on life, music etc beyond mainstream

2018 8 Mrz

Satie for Two

von: Brian Whistler Filed under: Blog | TB | 1 Comment




Erik Satie has been on my mind lately. I’ve been reading Mary E. Davis’s excellent biography, Erik Satie (Reaktion Books, 2007), as well as listening to and playing some of his music for piano.

Satie was a complex man who struggled with opposing parts of his nature. He was at various times a bohemian, a religious zealot (he formed his own church,) Dadaist, bourgeois wannabe, and on rare occasions, a romantic. Like the late Frank Zappa, he shared a yearning to be taken seriously, injecting satire and humor into his pieces just in case he wasn’t—as if to say, “Hey man, it’s all a joke anyway.” And maybe just because, at heart, he was simply an absurdist.

Satie admired and befriended Debussy, who admired him back and borrowed liberally from him. Debussy proved to be the better orchestrator and a master of the long form, but Satie’s ear-inspired miniatures live on, continuing to delight and baffle musicians and music lovers. Debussy often gets credited for being the first modernist, (as he was in a recent NYT article,) but Satie was playing in the same harmonic sandbox at least a decade before „Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune.“ Furthmore, it could be argued that Satie was the first minimalist as well.

One such piece, „Vexations“ was written in answer to his feelings of anger and grief over the loss of his one true love, Suzanne Valadon, an artist and fellow bohemian. Completely taken with the young painter and ex-circus performer, Satie asked her to marry him the day they met. She politely demurred, but shortly after, moved into the room right next door to Satie’s apartment in Montmartre. He called her Biqui and once wrote, “Impossible to stop thinking about your whole being: you are in me complete, everywhere, I see nothing but your exquisite eyes, your gentle hands, and your little child’s feet.“ Their turbulent fling lasted all of 6 months, and after that, it is said Satie never took another lover. Summing up his experience, he said that he believed love to be simply “a sickness of the nerves.”

„Vexations“ is a short, slow little piece of which Satie asks the player to perform no less than 840 times. Last September at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, it was played for almost 20 hours by 20 pianists in something that resembled a marathon relay race or an ancient, esoteric ritual: One by one, as one pianist was finishing their hour of repetitions, another would slowly step up and seamlessly begin the piece over again without missing a beat. Incidentally, just to mess with the player a little more, „Vexations“ is written with strange enharmonic spellings, and no matter how many times it’s played, somehow one still feels it’s anyone’s guess what the next note might be. It is rife with tritones, an interval traditionally thought to be extremely dissonant – every beat contains one. Perhaps this was Satie’s way of venting, or doing penance for his transgressions. (He blamed himself for the falling out with Valadon.)

Satie’s music is full of eccentric directions to the player. One of  the most famous of these is the direction to play a passage “like a nightingale with a toothache.” Satie was also fond of writing little stories beneath the music. Sometimes they were programmatic, other times they were seemingly completely unrelated. The text serves as a subtext that subtly informs the player’s interpretation. At times, while reading these, one gets the sense that a crazy but harmless grandfather is whispering in one’s ear. There’s even a piece which explicitly admonishes the player never to read the text aloud while being performed—because it might precipitate the Apocalypse.

Looking recently for a complete set of Satie’s piano music, I found that there really isn’t one; every “complete set” is missing something. On top of that, there are many posthumously unearthed piano pieces, some of which have only been published in the last 50 years.

I just came across a fairly comprehensive recording of Satie’s piano music, performed by the very gifted Cristina Ariagno. She has the touch and gets the tempos just right, not too slow as many pianists, such as Leeuw, make the mistake of doing, and never rushed. Unfortunately, this collection doesn’t include any of the pieces Satie wrote for 4 hands. In an inspired bit of programming, this set is organized by thematic material (Greek-inspired, Rosicrucian, whimsical humor, Sports and Divertissements, music for theater, etc.) as opposed to the usual chronological order. As such it really sheds light on the different sides of both the man and the artist. (Ms Ariagno also plays the aforementioned Vexations 42 times, filling up disc 6.)

My first introduction to Satie’s music came in the form of  the lovely and appropriately quirky album, The Velvet Gentleman, Music of Erik Satie. Performed by the Camerata Contemporary Chamber Group, this strange and surprisingly beautiful album came out in about 1970; thus far it has never been released in digital form. Capturing both the beauty and humor of his music, it features a number of his most popular pieces and some lesser known compositions,  arranged for a small chamber orchestra with Moog synthesizer. It’s a little dated today, but that’s part of its charm. And after all, we’re talking about Erik Satie here, so charm is an essential ingredient.

The Camarata made a couple of other Satie albums. One that’s almost impossible to find (and which I’ve yet to hear,) is called Through the Looking Glass. Another, The Electronic Satie, is available for free in MP3 format here. It’s not nearly as good as The Velvet Gentleman, though, relying far too much on the Moog synthesizer for my tastes.

As I mentioned earlier, Satie struggled to find a sense of artistic legitimacy; he desperately wanted to be respected by his peers. At 39, he went so far as to enroll in the conservative Schola Cantorum to study counterpoint with Vincent D’Indy. After about 5 years of study, he made it through the entire program, securing his degree. But when he went back to composing, although his new pieces were rigorously constructed, employing strict counterpoint in fugal, chorale, or sonata form, he soon realized his music had suffered at the hands of his hard-earned academic rigor. “What on earth have I been doing with D’Indy?” he wrote. “The things I wrote before had such charm! Such depth! And now? How boring and uninteresting!” Eventually, he abandoned these labored efforts and went back to a more natural writing style.

Which reminds me of a story:

I once had a composition teacher who, the first time I came to see him, asked me to play for him. After my nervous performance, he said, “There once was a man who lived in the middle of the forest. He built a little cabin in the woods, where he cleared the trees and planted a garden. He lived in the middle of this woodland paradise with his lovely wife. But it wasn’t enough for him. Instead of staying in his peaceful forest retreat, he went on a quest, looking for answers, the holy grail, more knowledge—even he wasn’t sure what he was looking for. Meanwhile, his beautiful wife sat alone in his secluded forest home, pining away for him.”

It appears eventually Satie returned home to a tiny suburban retreat outside Paris, where he set up house with his muse and continued to compose. For the last 20 odd years of his life, he never let anyone enter his apartment, which after his death, amidst the squalor, was found to be filled with drawings, writings, and quite a number of unpublished pieces, both unfinished and complete.

This entry was posted on Donnerstag, 8. März 2018 and is filed under "Blog". You can follow any responses to this entry with RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

1 Comment

  1. Michael Engelbrecht:

    Thrilling, Satie is a name that comes along with stories, how fine to get a wider view without neglecting the element of story tellin‘ & tale spinnin‘ …

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