Gramophone JUNE 2016 - by Peter Quantrill


The Frenchman drew on ancient chant, music hall and jazz in music that reflected the sound of Paris during La Belle Époque and the Roaring Twenties yet that remained distinctly his own. Exactly one hundred and fifty years after the composer's birth, Peter Quantrill explores Satie's trailblazing genius.

Could there be more to Satie than music for piano students and TV commercials? Just how seriously should we take Satie? Very seriously, according to Noriko Ogawa. "His pieces are like charcoal sketches for the oils that came afterwards," says the pianist, who has embarked on recording the complete piano music for BIS, a century and a half after Satie's birth in Honfleur. "I can hear so clearly, this is Messiaen, and here is Poulenc, and Ravel must have heard this. I now take him as a visionary. He was not successful in his lifetime, but he left so many ideas which came true."

With his career, as with his works themselves, the concept of development has no meaning. When Satie owned hardly more than a piano and the clothes he stood up in, he wrote the sequence of three Gymnopédies (begun in 1888) and seven Gnossiennes for which he is still best known today, as well as two religiously themed theatrical scores which have been almost completely forgotten. Once earning a little money as a cabaret artist, he composed Le Piccadilly and arranged songs such as Je Te Veux. Having been "rediscovered" by Ravel in 1911 and become an ornament of the fashionable salons, he wrote the descriptively texted piano music to be relished first and foremost by the performer. Taken up by Parisian ballet companies late in life, he returned to music for the stage with Parade (1917), and Mercure and Relâche (both 1924).

Where did Satie's music come from? The answer is not a straightforward list of people and power figures. Ancient Greek modes and Gregorian chant chart the impassive flow of the four Ogives (published in 1889) and much of the early piano music leading up to and through 1893, when he briefly submitted himself as a disciple of Joséphin Péladan, the art critic, author and occultist who founded the Mystic Order of the Rose+Croix. In her new study Erik Satie: A Parisian Composer And His World, Caroline Potter shows how the barrel-organ tunes played on Montmartre's streets were absorbed within the jerky, quasi-mechanical repetition of many works from the Jack In The Box pantomime (1899) through the piano suite Descriptions Automatiques (1913) to the absurdist humour of Relâche for the Ballets Suédois.

By the time of his trio of late ballets, Satie had incorporated the worlds of music hall and jazz within an idiom that did not so much develop as expand to take in Dada, surrealism and the wild gale of ideas blowing through Paris, capital of the artistic world at the time. Much of his music proceeds at walking pace, just as he did. Putting one foot in front of the other was as important for him as it had been for Wordsworth.

These disparate influences share related qualities. They are anonymous, popular and universal. Satie learnt more from the music of churches, streets and clubs than from eight years of reluctant and unsuccessful study at the Paris Conservatoire. With the signal exception of Claude Debussy, the artists who meant most to Satie were non-musicians. Installed as a café pianist at the Chat Noir in Montmartre in the early 1890s, Satie knocked about with a fellow Honfleur native, the artist Alphonse Allais, who had already produced the canvases that would assure his place in history such as Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes On The Shore Of the Red Sea (Study Of The Aurora Borealis). Satie directed that the action and design of Le fils des étoiles (1891) - an austere ritual entertainment cooked up between himself and Péladan - should be "white and immobile", as if with Allais's anaemic young girls on their way to first communion in mind. And there is no more perfect example of his ear translating that mise-en-scène into harmony, his own harmony, than the solo piano piece Fête Donnée Par des Ghevaliers Normands En l'Honneur D'une Jeune Demoiselle (1892).

Another Chat Noir acquaintance was Caran d'Ache, the pencil man. And after first meeting in 1910, Satie and the sculptor Brancusi were firm friends. Then there were the players and clowns in the circus of ideas that was Paris in the 1910s and '20s: among them Cocteau, Diaghilev, Gide, Picasso, and Man Ray, who said that "Satie was the only musician who had eyes". The American-born artist was ever grateful to Satie for helping him after he had staged his first show in Paris in 1921. Finding him cold, anxious and lonely in his gallery, fresh off the boat from the US, Satie took him to a café and gave him a hot toddy. On the way there they passed an ironmongers', where Man Ray picked up a flat iron, glued tacks to the smooth surface and added it to the exhibition: "This was my first Dada object in France."

