Back in autumn 2011 I was introduced to the music of Morton Feldman. I felt then as I do now, that the New Yorker’s music is an acquired taste, and must admit that I placed it firmly alongside olives and the film ‘Pitch Perfect’ in the ‘not for me‘ category. At the time, I was listening to a lot of impressionism, as well as Shostakovich’s quartets, and was very interested in the colours these composers were creating within a tonal setting. Not surprisingly, Feldman’s work didn’t make sense to me.

However, it has become almost de rigueur to be a Feldman aficionado in certain composing circles so I kept hearing nothing but good things about the composer’s work from colleagues. Consequently, I kept returning to Feldman’s music in an effort to understand what I was missing.

Then, a few months ago, two very strange things happened. First of all, while at a party, I risked an olive with the hors-d’oeuvre on which I was nibbling and found that I quite liked it. Second of all, and even more surprising, one evening the penny finally dropped with Feldman’s music. Back when I was first introduced to the composer, if you had told me that in 2016 I would be eating olives and listening to Morton Feldman, I would have assumed that I had a very cultured tormentor and had been condemned to death by indeterminacy (and kalamata). However, today I find myself a free man, enjoying both ‘Intersection No.2’ and Tesco’s finest on a regular basis. And, as is so often the case with acquired tastes, the very things I used to avoid have now become firm favourites of mine.

In the last few days, given my upcoming release, I have been contemplating the link between Morton Feldman and Erik Satie. Satie was a profound influence on Feldman’s friend John Cage, who even gave a lecture entitled “In Defense of Satie” in 1948. Whether Satie was a direct influence on Feldman is not quite so clear, but the argument can certainly be made that the Frenchman helped shape the musical landscape that Feldman inhabited.

Notable similarities can be drawn. Both composers were ahead of their time; they were considered experimental in their day and the reputations of both have grown posthumously. They are also both known for writing sparse piano music and experimenting with alternative ways of scoring. Upon initial analysis, one noticeable difference that appears to exist between the work of the two composers is the length of time their pieces tend to last. Although Feldman’s early work is of a more ‘normal’ length, his later work, much of which is now his most well known, is famously long. Indeed, his longest piece, ‘String Quartet II’, is over six hours in length. In contrast to this, the vast majority of Satie’s work is very short; regularly under five minutes and often under ten. There is, however, one important exception that I think points to a salient link, perhaps the most salient link, between the two composers.

‘Vexations’ was written by Erik Satie in 1893. It is a modest but unnerving piece for a solo instrument (we assume piano but it is not specified) that covers around half a sheet of notation. Upon first glance, there is nothing particularly extraordinary about this piece. However, closer inspection reveals that the performer is instructed to repeat it eight hundred and forty times, which takes approximately twenty hours. Satie never published ‘Vexations’, and it wasn’t until 1963, seventy years after it was written, that it received it’s first public performance, organised by John Cage. The performance had a great affect on Cage, who later declared “I had changed and the world had changed”.

I have read several different interpretations of Satie’s whimsical musical directions over the years. Many theorists disregard them as nothing more than light-hearted jokes. Others posit that the musical directions were Satie’s way of mocking the seriousness with which the musical establishment took itself. I have also come across theories that suggest that the Frenchman used humour as a mask to hide his insecurities behind. Without trying to sound like I am sitting on the fence, I honestly feel that there is a degree of truth in all of them. However, it could be argued that it was Cage’s willingness to take Satie at his word with the musical directions in ‘Vexations’ that opened the door for Feldman to experiment with extreme durations of length in his own compositions. Cage’s influence on Feldman is well documented, and it is because Feldman was involved in the avant-garde New York scene of the mid to late 20th century (a scene that was certainly influenced by Cage’s ideas) that he found himself exposed to such ways of thinking. The exact extent to which Feldman’s decision to explore extremes of length was influenced by Cage (and therefore, by extension, Satie) is, of course, hard to say (although I am now eager to get hold of some biographies to try and find out), but I think the case can certainly be made that the New Yorker was alive during a time when his home town was fertile ground for such ideas, ground that was made fertile by, in part, the music of the peculiar Parisian. It is this link, between ‘Vexations’ and the defining characteristic of Feldman’s late work, that strikes me as the most significant.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that Cage also wrote pieces that explored extreme lengths of time, and, in true Cage-fashion, he pushed the idea to an extraordinary degree. His piece ‘As Slow as Possible’ normally lasts around twenty to seventy minutes, but there is a performance of it currently taking place in Halberstadt, Germany, that is due to finish in 2640.

