gnossienneThe Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows
n. a moment of awareness that someone you’ve known for years still has a private and mysterious inner life, and somewhere in the hallways of their personality is a door locked from the inside, a stairway leading to a wing of the house that you’ve never fully explored—an unfinished attic that will remain maddeningly unknowable to you, because ultimately neither of you has a map, or a master key, or any way of knowing exactly where you stand.
Well, that’s one definition of ‘gnossienne’. Unfortunately, the composer of this week’s piece, if he was alive today, would almost certainly disagree. Erik Satie wrote a total of seven gnossiennes in the early 1890s. The first three were published in 1893. Gnossiennes 4-6 were published in 1968 and the seventh is from the incidental music for a “poetic drama”, Le Fils des étoiles, which premiered in 1892. They were of such an unusual form that he invented an entirely new musical genre for them. As far as I know Satie himself never defined his ‘g’ word but it is thought to be derived from the Greek word, ‘gnosis’, meaning ‘knowledge’ or ‘talent’.
Gnossienne No. 1 was originally conceived as a solo piano piece. Here’s a version with a Public Domain Creative Commons licence by an artist called La Pianista.
That’s a rather pleasant piece of piano music, suitable for the opening credits of a slow-burning romantic movie. It doesn’t sound particularly ground-breaking to the ear, although the score lacks both a time signature and bar divisions. But there’s a version on YouTube that makes a very different impression. The simplicity of the original work is reflected in the monochrome scene but the piano is relegated to a backing instrument, with the melody floating on the horror film strains of a theremin or wheezing through a muted trombone. And the video itself has transformed the smouldering romance into a comedy sketch.
Maybe that dictionary-style definition isn’t so strange afterall. Who would have thought a simple-sounding piano piece coud have hidden the insiration for such a fun-filled performance?