The Velvet Gentleman
Erik Satie 1866-1925
by Bill Nelson
originally printed in New Musical Express, September 4, 1982
Bill Nelson has often acknowledged his love for the music of influential French composer Erik Satie - and quickly agreed when we asked him to write this article for us. Bill, whose own solo LP "The Love That Whirls" was released just recently, says he first became curious about Satie through reading about another hero, Jean Cocteau (in whose honour Bill named his own Cocteau Records), a close associate of the composer. He was already aware of Satie's most famous piece, "Les Trois Gymnopedies" (recently covered by, of all people, Gary Numan) but soon he was immersing himself in the complete works: "It was marvellous, and so totally different from anything else."
The profile which follows is an introduction to the life, times and genius of Satie. To begin your acquaintance with the man's recorded music, Bill Nelson suggests these generally available albums: "Erik Satie Piano Music Vol 1" by Frank Glazer on the Vox label, and , for orchestral works, "Homage to Erik Satie: by Maurice Abravanel with the Utah Symphony Orchestra, on the Vanguard label. The drawing (right) was done by another friend of Satie's - Pablo Picasso, who was pretty neat, too, in his own way. It's all yours, Bill....
In Paris, during the months of May and June, 1895, a publication called Le Cartulaire was made available to the general public.
It issued from the headquarters of an obscure organisation calling itself The Metropolitan Church of the Art of Jesus the Conductor and, under a series of inflated ecclesiastical headings, began by excommunicating one of the most well known music critics of the time, Henri Gauthier-Villars, known simply by his pen-name of "Willy"!
According to Le Cartulaire, Willy had debased the critic's function by his lack of respect and incompetence. Not only that, he was accused of being swollen-headed and presumptuous.
Willy answered these accusations publicly by stating that their author was a "charlatan, a lunatic and a complete idiot", but their author, who in fact was a much more elusive and marvellous man than the irate and confused critic realized, replied with further additions to the rich catalogue of Willy's sins: falsehood, immodesty and boorishness. He was a repulsive oppressor of church and art, a paid hack, a clown, a buffoon...
Willy, though suitably outraged, secretly wallowed in the masochistic luxury of such fierce attention, for, as you may have noticed, critics enjoy their notoriety more than the very people they choose to criticize.
The truth was that both the Metropolitan Church of the Art of Jesus the Conductor and Le Cartulaire were the self-devised and financed (though somewhat tongue-in-cheek), inventions of Erik Satie, perhaps one of the most important and influential of French composers. Part jester, part primitive, part safe; Satie confounded critics and public alike with his ironic, engimatic but eloquent compositions. There may be many 'greater' or better known composers but few reveal more clearly the origins and early development of 20th Century music.
To condense Satie's life ino an article of this size would, of course, be ludicrous if not downright impossible. The most anyone can do within these limitations is to scatter a few clues to some deeper meaning, clues to a code that only occurs in the spaces betweeen words rather than in the words themselves.
Perhaps this is not inappropriate, as Satie's bitter-sweet music occupies a similar space....a space between the ticking of clocks, between statis and movement, between sound and silence.
For me, this space appears both beautiful and deadly, like a deep lagoon swarming with exotic fish and dangerous currents. Observing the ripples on its surface only hints at the wonders below, but where you and I would need an aqualung to explore, Satie had gills.
The career of Erik Satie is split into two totally distinct and separate phases. After virtually retiring in 1898, he was "re-discovered", 12 years later, at the age of 48, by several much younger composers who recognised in him all the unique and far reaching qualities of genius.
In return, Satie characteristically confounded everyone by writing in a completely new style, refusing to rest on his first and now acknowledged career.
His champions were the fashionable artists of the day: Ravel, Debussy, (who was for many years a clos friend), Cocteau, Picasso, Stravinsky, and Diaghilev. He soon became involved with both the Dada and Surrealist movements and was adopted as a Godfather by that irrepressible group of musicians known as 'Lessix' who included amongst their number the now much respected George Auric, Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc.
Whilst lunching in a Paris restaurant with the painter Fernand Leger, Satie conceived the idea of ambient or, as he called it, 'furnishing' music.
"There is a need to create furnishing music," said Satie, "music that would be part of the surrounding noises and take them into account. I imagine it to be melodious, softening the clatter of knives and forks without imposing itself.
