The history of human thought, not only as concerns Western civilization, would be entirely different without Socrates and Plato. Of course, these two master thinkers belonged in a long line of Greek philosophers, to whose thought they reacted, accepting some of their statements whilst refusing others. Still, what we owe to Socrates and Plato is impossible to estimate, but certainly is a substantial part of our worldview.
Indeed, we have not a single line written by Socrates; all we know about him comes from Plato’s Dialogues. Yet, since Plato himself was much more than a passive chronicler or an “objective” observer, we may often wonder how much of Plato’s “Socrates” comes from Socrates himself, and how much is the result of Plato’s afterthoughts on his teacher’s speeches.
Still, this is and will remain an unanswered and unanswerable question. What we do have is the magnificent repertoire of Plato’s Dialogues, which exemplify – as very few other works of art do – the power of the word, of the logos, of the dialectic encounter among human beings mediated by speech, and how speech influences the very forms (or ideas, as Plato would have put it!) of our thought.
The curious aspect of the works recorded here is that they are objectively grounded on and derived from the text of Plato’s Dialogues, but are wordless. The effect is similar to what happens when, for instance, the drama where “words, words, words” is uttered (i.e. Shakespeare’s Hamlet) is turned into a symphonic poem, as in Čajkovskij’s eponymous work. In principle, the idea seems very bizarre and abstruse: take Shakespeare’s “words” from Hamlet and what remains is a rather absurd plot, which, moreover, will not be understood by following the musical score alone. Still, the result can be a masterpiece, if the composer is imaginative and creative enough – as happens, in fact, with Čajkovskij’s symphonic poem.
We cited Čajkovskij’s Hamlet, but we might also have cited Hector Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, a mammoth symphonic poem which narrates, in over one and a half hour, the story of Shakespeare’s unfortunate lovers. And it is precisely from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette that Erik Satie took inspiration for his Socrate. “To take inspiration”, however, should be understood in the very idiosyncratic way required every time we deal with Satie. Berlioz’s work is majestic, long, rich in themes and timbres, sounds and ideas, to the point that it can be slightly overwhelming. It narrates the quintessential love story in an involving and touching fashion.
By way of contrast, Satie’s Socrates is much shorter, it involves verbality, it is very essential under the viewpoint of timbre, and, from the narrative viewpoint, it is so bare that it can be said to be no story at all. However, there is a “story” behind this Da Vinci Classics album, and we will try to tell it.
This album includes two works by John Cage, which both relate, directly or indirectly, with Satie’s Socrate. And it is from this composition that we will start our approach to Cage. Satie and Cage had very many points in common: both were iconoclasts, both delighted in scandalizing their hearers, both explored the borders of silence, both opened up new ways for the very concept of music and of performance.
In October 1916, Winnaretta Singer, married to Prince Edmond de Polignac, commissioned Satie a composition. In her original plan, it should have been something in the line of “background music” for the reading of excerpts from Plato’s Dialogues. She had envisioned something akin to a melodrama, but the idea did not meet with Satie’s favour. He preferred a sung work, even though the singing would be very different, in kind, from the operatic style. The original destination was maintained, though: even though the selected excerpts from Plato’s Dialogues represent male characters, the work should be sung by an all-female cast. Satie’s compositional work took place between 1917 and 1918, and, once the composition was ready, he labelled it a “symphonic drama in three parts”, probably alluding – in his mocking way – to Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette. The three parts of the composition represent respectively a “portrait of Socrates” (Portrait de Socrate; from Plato’s Symposium), a scene set on “the banks of the Ilissus” (Les bords de l’Ilissus: from Plato’s Phaedrus), and Socrates’ death (Mort de Socrate, from Plato’s Phaedo). Satie’s original composition was scored for voices with accompaniment of orchestra, but he also realised a version for voice(s) and piano. The overall concept of the piece is perfectly summarized in its composer’s words: “The aestetic of this work is dedicated to clarity; simplicity accompanies, directs it. That is all. I wanted nothing more”.
In 1947, about three decades after the composition of Socrate, John Cage transcribed its first movement for two pianos. The stimulus came to Cage from his collaboration with choreographer Merce Cunningham, who elaborated a choreography on Cage’s transcription. Here, therefore, all the “words” of Plato’s Dialogues (which Satie had purposefully wanted to be sung over an antiquated translation, heightening the feeling of alienation) simply disappear. Cage expressed his admiration for Satie as follows: “I love all of Satie’s music and the music of Socrate especially. It seems to me that even though the words he chose are profoundly meaningful and touching, like the delightful and poetic remarks included in his other short pieces, all of which in performances Satie suppressed, the texts of Socrate may be omitted, bring about, as I hope to show in this arrangement, an enjoyment of the music alone, the beauty of which is so constantly clear and extraordinary”.
Further twenty years later, on the fiftieth anniversary of Satie’s original composition (in 1968), Cage and Cunningham completed the transcription and choreography of the remaining two movements, with the purpose in mind of organizing a performance in 1970.
Something, though, intervened and blocked their plans. Cage had employed the original musical material of Satie’s score without the publisher’s permission, and the publisher of Satie’s works formally forbade him to publicly perform the new work. This was a major disappointment. Not only it meant for Cage to renounce his work; this also impacted on the choreographer’s and on his dance company’s efforts. Clearly, every choreography is tailored on the rhythm and phrasing of the musical piece supporting it. One cannot replace Čajkovskij’s Death of the Swan by Ravel’s Boléro and dance the same steps on both! John Cage brilliantly found the solution for this dilemma. He would compose a work with exactly the same metrical structure as Satie’s Socrates, but with… different notes! Even the new notes were to be derived from Satie’s original, through a complex system making use of the I-Ching, the aleatoric philosophy frequently employed by Cage.
