Joe's Blog

A Few Thoughts About Satie’s “Gnossiennes”

April 17, 2019

S.B. is in love with the Satie Gnossiennes. He is learning the first four.


When he had a long string of the triplet notes, I tried to push him ahead as if I wanted him to go faster.  Notwithstanding, he successfully resisted the impulses I conveyed.  But, the combination of my push and his resistance (with the flow of the tempo) resulted in a perfect union of not speeding up on the clock but still having a feeling to the listener of moving ahead.

And the same thing for any other musical ‘feeling’ that you have about the piece.  Inject that feeling like you are injecting into the inside of a turkey with a “solution” prior to cooking.  The flavor remains on the inside, but the cooking ‘metronome’ continues to tick evenly.

The little differences.  Satie is creating a severely controlled universe, a minimalistic universe.  Satie wants to draw the listener in until they are sensitive to every slight difference amid the hypnotic flow of the notes.  For instance at one point, instead of a twelve note series of triplets, it is fifteen notes.*  Or, this time it was an A-natural and not an A-flat.  And things like this.


The melody is filled with repeating notes.   First play it without repeating any of the notes, then switch to repeating them, but be very “annoyed” that something, some outside force, is making you, as it were redundantly, to have to play each note twice.  Once established at the beginning, never loose that initial feeling of annoyance as you go through a string of these note repetitions.  If it helps, say out loud or to yourself in a nagging tone of voice: “do it twice … do it twice … , or “do I have to do this note twice also … do I have to do this note twice as well … and this note … “.

Because it happens so often, your inner musician will constantly want to assert itself to make it sound ‘better’, more ‘natural’.  You will start giving a phrase or shape to the notes in order to avoid the starkness of the repetition of each note.  It is hard for you to play through the whole piece as we have described because you are so sensitive and may think that what you are hearing is in some way ugly.  At such times just consciously make it ‘uglier’.  Make each note ‘stutter’.


Turning off a natural ability.

No note in the left hand ‘bears the memory’ of what preceded it, though it is natural to hear a group of notes as outlining a particular tonal chord.  If there is a D minor chord in the left hand at the beginning it’s “news to me”.  Perhaps I’ll come to realize it after it’s almost done.

This is very difficult to do: suppressing a natural conscious reaction.  It would be like advancing a film one frame at a time, looking at it for a while, and then a long pause between the end of the first frame and the beginning of the next to allow some of the short term memory to forget what the preceding frame looked like.

* Try to frustrate the listener because there is a group of notes, and then something else, and then another group of notes.  Make the listener upset as to why there were only n number of notes and then it stopped, and then, why did we have to wait before that flow notes resumed, and not being sure how for how long, for how many notes, that flow of notes will continue this time.

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