Satie — Iconoclast, Poet, Surrealist, Populist


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By Bradley Bambarger <2017>

Erik Satie never recorded any of his music for player-piano, so we can’t hear a simulacrum of his keyboard style, as we can with his contemporaries — and boosters — Debussy and Ravel. But the French iconoclast does come alive via a short silent film, “Entr’Acte,” shot for the 1924 multimedia Dada ballet Relâche, for which he wrote some of his last, most boisterous music. You can see the film on YouTube, the ultimate bohemian composer in his incongruously bourgeois outfit — three-piece suit, bowler hat and omnipresent umbrella under his arm — conversing and jumping about on a Paris rooftop with painter-poet Francis Picabia, as they light a cannon that putatively fires slow-mo at the audience. It’s a moment magically caught in time, illustrating aspects of Satie’s manner and milieu.

Marking the sesquicentennial of his birth, the absorbing Satie: A Parisian Composer & His World by Caroline Potter likewise depicts the title figure in his Paris environment, not only as a collaborator with key figures of the early twentieth-century avant-garde but as someone whose aesthetic personality was formed decades before, by the sounds and sensibilities of the Belle Epoque. From the late 1880s through the turn of the century, Satie was a creature of the free-spirited cabarets of Montmartre, playing piano and harmonium to accompany singers and shadow plays. These were hardscrabble days, full of drinking — “We didn’t eat every day, but we never missed an aperitif,” a friend recalled with a wink — but Montmartre was also a hothouse of cutting-edge creativity. Regarding the establishment-tweaking atmosphere of the cabarets, Potter — a British academic who draws on a wide range of past scholarship — quotes Deborah Menaker Rothschild: “It was in the cabaret, not the opera house, that performers took risks, bantered with their audiences and responded to current events, ideas and sentiments. Against this, the ballet, opera and dramatic theater — where timely or political references were taboo — came to be viewed as irrelevant and hopelessly out of touch by many Frenchmen.”

During the Belle Epoque, the signature sound of the Paris streets was that of the barrel organ, played by poor men around town for spare change. Potter persuasively traces characteristics of Satie’s early and most famous piano pieces — fleeting, spare and marked by echoes of popular tunes — to the influence of the barrel organ. Listening to Satie’s hypnotic, haunting Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes, written during this period, you can almost hear distant echoes of a Parisian barrel organ, as if its circular, halting, nostalgic tunes were wafting faintly through an open window at day’s end. These pieces are also marked by such Satie obsessions as ancient Greece, Gothic architecture and the intimate, repetitive art of calligraphy. One can sense why Debussy, who likely met Satie drinking in a Montmartre café, called his weekly lunch companion a “gentle medieval musician” when dedicating a composition to him. Far more celebrated and commercially successful, Debussy would orchestrate two of Satie’s Gymnopédies, gaining his friend’s music at least some entry into larger concert halls.

Potter shows how Satie’s absurdist, mocking sense of humor was mirrored in the satires and polemics of the era’s avant-gardist magazines and pamphlets published by such Montmartre cafés as Le Chat Noir. The odd, deadpan tone of the writings he contributed to these publications — whether parodying the language of advertisements or filed under his tongue-in-cheek heading “Memoirs of an Amnesiac” — will be familiar to those who know the droll texts underscoring some of his piano pieces. Such performance indications as play “like a nightingale with a toothache” or “continue without losing consciousness” would earn him affectionate notoriety. His reputation as an impish humorist could work against him, too, as when audience members laughed trying to anticipate jokes during the premiere of his grave, graceful song suite Socrate.

Satie wrote the alternately lyrical and wacky music to the Diaghilev-commissioned Parade, a 1917 ballet created with Picasso, Cocteau and Massine that was inspired by the off-kilter air of the circus and popular music hall, as well as budding surrealist notions; it was in the ballet’s program note by poet Guillaume Apollinaire that the term “sur-réalisme” was coined. Satie moved in the circles of Man Ray, Brancusi and Duchamp. Later, with his keen sense of irony, neoclassicist interests and penchant for collage, Satie was held up by Cocteau as a role model for the young lions of the 1920s, with the group Les Six — including such composers as Francis Poulenc and Darius Milhaud — linked to him, even if the match didn’t quite fit. Satie was also an influential precursor for subsequent figures from John Cage to Brian Eno, with the French composer pioneering such concepts as minimalism, ad libitum performance, prepared piano and ambient music, the latter coming out of his musique d’ameublement, or “furniture music.”

Satie could be ultimately unknowable. Stravinsky — who shared his interest in mechanistic music — described the Frenchman as the oddest person he had ever met. Satie apparently only had one romance, for six months in 1887 with the beautiful, vivacious painter and model Suzanne Valadon; he was forlorn when she slipped away. They are depicted together in Una Romanza, a painting by Santiago Rusiñol, who left several evocative images of Satie from Montmartre. A friend from the composer’s later days recalled: “I got to know Satie about as well as one can get to know someone so strange, who was at the same time chatty and closed-up, constantly contradicting himself; it was often hard to know if he was joking or if he was being serious.” Another described Satie’s “curiously inaccessible” personality as being like that of a mystic, in that “the mystic is a prisoner of his dream.”

It’s clear from Potter’s book that friendships could be troubled in an age of manifestos and polemical infighting among avant-gardists and their backers, with Satie even falling out briefly with Debussy, his friend of three decades. Yet Picasso visited Satie when he became mortally ill, even changing the composer’s bed sheets; such colleagues as young conductor Roger Désormière helped clean out Satie’s bohemian hovel after he died at age 59 in 1925, with Milhaud among those sorting out his unpublished music. Having more or less embraced poverty as the price of freedom, Satie was involved in socialist politics in the working-class Paris suburb of Arcueil where he lived the last third of his life, an activity not all of his artistic friends knew about. With vivid detail, Potter helps bring the elusive Satie alive beyond the eccentric, bespectacled icon, so that we can picture the composer as an engaged artist, reflecting his fascinating time and place.

(Originally published in the spring 2017 issue of Listen magazine.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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