Saturday, March 3, 2007

More Fun Than Being Bitten by a Monkey

On a recent business trip to Africa, I had a most unusual experience, even for a seasoned mercenary. Usually, if I’m not too hung over, I like to wake up early and go jogging. Not for health reasons, of course, but to make sure that I can outrun the inevitable bandito gang. Normally this entails dodging kamikaze cars, leaping over chickens in a single bound, sucking in vast amounts of diesel fumes, and avoiding large numbers of disaffected youth wielding machetes, the only thing more universal than an AK-47 in Africa.

Fortunately for me, I was “visiting” a country that had a magnificent beach, which cut out most of the vehicles, chickens and fumes but not the machetes. Like most countries I work in, this one had long suffered a heinous civil war chock full of more atrocities than you could wag an Amnesty International finger at. While this is very troubling from a human rights perspective, it was also troubling for my jogging routine: war refugees swamped the city and used the beautiful white beach as their mass toilet. So, add multi-colored feces and gagging stench to my hop, skip and jump routine.

One morning I was running along in a vain attempt to keep my Nikes clean, and saw a small crowd of people huddled over something that had washed up on the shore. As I neared and elbowed my way into the crowd to get a view of the spectacle du jour, I was appalled, even by my cynical standards. Wrapped up in a filthy cloth was the body of a small child. Most of its organ were missing. It’s chest cavity was empty, and filling up with sand with every lapping wave.

The child was clearly the victim of ritualistic killing and cannibalism. It was done by one of the old secret societies that still penetrate the highest ranks of the country in question. The highest ranks. Probably even my boss’s boss.

It’s time like these when you need Erik Satie.

War orphans trying to find their parents, thanks to the ICRC.


As Satie once said: "More fun than being bitten by a monkey!" Satie was a fabulous anarchist who lived and died by the piano in Paris during the turn of the 20th century. He was the proto-Dadaist and ancient (by Rolling Stone standards) ancestor of punk rock. Largely overlooked during his life, he lived modestly, surviving on the royalties of his one-hit-wonder, ”Je Te Veux,” which played at the famous Chat Noir café-cabaret, as well as what he derided as his “furniture music” -basically the ambient “muzak” of the salon age – because of its lack of inspiration.

We can thank the academic, composer, and weirdo John Cage for reviving Satie’s legacy during the 1960s, when the US was undergoing its Cultural Revolution (not to be confused with China’s of the same period).

I know what you are thinking - anarchist, French, modern, ‘60s Greenwich Village – surely this music will entail someone, wearing a black turtleneck, banging away on a piano and calling it music. But you’d be wrong (although this is what Cage’s music sounds like, and worse).

Satie’s best music is sublimely beautiful and profoundly sad. How can I describe it? When I worked in the public sector, the U.S. Army stationed me in Germany. One of my postings was just outside the largest and most forgotten about holocaust Death Camps: Flossenburg. Flossenburg killed more people than its more infamous cousin, Dachau, outside of Munich.

Why was Flossenburg totally unknown? Is it because the German government built condos over it and renamed the streets for lost Sudantan land cities? No! Is it because Germany want to forget about the whole WWII thing? No! It’s because it was where the SS sent homosexuals, which was outlawed in both Nazi and post-Nazi Germany. Unspeakable, deadly sex crimes took place in Flossenburg by Sadists guards. Even if you did survive the horrific camp, you would never admit to it publicly for fear of being labeled ‘homosexual.’

My wife and I were fascinated by the phenomenon of Flossenburg, our neighborhood Death Camp. We would make frequent and somber pillages to pay our respects to lost souls, always listening to Satie’s six “Gnossiennes” piano pieces. They are eerie, numinous, cheerless, potent and perfect. They are like a message in a bottle from another plane, and if we listen carefully, between the notes, we might discern some mystical meaning from the departed.

Sooth the soul with Satie's Gnossienne number 4, played by de Leeuw:



Satie made up the word "Gnossienne" just as he did the piano piece’s format. Most composer’s during his day took some pre-existing format, such as a saraband or sonata, and compose within it, sort of like writing a sonnet. Satie sought to break all molds and created his own forms. This one he called "Gnossienne,” probably named after the word “gnosis,” as he was involved in a mystical Gnostic sect at the time.

Another piece that you will surely recognize are the three “Gymnopédie.” These pieces ethereally float along, slow but pregnant with emotion and longing. They are strangely moving. Accordingly, they have been adapted for orchestra, plagiarized by TV scores, ripped by rock bands like Janet Jackson, and venerated by the tribe of jazz. It is unclear what Satie meant by “Gymnopédie,” but he was, after all, an anarchist.

Sample the first Gymnopédie, played by Rogé:



Because these pieces are not terribly difficult to play, every pianists thinks they can play them. How wrong. Like bad high school poetry, more is needed than technical ability. In Satie's music, it is often the silence between the notes that speaks volumes. A great Sherpa in the Satie Cosmos is the French pianist Pascal Rogé, on the Decca label (ASIN: B0000041P2).



