Thursday, March 6, 2008

Satie & Martin’s “Sports et divertissements”: towards a (re)Object-ive historiography


First published in 1923, Erik Satie and Charles Martin’s Sports et Divertissements [Sports and Diversions] created a minor stir in the French musical world, if not more than a mere ripple or perturbation. Perhaps this was surprising, since Erik Satie, himself an iconoclastic figure, was already well known for his radically eccentric compositional style, a style only matched by his unorthodox personality and choice of fashion. This “Velvet Gentlemen”, as he was referred to in lieu of his “rather restricted wardrobe which consisted of a dozen identical grey (or beige) velvet (or corduroy) suits” , had already created a sensation in the French musical scene with witty and satirical pieces bordering on the ridiculous such as Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear (1903) and Vexations (1893?). As to why the former was titled so, Satie was reported as saying that “If they are en forme de poire [in the form of a pear] they cannot be shapeless” ; as for the latter, Satie’s performance directions dictated that the work was to be performed 840 times – exactly to the point of vexation.

If this snapshot of composerly stridence were not evidence enough, Satie appeared regularly in the news unleashing acts of physical violence against prominent critics . For this incendiary provocateur (who was to cause a major scandal in 1917 with his collaborative ballet Parade in 1917), Sports et divertissements suffered relative obscurity in postwar France. It was “largely ignored by the critics” and the public, but it “circulated quietly among musicians and connoisseurs” Within these intimate circles of knowledge, Sports et divertissements was silently hailed as a composerly masterpiece, proudly waving the national flag of the Avant Garde. Darius Milhaud proclaimed the work to be “one of the most characteristic works of the French school,” while Pierre-Daniel Templier (Satie’s first biographer) hailed the sensitivity of “Satie’s spirit and the spirit of French music … prodigiously alive.” Such Satie-trumpeting has endured well into contemporary biographies, with Allan M. Gillmor describing the piece as his

“[…] most ambitious piano work but arguably his finest creative achievement, a superb marriage of style and idea, a crystallization of virtually everything that had preceded it, the purest distillation of an aesthetic ideal toward which he had been groping for a quarter century.”

If Gilmor’s messianic pronouncements warrant a healthy dose of skepticism, then one should also be careful in “groping” Sports et divertissements for any cumulative “aesthetic ideal”. Indeed, Satie’s own handwritten preface may be a direct caution to modern-day musicologists as they were addressed to his readers:

“This publication is made up of two artistic elements: drawing, music. The drawing part is represented by strokes – strokes of wit; the musical part is depicted by dots – black dots [i.e., blackheads]. These two parts together – in a single volume – form a whole: an album. I advise the reader to leaf through the pages of this book with a kindly & smiling finger, for it is a work of fantasy. No more should be read into it.” (My emphasis)

Indeed, one of the contemporary crises of musicology is precisely the scholarly drive to construct water-tight narratives in order to sufficiently contextualize the work or composer in question. In particular, the historiographical revolution of the 1970s coincided with the intellectual rise of the Postructuralists, in which prominent French intellectuals such as Roland Barthes, Levi Strauss and Foucault repeatedly chorused the agency of epistemic structures in defining and redefining history and reality as we experience it. For these pre-postmodern intellectuals (especially for Foucault), the construction of a defining historical narrative was delineated and reconceptualized as an overarching “episteme” that sought to identify the overarching structural logic that governed all aspects of life within a particular frame.

Textually, these epistemic structures can be seen as moments of “consonance” within the “contrapuntal” texture of history leading itself to a tension between what Modernist Scholar Daniel Albright calls the “horizontal approach” (linear historical narrative) and the “vertical” one (the episteme). Similarly, it is easy to conceive of Satie’s Sports et divertissements as a point of consonance along multiple parallel, linear trajectories that narrate his developing compositional aesthetic, his musical and extramusical influences. As Michael Bentley points out, the tendency for musical historians and musicologists to “insert phrase-marks into successions of past events” in order to “achieve the [necessary] transition to narrative” can easily lead to blinkered overdetermination (overemphasis) of certain events and/or personalities over other ‘truths’ to preserve the integrity of the text’s self-unity. Lest we misinterpret them as factual ‘truths’, Bentley cautions us to remember that these unavoidable “phrase marks” are “as arbitrary as “those that the musician applies to a score lacking … crucial dynamics and fingerings” , to avoid turning the institution of musicological research into what Kevin Korsyn calls a “Ministry of Truth” and “Tower of Babble” .

On the other hand, aesthetically-inclined comparative studies purporting to tease apart the connections between text and image without proper foreknowledge of the historical construction of Sports et divertissements may lead to ill readings of the work. This is primarily because Sports et divertissements is also a document of its own publishing history, threatening to unravel initial readings of consonance between Martin’s sketches and Satie’s calligraphic notation. The work itself has been published and republished no fewer than five times to date, each publication embodying different versions of visual-musical pairings. To speak of an “original” or “authentic” version of Sports et divertissements is not only erroneous or inconceivable, but also non-existent.

