Uncut NOVEMBER 2019 - by Wyndham Wallace


French pianist's innovative, extreme minimalism predicts the ambient movement eight decades early

While it's generally accepted that Brian Eno identified the ambient concept with 1975's Discreet Music, it's stretching things to argue that he invented it. Though his liner notes famously refer to the goal of making music "apart of the ambience of the environment", in truth this was purely an adjustment to a notion established by composer Erik Satie in 1917. "Furniture music", as the French man defined it - though he applied the term to only five pieces - represented, he said, "a sound that should not be actively listened to, but present at the periphery of our daily lives". Eno's notes, it must be stressed, acknowledged his debt.

Twenty years earlier still, in the mid-1890s, Satie had penned Vexations, which bears remarkable similarities to Eno's work. First published in 1949, it remained unperformed until 1963 when, with multiple pianists including John Cale, John Cage brought it to the stage. This moratorium wasn't simply because its notation was abstruse, its tempo and volume ill-defined, and even Satie's proposed instrument ambiguous. It also consisted of just eighteen notes, performed solo, then as chords, apparently to be played eight hundred and forty times in succession. A 2012 performance lasted thirty-five hours, and though Cage's was only eighteen or so, it's unlikely anyone appreciated the cry afterwards of "Encore!" from one of the six audience members left.

It's fitting that Cage, who travelled to Paris in 1949 to learn more, became one of the conceit's most vocal champions. Indeed, the New Yorker's 4'33" - 1952's revolutionary two hundred and seventy-three seconds of silence - offered a response to Satie's idea, but went one step further, classifying the sound of one's environment as music rather than merely an integral part of a composition.

Alan Marks' seventy-minute interpretation, recorded in Berlin in 1987, offers only forty iterations of what Satie likely intended as both a satirical reaction to Wagner's recent protracted Ring Cycle and a pastiche of perpetuum mobile, the celebration of technical virtuosity in vogue at the time. These, though, suffice, showcasing Vexations's strengths and flaws: as the repetitions continue, it is, by turns, meditative, vexing - naturally! - then exhausting, studiously ignored and, ultimately, rewarding. Most fascinating is how its theme, initially devoid of any familiar sense of melody, develops a melodious quality through acquaintance, while the absence of resolution simultaneously lends an air of exasperating uneasiness. One might even consider it the original "illbient".

It's closer inspirit, therefore, to 1993's Neroli, Eno's minimalist, seemingly random, hour long composition, than Discreet Music, whose intertwined parts mutate over thirty minutes into interdependent melodies. Boasting an analogue humanity that Eno's generative works lack, however, it represents, even today, an indispensable, prescient contribution to a genre that's rarely been healthier.

Extras: 4/10. Essays by Alan Marks and pianist/Satie scholar Stephen Whittington.