Thursday, 9 August 2012

A Knife, A Fork & A Spoon Will Beat Out a Happy Tune

Kanye West, we are told, will dine only with the very finest of cutlery. "Everything is the best quality." His knives and forks, apparently, are made of gold. I wonder, does he play the spoons with his golden spoons?

When, in 1967, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop were asked to create a new signature tune for Radio Sheffield, David Cain, thinking of the city's steel industry, called for knives and forks. His thirty-second jingle was composed from the plucked tines of steel forks, recorded onto tape and sped up or slowed down for different pitches.

Perhaps Peter Sinfield, former lyricist to King Crimson, ELP, and Bucks Fizz, was thinking along similar lines when he composed this - a "music for impossible cutlery":

More often, however, the relationship between notes and knives, or tunes and tines is less harmonious, betraying moreover a certain anxiety best illustrated by two famous quotations.

Wagner is supposed to have said that when he hears Mozart he sometimes fancies he can hear the clatter of the Emperor's dinnerware interfering with the music ("Contemporary attitudes towards the musical inheritance suffer," claimed Adorno, "from the fact that no-one has the confidence to be so disrespectful.")

Erik Satie might almost have had this slur in mind when he turned to Fernand Léger one evening over dinner and stated the need for a "furniture music, that is to say, music that would be a part of the surrounding noises and that would take them into account. I see it as melodious, as masking the clatter of knives and forks without drowning it completely, without imposing itself."

I saw anxiety because both of these quotations suggest that there are at least certain circumstances when music might be forced to compete with other, more pressing activities. Wagner's remark might be regarded as the symptom of a time when feudal patronage was waning as a source of income for composers. Satie's of the burgeoning of another time, when mechanical reproduction and increased time for leisure was making music both more ubiquitous and less venerated than it had been. 

The irony, perhaps, is that when Satie went ahead and created his musique d'ameublement the audience refused to ignore it and listened in silence; while Wagner's music would become the template for the unheard melodies soundtracking a thousand Hollywood films.

Whatever Satie may have had in mind when he made his comment to Léger, I'm fairly sure it wasn't this ...