Thinking about this over the last few days has given me a clearer understanding of just how pioneering Cage and Feldman were. But it has also made me wonder if Debussy knew just how astute he was being when he referred to his friend Satie as “the precursor”. Indeed, if the avant-garde composers of the 1950-80s were pioneering for exploring extreme lengths, what does that say about Erik Satie, given that he wrote ‘Vexations’ in 1893? And, I think more interestingly, given that Satie’s ideas were still shaping music as recently as the 1980s, could any of his other ideas (perhaps even his most eccentric) be a source of inspiration for new music, when looked at from a fresh perspective?

Anyway, with all of the intriguing questions that my change in taste has generated, with olives in hand, I’m off to try and understand the appeal of ‘Pitch Perfect’. Wish me luck.

 

First Review/McGowan: Erik Satie – his words, his music, your ears

With a little under 3 weeks to go until ‘Un Hommage à Erik’ is released, I have just been sent the first review, and am pleased to say it is very positive.

Lewis J. Whittington reviewed the album for ConcertoNet.com. Here are some of the lovely comments he made:

“Composer Richard Fowles wanted to commemorate Erik Satie’s 150th birthday, and he has done so with musical relevance and magic by collaborating with pianist Christina McMaster in Un hommage à Erik. Because Satie’s music is so famous now, Fowles explains he wanted to honor the Frenchman in a unique way. Thus, he composed a series of piano works inspired by Satie’s life and aesthetics that deftly avoid pitfalls of imitation, stylization and reverence.”

“This is a musically hypnotic project by Fowles and McMaster, and it completely lives up to Fowles’ intentions by honoring Satie’s distinctive sound.”

I was also very pleased to see that Whittington regularly alluded to Christina’s wonderful playing. I completely agree with him; her playing does indeed have an “unnameable mystique” which adds so much to the music.

At the end of the review he comments on the “warm acoustical quality” of the recordings created by Speakman Sound. They are great friends of mine and complete professionals. I am very happy to see their great work being recognised.

I would like to say thank you to Lewis J. Whittington and ConcertoNet.com for such a kind review. You can read it here – http://www.concertonet.com/scripts/cd.php?ID_cd=3690

In other Satie-related news, I was fortunate enough to attend a performance of Alistair McGowan’s new show, “Erik Satie: his words, his music, your ears” the other night in the very church that Satie’s parents got married in. What a great show! As well as McGowan playing the part of Satie, music was provided by the pianist Daniel Turner and McGowan’s wife, the opera singer Charlotte Page. I think what I found so satisfying about it, beyond the fact that it was very entertaining and expertly performed, was that it was clearly a labour of love for McGowan and his enthusiasm for the subject matter really came through in the performance. I strongly recommend going to see it!

For more information on the show, please see this excellent review by the Cross-Eyed Pianist – https://crosseyedpianist.com/2016/03/15/erik-satie-lives-for-one-night-only-in-barnes/

Today, after months of reviewing and editing scores with the help of some very talented proof-readers, I finally had enough material to start compiling the book. I am pleased to say that I’ve had a very productive day and that so far everything has gone to plan. Only 3 weeks ago I witnessed the last life of my old laptop fade (resulting in a brief but intense panic while I checked and double checked that I had backed everything up) so to be in a position where I can see the finish line is both exciting and relief!

The album is also in the final stages of completion and should be going to the manufacturers very soon. I have finally had a spare moment to create a Facebook page; one final check through and it will be going live.

It’s been a stressful few months but right now everything seems to be running on schedule. Fingers crossed it stays that way…

Like so many people my age, I remember with great fondness watching the wonderful impressionist/comedian Alistair McGowan on television as a child. For this reason, it is quite surreal, but very exciting, to say that Alistair has listened to ‘Un Hommage à Erik’ and has offered some very kind words.

Alistair is a big Satie fan; He has written Guardian articles and spoken on BBC radio about the composer and has even written a drama about him – ‘Three Pieces in the Shapes of a Pear’.

Alistair has offered the following about ‘Un Hommage à Erik’:

“Wonderful! Some of the best music Erik Satie never wrote!

Richard Fowles’ pieces are clever, beautiful and witty – three of my favourite things in the world.

 Satie, himself, would be proud of this music and amused by the enterprise!

Confuse your friends at dinner parties with Mr Fowles’ Knossiennes. Just like the real thing. But not. Genius!”

To have such kind words offered by someone who is such a Satie-devotee, as well as being someone whose entertaining work I was raised on, is a real pleasure.

Thank you so much Alistair, it means a lot!

Richard Fowles (b.1989) is an English composer, guitarist and teacher. He holds a First-class honours degree in Music from The Academy of Contemporary Music where he specialised in guitar performance under Giorgio Serci and Nic Meier. He continued his education at Brunel University where he studied for a Masters degree in Composition with Christopher Fox and John Croft. He is also an Associate of The London College of Music.

