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  • Writer's pictureKuyper

A Complete Accounting Erik Satie's Oddities and Activities

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

The now-renowned composer and pianist (and later, journalist) Erik Satie is an excellent musician and a stunningly strange person. His creativity pushed the boundaries of the typically triumphant Wagnerian style popular at the time. Rather than focusing on grandiose transcendent significance, Satie preferred to employ unusual forms and tonal structures to create what was later referred to as musique d'ameublement. Literally translated as upholstery music or furnishing music, it’s colloquially known as furniture music which is a considerably fitting genre. Interestingly, the term furniture music was actually coined by the painter Henri Matisse to portray Satie’s songs as insignificant–according to Matisse, Satie’s compositions were simply background music to another artistic event (for instance, Matisse’s own paintings). However, in the modern zeitgeist, furniture music is used to define Satie’s genre in a rather complementary way.

Born Eric Alfred Leslie Satie in France, he adopted the uninspired name Erik Satie to embrace his artistry and oddity. Satie composed an undersized catalog of 84 musical works between 1885 and 1924. For some context, Chopin created at least 230 compositions, Bach wrote well over 1,000, and Motzart produced some 600 pieces. Satie studied music at the prominent Paris Conservatoire, didn’t earn a diploma, and was regarded as “the laziest student in the Conservatoire,” according to one of his instructors, Émile Decombes, one of Chopin’s distinguished pupils. In 1882 Satie was ultimately expelled from the Conservatoire for unsatisfactory performance and sloth.

In 1885, a year after creating his first cute but unremarkable composition, “a short allegro on piano,” he was readmitted to the Conservatoire only to leave soon after. During this stint at the Conservatoire, Georges Mathias, another student of Chopin, described his piano skills as “insignificant and laborious,” and Satie himself as “Worthless.” Continuing his assessment, Mathias asserted that it took Satie “Three months just to learn the piece. [He] cannot sight-read properly.”

Within a year of studying at the Conservatoire (for the second time) Erik was inclined to drop out due to his laziness and poor performance. To this end, he left the conservatoire and chose to enlist in France’s 33rd Infantry Regiment in November 1886. Within a few months, Satie discovered that his life in the army was no better than at the Conservatoire and deliberately caught acute bronchitis by standing outside, shirtless on a winter night. After three months of rehabilitation for bronchitis, he was promptly discharged.

Once Satie got home in 1887, he began rebranding himself. With his newfound freedom, Erik adopted a bohemian lifestyle with distinct long hair, a frock coat, an umbrella (which he carried regardless of rain or shine, although he is said to have despised the sunlight more than the rain), and a top hat (see below). Notably, Satie also refused to use soap at this period in his life, substituting soap for a pumice stone. Satie also only walked places from this point onward, refusing to use the newly erected horse-tram lines, cabs, or any other form of transportation throughout his life.

Erik Satie Painting from Wikipedia
Erik Satie Painting from Wikipedia

By 1888 Satie finished composing his first (and in my opinion best) well-received, acclaimed collection, (for the few who actually heard it anyway) Trois Gymnopédies. These pieces marked the beginning of Erik’s signature furniture music style, sounding like ethereal Minecraft music during a rampant ketamine binge–it’s pure, uncomplicated, serene bliss. It’s worth noting that, for whatever reason, Satie only released the first and third Gymnopédies by 1888, and he didn’t release the second movement until 1895. Interestingly, the etymology for Gymnopédies seems to refer to the French form of gymnopaedia, an ancient, annual festival celebrated in mid-600 B.C. Sparta where young, hyper-masculine soldiers would dance and sing together completely naked for the benefit of Apollo. This traditional dance was notably absent from Zack Synder’s hyper-masculine 300, which is disappointing, to say the least.