Satie's legacy to posterity, then, extends way beyond music. Gilbert and George have never spoken of the composer, but the carefully constructed indivisibility of their work and their personae is unimaginable without Satie's example. To be seen suited and booted, day in, day out, on the streets of a down-at-heel suburb where they have made their home, the knowing and ostensibly heedless object of a cult following, while they make popular art from simple materials, art of apparent parody and By 1890, Satie was a regular pianist at artists' haunt the Chat Noir proclaimed sincerity, art informed by strong anti-elitist, anti-Establishment beliefs... Is that Gilbert and George in Spitalfields yesterday, or Satie in Arcueil a century ago? Obviously, both.

"Satie was one of the first musicians to have an image that he created," notes Alistair McGowan. The actor and impressionist has nurtured fascination with Satie since encountering the Gymnopédies in childhood, as so many of us do, but has taken it further, with documentaries on the composer and now a live show touring the UK in 2016. "Satie was a man who sold himself very well," he continues. "Dare one say, like Lady Gaga. He also reminds me of Stewart Lee. What Stewart is doing in his comedy, which Satie did in his music, is to say, 'This is what we've done so far. I'm going to do something different. I want you to come on a journey with me and if you don't, I really don't care.' They both do something different which becomes something imitable itself, in terms of deconstructing things and making deconstruction funny."

Medievalist, Dadaist, neo-realist, neo-classicist, surrealist: these labels were all applied to Satie at the time, and the members of their relatively short- or long-lived movements all claimed the composer as a member of their brotherhood. The man himself rejected them all, one by one. Since then, he has become the first minimalist, and the first ambient musician (according to Brian Eno). "Listen to film composers such as Alexandre Desplat," says McGowan. "There's very little going on in the right hand, slow chords in the left - you can hear Satie and it's a hundred years later." For Debussy, Satie was "the precursor", and the opening of Pelléas et Mélisande is unmistakeably Satiean; perhaps for that reason, Satie turned in another direction. Time and again, he made a toy and left the other children to play with it. He would wander off to invent something else.

Like most of us, Ogawa knew Satie from the Gymnopédies, Gnossiennes, Je Te Veux and not much else. "The penny dropped for me when I started learning the religious pieces. All these strange chord progressions! They are incredibly original. They don't lie under the fingers very well. They look simple, except that there are so many accidentals - beautiful but unpredictable."

Ogawa's insight gets to the heart of why some of us who like Satie's music do so: because of the sounds it makes. They are plain on the page, peculiar to the ear, and all the more satisfying for being continually unguessable. Satie has attracted many for what he represents: the penniless artist, the left-wing contrarian, reliably kicking against the pricks. And it's understandable, in a (European and North American) culture that lacks a widespread grammar for musical appreciation, where many find it hard or embarrassing to say how and why they like what they hear, that those outside and even suspicious of the world of art music have been drawn to Satie and found a kindred spirit, as John Cage did half a century after the composer's death. Contamine de Latour, the poet who collaborated with Satie on the early "ballet chrétien" Uspud, remarked that Satie was like a man who had learnt only thirteen letters of the alphabet but was determined to make a literature from them. Perhaps in tacit acknowledgment of that deficit, Satie studied for seven years with Roussel and d'Indy, obtaining a treasured Diploma in 1908.

The connections between Cage and Satie multiply. The idea of instrumental music as abstract was foreign. Both men wrote for the stage throughout their careers, not so much for singers as dancers. Yet they communicated with words all the time, through text rather than song, most often away from the business of music. Cage expanded on mycology and ice fishing. Among Satie's writings are catechistic brochures for the Église Métropolitaine d'Art de Jésus Conducteur, a one-man sect which he founded in 1893 once he had broken with "Sâr Péladan". Le piège de Méduse of 1913 is a lyric comedy with incidental music. Memoirs Of An Amnesiac and A Mammal's Notebook take wry stock of himself, his critics and enemies (mostly former friends).

