Text & Translation by – Alice Verti
«I never criticize Debussy. The Debussysts
only bother me. There is no Satie school.
The Satieism would find me hostile.»
One might say (and they actually said) anything about Erik Satie, one is free to gather all sorts of epithets: every one of them would be mostly proper and improper. Our very title includes one of them indeed, “surrealist”, due to the fact that the term itself was coined for his ballet Parade: Guillaume Apolinnaire was the one who identified in it “une sorte de surréalisme”, in the schedule meant for its first performance. Satie the mammal did not know what to do with definitions, declarations of purpose, programs, or better said: he only knew how to get rid of them. Within a perpetual, incessant play.
His biography in pills: Satie was born in 1866 in Honfleur, Lower Normandy, and spent his youth between Paris and his native region. As an adolescent, and already resistant to any academic environment, he enters the capital’s conservatory, which will soon hold him back for a recognized inadequacy towards study and the apprehension of the piano technique. A regular cabaret-goer – at the “Chat Noir” he will meet his friend of a lifetime, Claude Debussy – and occasionally pianist in the cafés, his entourage would include Cocteau, Picasso, Massine (for the mentioned Parade), Ravel, Gide, Valéry, Stravinsky, Diaghilev and others – establishing the club Apache, the close group of Parisian intellectuals and artists who used to gather at sculptor Cyprien Godebski’s house). During his early thirties he settles in the Parisian suburb of Arcueil, in an apartment peculiarly famous for being forbidden to friends (where, at the moment of his death, thousands of notes would be discovered, today gathered together as “A Mammal’s Notebook”). Satie will be the implicit leader of the “Six”, the Parisian musicians club which overtly opposed Wagnerism and Debussyism, proponing a musical avant-garde that had not yet a representative and cohesive core as the coeval avant-gardes in the visual arts.
As a salacious and implacable beholder of the musical scene, even when it was matter of some friend’s work, Satie would never give up his wit. He used to parody program music and the captions from the scores from the so-called “musical impressionism”, whose eponymous reference was his friend Debussy. According to a fiercly anti-romantic spirit, not too far apart from that of the Futurists, who used to shout out “Let’s kill the moonlight!” – reference that shall not allow to mingle the avant-gardes – , the Gnossiennes’s author conceived parodistic captions like: “bury the sound”, “absolutely lost”, “without pride”, or even more inscrutable “open your head up”, “from the top of the thought”, “equipe yourself with clairvoyance”, “on the tip of the tongue” and so on.
“A few staves from the first Gnossienne. Even those who cannot read music will notice the suppression of bars, evident mark of freedom and disinterest to “form”, as well as the captions “Très luisant”, “Very shiny” and “Questionnez”, “You ask”.
“One anti-academic title for all: the “Unappetizing Choral” from Sports et Divertissements”
And scorning the formalism that was nurturing the incipient neo-classicist movement, he entitled: “Pieces in the shape of a pear”, “Bureaucratic sonatina”, mocking by the latter Clementi, and by the former the critics who had accused him of being onyl capable of writing amorphous music. Satie’s play was always most cultivated and just because of it without any arrogance: as the dadas who deconstructed and recombined playfully the linguistic and visual form, this extremely amused composer imitated a musical universe which between the late 19th century and the early 20th had saturated itself with program directions, imbued with “burdensome” aesthetics as the one derived from Wagner and with hybridations between verbal and musical language – see the front of symphonic poems -, which yielded the irreverent rhapsod Satie some splendid material for a parody.
Among his most prolific collaborations, he counted René Clair, who realized the short-film Entr’acte for the ballet Relâche; Francis Picabia, author of the same ballet; Pablo Picasso; and Léonide Massine, respectively set designer and choreographer of another ballet, Parade. A new form of Gesamtkunstwerk (the “total art work” proposed by Wagner) perhaps, this synthesis of cinema, music, choreography and painting? It is a bald thought which, playing by Satie’s rules, we may allow ourselves to have.
A picture from Relâche’s ballet
Satie’s inventory is definitely full of less imaginary and more realistic inspirations, received from or yielded to their century: from the exotism of foreign musical scales intruding the Gymnopédies, Gnossiennes and Sarabandes, to the modality play (the composing style that recovers the Greek and Gregorian modes, origins of the current major and minor ones) in the Messe des Pauvres for example, to the jazzy syncopated rhythms for which cultured music had already shown its penchant for some time (see Debussy’s Children’s Corner), to the profusion of cabaret music (mostly in the singing and piano repertoire, as for the jolly example La diva de l’Empire), to the numerical pseudo-symbolisms derived from Satie’s affiliation with the Rosicrucian order (which determined the harmonisation of entire pieces on the basis of number 3 and its multiple), to the echos of contrapuntal techniques derived from his learning at the Vincent d’Indy’s Schola Cantorum, whose side the avant-gardes especially opposed, because of its “passéism”.
On the other hand, the Satie’s inadverted clairvoyance provided the bright idea of “musique d’ameublement” (“furniture music”), for which Jack in the box sets a perfect example, i.e. music completely devoid of symbolic, semantic, poetic claims, a purely utilitarian one (an aesthetics akin to that of Paul Hindemith’s Gebrauchmusik – “utility music”), most honest protest against the “absolute music” inherited from the earlier century, conceived with the very purpose of being contemplated and enjoined per se. And how could we overlook the diacronic correspondence between current “ambient music” and Satie’s “musique d’ameublement”? Another relevant affinity with German Objectivity occurred in the ballet Parade, where the orchestra includes a typewriter, a pistol, a naval siren, i.e. vehicles through which reality could invade music, theatre, the artistic dimension tout court. Artists as Satie and the co-authors of this ballet already got one of the most fertile and insoluble problems of the 20th century: the blurring frontier between art and reality.
Yet Satie’s premonitions are not fully conveyed by this ironic label. Let’s consider Véxations, unpublished for a long time, whose celebrity would later arise thanks to John Cage, who scheduled its performance in 1963: he and 11 more pianists finally gave voice to the 840 consecutive repetitions of a mere two-staves musical theme as the composer asked in his caption, which included the suggestion: “prepare yourself in advance and in the utter silence, by a series of ‘stillnesses’”. As a matter of fact the principle by which the basic unity (the musical theme) gets essentially unrecognisable by an insisting repetition is one of the aesthetic cornerstones of Minimalism, whose proper features were to be established just in the 1960s in the United States, let alone the importance of repetition in experimental theatre, where it is employed in order to remove the gestures’ meaning and alienate them.
Satie even reached an art negating itself with Relâche (“closure”, a notice written on theatre bills for the companies’ days off), “instantaneist ballet”: we could paraphrase this title as “theatre in a non-theatre period”. As we previously said, the short-film Entr’acte was inserted in the ballet and the “soundtrack” Satie meant for it was based precisely on a principle of varied repetition (in rhythms, keys, phrasing), which the Minimalists would let proliferate later in their works.
Let’s go back to our initial quotation. We believe him: Satie would have been hostile to Satieism. How could he imagine a school in his name? His very perspective on his work was “instantaneist”, he had no interest in music’s further destiny, he left not a very clear spiritual legacy, he just did not care wheter his experiments and his inventions would endure or not in music history. They could not be emulated, the Satie-episode would remain as it was, bright but humble, melancholic, not too extroverted, invariably ironic. John Cage payed him homage as his mentor. But he, Satie, would not ask for that.