Following these instant classics, Satie quickly finished the first of his Gnossiennes pieces between 1889-1890 (5-6 years before he released the second movement of Gymnopédies). However, the first set of Gnossiennes (1-3) wasn’t published until 1913 with the first composition published in 1893. The whole catalog of Gnossiennes was finally published in 1968, just 43 years after Erik’s death. Unlike Gymnopédies, Gnossiennes does not have a confirmed etymology and was just a word that Satie randomly came up with. Some scholars think that Gnossiennes refers to the Gnostic tradition, which Satie was clearly curious about as he was the current composer-in-residence for the Mystical Order of the Rose+Cross of the Temple and Grail at this time, but there’s no formal evidence that this is what the compositions are referencing. These pieces are also a favorite of mine, they’re startlingly playful, lack a distinct key signature or rhythm, and provide the listener with a feeling of relaxed contemplation. The feeling they provide the listener is akin to doing the Sunday crossword at 6 AM as the sun is rising, sitting on a Southern patio, overlooking a slow-to-wake-up marsh with a watery cup of warm black coffee. Absolute contemplative relaxation.

By 1892, Satie began to reshape his image again. He focused on music that invoked mysticism (referred to by scholars as Rosicrucianism), releasing Fête donnée par des Chevaliers Normands en l'honneur d'une jeune demoiselle (Festival Given by Norman Knights in Honor of a Young Lady). Though this piece was released posthumously in 1929, it marked a change in Satie’s style and outlook nonetheless. Following this piece, Satie created advertisements for an “anti-Wagnerian opera” titled Le Bâtard de Tristan (The Bastard of Tristan). Though the public intrigue was apparent, this opera ended up being a hoax; it was seemingly never written and never released. Following this deception, toward the end of 1892, Satie wanted to get an opera score titled “uspud” in the Paris Opera. To show his seriousness, he challenged the Paris Opera Director, Eugène Bertrand to a duel to consider his pieces. Bertrand agreed to consider the score, though he died a few years after Satie’s proposal, and the opera was never released.

Also toward the end of 1892, during Satie’s Rosicrucianism period, he erected L'Église Métropolitaine d'Art de Jésus Conducteur (The Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus the Conductor or The Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus, Leader, depending on who you ask to translate) with his recently received inheritance. Known as the only active partitioner of The Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus the Conductor, Satie’s goal was to create a sanctuary for Catholic art practitioners which could shield them from the rampant profanity of the everyday world and inspire a sense of mysticism in them. He stated, “As a defence [sic] against the outside world I created my own religious castle at 6 rue Cortot, within whose safety I launched morally superior attacks on my enemies.” Erik utilized his elevated, self-appointed position within his own church of one to chastise various groups such as freemasons, freethinkers, committed Jews, and atheists (among many others) along with responding to critics who wronged him, with a misleading sense of religious authority. Naturally, between 1893 and 1895 Satie began dressing in a semi-priestly robe (see below).

As Satie’s eccentricities grew, his compositions became increasingly ludicrous. In 1893, Satie formed a composition that has a remarkable history, Vexations. Vexations is a formless, meditative composition with an eerie, nearly absent rhythm that resembles an all-encompassing void that lasts about 4 minutes in all its glory. What makes this piece striking is what Erik wrote at the top, “Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses” (“In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, through serious immobility”). Musicians understood this to mean the piece must be played 840 times, consecutively to properly articulate Satie’s vision. This trial wasn’t completed until John Cage completed this formidable chore in 1963 70 years after its publication (this links to a New York Times article regarding a performance in 2017 by headliner Christian Wolff, but this writeup is certainly worth the read as it depicts an hour-by-hour accounting of what it felt like to experience this composition). The elocution of this piece required a relay team of at least 10 pianists and took nearly 19 hours to perform, (lasting from 7:00 pm to around 1:30 pm the following day) reliably insighting hallucinations and audio distortions in the listeners and pianists alike.

As Satie’s popularity remained fairly stagnant, in 1895 he inherently had to adjust his persona, becoming “the Velvet Gentleman,” wearing only a series of seven (one for each day) identical grey-velvet suits, continued carrying an umbrella, and adopted a bowler hat. He didn’t release much during this period, but rather invested in redefining himself and his music. In 1898, Satie moved to Arecuil-Cachan for the remainder of his life, not ever admitting a single visitor in his residence. During this period he also became a card-carrying socialist (and later communist) despite his bourgeois aesthetic presentation. With his slowly growing public endorsement, Satie hosted an art show in 1902, conceptualizing his compositions as “wallpaper,” (a similar idea to what would be later called furniture music) requesting that patrons ignore the music and talk or do whatever they so choose (other than listen to the piece). Unfortunately, the attendees quieted as the performance began, disregarding Satie’s wishes. Around this time, Satie also began experimenting with prepared piano, an unexplored way to create novel sounds out of the piano by wrapping paper around the strings within the piano case.

