There is an art to doing as little as possible, more art than science, I think. For a poet it’s an important art to learn, and over time to hone.
I do have a job—the best job imaginable: writing about music. It’s hardly a job at all except that I am paid for it, and reasonably well. All of my life I’ve coveted such a job, work that was almost indistinguishable from play. And then one day it fell into my lap, out of the so-called blue. The phone rang one evening: “Do you want to write about music?”
“I don’t know how to write about music.”
“Not a problem.”
Do you know what I am going to do this morning, while outside my door everybody’s tear-assing around in their SUVs, screaming into cell phones? I am going to sit in the bathtub and listen to the late Neapolitan pianist Aldo Ciccolini play the piano music of Erik Satie.
I have been sitting in the tub listening to Aldo Ciccolini play Satie for nearly 30 Januaries. I think all that really got going in earnest when I lived in Montreal in the mid-to-late ‘70s. There was an old fellow on CBC radio named Bob Kerr, if I recall, possessed of a comforting baritone and absolutely stuck on Ciccolini playing Satie’s Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes. I had a little apartment, a little radio, and nowhere much to go; besides, it was colder than the moon outside.
Apparently, young Aldo, something of a prodigy at the local conservatoire, became gloomy in his mid-20s. His momma told him: “Aldo, maybe you should go to Paris pour se changer les idées.” What an inspired suggestion. This is not even something that would have occurred to my own mother to suggest to me in my gloomy mid-20s. In any event, Aldo loved Paris and became a great success. (Who doesn’t love Paris? Hitler loved Paris.) Not long after he arrived, the canny Neapolitan discovered the music of Erik Satie and helped to make it popular.
Satie began composing the three Gymnopedies in his 21st year, 1887, while convalescing at his parents’ home from a bout with bronchitis, which he had deliberately contracted to secure a discharge from the military. Shortly thereafter, his parents threw the young Satie out of the house after an amorous incident with the maid. One doesn’t ordinarily think of Satie as a chaud lapin, but there you have it. The youth moved to Montmartre, got a job at the Chat Noir, and commenced wearing a velvet coat, soft felt hat, and flowing cravat. It was during this time that Satie made friends with Alphonse Allais, who had a plan to cover all the lakes and seas of the world with cork in order to expedite travel. Around the time Satie was completing his six Gnossiennes in 1890, he became involved with the Rosicrucians. It was also around this time that he lost his piano job at the Chat Noir for drunkenness.
Épater la bourgeoisie, that was Satie.
… I go to bed regularly at l0:47. Once a week
I wake up with a start at 3:14 a.m. (Tuesdays.)
I eat only white goods: eggs, sugar, shredded
bones, the fat of dead animals, rice, turnips, sausages
in camphor, pastry, cheese (the white varieties), cotton
salad, and certain kinds of fish (skinned).
I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with
fuchsia juice. I have a good appetite but never talk
while eating for fear of strangling.
I breathe carefully (a little at a time) and
dance very rarely. When walking I hold my sides and
look steadily behind me. … (from A Musician’s Diary)
Thus it transpired, on those long gloomy January afternoons so many years ago in “La Belle Province” that Satie’s delicate piano compositions with their exotic modes, their unresolved chords and melodies, gained much favor with me and offered not inconsiderable solace and musical sustenance. But also, the man himself, his eccentricities grown large in my youthful, somewhat overactive imagination, became something of a role model for me, and a not entirely wholesome one.
Be that as it may, when one endeavors to do as little as possible, as is my wont, the details of what one does gain exponentially in importance. The organism, as it were, becomes more sensitized to its intake. A piece of questionable meatloaf or a David Brooks op-ed column in the Times, which might ordinarily make one queasy, can make one dangerously ill.
A case in point: I was in the sauna at the gym not long ago and picked up a copy of the New York Times someone had left behind and began reading the following by Mr. Brooks:
Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide. He or she is ripping the veil from all that is private and delicate in oneself, and pulverizing it in an assembly line of selfish sensations.
Now, the ordinary individual who indiscriminately takes in all manner of information might simply find this ridiculous or, given that it is the opining of a political columnist in our “newspaper of record,” disgusting and weird. But I, I began experiencing violent convulsions, followed by profuse bleeding from my ears, nose, mouth, and rectum. Fortunately, the sauna and gym are part of one of America’s premier medical facilities, the University of California, San Francisco, and there were a half dozen naked, horrified physicians on hand to drag me outside, staunch the flow, and help guide me out of shock until I more or less stabilized.
Subsequently, I was put on a high dosage of Prednisone for several weeks, after which my internist, the redoubtable Dr. Chan (“Have a good business, Mr. K!”), prescribed bed rest, extended sitz baths accompanied by as much Satie as possible, and forbade me from picking up the New York Times ever again, even the “Sports Monday” section.