Satie's children

Spotlights 28.10.2022

"I find Satie to be a minor and non-existent talent.
There is certainly no longer any need to defend Erik Satie from the peremptory opinions that have plagued the entire past century. Today he is one of the French composers whose major influence continues to grow: Satie is today part of the Great History of music in the same way as a Ravel or a Messiaen. His life is full of anecdotes (more or less true), failures and humorous phrases that make him endearing, unique and close to us. He will always be contested - that is the nature of geniuses - but almost a hundred years after his death, let us trace a non-exhaustive panorama of the musical children of this medieval and gentle musician , lost in this century.**

Alfred Eric Leslie Satie, known as Erik Satie, was not yet twenty years old when he composed his Four Ogives for solo piano in 1886. Mystical music with harmonies inherited from Gregorian plainchant, which made little noise when it was published in 1889. Even today, when listening to them, this music fascinates by its simplicity, its depth and its modernity. In a France dominated by the massive influence of Wagner, opposed by a French school represented by Camille Saint-Saëns, the young Erik Satie, alone under the roofs of Montmartre, invented the music of the future.

His illustrious contemporaries
"Monsieur Précurseur" as Claude Debussy called him, admits the influence Satie had on him. In 1887, at the Auberge du Clou in Montmartre, Satie held the piano and played his Second Sarabande: it was there that Debussy first discovered him. A stormy friendship was born that would last until Debussy's death in 1918. Whether in the Sarabande of the Suite Pour le piano or the central part of the prelude La cathédrale engloutie, Satie's influence on Debussy is easily detected and the chronology is clear. In order to support him and to help make him better known, he orchestrated the first and third Gymnopédies.
These famous Gymnopédies also left a certain mark on Maurice Ravel, who found them "very much ahead of their time" (1888); much later he would still remember them in his Entretiens de la Belle et de la Bête from Ma mère l'Oye , which he amiably called "the Fourth Gymnopédie."

The next generation
Erik Satie lived long enough to benefit in the last ten years of his life from the recognition of a young generation anxious to escape from a new music that was emerging at the antipodes of the Satie spirit: pre-serial atonal music. With Jean Cocteau in 1916, he became one of the tutelary figures of the Group of Six (Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Louis Durey, Georges Auric and Arthur Honegger and Germaine Tailleferre, his "musical daughter" as he called her at the time) and in 1923 five composers (Henri Sauguet, Henri Cliquet-Pleyel, Roger Désormière, Maxime Jacob and Jacques Benoist-Méchin) founded theÉcole d'Accueil, named after the emblematic Parisian suburb where the Master had been living for 25 years. This group and this school, made up of contrasting personalities, will have at heart to preserve a musical path initiated by Satie: a sincere music, stripped of artifice, with clear melodic lines not devoid of humor and with harmonic results that are just as daring.

A smuggler

If there is one to whom Satie owes a lot, it is indeed Robert Caby. Little known today, he is nevertheless a major actor in the recognition of the composer. Poet, composer, musicologist and surrealist artist, he was 18 years old in 1924 when he met the Master, whose health was declining and who was already in the Saint-Joseph hospital. It was Darius Milhaud who acted as intermediary. He became his confidant and they both shared communist political ideas. His life is peppered with artistic, literary and political meetings; he travels to the USSR and even maintains a correspondence with Trotsky. In 1964, he worked with the Salabert publishing house and the Bibliothèque Nationale to bring out previously unpublished works by Satie. He corrected, sometimes completed and supervised most of his piano works. We owe him the discovery of the last three Gnossiennes or the Nouvelles pièces froides among other wonders. His own music has remained totally unknown, but when reading certain piano pieces, it is impossible not to detect a strong Satiean influence. A composer to be rediscovered by all Satie lovers.

John Cage
The story is famous. It was not until 1963 that one of Satie's most emblematic works was premiered: the Vexations. This was done in New York by the avant-garde composer John Cage, who saw Satie as a spiritual father. This work, rediscovered after the composer's death by Henri Sauguet, would not interest the French until well after its first performance. The Vexations prefigure - once again - the music of tomorrow by asking the performer to repeat a short, relatively austere motif a number of times bordering on madness: "In order to play this motif 840 times in a row, it will be good to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the greatest silence, by serious immobilities. Satie invented integral minimalism. John Cage defended the work of the Master all his life, paying homage to him through several of his compositions(Swinging and Perpetual Tango are dedications to Sports and Entertainment) and also arranging his Socrate for two pianos. His passion for Satie will infect composers such as Morton Feldman and Virgil Thomson. Another recently discovered, little-known piece corroborates our point, which pays tribute to the Gymnopédies: "Perhaps I can be blamed for my devotion to Satie. But I can never give it up... If my ideas sink into confusion then I owe that confusion to love."

