Why Erik Satie Is Still New Music

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Monday, May 16, 2016

Composer Erik Satie was born May 17, 1866 in Honfleur, France Composer Erik Satie was born May 17, 1866 in Honfleur, France (Wikipedia Commons and Tanya Setyaeva/flickr)

This week on Q2 Music, host Phil Kline celebrates what would have been the 150th birthday of the playful and provocative French composer Erik Satie. Hear Phil Kline's two-hour show weekdays at 11 am, with a repeat presentation at 7 pm. 

In 1887, Erik Satie finished three piano pieces he called Sarabandes. He was 21, and they were the last music he would write under his parents roof. As he struck out on his own and moved to the Bohemian hub of Montmartre, Satie’s mysterious works soon became the talk of the avant-garde. In time they would help kindle a revolution or two.

Satie cut quite a figure, at one point he dressed only in black cassocks then later switched to gray velvet suits. He played piano in the cabaret Le Chat Noir for three years and briefly associated himself with the self-proclaimed Babylonian King and Rosicrucian sect leader, Sar Peladan. He even founded his own religion, the Metropolitan Church of Art and Jesus, the Conductor, of which he was the only member. In a typical gesture, Satie advertised the premiere of an opera, Tristan’s Bastard, which was probably never written.

Most importantly, he continued to write strangely beguiling piano works, which were gaining increased notoriety. People began to cite him as one of the originators of modern harmony. He became friends with Ravel, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, Picasso, Cocteau, Man Ray … everybody, really. Stravinsky called him “a knowing old card, full of intelligent mischief,” adding, “I liked him from the start.” Perhaps closest to him was Debussy, who always left a seat at the table and a bottle of vin ordinaire for his friend.

Satie was born 150 years ago, on May 17, 1866. Aside from his incidental mega-hit, Gymnopedie No. 1, which has been appropriated by artists of every genre and heard in countless films and TV commercials, he is best remembered for his playful and subversive wit. But there is much more at work in his music. The modus operandi of the classical common practice is teased, overturned and ignored. Triads of fifths and thirds, major and minor give way to quartal harmony based on fourths. Things are not resolved. Chords follow chords but do not suggest where they are going; there is not a sense of progression or development and often little sense of pulse.

As John Cage observed, Satie’s music springs from zero, silence, timelessness, going nowhere, the opposite of the storm and stress that ran from Beethoven to Wagner. And, as much of Satie’s music was written for the theater, there is no dramatic symbolism, the music does not represent anything. Satie criticized Wagner for this, saying “there is no need for the orchestra to grimace when a character comes on stage. Do the trees in the scenery grimace?"

Let’s go back to John Cage. In 1944 he made a two piano arrangement of Satie’s sublimely static cantata Socrate (1918), which Merce Cunningham used in several dances. Later, when Satie’s French publishers unexpectedly forbid Cunningham from using the music, Cage retooled elements of Socrate, using the "I Ching" to make Cheap Imitation.

In 1949, Cage facilitated the first printing of Satie’s unpublished Vexations (ca. 1893-4), a one-page piano piece which bears the inscription: "In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” No one took that direction seriously until Cage arranged an 18-hour performance by 12 pianists (including Cage, John Cale, James Tenney, David Tudor, Christian Wolff, Philip Corner, David Del Tredici and Joshua Rifkin) in 1963.

When asked if Satie was still relevant, Cage said, “It’s not a question of Satie’s relevance. He is indispensable.”

Phil Kline hosts a two-hour show weekdays at 11 am and 7 pm on Q2 Music.

Hosted by:

Phil Kline

Comments [5]

Lisa Ragsdale from Minneapolis, MN

For the life of me I cannot remember how long ago I heard the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra perform Erik Satie's music for "Parade" with typewriter, siren, and gun. I am, however, certain that I was giggling during the performance and loving every minute of it. And not all that long afterword while browsing in a well-stocked bookstore I found a bio of Satie, purchased it, and took it home and started reading!

May. 19 2016 01:33 PM
virginia from New York

Satie has helped me immeasurably when difficult times prevailed. A comfy sofa, glass of wine and Erik Satie always makes me feel better.

May. 18 2016 06:12 PM
Paul Epstein from New York City

As my musical awareness developed in the 1960s I only knew of Satie's Gymnopidies, until the 1970s, when I saw the Joffrey Ballet revival of "Parade," a 1917 collaboration of Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, & Leonide Massine. Satie may not have put "dramatic symbolism" in his scores (as Phil Kline wrote in this post), but his music, Picasso's cubist costumes & set, Cocteau's scenario, and Massine's choreography all fit together beautifully. Satie did add a few explicit sounds to fit the story and dance, including a typewriter and siren. PBS has this 4-minute clip about the revival (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/joffrey-film-excerpt-the-parade-revival/2398/). While the clip emphasizes Massine (who came to the U.S. to assist with the revival), Satie's music can be heard underneath the speakers throughout the piece.

May. 18 2016 10:38 AM
John from NYC

Satie was a huge influence on my early years, and remains a guiding light and hero, not only for his music but his uncompromising, "belle excentrique" approach to life.

If you'll forgive the indulgence, here is piece I wrote in his honor, and as accompaniment to a work of dance theater. Fellow devotees, I hope you will enjoy:


May. 17 2016 03:54 PM
bern from La La Land

Only some of us still love Satie's music, but millions mourn the death of Prince. When did taste and quality die? Oh, I forgot, the kids are stupid.

May. 17 2016 12:34 PM

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