Art, he was quick to point out, had nothing to do with it. This music was purely a functional device, no more important than heating or lighting, something just there but not really listened to or thought about.
This concept, whilst merely a whimsical diversion on Satie's part, has since inspired the Muzak of supermarkets and shopping centres, several albums by Brian Eno, my own 'Sounding the Ritual Echo' album, and a single by Red Noise called simply "Furniture Music". Satie, no doubt, would find it all highly amusing.
Born on May 17, 1866 on Honfleur, a port on the Normandy Coast, Erik Satie had an uneventful if somewhat austere childhood. His father was descended from a long line of Norman seafarers, his mother was Scottish and a devout Catholic. Satie's uncle Adrien, nicknamed 'Uncle Sea-bird', provided light relief and some inspiration for the young boy.
Being a bachelor of unconventional habits and easy morals, Uncle Sea-bird was considered something of a black sheep by the Satie family. Nevertheless, he introduced his nephew to the theatre and the cirucs, both of which made a deep impression on him.
Later, after the death of his mother, Satie was temporarily placed in the care of his grandparents and, at the age of eight, after showing more interest in music than in academic subjects, they enrolled him for music lessons.
Much of Satie's adolescence and early maturity was spent in joyless solitude, particularly after his grandmother's death when he was sent to re-join his father, now living in Paris. His formal education was rapidly abandoned except for music, but even here encouragement was a rare event. His piano tutor pronounced him "the laziest student in the class....but gets a lovely sound." Disasterous results followed subsequent exams; one tutor assessing him as "worthless".
At the age of 16, however, he discovered the music of Bach and Chopin and became deeply drawn to the mystic doctrine and ritual of the Catholic faith. Our of this experience grew a deeper commitment to music. Gradually, the definitive Satie persona began to emerge.
His first published pieces for the piano were written in 1885 and the following year he began composing what ws to become his best known work, "The three Gymnopedies". This delicate and sad aural triptych has been adapted more than any other Satie piece. Debussy was later to orchestrate it in insipid fashion, all flutes, harp and strings.
It has been used as theme music for a television series, Bouquet of Barbed Wire and abused by Gary Numan on a totally blasphemous B-side. To appreciate its real purity it really must be heard as a solo piano piece, the way Satie conceived it.
No orchestra or synthesiser can capture the beautiful, controlled sense of melancholy that hides in the austere heart of this gently dissonant music. Cool, calm and clear, 'The Gymnopedies' exist in a timeless twilight where the cheap bluster of pop would instantly be stripped of its hollow conceits and revealed as nothing more than the whining petulance of aesthetically impoverished children. For a composer at the age of 20 it was an astonishingly mature work.
It was during this period that he first grew a beard, adopted a flowing tie, velvet coat and soft felt hat which, along with his usual pince-nez, established a prototype for the 'velvet gentleman' of his later years. Working as a second pianist at the Chat Noir Night Club, his tie was divided between serious composition and the performance of popular songs.
Over a fairly short period of time, Satie developed a passioin for hard drinking which eventually led to him being given the sack from the Chat Noir. His compositiions at this time were decorated with elaborate literary embroidery in the form of serio-comic directions to the performer. Directions such as "without pride" and "fit yourself with clear-sightedness".
Soon, Satie's dry humour began to assume the status of drought...his later compositions would rejoice in titles such as 'Dried Embryos", "Things Seen To the Right and Left (Without Glasses)' and 'Three Pieces In The Shape of a Pear".
Satie briefly came under the then fashionable spell of Rosicrucianism, an esoteric magical society which still flourishes today (though now somewhat commercialised and based in California). it was after his involvement and subsequent rejection of the Rosicrucian doctrine that he decided to form his own pseudo-religion, the previouly mentioned Metropolitian Church of Art of Jesus the Conductor.
In 1898, Satie moved some distance across Paris from Montmarte to the suburb of Arcueil. he found a small room over a drab cafe called the Four Chimmenys and made his living by commutuing, on foot, the six miles back and forth between Arcueil and Montmartre where he had secured another job as an accomanist of popular singers. The friends he kept were never permitted to enter the waterless, unheated room in Arcueil and an air of mystery grew around Satie's life there.
