum given to him by his father when he left the family home (spending it on a dozen identical gray corduroy suits among other extravagances), Satie moved to the suburbs of Paris to save money. Upon receiving a loan from his brother Conrad, Satie wrote to thank him: “If the dead go fast, money, which is no more stupid than anything else, goes equally fast; and it’s a pleasure to see it walk straight ahead without looking round, and as proud as punch as it goes.”
You never knew what music would be considered boring. Pavement was boring, The Stooges weren’t. Palace was boring, Neil Young wasn’t. When asked what I was listening to or what bands I liked, I would usually say Sonic Youth or the Velvet Underground. They both felt safely un-boring. If I wanted to seem cool I’d say Slint or the Dead C. I’d listen to Jandek or Half Japanese just to say that I had heard them. Finally I just stopped answering. Telling someone what music I was listening to felt too private. Like someone asking, “How’s your love life?”
At the end of his second year of study, Satie performed a Mendelson Prelude for his final examination. His teacher noted: “The laziest student in the Conservatory—but gets a lovely sound.”
The first person to introduce me to Erik Satie was my friend Ben. We worked together in a video store. He also worked at a record store. He was six years older than me and British and knew more about music than anyone I’d ever met. When he played the first Gymnopédie for me, it sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place when I’d heard it. Then he played me Trois Gnossiennes. “There is no development, no transition, only an instant prolonged.”
Satie wanted to write musique d’ameublement, furniture music, that “would be a part of the surrounding noises and would take them into account… masking the clatter of knives and forks without drowning it completely, without imposing itself. It would fill up the awkward silences that occasionally descend on guests. It would spare them the usual banalities. Moreover, it would neutralize the street noises that indiscreetly force themselves into the picture.”
In his first public experiment with furniture music, Satie and the composer Darius Milhaud placed a number of performers around the Galerie Barbazange during an exhibition of children’s drawings. They played fragments of well-known pieces such as Saint-Saens’s Danse macabre and Thonas’s Mignon along with simple ostinato patterns repeated endlessly. Satie circulated through the audience exhorting the audience, “Go on talking! Walk about! Don’t listen!”
Ben and I went to see Hans-Joachim Roedelius, from Krautrock bands Cluster and Harmonium, play at a club called the Mermaid Lounge. I didn’t know what to expect seeing him play live. It seemed the audience didn’t know what to expect either. Roedelius stood behind a couple synthesizers and a laptop, playing nebulous ambient sounds interspersed with snippets of recognizable classical pieces. Throughout his set, people sitting at the bar and standing at the back of the club kept talking. At one point Roedelius stopped the music and admonished the crowd in his thick German accent: “It doesn’t work if you keep talking!” Maybe they thought he was playing furniture music.
After the show I asked Ben what he thought. He said, “It was all right, but I wish it had been more mind-numbingly boring.” I was taken aback. Like Schuyler with James Joyce, I didn’t know that you were allowed to want music to be boring.
Satie had an affair with Susanne Valadon, a trapeze artist who became a model for Renoir, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec. When the relationship ended, Satie wrote a short composition for piano called “Vexations.” Lasting a mere thirteen bars, which he noted should be repeated 840 times, it was not given a complete public performance until John Cage coordinated an 18-hour marathon performance in 1963. Describing the effect of a performance of “Vexations” to mark the 100th anniversary of its composition, Alex Ross writes: “Toward the end, my brain seemed to go completely blank. Epiphany came only during an escape outside onto West Broadway: suddenly, after the insanity of unstoppable pianism within, the night sounds of the city were pure music.”
My Dinner with Andre ends with the first Gymnopédie playing as Wallace Shawn takes a cab home. In voice-over he describes his connection to New York: “I rode home through the city streets. There wasn’t a street—there wasn’t a building—that wasn’t connected to some memory in my mind. There I was buying a suit with my father. There I was having an ice-cream soda after school.” That’s probably the first time I heard Satie. In my mind it’s not connected to a city or a place but to a movie—to images of a city, of a place where I now live.