Richard specialises in music from the first half of the 20th Century and is particularly interested in works for small ensembles and solo instruments. His debut album, ‘Un Hommage à Erik’, is a celebration of the life and work of the Impressionist composer Erik Satie, 150 years after his birth.

He has worked as both a session musician and writer/arranger in some of the UK’s biggest recording studios, working with artists signed to labels such as Sony and RedOne. He has provided the scores for a number of films and television programmes. This has required him to compose in a wide variety of genres including flamenco, jazz, orchestral and popular music. Richard is also an in demand orchestrator.

As well as composing, Richard has also performed extensively throughout London and the UK. He teaches privately and is employed by the Ealing Music Service as an instrumental tutor.

Richard is a supporter of the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM); a charity that exists to prevent male suicide in the UK. Please visit their website (www.thecalmzone.net) to learn more about their important work.

He is signed to ‘Music & Media Consulting’. To contact MMC, please use visit www.musicandmediaconsulting.com.

Christina McMaster is the wonderful pianist performing on ‘Un Hommage à Erik’. She is a highly innovative pianist and curator with a continually growing reputation for bold and vivacious performances.  Christina has performed extensively in major venues including at the Southbank Centre, Kings Place, Aldeburgh Festival, St John’s Smith Square, a European tour with EUYO, the Holders Season, Barbados and on BBC Radio 3. She has won numerous prizes including the Jacob Barnes Award, The Royal Academy Christian Carpenter Prize, The CAVATINA Chamber music trust prize and audience prize and the audience prize in the Jacques Samuels Intercollegiate Competition.

Christina attended the specialist music school Purcell School, Trinity Laban where she studied with Douglas Finch and the Royal Academy of Music with Joanna MacGregor graduating with a first from in 2013. Christina has continued her education and exploration, in particular an avid interest in 20th Century French Pianism and Music, taking masterclasses with Pierre Laurent-Aimaird and Maestro Bernard Flavigny (who has a direct lineage to Debussy)

She has collaborated with a diverse mix of genres and arts, recently working with the Brodowski Quartet, violinist Lizzie Ball, rapper Tor Cesay, Director Richard Williams, actors from Central Saint Martin’s and a number of designers for London Fashion week. Christina is a strong supporter of diversity within and outside of the arts and recently founded Ensemble WOW – an organisation dedicated to promoting equality through unique and imaginative programming.

Christina is a dedicated performer, commissioner and discoverer of new music working with established composers including Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Tansy Davies and Stephen Montague as well as emerging composers – collaborating most recently with Freya Waley-Cohen, Richard Bullen and Richard Fowles.

Christina launched her debut album Pinks & Blues in October 2015 on her own label to a sell-out audience at St James’ Theatre, the album is a fusion of jazz and blues influenced classical and contemporary music with two new commissions.

In 2015 she co-led a study day on Minimalism at the Kings Place alongside composer Stephen Montague, taught on the composition for piano course at Dartington International Summer School (led by Hugh Wood). She teaches Post-Graduates at the Royal Academy of Music and curates for its annual Piano Festival, she also teaches at the Hall School in Hampstead. Future masterclasses and lectures include at Denison University in Ohio, Middlesex University, for CoMA Music (contemporary music for all) and a week-long piano course in Umbria.

Look out for future performances at Cheltenham Festival and Symphony Space in New York. www.christinamcmaster.com

Éric Alfred Leslie Satie was born on the 17th May 1866 in Honfleur, France. For most of his life he was relatively unknown to much of the musical world, certainly outside of Paris. Satie was an undistinguished student: a bohemian in nature, he was sceptical of established ideas and authorities, and found the conventional methods of study restrictive and unengaging. He was considered lazy by his teachers, who misunderstood much of his work, and as a result did not rate him highly. In later life, Satie found that his lack of theoretical knowledge limited him and so returned to school in 1905. He never achieved financial success, and only started receiving notable attention for his work at the age of 45 after his music was championed by more established composers. His profile then grew with the controversy that surrounded his ballet ‘Parade’, and this paved the way for his later theatrical career. He died in 1925, aged just 59.

Despite the lack of recognition both during his life, and to a lesser extent in the years subsequent to his death, as a composer, Satie helped shape the music of the 20th century. He influenced contemporaries such as Debussy and Ravel, and was a mentor and inspiration for ‘Les Six’; a group of young composers who saw in him “l’esprit nouveau”. He was a precursor to many of the movements that followed him, such as minimalism, avant-garde and even jazz. Satie also contributed several pieces to the piano repertoire that have become favourites of performers and audiences alike. Nevertheless, his work remained widely underappreciated until the middle of the 20th century when composers such as John Cage started acknowledging the influence he had on them. It is perhaps only in recent decades, when we have been able to look back at the 20th century and trace his influence on composers such as Cage, Stravinsky and Reich, that Satie’s deeply original music has started to receive the attention it deserves.