The “questions” asked by Cage to the divinatory principle of the I-Ching were the following:
1) Considering the seven modes (scales) built on the piano’s white keys, which one should be used?
2) Which one, among the “twelve possible chromatic transpositions”, will be used?
Then, on a phrase-by-phrase basis, questions about the specific notes were asked. The result was what Cage called a “chromatic modal piece”. In the first movement of the new work, which Cage humorously called Cheap Imitation, every pitch underwent an individual process of transposition, whilst in the second and third movement transpositions were applied onto larger units (half bars).
Echoing Cage’s ironic title, Cunningham also rebaptized his own choreography, calling it Second Hand. The work was actually premiered on January 9th, 1970, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City.
In spite of its complex genesis, Cage was evidently satisfied with the work’s result. This was his first “proper” composition after an eight-year intermission, and he liked to play it himself, even though he normally refrained from doing so. There exists a recording played by Cage himself, revealing both his brilliant ideas and his pianistic level. Perhaps the most poignant witness of the interest Cage had in this work of his comes from his own words. They acquire an even more intense meaning if one considers Cage’s usual reticence and tendency to veil and hide his feelings under the cover of irony. He wrote: “In the rest of my work, I’m in harmony with myself … But Cheap Imitation clearly takes me away from all that. So if my ideas sink into confusion, I owe that confusion to love. … Obviously, Cheap Imitation lies outside of what may seem necessary in my work in general, and that’s disturbing. I’m the first to be disturbed by it”.
In the eyes of an iconoclast as Cage, to be troubled by an artwork is something akin to a defeat. Yet, it is what most of us associate with art and its fruition. So, this kind of troubling feeling may be a not-too-hidden admission that, perhaps, the “transcendence” preached by Plato and Socrates did mean something for both Satie and Cage.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
Maria Isabella De Carli
She completed her musical studies at the Milano Conservatory, where she graduated from piano and harpsicord, and attended composition lessons with Giacomo Manzoni and Franco Donatoni. She also graduated from Mozarteum University Salzburg (Master Fortepiano).
She has given several concerts as a soloist and in various chamber ensembles, performing in the greatest musical events in Europe, the United States, Mexico, Argentina, Japan and China with a repertoire ranging from baroque to contemporary music. She premiered numerous pieces of composers from the second half of the 20th century (Bettinelli, Bussotti, Donatoni, de Pablo, Gorli, Corghi, etc.); especially Rima (composed for her), Alamari and Sincronie II by Franco Donatoni. In 1997 she also played the world premiere of Franco Donatoni’s Françoise Variationen at Festival Pontino. Her interpretations of B. Bettinelli and F. Donatoni were released respectively on the Ricordi label and on the Stradivarius label with the album “Franco Donatoni piano music”.
For 22 years, Maria Isabella De Carli has given advanced courses at Accademia Musicale Chigiana. She tought piano and instrumental teaching methodology at the Milan Conservatory until 2010 where she also gave contemporary piano lessons for a few years.
Francesca Gemmo: Francesca Gemmo is an italian pianist and composer. Her focus on experimentation and improvisation has encouraged collaboration with influential artists such as Alvin Curran, Brunhild Meyer-Ferrari, Steve Piccolo, Walter Prati, Giancarlo Schiaffini and Elliott Sharp. She has performed in Italy and Europe (Sale Apollinee di Venezia, Centre Le Phenix di Friburgo, Konzerthaus di Weimar, Fondazione Mudima di Milano, Museo del Novecento di Milano, Teatro Arsenale di Milano). Her compositions have been performed by Divertimento Ensemble, Irvine Arditti, Trio Matisse, Luca Avanzi, Sergio Armaroli and Sergio Scappini; moreover, works have been commissioned by prestigious instrumentalists such as guitarist Magnus Andersson and saxophonist Daniel Kientzy. In 2017 for Ars Publica she recorded the unpublished work (1a execution absolute) "Grandi Numeri" by Sylvano Bussotti with Improvviso Fantasia directed by Giuseppe Giuliano and aboutCage Vol. 3 for Da Vinci Classics. In April 2019 will be released a recording project for solo piano improvisation published by Dodicilune. She has published several scores (Salatino Edizioni and Berbèn), and essays on musical and didactic subjects (Tangram Edizioni Scientifiche, Padus Edizioni).
Erik Satie: (b Honfleur, 17 May 1866; d Paris, 1 July 1925). French composer. He was an iconoclast, a man of ideas who looked constantly towards the future. Debussy christened him ‘the precursor’ because of his early harmonic innovations, though he surpassed his friend’s conception of him by anticipating most of the ‘advances’ of 20th-century music – from organized total chromaticism to minimalism. To some extent he made a virtue of his technical limitations, but his painstaking quest for perfection in simplicity, coupled with his ironic wit and his shrewd awareness of developments in other fields of contemporary art, made him the personification of the wartime esprit nouveau in France.
John Cage (b Los Angeles, 5 Sept 1912; d New York, 12 Aug 1992). American composer. One of the leading figures of the postwar avant garde. The influence of his compositions, writings and personality has been felt by a wide range of composers around the world. He has had a greater impact on music in the 20th century than any other American composer.