Stylus JULY 13, 2004 - by Dave McGonigle


Arcueil, France, 1901

Erik Satie sits at a low wooden table, eating his breakfast in silence. He is dressed in a smart grey velvet suit, and from time to time sets his spoon down to rub absentmindedly at the small stains covering his sleeves, the results of too many late nights spent quaffing in the Chat Noir. Today, as usual, his breakfast consists of two hard-boiled eggs, and as he is cracking open the pristine dome of each he is imagining without malice that he is actually smashing open the skulls of Ravel and Debussy, reclaiming his music from their frilly bastardizations...

The spoon slips.

It falls to the stone floor, producing a clear, ringing tone. Interesting, Satie thinks.

London, UK, 1975

Brian Eno pauses in the middle of a busy road to adjust his six-inch platform boots and gets hit by a cab. Doh!, says Eno, before losing consciousness.

Electro-acoustic lab, Harvard University, USA, 1951

The two technicians sit outside the anechoic chamber, throwing rolled-up papers from Nature and Science into a box marked "outgoing". Inside the chamber, nicknamed "Beranek's Box" after their lab's head, is a visiting composer.

"How long has he been in there?" says one.

"Two hours."

"Two hours? What can be possibly be doing?"

"He said he wanted to listen."

They exchange shrugs. Inside the chamber, John Cage smiles to himself and listens to the roaring songs of his circulation.

Barbazanges Gallery, Paris, France, 1920

"Can't this Girieud paint anything other than bloody religious scenes? If I have to look at another bloke on the cross there'll be someone else on the wrong end of a crucifixion, mark my words. And what's with the badly dressed musicians? Is this the famous Dada style that we are meant to be so in awe of?"

"I can't work it out - oh, yeah, Girieud is crap, no quarrel there - why do they sit in the center of the gallery telling everyone not to listen to them, but keep on playing anyway?"

"If I may be of service - see that guy in the grey velvet suit? That's Erik Satie. This is his musique d'ameublement, his so-called 'furniture music'. According to this pamphlet..."

"Here... he says that 'Nevertheless, we must bring about a music which is like furniture - a music, that is, which will be part of the noises of the environment, will take them into consideration.'"


Erik Satie rushes past them, shouting at them to "stop listening". This is harder than I thought, he thinks. Maybe I'll write this off as a bad experiment and get back to finishing my true masterwork, Sketches And Exasperations Of A Big Boob Made Of Wood. And I'm not buying any of these paintings, either.

Woodstock, New York, USA, 1952

John Cage and David Tudor are sprinting down a grassy hill, pursued by a mob of angry avant-garde music lovers. Tudor has just given the first public performance of Cage's 4'33", a three-part suite in which no instruments are played. A young painter is screaming "Good people of Woodstock, let's run these people out of town". Cage and Tudor run faster.

"Maybe I should have opened the piano keyboard at the start instead of closing it, John?" Tudor is anxious, hoping that this won't ruin his career. He looks at Cage, waiting for a response. Cage tries to say something but cannot - he is laughing too loudly. The two sprint on.

London, UK, 1975

Brian Eno is convalescing in bed after his accident; bored, ripped on pain-killers, and surrounded by various magazines whose covers are obscured by brown paper wrappings. His last visitor didn't help; when he suggested that she might like to help him "tune his instrument", she tore Here Come The Warm Jets off the stereo and replaced it with some obscure 18th Century harp record, dropping the volume and breaking one of the speakers in the process. And now Eno is lying on his back, straining to make out the music. Gradually, he finds that he can either devote all of his attention to the stereo and thus barely make out the melody, or, instead, treat the stereo as merely another environmental sound source. Instead of the harp music, Eno is treated to a rich mélange of percussive rain, birdsong, low-frequency vehicle sounds, barely heard conversations, and, somewhere within it all, the harp melody, fragmented. The discovery excites Eno. This'll really piss off Ferry - I have to write some music that recreates this. Isn't it weird that no-one's done it before?