Erik Satie’s Cinéma – Dada Music for a Dada Film
|It is purely static. Satie used the concept of this ancillary music to
accompany any number of things from luncheons, and art openings, to the
words of Plato’s Symposium in his Socrate, and the images of René Clair’s
film. The music for Entr’acte builds off of this principle of furniture
music. Satie uses twenty-eight musical cells, which he transposes, re-orchestrates,
and manipulates to create one cohesive film score. The repetition and reorganization
of the musical cells lead some to view the score as a massive nihilistic
rondo form; however, the score is much more than a casual assemblage of
incongruous pieces of furniture music.
First, a few thoughts on Satie’s synchronization technique. Satie divides the music into ten large units to correspond to the images on the screen [See Table 1].
Along with these structural divisions, which also serve as markers for the conductor to synchronize the music and image, Satie inserted another set of numbers in both the orchestral and piano reduction score. These twenty-six cues are not coordinated with image cues; rather I believe they serve as a means for the conductor to either repeat or eliminate a sequence in order to fit the music to the speed of the projector.
The ears of the bourgeoisie audience would have accepted by this gesture A Major as the tonal center, but by the second beat of the second measure the descending G? and F? in the bass make one wonder where we are going. Are we about to hear a B then an E, making our tonic key E Major, or will he lead us towards another theme in A minor? Satie does not follow any of our expectations; instead, he does the most unexpected thing possible, he repeats, and repeats, and repeats, and repeats that second measure seven times and then jumps to an entirely different phrase in an entirely different key. Here, Satie uses repetition as a device to disorient, confuse and annoy his audience, who are subjected to a seemingly endless parade of uncomfortable repetitions.21 By drilling these chords into the ears of the spectators, and refusing to develop the material, Satie’s music resembles Dada poetry’s uses of repetitive baby talk. Mirroring the poets, Satie utilizes repetition as a method of “dumbing down” and irritating the viewers/listeners.
|Satie then introduces “motive C:” eight repetitions of dominant-tonic progression in C major, but again, ending, not on the tonic, but on the dominant function [See EXAMPLE 3 and FILM CLIP 1].|
|Time after time, motive after motive, Satie ends the motivic cells on
the dominant or the secondary-dominant functions, thus, further frustrating
the listeners who expect their music to follow some
sort of linear progression – to
go somewhere! And, generally in French neoclassical music of this time,
this material should lead to a cadence, which thus resolves the phrase.
Just as Classical and Romantic generations delayed harmonic resolution to add tension to their music and thwart the listeners’ expectations, Satie amplifies the process. Susan McClary and Lawrence Kramer have explained this expected cadence in terms of the fulfillment of sexual desire.22 If you recall, Picabia and Clair play with sexual metaphors throughout the film and the ballet: the dressing and undressing dancers in the ballet, the iconography of phallic images in the film and ballet [See Figure 4] (guns, pipes, towers, streams of water) and also in allusions to impotence (the revelation that the attractive ballerina whose skirt we got to peer up was really a man, the hunter’s inability to shoot the ostrich egg, and the funeral procession's inability to catch the hearse).
|These sexual images would not have been lost on the audience of avant-gardes and upper-class arts patrons, and were certainly not lost on Satie, who by landing each section on the wrong cadence, and by juxtaposing unrelated keys and motives, denies fulfillment of a metaphorical musical orgasm: his music remains intentionally impotent. Such a reading sheds light on a most bizarre statement attributed to Satie. Here, Clair recollects the composer’s quip about writing “pornographic” music for the film:|
|For his part, Satie, after declaring that he had composed a piece of “pornographic” music for us “good boys,” toned down that declaration by adding that he did not intend “to make a lobster or an egg blush.”23|
|While Douglas Gallez maintains that “Satie’s
music isn’t pornographic, of course, nor is it embarrassing enough
to make any creature blush,”24 I have to respectfully disagree. The “pornographic” in
early twentieth-century France had to be offensive, but necessarily sexually
explicit. Satie’s intention in applying such a sobriquet to his score
could only refer to his technique of rendering his music sexually impotent
via his refusal to resolve anything.
Satie best demonstrates his ability to delay the highly anticipated release in the final chase scene. As the hearse races out of control, he builds intensity by repeating, what I call the AA motive seven times [See EXAMPLE 4 and FILM CLIP 3], varying it slightly and transposing it up a pitch at each repetition leading to an abrupt change in mood and tempo as the accelerating 2/4 suddenly becomes a languid 3/4 waltz and the pent-up energy is left unresolved – impotent.
|There is no real secure sense of release until the very end of the film when Satie again tries to build intensity, this time by sequencing the opening motive [Seen from EXAMPLE 1] upwards three times, finally, driving to orgasmic climax and release of tension with two bars of dominant function leading to a strongly accented cadence in tonic [See EXAMPLE 5 and FILM CLIP 4].|
The music perfectly fits into what Clair manages to capture cinematically with increased tempo of cutting from the eighth cue, the chase scene to the sudden halt in the ninth cue, with the falling of the casket to the increased tempo and final resolution within the final cue – the “kicking of the head” finale. The film and music both end mocking the conventions of finality in their respective media: the sign reading “fin” which Börlin jumps through, and Satie’s hackneyed parody of the final few bars of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.25
The familiar dirge had already been a film music cliché for some time, and the silent theater was notorious for using previously clichéd works and wearing them out even more.28 Since the Chopin march has been literally played to death, Satie intends the quotation to mock the convention in parallel to Clair’s use of the camel to pull the hearse. In true Dada fashion, all ceremony, held up to such high esteem by the bourgeoisie (including the final Beethoven parody), is mocked and ridiculed, in an attempt to insult and upset the audience.