On May 17, one of classical music’s strangest, least recognized, and yet widely influential composers turns 150. Erik Satie (1866-1925), the Montmartre Bohemian whose caustic wit (evidenced in his autobiographical “Memoirs of an Amnesiac”) and gentle tunes inspired artists from Debussy and Ravel to John Cage and Andy Warhol, is perhaps best known to music lovers for his “Trois Gymnopédies,” an entrancing set of exquisitely delicate, meditative piano pieces. Debussy orchestrated two of them. Cage told me in the early ’80s that he found this music spellbinding because he couldn’t explain “why something that absurdly simple should be so fascinatingly beautiful.”
But Satie’s legacy also includes complex works and odd philosophical pronouncements that influence artists to this day. Much of it falls under the category of “conceptual art”: He was not so much a master of tones as a trafficker in ideas. “Everyone will tell you that I am not a musician,” he confessed in his writings, adding, “That is correct. . . . [in examining several of my works] it is evident that musical ideas played no part whatsoever in their composition.”
Satie was sent at the age of 13 to the Paris Conservatory, where his teachers declared him the “laziest student,” yet over time he proved remarkably prolific. He invented the “prepared piano” decades ahead of John Cage by means of a piece called “Le Piège de Méduse” (“Medusa’s Trap”), first performed in 1914, in which sheets of paper are placed on the instrument’s strings. He invented the notion of “furniture music,” where sounds become a room presence, like the patterns on wallpaper—later embraced by composers like Brian Eno—with works like the “Perpetual Tango” which simply loops over and over without end. His most outrageous conceit along these lines was “Vexations,” written in 1893—a single page of music meant to be repeated 840 times.
The piece is itself vexing—confounding, tedious and replete with unnecessary difficulties for the performer, such as alternate spellings of the same harmonies, confusing enough to make a pianist’s head spin. There is no record of the work having been performed in Satie’s lifetime. But on Sept. 9, 1963, at the Pocket Theatre in New York, a group of pianists that included Cage, David Tudor, Christian Wolff, David Del Tredici, Joshua Rifkin and others—along with critic Howard Klein, who had been sent by the New York Times to cover the event—took turns playing “Vexations” for a total of 18 hours and 40 minutes. Admission was set at $5, but those attending received a refund of 5 cents for every 20 minutes they remained, with a 20-cent bonus promised to anyone who sat through the whole thing. One man did—an actor named Karl Schenzer, who later appeared on the television show “I’ve Got a Secret” to tell the tale. Artist Andy Warhol informed writer George Plimpton that he had attended the event at the time he was editing his film “Sleep,” which became famous for its repetitive structure.
Satie was a master of surprise. While playing piano at Paris cafes like Auberge du Clou (where he first met Debussy in 1891) and Café de la Nouvelle Athènes (where Degas, Renoir and Pissarro met to debate artistic issues), he developed a reputation as “the velvet gentleman” for his mode of dress. He gave his pieces absurdist names like “Genuine Flabby Preludes (For a Dog)” and “Dried Up Embryos,” and inserted performing instructions in the music such as “Like a nightingale with a toothache.” He spoofed Muzio Clementi’s music with a “Sonatine Bureaucratique,” changing the common tempo marking of vivace (lively) to “vivache” (vache being French for cow). Much of this revealed a personality with a very sharp edge. When Debussy told him he should pay more attention to form, he responded by composing “3 Morceaux in the Form of a Pear.” After receiving a rejection from the Paris Opera, he challenged its director to a duel. He was arrested, beaten and jailed for eight days after a courtroom outburst when a critic sued him for sending an insulting postcard.
Yet the charm of his work often resided in its air of unflappability. “Jazz speaks to us of its suffering and we don’t give a damn. That’s why it’s beautiful, real,” he once wrote. He could raise nonchalance to an art. Still, beneath the cultivated façade, he clearly felt the slings and arrows of his critics. Stung by criticism that he had not adequately mastered compositional technique, he pursued studies at composer Vincent d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum, only to spur new criticisms aimed at his newfound academicism.
Yet his most important contemporaries in the arts remained steadfast, bolstering his success. As early as 1911, Debussy and Ravel honored him by taking part in a concert of his music. His 1917 collaboration with Cocteau and Picasso, the ballet “Parade,” for which he wrote the score (the choreography by Leonide Massine added later), was described by the poet Guillaime Apollinaire as “a kind of surrealism,” in what was probably the first use of that term. Those who counted the most continued to celebrate his unique vision—and today, a great many creative spirits still do.
Mr. Isacoff’s most recent book is “A Natural History of the Piano” (Knopf/Vintage).
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