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erik satie

8 november 2015

When I started college, 40 years ago, I read some books about composers, but it was always an unsatisfying activity. They'd talk about the structure of a musical piece, and I had to imagine it if I'd never heard it, or try to remember a few bars if I had. My classical LP collection consisted of Dvorak's New World Symphony and highlights from Handel's Messiah. There was a listening room at my college library where you could go with your book, sit at a bench, and plug headphones into a switchboard, whereupon somebody behind the scenes would play the record you'd chosen. This was not efficient. Eventually I majored in English instead of musicology. (Not that I would have made it out of Appreciation 101 anyway, of course.) At least a book was a book and was right in front of you as you read it.

But when I sat down last week with Mary Davis's Erik Satie in one hand, I had my iPhone in the other. Every time she mentioned a piece I could summon it up in a few clicks and send it coursing through my earbuds. The 21st century includes a few things to be dubious about, but instant access to information isn't one of them. If smartphones are eroding our memories and weakening our intellects, sign me up.

Some pieces by Satie (1866-1925) circulate through my head even without the phone's help: the Gymnopédies, the Gnossiennes, the Avant-dernières pensées. Most persistent of all is the waltz Je te veux. This waltz is more conventional than most of Satie's piano pieces, and in Davis's book I learned why: Satie wrote it as a cabaret number for singer Paulette Darty. In the late 1890s, Satie earned a living as an accompanist to the cabaret singer Vincent Hyspa.

Satie's songs are fascinating, but ill-served by performance traditions, if YouTube is any guide. You can find lots of recordings of singers doing these cabaret numbers with their honky-tonk piano arrangements, but the vocals are always operatic. Satie's a classical composer, no matter how eccentric. His works have not become jazz or pop standards, and classical singers simply don't do them in music-hall style. But I'd love to hear them done in more popular mode, and would be grateful to have links to such recordings.

Playing honky-tonk piano is not a unique stage in a classical composer's career, even if pretty unusual; George Gershwin came up through Tin Pan Alley and when young was happy to earn his living banging the ivories. What's odder about Satie's performing career is that when he started to work in cabarets he was already the author of the Gymnopédies, and his friend Claude Debussy had already turned them into famous orchestral pieces.

Satie, as Davis explains, did nothing in the order or manner he was supposed to. Son of a music publisher, stepson of a pianist/composer, he was born or at least adopted into the classical-music world of Third Republic France. But then he flunked out of conservatory and did the bohemian thing for a while (at one point even noticing his resemblance to Murger's famous characters, as Davis notes). He wrote the Gymnopédies, he hung out with Debussy, he threw himself into multimedia projects with Montmartre collaborators (at one point becoming near-obsessed with Rosicrucianism). Satie became famous in turn, one of the most striking Paris dandies of the 1890s, wrote the Gnossiennes, and then started working in cabarets and writing pop songs and then went back to music school at the age of 40 and pursued a rigorous classical education at the Schola Cantorum.

By his Schola Cantorum days, Satie was living in an apartment in the Paris suburb of Arcueil and walking to work or school and back again every day: five kilometers to the Schola, twelve to Montmartre. Nobody seems ever to have visited him in Arcueil. The apartment house where he lived still stands and has been recently restored. It's an awkward blocky building on the most nondescript street imaginable. Satie's life there was a closed book to his many famous friends; after his death, as Davis quotes at length from a memoir by the librettist Madeleine Milhaud, some of those friends entered the Arcueil home and realized that Satie lived in complete indigence and utter disorder. He would carefully put himself together in his impeccable clothes and trademark pince-nez, walk to Paris, be Erik Satie, and walk home again at night into a private void.

Satie knew and worked with every avant-garde figure in Paris from Aristide Bruant in the Chat Noir days of the late 1880s to Picasso and Cocteau in the 1920s. A few days ago I was trying to think of important writers of the period, for quite different reasons, and names like Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, Francis Carco occured to me – sure enough, Satie knew them. He knew Jarry, Matisse, Léger, Modigliani; most importantly (after Debussy at least) he knew Maurice Ravel, who appropriated him as a precursor and helped install him in the repertoire. But despite all attempts to make him legitimate, Satie just kept extending the boundaries of propriety, remaining a step ahead of the experimentalists all along. In Davis's perceptive reading, Satie is impossible to process or reduce.

Davis, Mary E. Erik Satie. London: Reaktion, 2007.