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I'm looking at Erik Satie's Gnossiennes, specifically Nos. 1-3, but for simplicity let's just consider Gnossienne No. 1.

Most editions (see IMSLP) are engraved without a time signature nor with any bar lines. This suggests unmetered "free time".
A tempo indication of "Lent" (AKA Lento/Slow) is also provided, and text (in french) also gives some rather obscure expression instructions.

Here is the first line of No. 1: first line of Gnossienne No. 1

Looking at the music, and in several recordings I have heard, the bass line and chords definitely look and sound like they provide undeniable (yet somewhat syncopated) beats. There is a repetitive pattern that I would describe as: being in a 2/2 meter, with the bass notes on 1, and the chords on the-and-of-1, and the-and-of-2. (Or if you prefer 4/4, the chords on beats 2 and 4.)
But this contradicts the idea of "free time", and doesn't explain the lack of time signature and bar lines.

Admittedly a significant amount of rubato is applied by the various performers (and it does suit this piece). But rubato only affects the tempo, not the meter right?

  • Are the Gnossiennes really in "free time"?
  • Is there some other reason that the time signature and bar lines are absent?
  • Does omitting the time signature and bar lines make it easier or harder to perform this piece?
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    Easier/harder than if it did have the barlines, presumably?
    – Richard
    Apr 25 at 14:34
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    I'll let those who know the pieces better speak, but note, music can be pulsed without being metered. And yes, there could be reasons not to "signal" a meter even in music that shows beats recurring in patterns—I'm gonna speculate that Satie wants to suppress the metric emphases that we might do if he just slapped a 4/4 on it. And IMO leaving them out makes little impact on difficulty, though in a non-solo piece, it could make it harder to talk about specific spots! Apr 25 at 14:41
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    @AndyBonner as a baroque violinist you no doubt know that meter arose well before the regular use of bar lines. Elements: why would bar lines or the absence thereof make a series of whole notes or quarter notes more or less free? If Satie had wanted free time, don't you think he would have dispensed with rhythmic notation altogether?
    – phoog
    Apr 25 at 18:14
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    @phoog I think that might be taking things a bit too far. The idea of dispensing with rhythmic notation, even the idea of free time, was, at best, in its infancy. It's very reasonable Satie would have stayed with traditional notation even while trying to communicate a free(r) rhythmic/metric interpretation.
    – Aaron
    Apr 25 at 19:46
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    It's worth noting that Satie was rather eccentric. He often did weird things, almost just for the sake of being weird. Sure he could've included barlines in these pieces, but that's just so - conventional. Try parsing his directions, "Show clairvoyance", "With great benevolence", "On the tongue", etc. It's all deliberately open to interpretation. Apr 26 at 16:55

4 Answers 4

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Lack of barlines does not suggest "free time" at all. There have been multiple centuries of very much metered music before barlines became common practice. The start of the piece would indicate whether the time was in 2 or 3, and the subdivision of the major time was in 2 or 3. "Tempus perfectum cum prolongatio imperfectum" and such. And after that statement you were on your own.

You could consider Satie to hark back to this practice. But the other exlpanations given are equally valid.

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    Great point about mensuration tempus. This also explains what is going on with the note values in Gnossienne No. 2. However, there isn't a time signature or broken circle symbol (or whatever) either, which is what made me think "free time". Apr 27 at 4:42
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Satie often does dispense with barlines. In Vexations he does so for 18 hours or so! I agree with Andy Bonner that the effect is to suppress the metric emphases we might otherwise apply. But Satie's manuscripts often suggest he was interested in the visual appearance of his music. Working with Cocteau and Picasso and living with the painter Suzanne Valadon may have sparked this interest. And he was well acquainted with old church music, and therefore with the wide-open spaces of 4/2. Without bars, Gnossiennes looks unencumbered.

Another characteristic of the piece is the use of ties where dotted minims could be used. (Not in the part you posted but immediately after it.) In fact there are no dots anywhere in the piece. This too contributes to its uncluttered appearance.

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    Really good points about his interest in art and familiarity with "ancient music". While graphical notation wasn't a thing in Satie's lifetime, modern art and ancient music still influenced his conception of what a score could be.
    – Aaron
    Apr 25 at 23:01
  • @Aaron what do you mean by "graphical notation"? How can notation be anything other than graphical?
    – phoog
    Apr 27 at 21:21
  • @phoog "Graphical notation" is a term of art referring to non-standard, pictorial or other notation. John Cage, for example, was a pioneer in developing these types of notations.
    – Aaron
    Apr 27 at 22:18
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The Gnossiennes are phrase-driven rather than meter-driven. That is, the presumed emphases of metered time (beat 1 is strongest, etc.) don't apply. Rather, one should apply emphasis according to one's interpretation of each phrase.

There is an approximate meter guided by the left hand, but it remains in service of the melodic phrases rather than providing a metronomic pulse.

The absence of bar lines serves to give the performer a visual cue to the freedom permitted. It wouldn't be off the mark to say the piece calls for rubato, but a rubato unconstrained by the demands of meter.

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In addition to the other insightful answers: yes, in general, when there are several voices not in rhythmic unison, I'd prefer bar lines to be able to make inferences about how to synchronize them. So (years ago) I was very nervous in reading these Satie pieces. However, I realized that he was very scrupulous about rests-indications, so that one can read directly the sequence of things, without having to make inferences from bar lines, with possibly-sloppy notations for the various voices.

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