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Erik Satie, the Individual
Erik Satie kept a meticulous schedule.

"I am inspired from 10:23 to 11:47. I have lunch at 12:11 and leave the table at 12:14....Another bout of inspiration from 3:12 to 4:07...Dinner is served at 7:16 and over at 7:20. Then come symphonic readings (aloud) from 8:09 until 9:59. My bedtime is regularly at 10:37. I awaken with a start at 3:19 A.M. (Tuesdays)."

It is not always easy to tell just how to take his writings, but you can be assured that they come with a healthy dose of the absurd. To assume, however, that he is merely a prankster is to make a serious misjudgment of his character. He had larger things on his mind.

"What have I come to do on this earth...? Do I have duties to perform here? Have I come to carry out a mission...? Have I been sent here to amuse myself? ...to forget the miseries of a beyond which I no longer remember? ...What should I say to all these questions? Thinking, almost from the moment of my arrival, that I was doing some good down here, I began to play a few musical airs which I myself had invented... All my troubles stemmed from there."

They did indeed. Young Erik (it was his idea to spell his name with a 'k') made his way through the Paris Conservatory, where he did not light up the sky with his brilliance. His professors described him as lazy, indolent, a malingerer--any adjective they could think of to show they did not approve of his pianism. Considering he was frequently absent, they were probably right. A young man with talent who just wouldn't apply himself...but it was more than that.

Satie began to write. And his earliest pieces show that he was not interested in following in the footsteps of his great French forbears. His early efforts are for the cabaret, not the concert stage. Soon he would spend his life working (if you could call it that) in a cabaret, following in the dilatory steps of his father. But he didn't feel quite comfortable there, either.

He began to experiment. And soon he created some remarkable little pieces which defied all convention. Pieces that seemed to have no ancestry and to just spring out of nowhere. Just the sort of revolution that might bring fame...but not yet.

For now, he remained in obscurity, living in a tiny apartment twenty miles outside of Paris, walking to Paris every day to work in the cabaret, wearing seven identical velvet suits which earned him the nickname "the velvet gentleman," and becoming more and more eccentric.

"I take greater pleasure in measuring a sound than in hearing it....The first time I used a phonoscope, I examined a B- flat of medium size. I assure you I have never seen anything more revolting. I called in my servant so he might see it too. On the phonoscales an ordinary F sharp, very common, reached 214-and-a-half pounds. It came from a very fat tenor whom I also weighed."

Satie's writings, Memoirs of an Amnesiac, and other diatribes of various kinds, are at least as important as the music he wrote. The collision of ideas, the theater of the bizarre...this was Satie's workspace.

But the music did not come easily. He rejected earlier models, standard ways of developing ideas, and so his pieces tend to be very short, and he was not prolific. Eventually, he rethought his earlier rejection of the educated establishment and went back to school to study counterpoint.

After this, his works become more conservative. More traditionally acceptable, yes, but perhaps... less inventive?

His young idols certainly thought so. A new generation of French composers had inconveniently chosen this time to proclaim Satie's early flights of fancy to be great landmarks in the history of art and were now booing loudly his more recent endeavors. Satie wrote to his brother Conrad of the irony of having his earlier work appreciated only now that his current efforts could be dismissed. "That's life, my friend...It's utter nonsense."

Satie kept on finding new ways to pull the rug out from under his listeners. He created furnituremusic, music which functioned as a kind of sonic wallpaper. At the gallery where it was first "performed" he had to keep shouting to the people who were respectfully listening to the music to keep on talking through it (imagine!) as it was meant only to perfume the air around them. He wrote a short, enigmatic piano piece to be continually repeated for upwards of 24 hours. He kept having fun with what he must have thought stuffy old conventions, and when he was berated for it, dedicated one of his pieces to "the puffed up ones. May they swallow their beards! May they dance on their own stomachs!"

He loved getting into fights in the newspapers. He would scornfully denounce the leader of a movement in overblown language for all manner of artistic crimes. In his early years he became attracted to a strange religious sect and soon left it to form his own church of one, not without an extensive parody of such movements in general, as when he described the colossal proportions he expected his movement to assume in a few short years. His penchant for creating a sensation was perfect for the Parisians of the time.

And so it was that in 1917 he collaborated with Jean Cocteau on a surrealist ballet called "Parade" and caused an instant scandal which brought him overnight fame. It also ruptured his friendship with his friend Claude Debussy, who probably regarded his friend as a harmless jokester who never would, or should, amount to anything.

Most of the conservatory no doubt felt this way. In spite of the fact, or more probably exactly because it would be viewed as absurd, Satie applied for the vacated position of Director of the Conservatory itself, twice. He was certainly never seriously considered, not only because of his outsider status, but because he would have been thought of as not really conservatory material. Throughout his career, Satie continued to irritate his colleagues at the school with his strange printed outbursts and scandalous artistic expressions. They were certain that his success wouldn't last, and a well-deserved obscurity would be his fate before long. Many of them are now footnotes in musical history.

But over 90 years after his death we are still talking about him, aren't we?

 


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