The “authentic” Sports et divertissements as it was originally intended to appear, in fact, was never published. Initially conceived as a de luxe (not to mention expensive) collector’s album, Lucien Vogel – publisher of popular French high culture fashion magazine Gazettedu Bon Ton – planned to issue a limited-edition compilation of piano pieces to accompany illustrations by Charles Martin to be titled Sports et divertissements. These publications that fused different artistic disciplines into a single luxury item were already well known to upper class French connoisseurs and art-collectors, many of whom were collectors of the livre d’artiste: a “luxurious book of pictures and words and (sometimes) music” , originating from the famed cabaret house Chat Noir where Satie himself had been hired as second pianist from 1887 to 1891.


After being turned down from Stravinksy (who had thought the meager commission fee an insult ), Satie took up the project in 1914, and wrote 20 brief and humorous piano pieces to accompany Martin’s illustrations, embellished with funny handwritten texts underlying choice musical passages between 14 March to 20 May in the same year. Although the album was scheduled to be pressed in 1916, war broke out and delayed the publication (further postponed due to postwar legal difficulties) until 1923 – 10 years after it was conceived. When finally released, Charles Martin decided to revise his 20 sketches, and came up with an entirely new set in 1922 – unbeknownst to Satie – which then accompanied Satie’s 1914 score in a limited release of 900 portfolio copies . Only the first 10 of these 900 “first” editions included Martin’s original drawings along with his later revisions, copies which are of extreme rarity and are virtually invisible to the contemporary public eye of today.

Furthermore, prevalent claims of Satie’s mastery of text and image fail to hold water under historical scrutiny. In several studies of the work , it has been shown that Satie’s musical elocution failed to match up to Martin’s original 1914 drawings. Moreover, it remains unknown whether Satie ever did see Martin’s drawings at all, and if he did, it is still unclear whether he had access to all of Martin’s 20 sketches. In fact, claims of Satie’s autonomous authorship of Sports et divertissements fall under question since Martin had already completed and chosen the illustrations for the album long before Satie had even laid a notehead to the page.

The historical peculiarity of the album is crucial in attempts to “understand” or “contextualize” Sports et divertissements. Every historical claim that attempts to “stamp” Sports et divertissements with a singular, specific historical moment has to acknowledge that as a published object, the elements within the work are already historically discontinuous with each other. Rather, Sports et divertissements (as first issued in 1923) already represents a caesura in the logic of the linear historical trajectory insofar as it resists attempts to apply a totalized and discrete historical “frame” upon the work as a whole. And yet, paradoxically, Sports et divertissements is already “framed” by virtue of the fact that its elements occupy a fixed relationship with each other within the album (presupposing, of course, the singularity and authority of each individual published version).

Hence, declarations as celebratory as “Sports et divertissements proposes an art based on the interplay and equilibrium of sound, visual art, and language” or “only Satie employed a simultaneous counterpoint of poetry, music and drawing within a single composition” begs the question of agency in Sports et divertissements, a question so terrifying as revealed to us by the “silent” history of the object, that perhaps we have failed to ask it precisely because of its potentially devastating consequences. The consequence that, at least for Sports et divertissements, Erik Satie was not the artistic genius of interdisciplinary media, that Erik Satie was not agent to “the encroachment of everyday culture [in terms of sports and recreation] into the realm of high art” , Erik Satie was not the visionary icon that composed music that “corresponds perfectly to Martin’s illustrations” nor was he the sole mastermind of this “fragile multidimensional texture” impeccably crafted for the listener “to savour the full flavour of these intriguing miniatures and experience them as the composer almost certainly intended”

This is not to denounce Satie’s importance; in fact, Satie did tread innovative grounds with his witty insertion of musical quotations and harmonic gestures that invoked the concept of title allocated to each piece. Instead, this critical revision demands that we temporarily suspend (indeed, dismantle) our inflated fantasies of Satie’s sole agency within Sports et divertissements, and deconstruct the work’s revolutionary myth as not a consequence of artistic breakthroughs, but as a product of the commodity machine, more explicitly – a product of the forces of economy which govern the production of “fashion” and “culture”. Indeed, it has been largely forgotten or neglected in the discourses of Sports et divertissements that the album was initially a commodity meant for consumption by the rich and wealthy, celebrating the pastimes of a certain class of the French elite as well as reifying their position on the ladder of social hierarchy. To that effect, the Object-ive reality of Sports et divertissements as a cultural commodity also functioned as an insignia of wealth, rank or identity, very much in the same way that the 15th Century Loire Valley Chansonniers materially reassured its wealthy patrons of power of their rank and status.

This alternative contextualization of Sports et divertissements, therefore, asks us to literally take the work as “a whole: an album”, keeping our “fantasy” of the composer at bay, heeding Satie’s own advice that “no more should be read into it” than the fact of the material, limiting our scope of discourse to the materiality of the material: all 17 square inches of it. Put in a different prespective, Sports et divertissements proposes a new critical paradigm that considers what Ewa Domanska calls the “spatial dimension of presence” which focuses “on the materiality and thingness of the trace [of the past] rather than on its textuality and content.”