Satie, like all of us, suffered from boredom. Writing to his brother in 1900 he was despondent: “I’m dying of boredom: everything I begin timidly fails with a certainty I’ve never known till now.” I was always afraid of seeming boring. If I liked something that someone else considers boring then I, myself, must be boring.
The plot of My Dinner with Andre is essentially summarized by its title. In a way it is undoubtedly boring. Then why do I always find it so engrossing?
“Driver UFO,” the first song on my favorite Dead C album, Harsh Seventies Reality, is 22 minutes of abstract noise. Sometimes, midway through, I forget I’m listening to music. When I first heard “Driver UFO” I wasn’t bored by its lack of structure, I found it exciting. The last song on the album “Hope” has been described as sounding like an outtake from Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night. I don’t know if it was recorded live, but when the band gets quiet you can hear people talking in the background. I guess anything can be considered musique d’ameublement. When I was younger I wanted to get lost in that noise. I was boring. I still am. Back then I just didn’t want anyone else to know.
Most of the information about Erik Satie comes from the following sources:
Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin, 1987.
Davis, Mary E. Erik Satie. London: Reaktion Books, 2007.
Gillmor, Alan M. Erik Satie. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Volta, Ornella. Satie Seen through His Letters. New York: Marion Boyars, 1989.
Thank you to Kate Brideau for patiently explaining to me how to play Satie’s second Gnossienne.
from Liner Notes
I never knew you could lie in a poem. Then I realized you couldn’t. I told myself that I wouldn’t look back at what I’d written, but I’d written everything around me. The smoke like streams perched in the trees. They were made of verbs. I told myself I wouldn’t look back. Light streams through smoke, a veil. No one can smoke in California. No one can breathe in California.
We build these little birds and hope that someone will buy them. A man standing by the side of the road in Arkansas sold flowers made from Coke cans. He made other things too, chairs and animals. We took them home and hoped they would soar. The sun cradles the city / before burning it down / once and for all. / She wanted to see everything at once. So she kept spinning. Our shadows were placed into the spaces the light left. Each moment is surrounded. I’ve kissed him before, I should know. I asked when the experiment would be over. Science is never finished. And so I keep writing.
Sam Cooke was shot to death by Bertha Franklin, manager of the Hacienda Motel, where he was staying. Franklin claimed that she killed Cooke in self-defense after he raped a young woman then threatened Franklin. His death was ruled justifiable homicide.
There are moments when I listen to John Fahey records and I feel closer to those sounds than all the times someone I love has said my name. Once she began a sentence with “Andrew” and I realized she hadn’t said my name since the night we met. I don’t remember that night, only her saying my name. In the book I’m reading, the man the narrator is in love with says her name, but the author does not write the name, only “And then he said my name.” I know exactly how she—the narrator and the author—felt.
The most mundane conversation becomes illuminating when recorded. That’s the premise of Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Conversation. That’s the beauty of found sound. Beneath each sound there is a story. The plot beats like a heart. Cries connect each circumstance. Lines between crows between telephone poles. I was talking just to feel the words in my mouth.
Steven Paul Smith’s body was found in the kitchen of his girlfriend’s Los Angeles home with two knife wounds to the chest. A little less than a suicide. “I’m sorry—love, Elliot. God forgive me” was written on a post-it note found near his body. It is unclear whether the name “Elliott” was misspelled in the note or by the coroner. Smith had attempted suicide at least once previously. Toward the end of his life he had been known to use heroin and crack cocaine, but no drugs or alcohol were present in his system when he died.
Walking out of the house it was colder than I’d thought, so I went back inside and put on a jacket. I was hot walking home, so I took my jacket off. Things like that happen to me every day.
Andy Mister is an artist and writer. His first book Liner Notes was recently published by Station Hill. His writing has appeared in Boston Review, Colorado Review, Fence, Northwest Review, Verse, and elsewhere. His artwork has been exhibited at City Without Walls, Kathleen Cullen Fine Arts, and Geoffrey Young Gallery. He has been an artist in residence for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Swing Space residency. In the fall of 2012 he was Lyons Wier Gallery’s Shashoua artist in residence. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
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