Posted on:Tuesday 15th September, 2020
On 17 August 2020, I learned that my friend Ornella Volta had died the day before in her Paris flat at the age of 93. Travel and quarantine restrictions sadly meant I was unable to attend her funeral, but I feel moved to write an appreciation of this truly unique woman.
Ornella Volta is best known as a pioneering scholar and supporter of Erik Satie, and although she was not herself a musician, her broad curiosity for adventurous and unclassifiable artists, and her huge enthusiasm, made her a dedicated and tireless promoter of his work. Satie was a composer like no other, and also a writer of prose which was not quite journalism, not quite life writing but always had his characteristic wit. The manuscripts of his music, especially his piano music, are masterpieces of calligraphy, and in a single work he often combined different artforms in an inimitable synthesis that continues to fascinate performers and listeners today.
Born in Trieste on 1 January 1927, Ornella Volta wanted to be an architect, but this profession was not then considered suitable for a woman… Instead, she studied film in Rome; I’m no film buff, but even I was impressed to learn that she later worked with her friend Federico Fellini on his film The Clowns (1970) and was an assistant director for other Italian filmmakers. She moved to Paris in 1957 and lived there for the rest of her life, and professionally she moved between the worlds of cinema, journalism and long form writing. A highlight of her journalistic career was a series of interviews with André Breton conducted in the last decade of his life, published many years later as a collection under the title Brèves rencontres avec André Breton and illustrated with photographs by her husband Pablo Volta. They discussed Satie; Breton was intrigued by the composer’s personality, but throughout his life he was notable for his complete lack of interest in music. In fact, the artist André Masson told Ornella that after Breton’s funeral, he spoke to Max Ernst and the two of them said ‘We won’t have to listen to music in secret any more…’!1 In the 1960s, Ornella also focused on another of her passions, publishing vampire stories and editing a collection that was translated into English.
Ornella Volta’s foundational work on Satie makes her an essential point of reference for everyone who works on the composer. Her editions of Satie’s writings, visual art and correspondence are as meticulous as they are superbly presented, and her volume of Satie’s Correspondance presque complète (Almost complete correspondence) won several awards, including the Prix Sévigné in 2001. Many translated editions of these texts exist, notably the Atlas Press English edition of Satie’s writings, A Mammal’s Notebook. With her eclectic interdisciplinary interests, Ornella was also the ideal person to write about Satie’s collaborations: she published books on Satie and dance, his complicated working relationship with Jean Cocteau, his connections with traditional culture, and many other facets of Satie’s creativity.
She set up the Fondation Erik Satie in 1981 (many scholars were surprised to discover that its headquarters was, in fact, her flat) and was involved in the setting up of the Maisons Satie in Honfleur, a quirky museum on the site of the composer’s birthplace, and of the tiny Placard (‘cupboard’), a reconstruction of a minuscule room in a Montmartre building where Satie lived in the late 1890s. Sadly the Placard, allegedly the smallest museum in the world at 3 square metres, was unable to pay its way and it closed in 2008. She was in close touch with many performers, academics and promoters of Satie’s music, from John Cage to the contemporary pianists Alexei Lubimov and Nicolas Horvath.
She worked with Cage in Italy in 1978, when she curated an exhibition, ‘Esoterik Satie’, in Milan and Cage composed two Letters to Erik Satie which were dedicated to the Italian-based composers Walter Marchetti and Juan Hidalgo. The three composers had worked together in 1958, and they were reunited in Bologna in late June 1978 for a realization of Cage's Alia ricerca del silenzio perduto (In search of the lost silence; 1977), which the composer described as ‘3 excursions in a prepared train.’2 Ornella joined the composers for this momentous event and the Letters to Erik Satie are a lasting reminder of this Italian collaboration.
Ornella was never one to be pigeonholed and she had a passion for avant-garde art in all genres, from surrealism, Dada and Alfred Jarry to film and photography. She was a member of the Collège de Pataphysique – the Jarry-originated ‘science of imaginary solutions’ – and named a Régente of the Collège in 1990, one of few senior female members at the time. Her 90th birthday party, hosted in Paris by members of the Collège, was a wonderful evening that included a Satie-focused recital by the British composer and pianist John White.
I will never forget the conversations we had in her flat in Paris on the third floor of an old building not far from the Place des Vosges. Completely surrounded by books piled up on shelves, tables, the sofa and the floor, we talked about Satie and much else and often enjoyed a good argument – feminism was one topic on which we were never going to agree! So much in the flat had a Satie connection: the link between the entrance hall and the main sitting room was a revolving door, in homage to a dance number in Satie’s last ballet, Relâche (1924). Eventually she would wheel out a trolley on which she had arranged a plate of nibbles, two small glasses and a bottle of Calvados. If I was lucky, the nibbles would include Ferrero Rocher or chocolate truffles; if not, some odd Italian salty aperitif biscuits that looked like mini pizzas but tasted nothing like them. But the Calvados was compulsory: the Calvados département was Satie’s birthplace, and Ornella claimed that a daily drink kept her going.
(Left to right) Caroline Potter, Robert Orledge, Ornella Volta
The British Satie expert Robert Orledge wrote after hearing of Ornella’s death: ‘A light in Satie scholarship has gone out but Ornella's invaluable research and publications will ensure that her name lives on – just as Satie’s spirit has remained alive into the 21st century assisted by her persuasive advocacy.’ For many years, Ornella had been working on a revised and greatly expanded edition of Satie’s writings, a project that was almost completed at the time of her death. Let us hope that this work can be published posthumously as a tribute to her.
1 Ornella Volta, Brèves rencontres avec André Breton, avec vingt-deux photographies de Pablo Volta. Paris: Éditions du Placard, 2003.
2 Marc Thorman, ‘John Cage's "Letters to Erik Satie".’ American Music, vol. 24, no. 1 (2006): pp. 95-123, at p. 96.