Beginning in 1903, Satie began responding to criticism about his music lacking form by creating fanciful titles such as “Trois morceaux en forme de poire” (1903; “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear”), “Véritables Préludes flasques (pour un chien)” (1912; “True Flabby Preludes for a Dog”), and “Embryons Desséchés” (1913; “Desiccated Embryos”) including erratic and nonsensical instructions in these compositions such as to play a section “light as an egg” or “with astonishment” rather than using commonplace directions such as piano and forte. During this era, Erik also enrolled at a conservatorium, for the third time, landing at Schola Cantorum de Paris at the ripe age of 40 between 1905-1912. Eventually, he did graduate at the top of his class, despite being nearly double the age of anyone in his class. Around this time Satie also began carrying a hammer in addition to his omnipresent umbrella, which he hauled around for protection on his long and constant walks around greater Paris. Further still, Erik began a small charity between 1908 to 1910 where he was entrusted with taking orphans and poor children on countryside outings. On Sundays, he would also help these kids create compositions, encouraging them to conjure up absurd titles (similar to the ones above). Toward the end of his life, he told French composer Darius Milhaud, “I should so much like to know what kind of music the children who are now four years old will write,” revealing his constant interest in future generations.

Finally, in 1911, in his mid-forties, Erik landed in the scope of fame as Maurice Ravel, a popular French pianist, composer, and conductor played a handful of Satie’s early works at a show. All of a sudden, Satie was regarded as a musical revolutionary–no one had ever heard anything like it before. Following this acclaim, Satie was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes to create the musical accompaniment for the ballet Parade (1917), for which Pablo Picasso notably arranged the decor and costumes and Jean Cocteau was the writer. The composition for this ballet was complete with a siren, revolver shots, and the sounds of a typewriter. Though this show finally brought Satie to worldwide acclaim, it was attacked by critics for having a strong anti-war sentiment during the brutal WW1, for which there was still no end in sight. In fact, on the opening day, the play nearly culminated in a riot from the audience, though it didn’t go so far as to be labeled a riot. Jean Poueigh, a highly acclaimed critic and French composer, slammed the play on the opening day despite telling Satie and company that he enjoyed the play on the night of the dress rehearsal. Satie responded by sending a brief postcard to Poueigh that read, “Sir and dear friend, you’re nothing but an arse, and an unmusical arse!” For this ‘slander’, Poueigh brought Satie to court for libel and defamation of character. The judge found Satie guilty, sentencing him to eight days in prison, 1,000 francs in damages, and a 100 franc fine. Despite his guilty sentence, Satie did not spend any time in jail and both the damages and fine were eventually paid by his friend and occasional patron, Princesse de Polignac. Ultimately, the press had a field day with the trial and subsequent sentence, further increasing Erik’s presence in esoteric culture.

After this landmark ballet, Satie was firmly placed in the public’s eye, regularly receiving commissions for his work. Further still, in his later years, Satie became a regular journalist writing for French and English magazines such as Vanity Fair, The Transatlantic Review, Revue musicale, Action, L'Esprit nouveau, and the Paris-Journal, among a handful of other periodicals. From time-to-time Satie would use a handful of nom de plumes and submit articles anonymously, so it’s not really known how many newspapers and magazines he contributed to, but the number is said to be somewhere around 25+. One of Satie’s articles that I thought would be fun to share is the irregularly titled “A Learned Lecture on Music and Animals” (1922) where Satie describes how animals are artists and have the capacity to create art. I think it’s worth highlighting two key quotations from the article that genuinely made me chuckle. One is, “A great deal has been said about the intelligence of animals. They are even more than intelligent—they are polite. Rarely is an animal rude towards man. It is man who shows a lack in courtesy towards the animal.” The second quote being, “I KNOW of no literary work written by an animal—and that is very sad. Have animals had, in the past, a literature of their own? It is quite possible. No doubt, it was destroyed in a large fire—a very, very Jarge [sic] fire.” What a legend.

