How Erik Satie freed music
Jhe day I visited Erik Satie’s grave in Arcueil, the southern suburb of Paris where he lived and died in 1925 – as a “great musician, person of heart and exceptional citizen”, as the says the epitaph – there was a single ripe pear placed on the austere plinth. Which makes surreal sense, for among Satie’s piano works are his Three pear-shaped pieces.
Satie’s music, his multidimensional creativity and the way he lived his life are always exemplary and visionary. He did some of the first film scores, he was a postmodern before the letterhe conjured up the genres of ambient music and background music decades before the rest of the world caught up with him, and he created music that allows listeners to interpret his puzzles however we see fit.
This includes the plays by Satie that are most familiar to us. Take the case of the Gymnopedias for solo piano: music whose title comes from an ancient Greek dance for naked and unarmed men, which has become as familiar as any sound a composer has ever devised. the Gymnopedias are three short tracks whose breathtaking quietude accompanies commercials and soundtracks, have been remixed by electronica artists and prog rockers, and two of which have been orchestrated by Claude Debussy. And their singsong dissonances, three-beat playing of sighing limpid melody against the bass line and perfect chords in the middle of the texture are among the most gently radical of the late 19th century.
the Gymnopedias were made in 1888 in Montmartre, when Satie was a pianist for the emerging art form of club cabaret The black Cat. If you put them in context with what other composers were doing in Europe – Mahler writes his First Symphony, Richard Strauss composition Don Juan, Tchaikovsky, his Fifth Symphony – Satie’s music could just as well come from another planet. Instead of these hyper-expressive juggernauts, Satie’s music doesn’t tell us how to feel and creates self-aware drama. Satie rather dares to invite us into a state of being, rather than to manipulate our emotions. That’s why they always sound contemporary.
Yet Satie’s music is powerfully expressive: of the ecstasy and despair that every pianist experiences if he plays his vexations how he tells them to do so, repeating his single page precisely 840 times, lasting between 10 and 36 hours. There is the dizzying collage of its ballets and multimedia shows, such as Parade and Releasedthat he created with collaborators such as Pablo Picasso and René Clair. And there is Socrates, composed in 1919 for voice and piano or ensemble, using the words of Plato on the death of Socrates. In this piece, Satie’s principles of objectivity and relentless austerity translate into some of the most strangely and powerfully moving music of the 20th century. But all of Satie’s production is a treasure trove of paradoxes and prophecies. Explore it with surreal joy and delight – and a pear or two too
Top illustration by Maria Corte Maidagan