From 1909, Satie wrote snippets and jottings for a local newspaper, L'avenir d'Arcueil-Cachan. "Do not throw away your old jewels any more," runs one. "Sell them for a high price. With the product of this fruitful transaction, coolly take a share - the lion's share - in the new Aqueduct Savings Society." And more seriously, "M Satie's solfège lessons take place every Sunday morning at 9am" - just when all his prospective students should be at Mass. "They're almost like bits of stand-up routines," remarks McGowan. "They're surreal, Milligan-esque. The aim of my show is to reveal the brilliance of the man's comedy writing. 'My servant comes and takes my temperature every hour. Then he gives me a new one.' That's a great line."

Ogawa's first disc mostly comprises the 'texted music', composed in the 1910s after Ravel and Debussy competed to assure the public they understood Satie best and first. A Chabrier parody in Satie's Croquis et agaceries d'un gros bonhomme en bois (1913) includes the line "I want a solid mahogany hat!" above the stave. The end of Embryons desséchés, written in the same year, laughs openly at the bang-bang coda to Beethoven's Eighth Symphony. It's impossible to take seriously but, as the pianist Alexei Lubimov notes, 'Like Stravinsky, he was a very serious composer of witty music.' Having recorded both Le fi ls d'étoiles and Relâche (arranged for two pianos by Milhaud, Satie's friend and protégé), Lubimov admires him in the round: 'I don't think his harmonic or melodic ideas are especially remarkable compared with his contemporaries. He was negative to many movements - Impressionism, German music and so on. And from this refusal, he made his own musical world, limited to what seemed the most necessary things, for his purposes, not for the rest of the population.

"It's like when a painter avoids fine colours and transitions and paints only lines, like Malevich. Satie expresses very exact ideas. He avoids everything unnecessary in order to be a prophet. His way was to connect his compositions with objects and processes, everyday things. His later music is very concrete, very picturesque, and full of description."

For both pianists, the descriptive jokes in a piano cycle such as the Sports et divertissements (1914) - in which Satie's intricately calligraphed texts and music combine with drawings by French artist Charles Martin - ring true and sincere. Another case in point is the Sonatine bureaucratique (1917), where Satie explodes a Clementi sonata over the tale of a civil servant at his desk. The tale itself should remain silent, and Ogawa respects his wishes - "I don't want to be haunted by him!" - but admits that "most of his music has so many sides that it needs this kind of extra treatment, alongside the music itself". The sonata itself is a subtle play of illusion in which Clementi and Satie dance hand in hand; three years later, Stravinsky did the same with Pergolesi in Pulcinella, at which point Satie moved on again.

Despite living a hand-to-mouth existence in poverty, Satie was fastidious about everything that mattered to him: his calligraphy, his dress, his music. He could take half an hour writing the address on a postcard to decline an invitation to dinner. During the early 1890s in Montmartre, he played the dandy, using a small inheritance to buy seven identical corduroy suits and earning himself the "Velvet Gentleman" nickname. In 1898, to save money, he moved to the cheaper suburb of Arcueil, ten kilometres outside the city centre, where he was to adopt his final appearance as a bourgeois functionary, complete with bowler hat, wing collar and umbrella. He spent most of his income on food, drink and friends. It was the drink that did for him - he met a pitiful end in July 1826 from pneumonia and cirrhosis in a nursing home while all his friends were either estranged from him or on holiday - but he was no playboy. Satie was outraged by the assassination of Socialist Party founder Jean Jaurès, promptly joined the party and then the French Communists.

Satie composed slowly and took his craft seriously. Even the smallest dances and preludes are built from units of one or two bars, often in mirror construction and using inverted harmony to create the puzzling simultaneous sensation that you know how it goes but can't remember where. Yet it's also amenable to arrangement, as he often proved from necessity, and others from Debussy to Birtwistle have followed in his path with greater or lesser success. His music is like a balloon, to be blown up and deflated according to the space and time available.

Both Lubimov and Ogawa have chosen to perform on Erard instruments of Satie's time. The composer himself had two pianos in his single-room flat in Arcueil, but as his brother Conrad discovered when he prised open the front door after Satie's death, one was balanced on top of the other. The instrument above was like a haunted postbox, stuffed with unread letters. "If you look into a modern piano," says Ogawa, "you see bass strings running across the body of the piano, running left to right. In this Erard they don't do that - the lower strings run parallel to the others, so the lower register sounds different, more bell-like. The bass note rings quite independently, unaffected by the notes above. It isn't strong, it doesn't gong, it sings on its own, and stays there for a long time. And the touch is much lighter. This must have been the sound that Satie knew and his creative ideas must have come from this kind of instrument. I always think of pianos as male, but this one is like an elegant lady!"