Although his drinking habits increased, he came to know a kind of peace amid the dreary surroundings. He seemed to have an almost Orwellian impulse to identify with the working class and, as time went on, for psychological and political reasons, this impulse strengthened.
Despite his work in Montmartre, he had very little money. In the first quarter of 1903 he published music earned him a royalty of 76 centimes. To add insult to injust they spelt his name Erick on the royalty return. He suffered a growing depression about his ability and became senitive about the gaps in his knowledge of musical technique.
It seemed that the only answer to this was to go back to school and learn all the things he had scorned in youth as pedantic. Although Debussy warned him against the idea, Satie enrolled as a student of Musical Composition at the Scholia Gantorum. The year was 1905 and on the opening day Satie present himself, a middle aged gentleman among fresh faced students. His reward came in 1908 when he emerged with his Formal Diploma.
Now a well known citizen of Arcueil, he joined the local Socialist Party and was elected to the committee. Suddenly, the 'Arty' velvet suits were discarded in favour of a much more sombre style. From now on, Satie would only ever be seen wearing a dark suit, black overcoat, black bowler hat, high wing collar and sober tie.
He retained his beard and pince-nez and would carry a lightly rolled, black umbrella at all times, regardless of the weather. He became fascinated with animals. His piano music now included portraits of 'dreamy fish', an octopus, dogs and crustaceans.
Slowly, musical circles in Paris were beginning to take notice of him. 'The Gymnopedies' and 'The Sarabandes' were hailed as masterpieces ahead of their time. Debussy and Ravel gave public performances of Satie's work to great acclaim.
This new-found attention encouraged Satie to renew his compositional activities and before long he was writing a prolific number of piano compositions in a style developed from, but somehow different to, his earlier work.
During this period, and until close to the end of his life, Satie continued to astonish. His collaberation with Cocteau and Picasso on the subist costumed ballet Parade shocked audiences with its use of 'found' sounds such as gunfire, typewriters and sirens.
He not only wrote music for, but also made a brief appearance in Rene Clair's film, "Entr'acte", a surreal comedy of dark and strange humour featuring a runaway hearse and a bearded ballet dancer. Entr'acte was first shown as part of a ballet devised by Francis Picabia.
The ballet, a wonderfully dadaesque affair, caused mayhem in the audience. At the end of the performance, Satie and Picabia squeezed into a tiny Citroen car and puttered round the stage waving at the noisily disapproving crowd.
Called simple Relache, the ballet gave Satie the opportunity to write music around such concepts as 'The Dance of the Revolving Door' and today, whilst the ballet itself has virtually been forgotten, the music lingers on.
If there is one eternal and essential ingredient in Satie's work, it is simplicity. Not the simplicitiy of ignorance, but the simplicity of economy, a kind of minimalism born of a desire to retain contact, however tenuous, with the unspoilt naivety of childhood.
It was this same simple love of form that filled Picasso's work with such power and freshness. Both men shared a keenly developed sense of the primitive, yet by a means that seemed almost innocent, were able to refine it into a pure and noble aethetic.
Erik Satie died on the first of July 1925. He had cirrhosis of the liver. At the age of 59 he had almost 40 years of solid drinking behind him. When his friends opened up his room in Arcueil after the funeral, they could not believe that the neat and impeccable Satie had lived in such abject squalor.
Dark and cold, the room contained a meagre bed, a table piled high with unopened letters, a chair, a half-empty cupboard containing half a dozen identifcal unworn velvet suits, an ancient battered piano, its pedals held together with string, and an old cigar box containing thousands of tiny scraps of paper on which were inscribed fantastic, often Gothic, drawings and plans in Satie's own hand.
In every corner lay old hats, newspapers and walking sticks. The windows were filthy and the curtains rotten with age. For 27 years no one had ever penetrated this inner temple. The sight of this lonely room filled Satie's friends with the deepest sorrow.
Cocteau said of Satie, "His lesson is not coming to an end. Never did he rely upon dubious charm or a striking effect. Never did he listen to the sirens, except his own inner ones. He always stopped up his ears with wax. He always, like the wise Ulysses, had himself tied to the mast. Too simple for ears accustomed to highly spiced sounds, that is the tragedy. Satie does not clothe his genius, never clutters it up with costume or jewel. His genius is unclad and without the slightest modesty. To go naked; for Satie's music was an act of modesty par excellence."
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