Furniture for the Holidays

Erik Satie coined the term “furniture music” for a set of small ensemble pieces completed in 1917. Their performance was during the intermission between plays. “Furnishing music completes one’s property”, Satie wrote in the manuscript. “It’s new; it isn’t tiring; it’s French; it won’t wear out; it isn’t boring!” Rather than an artistic statement, Satie included what could only be called a sales pitch. He was selling sonic upholstery.

But they cannot be sat on. That’s not the point. Composer Stephen Whittington commented that “in order to fulfill its function, furniture music must not attract undue attention to itself and must offer no encouragement to those who might attempt to listen to it. It provides musical ‘objects’ for use, not ‘works’ for interpretation”. Furniture music, in other words, serves as utility while one is unawares. Think of air conditioning.

Or, well, Christmas music.

There is something about this holiday music that is beyond interpretation like Whittington observed. It is always there. Insistence and commonality transforms the songs into objects. Once objects, they are put to use like the decoration that marks the season. We sprinkle them around our home, on television, at the store, in our cars, wherever festivity is needed.

Furniture music is not labeled today as Satie did about a century ago. Perhaps it is because such an idea is already so commonplace that it needs no announcement. Through holiday music, one can ask about furniture music, how it comes to be, and how it is used.

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