I have a very short list of favorite classical composers, which I’m sure is not a very special thing to mention. I listen to a lot of classical music, but three of my favorites all worked during the same rather narrow time-frame. They are Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie. In fact, there was even a heated debate at the time between the three of them on the issue of “who-was-precursor-to-whom?” (Ravel ultimately supported Satie).
This wasn’t to be a question of vanity in the end, since now it seems like they were not only engaged in a form of competition but also in an attempt to determine who had made the first step away from Romanticism and into what has become “modern classical music”. I stand by Satie in this aspect. His pieces are something no one else had ever seen before, written by someone who had dropped out of the French Conservatoire twice, being considered basically a lousy pianist but a stellar composer. Debussy, whom I love nonetheless, seems to be much more influenced by Faure in his compositions. Satie was and is a completely different animal.
Think about the age in which Satie worked – late 19th century France, a time when the impressionists were redefining the way people thought of art, and once that box was opened, things started moving along really quite quickly. Satie met and worked with Marcel Duchamp (helping create his first ready-made on that very day, called The Gift), Man Ray, Jean Cocteau and many others who constituted the core of the early twentieth century art movement(s), from cubism to dada and everything in between. As far as I am aware, Erik Satie was the only one of them who was a composer and a truly eccentric figure at that. He went through many phases in his life, from being very interested in religion and treating it like something which could be reinvented, much like art in fact, to playing cabaret songs as a form of income, to becoming one of the most involved personalities in the avangarde, never really finding his place anywhere for very long. In his early years he would wear a simple, priest like outfit, then he would don the suit which gave him the nickname “the velvet gentleman” (I heard a story about him having a considerable number of these suits in his wardrobe, all identical, so that he could always keep his outfit unchanged), then – once he had enrolled in the socialist party – suddenly changing his look yet again for that of a bourgeois clerk, with a cane and a bowler hat. Another story states that when his friends visited his room for the first time, after his death, they discovered he had two pianos in there, stacked one on top of the other, like some fifty-years-in-the-future rock star.
I say all these things because, in spite of the simplicity and contrition of his music, he was a highly theatrical individual, and I think this shows in his songs just as much as in his life and activity. Satie feels to me like a composer consumed by humor, somehow under its heel. Humor is like a burden to him, it seems like he could never really take himself and his music seriously, it seems he wrote and lived as if it was all a game. At one point in his life he claimed to be a collector of miniature buildings made out of different materials, such as lead, which he would arrange in a cupboard (even though, to be perfectly clear, they didn’t exist). He even went so far as to place ads in the newspaper from people claiming to want to sell such “chateaus in lead”, only to give credibility to his claim to be a collector. Hoaxes were always on the menu with him, the first of which had him advertising and writing an exuberant number of articles in the press about an opera he was supposed to have finished and would soon premiere, which he probably never even worked on in the first place, probably being the operative word. He’s as much man as he is fabrication at his own hands, and his music follows the same principle. There are a great number of pieces which he never finished, and a great number of pieces which he never published and were only found posthumously. Looking back at his fickle career, one has to wonder how much of his music is truly a form of parody or mischief.
The songs collected under the umbrella term Pièces Froides were first published in 1897, years after his most popular works to date had been performed and published (the Gymnopedies and the Gnosiennes). These pieces exist in two cycles: “Aires a fair fuir” and “Danses de travers”, which is in tune with Satie’s apparent obsession with classification. The suite has a very nice flow to it, in Satie’s instantly recognizable style – both meditative and slightly eerie, irregular, even jagged I’d say, in spite of the seemingly calm atmosphere the songs project. I think these songs perfectly illustrate one of the guiding principles of Satie’s work and one of the things which constituted the basis upon which he would set himself against Romanticism – he detested the idea of “musical progression”, the technique with which multiple musical themes intertwine and weave around each-other, evolving into the lush works of his predecessors. There’s always something unexplained in his songs, something which feels truncated, as if he was unable to write anything but the most pure, concise and self-sufficient songs, no matter how short. This search for absolute contrition and self-reliance in his themes, for simplicity and expressiveness superimposed make his music so special, albeit, I admit, much harder to “get into” than Debussy, who managed to adapt the same compositional principles to a more eloquent palette of notes. It leads to the odd, captivating feeling of puzzlement one gets while listening to his songs and Pièces Froides are no exception.
I invite you to allow yourself to be puzzled by Satie’s musical haiku style as I tip my hat to this great-grandfather of minimalism. Enjoy!