Turning away from the “anthropocentric character” of historical writing, Domanska takes her cue from the “return to things”: a historiographical trend popularized in the 1990s by theorists such as Bill Brown and Victor Buchli, who highlighted the “agency of things” in the sense that material objects did not merely exist in the world, but “also act and have performative potential” . Objects (or “things”), Domanska points out, enjoy a privileged relationship with their subjects to the extent that objects can literally

“[…] determine who we are; the thing becomes the “other” of human being; the thing that participates in creating human identity, legitimates it, and becomes its guarantor;”

Likewise, Norwegian archaeologist Bjørnar Olsen points out the ways in which “objects construct the subject” , ushering a new critical perspective that considers not only the material sciences (i.e. material hermeneutics as the role of material tools in influencing the production of knowledge ) but also a historical ontology of the subject predicated on the object. In other words, what theorists such as Bentley, Olsen and Domanska suggest is a study of the project of contemporary “being”, reoriented towards the subject/object relationship. Although it sounds suspiciously Cartesian, what these new material ontologists propose is not regression into intellectual backwaters, but rather, a renewed awareness of how the historical object sculpts and shapes our contemporary ideas of the past, while constructing the ontic reality of “being” in the present, such that the past is experienced as a “bubbling” in the present.

In the case of Satie and Martin’s Sports et divertissements, a useful project outlined by the theorists of material ontology would be a historical excavation the ways in which Sports et divertissements (as a historical object) has shaped our ontic conceptions of Satie today, through the contemporary “presence” of the material object itself: the published album. The importance of such a project cannot be understated, as it unveils the historical permutations which (unfairly) relegated Charles Martin to the margins of Sports et divertissements and reconceived Erik Satie as the preferred artistic champion, at the same time reifying his celebrity-like position as a textbook figure of French musical modernism. In short, it is an examination of the play between veritas and verisimilitude, an ideological dance that leads to fantasies of the “claim of authenticity”


A brief study of the publication history of Sports et divertissements immediately verifies the shifting power of authorship from Charles Martin and the fashion magazine world of Lucien Vogel, to Erik Satie himself. After the limited release of Sports et divertissements in 1923, Satie’s facsimile (in black ink only) was released in 1926 by Rouart-Lerolle, without either set of Martin’s illustrations; the same facsimile edition was then reissued in 1964 by Salabert (M.C. 194). In 1982, Dover Publications (New York, 1982) published Satie’s facsimile together with black-and-white reproductions of Martin’s 1922 illustrations.

Today, the main publications available to musicians are precisely Satie’s facsimiles, with or without Martin’s 1922 illustrations. If we take into consideration that Satie scholarship in the United States only caught passionate heat in the 1980s (aided by John Cage’s Satie festival at Black Mountain College in the 1960s), neither the 1923 version (and certainly not the first 10 editions containing Martin’s 1914 drawings) of Sports et divertissements would have been readily available to scholars. It was precisely to cater to a growing American Satie appetite that Dover Publications undertook the task to republish Satie’s facsimile in 1982, downgrading Martin’s painstakedly hand-coloured sketches to a black-and-white ghostly image of its former self. Already, the cultural significance of the published object had undergone a sea change: no longer were publishers interested in the luxuries of the deluxe livre d’artiste, it was the economic power of Erik’s Satie’s name which they wished to harness.

As the earlier versions of Sports et divertissements slipped into obscurity, Satie stepped into the musical limelight while Charles Martin played second fiddle as the artist who illustrated Satie’s masterpiece, his importance unacknowledged in a culture that hummed Gymnopédies over the radio. As the mass distribution of Dover’s Sports et divertissements saturated American Satie markets, this invariably led to an attachment of all-things-Satie with the piece itself; another feather-in-the-hat for a nurtured public consensus of Satie, so much so that it was instrumental in shaping mass ontology for the reception of Satie. Indeed it this constructed “authentic” Satie that merged music, text and image with such wit and skill was (and is), as Bentley states, the “presence of imagination” in which the performer, reader, listener or analyst exercises his role as a “witness” to “being-in-the-world” with imagination reflecting “this being, a rootedness in reality” . The material object, which Satie was incidental to, paradoxically framed a discursive space in which Satie could exist as an ontological “other”, a persisting historical “thing” in the world which continues to exert its force, its influence and its narratives of “genius” onto our contemporary existence – an existence, and ontology, that, in turn, also reinscribes the potency of his name onto Sports et divertissements in order to preserve that reality within which Erik Satie is enshrined.

2 comments:

Maggie Chen said...

Love the analysis you made for this work. Very insightful!! May I ask what reference you use for it?

Maggie Chen said...

Love the analysis you made for this work. Very insightful!! May I ask what reference you use for it?