PHILIP CORNER is an experimental composer, multi-instrumentalist and visual artist born in NYC in 1933. He’s a founding member of Fluxus, a decades old network of avant-garde musicians and artists that has included such figures as Yasunao Tone, Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys, and was partly inspired by the work and thought of John Cage. Corner has long been known for producing indeterminate compositions (musical scores that are open to interpretation by the musician) and for his interest in non-Western tunings and harmonies, such as those found in East Asian styles of music like Indonesian gamelan and Korean jeongak. Like most Fluxus-associated musicians, his music is often atonal and challenging to traditional Western standards of aesthetic beauty, so his latest release, SATIE SLOWLY (Unseen Worlds), might seem like a break from the rest of his work. In some ways it is, but in others it’s not.
On Satie Slowly, Corner plays a selection of piano pieces by the early-20th century composer and absinthe fiend Erik Satie, one of the original characters in the history of minimalist music. To ears today, Satie might sound pretty accessible and traditionally beautiful, especially if you’re tuned in to noise and modern composition. But in his own time period, before modernism’s challenge of classical aesthetics had been widely accepted, Satie was a sharp break from the grandiose and highly emotional music of the Romantic period. At a time when opera was still considered popular music, Satie was upsetting expectations. Each of his slow and relatively simple compositions for solo piano stripped things down to a few key components. Slow chord progressions, repetitive motifs and leaps in volume work together to create solemn and highly atmospheric pieces. His influence on the work of living composers/pianists like Philip Glass and Nils Frahm is crystal clear.
Towards the end of Satie’s life (he died in 1925), he was associated with the Dadaists, who also served as an inspiration for Fluxus. The Dadaists, like so many of the modernists you learn about in art history class, were fascinated by the busy sights and sounds of the modern city. In an era where pop culture moves at light speed and there’s always a million things competing for our attention all at once, tempting us to go faster, the contrast between cultural cacophony and the slow restraint essential to making Satie’s pieces so pretty is an interesting constant between this century and the last. And as the title suggests, Corner plays Satie’s pieces the way they are meant to be. That is, slowly. In this way, Corner’s renditions are a refreshing and suggestive visit to Fluxus’ roots.