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  • Writer's pictureSteve Crowther

Don’t care if you listen? – a new article about aspects of The Lapins concert by David Lancaster

The performers in Late Music’s evening concert in May are The Lapins, a trio that takes its name from the cabaret in Montmartre where Satie and Picasso (amongst others) used to drink: Au Lapin Agile. It’s still there, just around the corner from the house with Satie’s name on a plaque next to the door, and a few hundred yards from the so-called Bateau-Lavoir, Picasso’s rickety studio. I don’t know how closely they listened to the songs at the Lapin Agile, but the music was just one of the ingredients of their evening, along with food, drinks and conversation. It is probably there that Satie conceived the idea of Furniture Music, (or in French Musique d’ameublement sometimes more literally translated as furnishing music): music specifically composed as background music, to be played by live performers. The term was coined by Satie in 1917, and he went on to compose several pieces which are explicitly designated as Furniture Music, including Tapestry in forged ironIndustrial soundsChez un “Bistrot, and perhaps most intriguingly Tenture de cabinet préfectoral (Wall-lining in a chief officer’s office).

We will hear Satie’s Musique D’Ameublement in the concert, along with some of his magical and enigmatic Gnossiennes.

Satie’s idea was that this was not music to listen to, but music that simply existed to provide an environment around the listener. That’s not a new idea: the Balinese audiences who attend ceremonies and shadowplay performances describe the experience of ‘being in a state of music’ where music is only one aspect of the performance, and in which it is quite normal to leave and return, or sleep, without the sense that the listener has missed something which is essential to the experience. This is very different to our tradition of listening in the West, where, if we missed a movement from a Beethoven symphony, for example, our experience would be considered incomplete. This non-Western approach to listening has, not surprisingly, permeated approaches to listening to minimal music. When I attended a performance of Glass’s iconic opera Einstein on the Beach in 2012, we were told beforehand that leaving and rejoining the performance at any time was completely acceptable. Since it lasts for five hours with no intervals this was probably a good thing (although I stayed and heard it all!). The Lapins aren’t playing any Glass this time, but we will hear LaMonte Young’s 1967.

This experience, where we make ourselves receptive to lots of different stimuli, which work together to make an immersive experience of art around us, is very different to that of the ‘muzak’ we hear in supermarkets and lifts, which are no doubt intended to sooth us into spending more money but in reality, become so irritating that we try our hardest to block them out!

And then there’s ambient music, as defined and popularised by Brian Eno, who said (of his 1978 album Ambient 1: Music for Airports) that music ‘must be as ignorable as it is interesting’. In general, ambient music emphasises tone and atmosphere over traditional musical structure or rhythm, and, lacking emphasis on traditional concepts of melody, harmony and rhythm, is perfectly suited to Eno’s processes of ‘generative music’, in which computed applications assemble pieces constructed from small fragments of material, looped, phased and juxtaposed to create a shifting montage in which nothing is ever the same twice. 

When they finally get around to inventing the time machine (and I understand why they’re in no rush since once they have it they’ll be able to go back to see what they’ve missed in the meantime) one of my first stops will be Montmartre at the turn of the 20th century, so that I can sit in the Lapin Agile with Satie, Picasso, Modigliani, Debussy, Apollinaire, Roman Greco and Utrillo, along with locals rich and poor, eccentrics, anarchists, and students from the Latin Quarter, and join in their conversations. Maybe I’d listen to the music too, maybe not.

David Lancaster

The Lapins are Susie Hodder-Williams (flute), James Byrne (guitar), and Chris Caldwell (sax and clarinet).

The concert will take place on Saturday 4 May at 7.30pm. Please visit this link for concert, programme and ticket details.

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