Saturday, 10 October 2015

Gnossienne 1
Having examined the Debussy Prelude from the perspective of repetition, the overall conclusion is that it is music that displays remarkable economy in its harmonic and rhythmic material.  It is possible to find a piece that is even more economical and repetitious, so much so that the whole spirit of the composition takes on a different meaning.
The first Gnossienne is a remarkable small scale composition, it continues to fascinate listeners, and fascination is the focus of the following discussion, regarding the term as synonymous with "enchanting".
The manuscript reduces the composition to the bare bones, there is no ambiguity about the key structure as can be seen from the long term progression marked at the bottom of the sheet.  It is worth noting that the highest note is B natural, the tritone from F, which 'hangs' in the air avoiding the progression to a resolution for some time.  The rise and fall of the fourth (E to B, C to F) is mildly hypnotic (the green ink marks actual repeats).
In my performance

This arrangement for voice, saxaphone, flute, synth pad chords and bass purposefully avoids rubato, enhancing the sense of stasis. The grace notes values take on a particular function, by using gradually increasing lengths they produce the slight variations normally given by the use of rubato. When played this way the final bar surprises us with its "cut-off" of the shortened coda, it is almost as if we are suspended in mid-air.  Many performances hold this final chord to near double its length though there is no pause marked.
What was Satie's intention in Gnoissienne 1? Could the music be intended to be played end on end, like ouroboros, another mystical symbol.  There are no indications of this in the score, and it would have been simple enough to do so.  There are indications in the score which we do need to consider, and they may have some indicators of a 'mystical' nature.  It is no secret that some of Satie's texts are puzzling, when I spoke with my wife who is a linguist and French speaker rather than puzzlement some thought provoking ideas emerged.  The title Gnossienne takes the term Gnostic, a religious word concerned with searching for universal truths, Satie adds the feminine ending, suggesting a translation of "the thing that she knows".  A mother goddess dedication? Satie's version of Wagner's Erda?  Later we have a passage that is "questioning" and later "more internally questioning" the notion of being drawn into the music is suggested.  Those who have studied meditation would know that light and the inner light are regular concepts (Harvey, a deeply religious man wrote 3 works named "Inner Light"), at bar 10 Satie used the term tres luisant, suggesting a glimmering, emitting or reflecting light.  My wife was also kind enough to cover the debate between those who held religious convictions and atheists at the time of this composition, I gathered that one did not touch on matters of religion lightly.
Is the simplicity and repetitiveness of Gnossienne 1 the equivalent of a mantra?  It is repetitious, but seems melodically complex (compared to a Buddhist mantra), yet when we bring the music to its skeletal form, as in the third stave in the example, we see that it is little more than a rising and falling scale.  Satie did involve himself with the Rosicrucian order and there are three pieces concerning the society (3 Sonneries Rose+Croix), which are share some characteristics of Gnoissienne 1, (the second has the characteristic of a reworked outline of plainsong, much as Messiaen would do in Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum.  However the 3 Sonneries are rarely played, and far less often heard.

The power of repetition in ritual is a powerful tool, and Satie has explored this concept in Gnossienne 1, and it seems there is enough evidence to say that is was one of his intentions.