January 8, 2015 5 Comments
In an earlier entry about Satie, I described how he gave humorous, and even surrealistic titles to his works. Today’s, Croquis et agaceries d’un gros bonhomme en bois for example, means “Sketches and flirtations of a big, wooden simpleton.” When you hear the piece which starts out with a little oom pah-pah waltz, it instantly evokes a big, dumb ox or rube from the country lumbering along a French boulevard. Yet this section has a certain sweetness to it that makes you instantly feel a certain fondness for the subject.
The second movement in this short piece has a bit of discordance to it, which might evoke a bittersweet feeling about the simpleton’s lot. The last section is a meticulous anti-waltz where the rhythm goes pah pah oom instead of oom pah pah. The composer’s execution of the piece matches perfectly the playfulness of the title.
If you ever feel yourself completely flummoxed by life or like all your best laid plans go completely wrong for some reason, well this is the perfect music to put on.
Innocent Abroad, in which I visit Cannes in 1977
Fortunately for me, I wrote lots of letters during my first trip to France as a student in 1977, and some of the recipients returned them to me. They jog my memory and today remind me that after just one day in the quaint, costal town of St. Raphael, I took a local train to the city of Cannes. These letters also make me cringe at what an affected and “precious” person I once was.
Cannes struck me as a strange city and I didn’t like it all that much. Its fame lies in the movie festival, which takes place in May. In February, when I visited, it seemed pretty dead, although the climate was for the most part mild.
Parts of the city were pretty. For example, the hill on which Notre Dame de l’Esperance stands really amazed me. The church has a Roman tower on one side and a rather interesting museum on the other. Below the church ran a maze of pathways and stairs, which led down, past and through villas, protected from the sun by their closeness to one another. It was so shady that green moss grew everywhere.
The museum beside the church was called the Musee de la Cestre, turned out to be a nice find. It was founded by a Dutchman in 1874 and housed a collection of artifacts from exotic and popular cultures that he had collected on his voyages. Inside, clean, but very old, glass cases displayed Oceanic, Chinese, Tibetan, Asian, Phoenician, Peruvian, Egyptian, Aboriginal, and Japanese items, some of which were quite ancient. There was an impressive collection of Phoenician tablets–written in Sumerian–that someone had dated 2000 B.C. The cases also contained several beautiful, Egyptian alabaster vases, visceral urns, and pots. Rome was represented by its glassware, Peru by its pottery dating from 800 A.D., China by its dishes, vases, and urns. The smallness of the museum made it all the more impressive considering the wealth of items it contained. It advertised itself as being a “Musee des Beaux Arts” but one dedicated more to “humanistic ends.”
What struck me was the naivete of the museum. It reminded me of a little museum that had once occupied an old house in my home town–full of antiques and curios that a rich dabbler had found interesting. I particularly liked the inscriptions that kept me quite entertained. One, which described a Tibetan flute, made from a human femur bordered on the poetic:
“One is made from a human femur which came from the body of a venerable personage, which confers upon it a religious value that is particularly emotive.”
This quote sort of summed up the tone of the entire museum. The collector tried to explain things. It was an altogether different experience at the time from the Louvre, where there were no such friendly explanations, and the size of the collection and the grandeur of the building dwarfed you. This little museum seemed all that a museum should be–a place where you can go to reflect on the wonder of people’s need to make things, beautiful things at that.
Besides this one nice refuge, the rest of Cannes seemed garish with its huge hotels everywhere that exploited the beach. Almost all of them looked the same, were high-priced, and had casinos. However, between the beach and the hotels lay a beautiful boulevard whose median was planted with palm and cypress trees and pansies.
I would have high-tailed it out of Cannes earlier, thinking Nice might be nicer, but while reading the paper one day I noticed that Manitas de Plata, a Flamenco guitar player, was playing at the Casino Municipale on Friday night. I decided I couldn’t miss that. The semester before, my friend Thom Klem and I had discovered this guitarist on one of our forays into “international” music. Thom had bought one of his records and we used to sit up late drinking wine and talk about this soulful music, rapt in wonder at the machine-gun like rhythm pounded out by the heels of the dancers.
The night of the concert, I went along to the Municipale Casino, which dated from the turn of the century and whose theatre resembled the classic old opera houses. It had about seven stories of box seats that ran along three walls and whose railings were ornate, hand carved and painted gold. The boxes were plush and hung with curtains and we sat on individual ornate sitting-room chairs, not fixed ones. The acoustics were good and Manitas de Plata (which means little hands of silver) was superb. On stage with him were his brother and brother-in-law, all thin, dark and proud men dressed in black tight trousers, white shirts and black leather vests.
After the concert, I strolled around the casino and toyed with the idea of gambling a little. The place had two separate sections, one for the hoi-polloi like myself and one for the high rollers. The posh crowd would stroll in dress in black tie and tails and disappear behind a grand old door, through which I once caught a glimpse of a very opulent room with a chandelier. The small fish were dressed like any middle-class French person of the day. They stood in an anteroom staring at a gaming table on which sat what looked like a roulette wheel with a gland case. It was about twice the size of roulette wheels in the movies, and the croupier used a ball about the size of a tennis ball. The wheel did not spin–instead the croupier threw a ball around its inner perimeter and it would fall into a black or red colored slot.
I thought, “what the heck” and went over and bought about $20 worth of chips. I watched to see if I could pick up any betting tips from my fellow roues, and decided to match the bets of a guy who seemed to be doing all right. In a few throws I had doubled my money. I felt elated–insulin pumped through my body, and I became convinced I could win. So I continued to bet, and in a few more throws, I was broke. But I still wanted to play. Fortunately, some reasonable part of my brain kicked in, but I remember having the feeling that one part of me actually had to forcibly drag the other out. It was that addicting! James Bond made it look so easy. But what was interesting was that the summer before, I had taken a class in probability where I learned how to calculate the odds of such games of chance. Our professor showed us that the ways the games are set up, the odds always favor the casinos. Otherwise they would not be in business. Yet despite that, a part of me wanted to go back and try it again. That put me right off gambling, and except for a lottery ticket about once a year, I never indulge.