The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester; Saturday 27th July, 2019
Dear Sir, Monsieur Fuckface. I shit on you with all my might. E.S.
French composer Erik Satie didn’t get on well with critics.
Apparently they just didn’t get his vision, so nearly a century after his death Amusia Productions have created the mysterious Mémoires d’un Amnésique – a deeply moving theatrical insight into the mind that composed some of the musical world’s most infamous piano pieces.
Satie (Alex Metcalfe) is on stage, sat at a piano. He delivers a short burst, then he calmly stands up, walks over to his blackboard and chalks off his achievement – it becomes clear that he’s keeping count of how many times he’s played it. The tally suggests an impressive 395 iterations.
The short piece he’s playing is the mysterious Vexations – 152 notes to be played repeatedly, 840 times. Satie was on the case before the show even started, from the moment the audience filed in to take their seats. He must have been at it for hours, and he clearly still has a very long way to go.
Satie’s world on stage is a very prim and proper one. He’s dressed impeccably well in a formal suit complete with bowler hat. Entering his space feels like a transgression into a forbidden world: in real life it is said that not a single person entered his home in the 27 years before his death.
Satie is a man of many umbrellas and many bottles – presumably the absinthe which led to his eventual demise. Though most of the performance is spent playing the piano, Metcalfe’s portrayal of him adds a sense of mystery and intrigue: he comes across as a very patient and diligent man, a man who says he reveres deep silence, which seems unusual for an artist crafting musical pieces.
As a show Mémoires d’un Amnésique skillfully combines the musical skills of Alex Metcalfe with outstanding film production work by Keith Lovegrove. Projected onto a big screen are a series of video clips which ultimately serve to bring the Erik Satie mystery to life.
These are wonderfully artistic pieces, black and white video clips that are utterly mesmerising, almost hypnotic: mainly scenes of Satie scurrying around a pebble beach as waves gently pulsate around him.
The videos appear to depict Satie on some kind of journey. There seems to be a theme, and it appears to be connected to the metronome sat on his piano: on the screen everything is slowed down and reduced to some kind of clockwork monotony.
In one case it is literally close-up footage of the innards of a metronome ticking away, keeping time. But there are many more examples of Erik revelling in the joy of periodicity: Erik oscillating on a swing; the way the waves undulate as they lap against the pebbled shore; Erik’s regular stride pattern as he marches across the beach; Erik’s regulated and sustained sipping from his glass.
Visually it becomes alluringly hypnotic and, when combined with the pensive mood that is Satie’s signature musical style, the experience as a whole is seductively bewildering.
The videography and accompanying French-language narration suggests that Erik can see things and perhaps even know things; and here he is, willing to share, despite his decades of self-imposed isolationism.
Erik was an eccentric recluse it seems, but his was a rich and triumphant reclusivity: one so deep that he clearly seemed to be fully absorbed within it.
Ultimately, Mémoires d’un Amnésique is indeed the ramblings of an amnesiac who doesn’t seem to exactly know what he’s doing or why, but these ramblings are absolutely fascinating and are presented in such a pleasing and entertaining way.
Mémoires d’un Amnésique is a gentle, ambient mood-cruise that perfectly mirrors the contemplative and sedative effects of the original piano music that inspired it. This is much more than fringe, and much more than theatre. It is also a fabulously well-crafted work of cinematic excellence as well as being a masterly piano recital by Alex Metcalfe – when all of that is put together the result is an installation piece that would probably sit very well in any modern art museum.