Where Lubimov and Ogawa also agree is in the open-ended nature of Satie's music and the opportunities it offers to imaginative musicians. 'Performances used to be casual and easy-going because the notes look simple on the page,' observes Ogawa. "Satie left us to play with it, and I think that's what he wanted us to do. He throws questions at us, and we have to come up with answers. In that respect he gives an old and a new freedom to performers." Says Lubimov: "We tend to perform music in a finished way, as if it is complete unto itself. This is right for Stravinsky, but Satie is more open to possibilities. In that sense he reminds me of Morton Feldman. And improvisers find in Satie much fertile ground for their own invention."

Thus Satie's legacy is still up for debate. When the City Council of Arcueil proposed to spend €50,000 this year on events based around Satie's one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary, it drew an affronted response from a Front National councillor. "Hypocrite - coward - mediocre," he protested of Satie. It would be an outrage, according to his comments reported by Le Parisien, that "public money be used to honour an alcoholic member of the Communist Party". Another councillor retorted that "the only tourists who come to Arcueil come for Satie". A Gallic shrug is not an option. Satie's music demands you take an attitude, just as he did.


There is a sad irony to the fact that the most popular ballet by Satie today is not one of his own works for the medium but Monotones, the piece of moon-walk Classicism created by Frederick Ashton for the Royal Ballet in 1965 from the ubiquitous Gymnopédies, played in well-meaning orchestrations by Debussy and Roland-Manuel that fill out Satie's silences with harp glissandi and from his chaste sequences conjure mock-Medieval pretty pictures.

Even so, it was Debussy who alone recognised the original qualities of Uspud when Satie played its first version in public, and took heed of Satie's injunction when writing Pelléas: "There is no need for the orchestra to pull faces when a character comes on stage. Take a look. Do the trees or the scenery grimace?"

So it is that the three late ballets do not describe stories or scenarios. The mirrored form and melodies of Parade (commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes and premiered in 1917) create a Cubist musical form which succinctly responds to the scenario devised by Cocteau in which a troupe of performers tries and fails to attract an audience. Picasso's cardboard costumes were a far more attentive response to the score than Cocteau's insistence on the inclusion of non-musical instruments (siren, typewriter and so on) for which Parade became infamous, and so when Satie broke with Cocteau he persevered with Picasso and the choreographer Massine to create Mercure.

The invented genre-subtitle of "Poses plastiques" indicates that, in Mercure, the score plays servant to the design: "One should first see the characters dance," said Satie at the time, "before writing the music that should illustrate their movements." He took great care over tiny sequences of scales and circular repetitions, simplifying rhythm and enriching harmony as he watched rehearsals. "It looks like nothing," he said on delivering the score, "but a great deal of work has gone into this little lot."

At the 1924 premiere, friends, public and critics alike were foxed by a work that conformed to the conventions of neither ballet nor music hall, though Diaghilev was silently green with envy. The reception was even worse for Relâche six months later, doubtless inflamed by onstage placards that read "If you don't like what you see then fuck off!" By now mortally ill, the composer was dismayed, not least by the amateurish scandalmongering of the Ballets Suédois; his strangest music is reserved for the ten-minute cinematic interlude, precisely cut to accompany images of slow-motion running, posing by a cannon - a look at everyday life in reverse. Like much else he did, said and wrote, it annoys, charms and intrigues in equal measure.


TOUT SATIE! - The full picture, in French recordings of various vintages.

EARLY PIANO MUSIC - Wonderfully still, luminously voiced accounts of the Gymnopédies and Rosicrucian piano pieces.

VEXATIONS - Brilliant Classics (digital only) For the insomniac in your life: the only 'complete' recording of Satie's enigmatic "Pages mystiques".

SATIESFACTIONS - Documentary film by Anne-Kathrin Peitz and Youlian Tabakov Accentus. An authentically playful account of the composer and his social/musical circles.

ERIK SATIE, VOLUME 1 - On this, the first of a planned five-CD series recorded on the same 1890 Erard piano, Ogawa gives a historically informed perspective on the pieces of the 1910s.