Keyboard Mania Engulfs Cheltenham


Keyboard Mania Engulfs Cheltenham

If Cheltenham has taken on a somewhat Surrealistic aspect over the past week, blame it on that musical eccentric Erik Satie born 150 years ago. As you stroll around the town you come across a number of piano-like or piano related objects ranging from painted pianos, pianos planted with flowers, a tubular bell piano, a fruit machine synthesiser and even aircraft landing gear sporting a keyboard. There’s also an electro-mechanical lithophone, but please don’t ask me to describe it or how it works.

The Keyboard Inventions strand to the Festival also saw keyboards in various guises in action. In Moments of Weightlessness Sarah Nicolls performed on her inside-out grand piano which rotates through 180 degrees and finishes up swinging through the air – so one saw it from all angles. The final Friday and Saturday morning of the Festival saw a rare performance of Vexations, Satie’s 18 hour piano marathon composed after spitting up with his girlfriend in which one piece is repeated 840 times. And a number of concerts were devoted to electronic music performed by Dave Mauric, the Goldberg Ensemble and others.

Two events explored the relationship between piano music and film which would have been only too familiar with cinema-goers a century ago. Pianist Claire Hammond performed music written by Kenneth Hesketh to accompany a surreal film Hände: Das Leben und die Liebe eines zärtlichen Geschlechts (Hands: The life and loves of the gentler sex) made in 1927-28 by Stella F Simon and Miklos Blandy. In the film hands grasp each other, push against each other, dance together, creep along slowly in a manner and generally assume a life of their own detached from human beings creating an eerie feel that is emphasised by Hesketh’s dark score.

The other film on the programme was The Nose, a cartoon film based on Nikolai Gogol’s story of an official whose nose goes missing and develops a life of its own with a score by Ed Hughes. Although made in 1963 the film makers Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker had created a work in black and white film which was reminiscent of the early days of cinema. Transparent harmonies matched the shimmering patterns of life in the film, while the piano adopted a more percussive stance in the more grotesque and humorous moments. Clare Hammond’s piano playing throughout was superlative.

Film also featured in Satie and Multimedia in which pianist Christina McMaster introduced and played some of his zanier works. She started however with a Scarlatti sonata Gymnopédie No 1, two of a kind, you could say, both characterised by animated writing, and followed these with Satie’s distinctly odd Genuinely Flabby Preludes for a Dog. Sarah Lister joined her to recite Sports et divertissements – short satiric poems with piano accompaniment poking fun at the upper middle classes, elements of which brought to mind Walton’s Façade.

The Cinéma entr’acte from 1924 with a score by Satie was an astonishing tour de force and underlines the extent of the artistic ferment in Paris after the First World War where artists of all disciplines would gather together at country house parties. Many leading figures of the time, such as Man Ray, appear in the film which has shots of buildings and a ballet dancer at strange angles and culminates in a hearse becoming detached from the camel pulling it and running away pursued by the mourners. Eventually it plunges off a cliff and on landing in a field the lid opens and a conductor emerges. There was some breathless piano music by Satie for the chase played at some speed by Christina.

Maya Deren’s film At Land is also Surrealist in spirit and follows the meanderings of a young woman creeping through the undergrowth, along a conference table, walking through the countryside and across sand dunes. The accompanying music by Cage (In a Landscape, In a room) and Satie (Gnossienne No 4) suited the atmosphere of menace and nightmare perfectly. The seashore ending led into one of Satie’s most peculiar works, A Tale of Three Crustaceans: Holothurian, Edriophthalma, Podophthalma, with descriptions by Sarah Gabriel.

The concluding pieces – Freya Waley-Cohen’s The Bubblegum Jungle, with animation by Jamie Reid, and Richard Bullen’s Theatre of Resonance, in which Christina McMaster plays live along with her filmed Doppelgänger – suggest that anarchic spirit of Satie and Dadaism is still alive. Christina McMaster’s splendid efforts were greeted with sustained applause by the large audience.

Roger Jones

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