Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Song Titles

Over the Thanksgiving holiday I saw Martin Scorcese's movie Hugo. I enjoyed it, and it sparked this post – but this is not a film review.

Midway through, Scorcese uses a piece of music called "Gnossiennes #1." It's by the French composer Erik Satie, one of his Three Gnossiennes. I know it well. You can find it on iTunes, but I have it on one of those old-fangled delivery systems called cassette tape. The music, written for solo piano, is slowly paced and captivating. (There is video at the bottom of this post.)

The music got me to reflecting on song titles. Many of Erik Satie's compositions bear utterly distinctive and – to me, at least – humorous titles. Examples include "Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear," and "Three Barefoot Dances." This last appears to be an alternate name (due to translation, perhaps?) for what is probably Satie's best-known tune, "Gymnopedies #1," the first of Trois Gymnopodies. (If you don't recognize the title, you'd almost certainly recognize the music.) These, too, were originally written for piano, but became much better known after the orchestral versions arranged by Claude Debussey.

Another composer who gave his stuff distinctive titles was Frank Zappa. "Twenty Small Cigars" and "Peaches and Regalia" come to mind, along with one of my favorites, "Revised Music for Guitar and Low Budget Orchestra."

Charles Mingus, one of the great composers of the 20th century, also gave many of his pieces unique, sometimes whimsical titles. One such is "All The Things You Could Be Right Now if Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother." Others include "Slop," and "The Shoes of the Fisherman Are a Jive-Ass Pair of  Slippers." The humor had its serious side, too. Check out "If Charlie Parker were a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats."

But, back to Erik Satie.

Supposedly, "Gnossiennes" has no meaning: Satie made up that word to describe what he considered a new form of music. I don't know about that. I do know that he must have been a pretty weird guy: an early Satie biographer called him "one of the strangest personalities in the whole history of music."

I don't think his music is strange, though. Maybe it was strange in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Not so, a hundred years on.

I found a performance of "Gnossiennes #1," the music used in Hugo, on YouTube. I think the pianist here takes the tempo a little too slow, but that's just an opinion, and anyway it's still a good rendition.

Note: The quote about Erik Satie being "one of the strangest personalities in the whole history of music" is from the Author's Preface to Erik Satie, by Rollo H. Myers (Denis Dobson, Ltd., 1948).

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