May 17, 1866– Erik Leslie Satie:
I am by far your superior, but my notorious modesty prevents me from saying so.
In the early autumn of 1976, I had a brief, but very intense affair with a world-famous classical guitarist. A class act, he spirited me away from New York City to Cape Cod for three days of hot sex, food and wine, and then more hot sex. During our rest periods he would play guitar for me. One of the compositions that really stuck with me and made me temporarily forget his other considerable gifts was Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie #1. The piece was written for piano, but this arrangement for guitar was done by the object of my lust. I still listen to his recording of this composition and I can remember the smell of salt air and sweat from our extended weekend of love.
Dadaist/Absurdist French composer and pianist Satie was the contemporary of gay composer Maurice Ravel and heartbreaker Claude Debussy. He collaborated with the great Jean Cocteau to create the ballet Parade (1917) for gay impresario Sergei Diaghilev‘s Ballet Russes, with set designs by Pablo Picasso, and choreography by Léonide Massine, Diaghilev’s lover. His score was compelling, and the inclusion of guns, car horns, sirens, and typewriters was so innovative and raucous that it caused a riot on opening night. Satie, Cocteau, and company were charged with ”cultural anarchy” and put in jail for eight days, an event that brought Satie to the public’s attention.
Satie knew, worked with, or influenced most of the artists, writers and musicians of Paris when it was the cultural capital of the planet. He was photographed by Man Ray, Picasso painted him, and he appeared in René Clair‘s film Entr’acte (1924).
He planted the seeds of nearly every avant-garde movement of the 20th century. Satie was influential in the disciplines of minimalism in art and ambient music, plus he pioneered the use of piano music-to-film synchronization.
Satie referred to himself as a ”phonometrician”, meaning someone who measures sounds, preferring this title to that of ”musician”, after having been called ”a clumsy but subtle technician” in a book on contemporary French composers published in 1911.
Satie had a childhood where he was moved frequently between his father and grandparents, between urban Paris and country life in Normandy. His mother died when he was six-years-old. At 12 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he was an unimpressive student.
In 1887 he was forced to join the army, but Satie’s military career did not last very long; within a few months he was granted a discharge after deliberately infecting himself with bronchitis. He moved to Montmartre, La Belle Époque’s hipster neighborhood of Paris and began writing his first compositions for the piano. Satie gained a taste for Parisian nightlife, hanging out with gay poet Paul Verlaine.
Satie made his living as the pianist at the bohemian cabaret Chat Noir, the first modern night club, where the patrons sat at tables and drank cocktails while being entertained by various acts on stage. The performers were introduced by a master of ceremonies who interacted with patrons, the most famous people of the era, at their tables.
With Pédalan, who wrote the texts, Satie composed several operas plus songs for the cabaret. Many of his friends were fellow composers: Ravel, Debussy, Francis Poullenc, Darius Milhaud. He partnered on projects with many noted Parisian gay artists.
Back to Gymnopédie #1. Actually, there are three ”Gymnopédies”. These short, atmospheric pieces are written in 3/4 time, each sharing a common theme and structure, with piquant, melancholy music that includes performance instructions from the composer to play each piece ”painfully”, ”sadly” and ”gravely”. Collectively, the Gymnopédies are the beginning of modern ambient music. Theses eccentric pieces defied the classical tradition. Gymnopédie is a term invented by Satie, but it comes from a Greek word for The Gymnopaedia, an annual celebration in ancient Sparta where naked youths would dance together. Here is a performance by pianist, Anne Queffelec:
Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1 is so embedded in the popular culture that it was quoted in Someone To Call My Lover, Janet Jackson‘s 2001 pop song, and in the opening music in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies (1970)
In addition to his large body of music, Satie also left the world a remarkable set of writings, having contributed works for a range of publications, from the magazine DADA 391 to my beloved culture chronicle, Vanity Fair.
Satie was an incredibly private and highly eccentric man. He was known to enter a room and sit without removing his hat, coat or gloves, always with a brand-new umbrella. He only ate white food. Satie:
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.
Memoirs Of An Amnesiac, 1912
Coined ”furniture music”, Satie conceptualized a concert experience where the audience intentionally ignored the performers. It was purposely not listened to while the ensemble sat scattered amongst the patrons. In 1902, Satie and his ensemble premiered furniture music in a Paris art gallery, where he begged his audience beforehand to ignore the performance to come. Despite his efforts, the audience politely hushed as the performance began.
The concepts of ambient music, sound installation works, and even Muzak all have their roots in Satie’s furniture music, going from an experimental performance practice to an unavoidable phenomenon.
From 1891-92, Satie was composer-in-residence for the Mystical Order of the Rose and Cross of the Temple and Grail, an occult sect founded by Joséphin Péladan, a close friend of Satie’s at the time. After a falling out with Péladan, Satie founded his own sect of occultism in 1893 named Église Métropolitaine d’Art de Jésus Conducteur. To this day, Satie remains the sole congregant of this church.
By 1900, Debussy and Ravel had become very popular, and were achieving financial success. Meanwhile, Satie remained a poor outsider, continuing to experiment in avant-garde cabarets and theaters. On his walks, he carried a hammer which he said he carried for his own protection. He would remain walking, hammer in hand, for the rest of his life, even as his celebrity grew in his later years.
He left this world in 1925, taken at last by cirrhosis of the liver. After his funeral in 1925, his friends and associates had their first look at the tiny room he had occupied for 27 years but had never allowed anyone else to ever enter. Along with a lot of dust and cobwebs, his pals found hundreds of umbrellas, many never used, plus bunches of unknown compositions hidden around the room. Satie:
I took to my room and let small things evolve slowly.
At the time of his passing, Satie was barely known beyond the city limits of Paris. His music faded into obscurity for almost 50 years until the 1960s when it was rediscovered by the great modern minimalist gay composer John Cage, who found Satie an inspiration and influence on his own music.
Satie wrote a piece for piano with 180 notes, which had to be repeated 840 times. When it was presented in New York City in 1963, five different pianists had to play in relays all night long to give it a full performance. Titled Vexations (1893), this piece consists of a single bass phrase to be accompanied with chords notated above it. It is assumed that the piece was written for keyboard instruments, but the score does not specify. He famously said:
Experience is a form of paralysis.
Throughout his life, Satie was very discreet about his gayness, which was known only to his close circle of friends. From my research, nothing shows me that he had any sort of romantic attachment to anyone. His life appears to have been rather sexless even if his music became the soundtrack to my own sex life.