For those who want the full gravity of these pieces, especially the haunted "Gnossienne,” can live dangerously and try Dutch pianist Reinbert de Leeuw. He has the full measure of the score with a slow and somber reading, not depriving the music of its gravity; sample the Gnossiennes especially. His recordings come on a Philips Duo (2 CDs for the price of one! ASIN: B0000069CS):



There are several fine orchestral versions of the Gymnopédie. One of my favorite collections is by Leonard Slatkin, conducting the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra on the audiophile-quality label Telarc (ASIN: B000003CSO). It has other meditative pieces to contemplate as well: Vaughan Williams’s famous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; Barber’s Adagio for Strings (a tear-jerker used in the movie “Platoon”); and a version of “Danny Boy” that you won’t easily forget. This is one of those discs you keep in your car for traffic jams.

Sample the orchestral version of Gymnopédie number one:



Or try some luscious Vaughan Williams to lower the blood pressure:





At the end of a long day - eviscerated children, rebels seizing aid supplies, warlords threatening your life with child soldiers – a scotch with Satie goes a long way to making the world a more livable place.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

If Flossenbürg had more deaths than Dachau, why did it have only one crematory oven while Dachau had four double ovens and one single oven?

Why weren't the homosexuals sent to the closest camp? Most of the gays lived in Berlin and Sachsenhausen was the closest camp.

Homosexuals also lived in Munich and they were sent to Dachau, the closest camp.

Why isn't Flossenbürg more well known? Because it did not have a gas chamber and it was not a camp for killing the Jews.

Il Condottiero said...

Great questions lacking great answers, as Flossenbürg is one of Bavaria’s best-kept secrets. I'll do my best to answer them.

“If Flossenbürg had more deaths than Dachau, why did it have only one crematory oven while Dachau had four double ovens and one single oven?”

Ovens alone are not the measure of killing in these death camps. Between 1938 and 1945, over 100,000 prisoners passed through Konzentrations Lager (KZ) Flossenbürg and more than 30,000 died there, either as a result of execution, disease, living conditions or exhaustion.

According to the 1945 report of the War Crimes Branch of the Judge Advocate's Section of the 3rd U.S. Army: “Flossenbürg concentration camp can be described as a factory dealing in death. Although this camp had in view the primary object of putting to work the mass slave labor, another of its primary objects was the elimination of human lives by the methods employed in handling the prisoners. Hunger and starvation rations, sadism, inadequate clothing, medical neglect, disease, beatings, hangings, freezing, forced suicides, shooting, etc., all played a major role in obtaining their object. Prisoners were murdered at random, spite killings against Jews were common, injections of poison and shooting in the neck were everyday occurrences; epidemics of typhus and spotted fever were permitted to run rampant as a means of eliminating prisoners, life in this camp meant nothing. Killing became a common thing, so common that a quick death was welcomed by the unfortunate ones."

“Why weren't the homosexuals sent to the closest camp? Most of the gays lived in Berlin and Sachsenhausen was the closest camp.”

The Nazi’s designated certain camps for certain types of prisoner. For example, Auschwitz/Berkineau was primarily for Jews, Theriesenstadt for artists, and Flossenbürg for criminals and Soviet prisoners of war. Because homosexuality was outlawed in the Nazi regime, they were treated as criminals and sent to Flossenbürg.

Incidentally, the Nazis sent political or "special prisoners" to Flossenbürg for execution. The most celebrated group of "special prisoners" executed were the high-ranking military officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, known as the “July 44 Conspiracy.” By special order of Adolf Hitler, the conspirators were transported from the Gestapo or military prisons, where they were being held, to Flossenbürg. They were court-martialled the next day. Condemned of high treason, the conspirators - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, William Canaris, Ludwig Gehre, Hans Oster, Karl Bag, Theodor Struenck and Friedrich Von Rabenau - were executed by hanging on the morning of April 9, 1945 in the yard of the camp.

“Why isn't Flossenbürg more well known? Because it did not have a gas chamber and it was not a camp for killing the Jews.”

Yes, this is partly true. While the case can be made that the post-WWII German government intentionally neglected KZ Flossenbürg, there are several reasons for its astonishing obscurity.

First, the prisoner demographics led to a lack of memorialization. The majority of commemorative plaques, historical museums, and monuments in concentration camps are the result privately funded Jewish survivor's committees and/or the state of Israel. In fact, there was no significant memorial at Flossenbürg until Israel paid for one in 1991. However, there were not many Jews at Flossenbürg (they mostly arrived at the end of the war). The majority of prisoners of KZ Flossenbürg were Soviets. Cold War politics prevented these former prisoners from establishing survivors committees or from sharing and documenting their history outside the east bloc.

Second, the camp was empty when the U.S. Army came. Consequently, there were no shocking photos, appalling stories from eyewitnesses, or other totems of memory. Buchenwald, with its pyres of corpses, was much more shocking, and Dachau, as the first KZ to be liberated, become a symbol for the holocaust. Flossenbürg was not so interesting in comparison.

Third, homosexuals were still regarded as criminals by the post-war German government, were denied reparations and, in some cases, were even jailed again. In fact, paragraph 175, which criminalized homosexuality in West Germany, remained in force until 1969. Because of this type of degrading post-war treatment, homosexual survivors of Flossenbürg did not speak publicly about their experiences.

Much of what is known concerning the treatment of homosexuals in Flossenbürg comes from Heinz Heger's 1980 memoirs, “The Men with the Pink Triangle.” Heger survived six years in Sachsenhausen and Flossenbürg by becoming the lover of a series of camp kapos. The gay concubines of kapos were known as “doll boys.” These sexual relationships brought them a certain amount of protection from the brutality of the SS guards and from other kapos while the love affair lasted.

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