Although Satie was a freethinking musical innovator, he refused to use, let alone experiment with, modern inventions including the telephone, gramophone, or the radio. Satie created a total of zero recordings throughout his life and is known to have only used the telephone on one occasion in 1923. It was to urgently talk to a patron of his about an upcoming project. Further still, Satie insisted that friends take their telephones off the hook whenever he came to visit.

Satie died at the age of 59 from cirrhosis of the liver due to his rampant, lifelong drinking habit on July 1, 1925. Soon after his death, Satie’s landlord permitted close friends and family to visit his residence in Arecuil-Cachan, which no other person had ever entered previously. In his house, they found over 100 umbrellas, writings, and compositions (some significant works that were believed to be lost, others indecipherable drivel) slovenly thrown around the room. Also found amongst the mess were two pianos stacked on top of each other, with the upper instrument being used as a chaotic filing cabinet.

Posthumously Satie had a variety of his works published, but most intriguingly his diary was not published until about 25 years after his death, aptly titled: Memoirs of an Amnesiac (not to be confused with Oscar Levant’s identically titled autobiography). In these memoirs, Satie describes his day in minute detail, claiming that he only ate white food and finished his meals within 3-4 minutes, “I rise at 7:18; am inspired from 10:23 to 11:47. I lunch at 12:11 and leave the table at 12:14. A healthy ride on horse-back round my domain follows from 1:19 pm to 2:53 pm. Another bout of inspiration from 3:12 to 4:07 pm. From 4:27 to 6:47 pm various occupations (fencing, reflection, immobility, visits, contemplation, dexterity, natation, etc.) Dinner is served at 7:16 and finished at 7:20 pm. From 8:09 to 9:59 pm symphonic readings (out loud). I go to bed regularly at 10:37 pm. Once a week, I wake up with a start at 3:19 (Tuesdays). I breathe with care (a little at a time). I very rarely dance. When walking, I clasp my sides, and look steadily behind me. My expression is very serious; when I laugh it is unintentional, and I always apologize most affably. I sleep with only one eye closed, very profoundly. My bed is round, with a hole to put my head through. Once every hour a servant takes my temperature and gives me another. I have subscribed for some time to a fashion magazine. I wear a white cap, white stockings, and a white waistcoat. [...] My only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, moldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin). I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with the juice of the Fuchsia. I have a good appetite, but never talk when eating for fear of strangling myself.”

In these memoirs, Satie even responded to his critics asserting that he wasn’t a musician, to which he agreed. Rather, he described himself as a phonometrographer; a person who measures and documents sounds. “Everyone will tell you that I am not a musician. That is correct. From the very beginning of my career, I classed myself as a phonometrographer. My work is completely phonometrical. Take my Fils des Etoiles, or my Morceaux en Forme d’une Poire, my En Habit de Cheval, or my Sarabandes — it is evident that musical ideas played no part whatsoever in their composition. Science is the dominating factor… I think I can say that phonology is superior to music. There’s more variety to it. The financial return is greater, too, I owe my fortune to it. At all events, with a motodynaphone, even a rather inexperienced phonometrologist can easily note down more sounds than the most skilled musician in the same time, using the same amount of effort. This is how I have been able to write so much. And so the future lies with phonometrology.” Similar to his article “A Learned Lecture on Music and Animals,” Satie also details his beliefs regarding animal intelligence, which is strangely profound, “That animals have intelligence cannot be denied [...] But what is Man doing to improve the mental condition of his resigned fellow-creatures? [...] Homing pigeons have absolutely no preparation in geography to help them in their job; fish are excluded from the study of oceanography; cattle, sheep and calves know nothing of the rational organization of a modern slaughter-house, and are ignorant of the nutritive role they play in the society Man has made for himself."

There are so many zany excerpts from Satie’s diary pages, but I think the best piece of advice contained in the dusty pages of his biography is as follows: “My doctor has always told me to smoke. Part of his advice runs: ‘Smoke away, dear chap; if you don’t someone else will.’” If you don’t then someone else will.

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