In much the same spirit with which Oscar Wilde wrote that smoking is ‘an occupation of some kind’, Erik Satie described as own occupation as ‘gymnopedist’. Nobody knows quite what he meant by this, and it is most likely that he didn’t very well know himself, other than that he was just conjuring up something ancient, learned, and absurd, and otherwise just blowing homoerotic smoke.
There is an unmistakable pointlessness about Satie’s Gymnopedies. While they do occupy a historical place in the history of classical music — somewhere between the birth of so-called ‘ambient’ music and dada polemics against classical rigor — they have much too gentle and beautiful an atmosphere to be abstractly taken when they are being played, and hang in the air. They are lovely.
Claude Debussy first arranged the Gymnopedies for orchestra, and the oboe (which has its own reedy ancientness) takes on the role of tune-carrier. The present version, for string quartet and oboe, is from the prominent Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen, long an advocate of simplicity in musical composition.