Furniture Music (4.1.08)

Posted on July 28, 2008

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Genre of the Month: Furniture Music

Rock critics climbed on board this slow-moving wagon about the time that Brian Eno released Discreet Music in 1978. The album moves at a glacial pace, repeating snippets of songs at various tempos and slowly feeding synth loops through tape

echo machines. Eno had been doing visionary stuff the whole decade with open-minded production techniques while working with pop musicians like David Bowie and Roxy Music, so he was in a prime position to bring the concept of ambience and minimalism to mainstream ears with this release. “Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular,” said Eno. “It must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

But Eno’s experiments had strong roots at least 50 years old, going back to a French composer named Erik Satie. Satie, an outspoken artist and frequent editorial contributor to arts and culture journals in Europe and America, rose to prominence

calling himself a “phonometrician,” (“someone who measures (and writes down) sounds”). In 1917, Satie developed a new theory of a music composition and genre to go along with it—“furniture music.” Based on the repetition of small phrases and the contextualization of the pieces (they were meant to be considered part of their surroundings, not the focal point of the performance), his first two pieces gave way to 1920’s “At a Bistro” and “A drawing room,” which were only performed once during Satie’s lifetime. John Cage eventually picked up on Satie’s notes later on and performed the lost Vexations with 840 repetitions, as instructed in the score. The themes found their way into all of Cage’s subsequent work, eventually helping inspire the minimalist movement and, as Eno (who also referred to himself as a “non-musician”) later coined the term, ambient. Satie, who died in 1925, never lived to see any of his scores published.

[Originally Published in Performer Magazine, 4.1.08)

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