Sunday, March 04, 2007

Music Review - Erik Satie [1866-1925]

In the minds of some observers, Erik Satie was simply an eccentric composer of weird little ditties. True, his early musical education was unsatisfactory, and most of his works were miniatures for the piano which seemed very much to defy any of the expected conventions of music. Yet, his ideas were to have a profound influence on many musical developments over a broad timespan. Foremost amongst those composers influenced by Satie were his contemporary Debussy, and later the French composer Ravel, and Stravinsky.

In his 40s, Satie made up for his earlier lack of dedication at the Paris Conservatory when he decided to study with d'Indy and Roussel, passing these exams with distinction. Nevertheless he was always well acquainted with the music of composers past and present, and did not like the large scale Romantic trends led by Wagner. For a while he earned a living playing the piano and accordion in bars and cafes in Montmartre, where he also wrote a number of popular songs. The picture we have of Satie the man is of someone who was pointedly independent, rebellious, even ruthless and scathing. He observed life with a wit frequently thick with satire and parody, yet underlying this he appeared to have a philosophical, deeply spiritual side. He became something of a celebrity among other composers, notably Debussy and "Les Six" [including Georges Auric, Poulenc and particularly Darius Milhaud] towards whom he was very supportive. He remained the avand-garde father-figure until his death from cirrhosis of the liver.

Satie's music seems to mirror this multifaceted nature. On the one hand it is outwardly simple, straightforward in terms of harmony, using short melodies with little development, even repetitive at times. He used unusual scales such as the old form of modes, and others of uncertain origin suggesting folk tunes from different parts of the world. Yet behind this outwardly simple music, is something different and thought-provoking. There is attitude, a certain sadness, and often an ambivalence making it hard to fathom [or allowing different interpretations by both musician and listener]. This ambivalence was enhanced by strange instructions written with the music like "wonder about yourself" or "open your mind". Satie's music shows life from different angles, and is a genuine and new means of expression. Yet Satie demonstrates his non-conformist attitude, mocking his critics and the pretentiousness of other composers by giving some of his works titles such as "True Flabby Preludes", "Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear" and "Desiccated Embryos".

The music of Erik Satie was instrumental in opening doors in musical expression, so that a number of sub-genres or "schools" could explore new territory. Firstly, Satie provided one of the sparks that set Debussy on a course towards the "Impressionism" movement, and he continued to support Debussy on this course until this style became fashionable and mainstream when the non-conformist in Satie poured scorn on his follower. While several previous composers had looked to folk music for ideas, Satie was one of the first to use elements of Jazz and Ragtime. Then there were the "Experimentalists" such as John Cage who later in the 20th Century admired the father Bohemian's approach of breaking down barriers and carried this ideal towards new extremes. The humorous use of sound effects from real objects such as typewriters would later evolve into the ideas of "musique concrète". There were also the "Minimalists" such as Philip Glass and Michael Nyman who must surely have been aware of Satie's method of combining short phrases and his trend-setting instruction in "Vexations" to repeat a section 840 times. Many musical schools have parallels in the visual art world: the impressionists such as Monet, the Surrealists like Dali and the Cubists like Picasso. Satie himself painted from time to time, and worked with Picasso on a couple of Ballet projects where the artist was involved in the set and costume design.

Among Satie's best known works are:

Trois Gymnopedies [two of these (1 and 3) were orchestrated by Debussy]
Six Gnossiennes [inspired by images of ancient Greece]
Waltzes, Nocturnes, Sarabandes
Dances Gothiques
Embryons Desseches
Veritables Preludes Flasques
Trois Morceaux en Forme de Poire
Sonatine Bureaucratique
Vexations [this work with the 840 repetitions was first performed in 1963 by several pianists working in relay]
La Belle Excentrique [for two pianos]
Piccadilly [a short piece based on ideas from the world of Ragtime later to influence others such as Debussy]
Parade [a ballet with Jean Cocteau, Diaghilev and visual input by Picasso, the music sound effects including a typewriter]
Les Adventures de Mercure [another ballet, also with Cocteau and Picasso]
Relache [a surreal ballet]
Socrate [a drama]
Cinema [early film music premiered shortly before Satie's death]

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