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Laura B

Laura B


Total Article : 52

Erik Satie

Erik Satie

Erik Satie (1866-1925) was a French composer and pianist of the avant-garde, which means he wrote music that was experimental and innovative. In 1879 he entered the Paris Conservatoire, a large and prestigious music school. However, his teachers branded him “worthless”, “insignificant and laborious” and “the laziest student in the Conservatoire.” Having left he integrated himself with the bohemian artists who met at Le Chat Noir, a famous café and cabaret in Montmarte. He soon abandoned any lessons taught to him at the school, inspired instead by the music played at the night-clubs and cafes throughout the artistic neighbourhood.

Satie’s music was an important precursor to minimalist and ambient music, with repetitive motifs, and free-form compositional structures. In particular, Satie abandoned the traditional, Romantic notion of development. Rather than building towards a denouement, or climax, his music remained consistent throughout. From 1888 he began to publish his Gymnopédies, short atmospheric and gentle pieces. These were named so because Satie first introduced himself to the director of Le Chat Noir as a “gymnopaedist”, as he didn’t have a recognisable profession.

Through his life Satie published many musical compositions and writings, and made his living as a cabaret pianist. He was involved in Socialist, and later Communist politics, and with artists from the Dada and Surrealist movements. He even helped Man Ray to make his first readymade art piece, The Gift, which consists of a clothes iron with nails projecting from it!

Starting from 1912 Satie’s miniatures for piano became very successful, and he wrote and published many in the next few years. His success was helped by that of Maurice Ravel, a younger composer and pianist who Satie had first met in 1893. The "Jeunes Ravêlites" were a group of young musicians who surrounded the younger man, and who proclaimed their preference for Satie’s earlier work.

Satie’s eccentric music reflects his extremely unconventional private nature. In public he was a dapper man nicknamed “the Velvet Gentleman” because he was always immaculately dressed in one of seven identical velvet suits. When he died in 1925 from cirrhosis of the liver after years of heavy drinking, his friends discovered that he had been living in squalor. His apartment was a one-room hovel overflowing with unsorted papers, over 100 umbrellas hanging from the walls, and two grand pianos stacked one on top of the other, with the top one used for storage. They also discovered compositions that were either thought to have been lost or totally unknown.

We have an idea of Satie’s odd habits from his surreal autobiography, entitled Memoirs of an Amnesiac. He gives a very detailed timetable of his daily activities, including waking up at precisely 7:18, and working from 10:23 to 11:47, and again from 3:12 to 4:07pm. He only ate white food: eggs, sugar, grated bones, fat, chicken cooked in white water, fruit-mould and whatever “cotton salad” is.

“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.”

Satie is thought to have had only one relationship in his life, with his equally eccentric neighbour, an artist and model named Suzanne Valadon. She considered her two cats to be “good Catholics” and treated them to caviar on Fridays, and kept a goat to eat any artwork she was unsatisfied with. Their relationship lasted just six months however, and her abrupt departure left Satie devastated. He poured his feelings into a piece called Vexations, which consists of a short and sinister theme repeated 840 times!


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