In the form of minimalists
Minimalism was not born with Satie, and besides, this term is becoming cumbersome for all those to whom it is applied, but then why do so many American composers who are said to belong to this aesthetic recognize Satie as a musical great-grandfather? The minimalism of Satie is a use of a simple musical material, purified and repeating itself (very often) and which does not blush to emphasize a melody and harmonies limpid and emptied of a complex post-Wagnerism and a serialism invading all the XX°. The Vexations, the Gnossiennes, the Ogives and the Gymnopédies are thus minimalism before its time. Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Tom Johnson and Steve Reich are children of Satie in their refusal to adhere to the musical diktats of their time and, like him, were interested in contemporary popular music (jazz and pop music). The English minimalists were also sensitive to Satie's iconoclastic spirit: the ambient of Brian Eno is obviously inspired by the provocative furniture music of the Frenchman. Michael Nyman, Howard Skempton, Cornelius Cardew, Christopher Hobbs and Gavin Bryars have no trouble emphasizing the Satietic influence in their music. Gavin Bryars recently composed Gnossian News for the Superspectives festival.

In their corner
Two criteria can unite Federico Mompou, Frédéric Lagnau, Emahoy Tsegué - Maryam Guébrou and Dominique Lawalrée around Érik Satie: they all have a specific tropism for the piano and have each created a unique, sensitive music outside any stylistic school. The Catalan Federico Mompou has explored the boundaries of silence all his life. His music, free of barlines and aphoristic, owes to Satie the possibility of writing a music outside of time and instinctively seductive. The Frenchman Frédéric LagnauThis little-known minimalist inherited from Satie a love of titles and humorous references(Ça va son dire; L'écho des Pavanes; À mesure et au fur; Cérémonie ondulatoire; Passage à nouveau; Après la Révolution je suis passé chez moi etc.) but also a great freedom of form. The 98 year old Ethiopian composer has composed, in the calm of a small cell of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, a sweet, meticulous and melancholic music that leans towards Satie but also towards Chopin, the blues and the music of her origins. From Satie, she retains the haunting languor that can be found in his Pièces froides or his youthful waltzes. The Belgian Dominique Lawalrée will be, as for him, very explicit on the Satie influence. He experiments alone with minimal, electronic, repetitive and experimental music, just as Satie experimented with his secular harmonies. Lawalrée's music also owes a lot to Satie for the poetry of its titles (and texts), its popular inspirations (the Beatles, Robert Wyatt, jazz) and its deep and sincere spirituality which will border, at the end of his life, on mysticism.

Rone, Bernard Campan, Philippe Katerine, Yuksek, Bouli Lanners and many other artists, actors and writers love, defend and recognize Satie as a model. Pascal Comelade , the eclectic musician with a thousand references , has made Satie one of his most faithful inspirations since his early days. In his latest album Le Non-Sens du rythme, the man with the umbrellas is always present as shown in the piece Cimetière de la photographie. In the 90s a young Frenchman named Sebastian Gandera releases some cassettes and records in a discreet and shy way. In 2019, an Australian label(Efficient Space) released a compilation of his experimental piano pieces mixing re-recorded sounds and everyday atmospheres. Satie is present here everywhere: an immediate sensitivity, a melodic obviousness and a shy je-ne-sais-quoi in the playing that brings us directly into the musician's intimacy. The Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin composed in 2018 Unsent Love Letters, Meditations On Erik Satie a cycle of 26 pieces for where she puts in music all these love letters written by him and found after his death - none of which were sent. This forms a collection of strange and sensitive pieces that is one of the most beautiful tributes to the Master of Arcueil.

François Mardirossian

*Pierre Boulez, interviewed by Michel Archambault in his Entretiens avec Pierre Boulez, Paris, 2012, Folio
** Claude Debussy, on a dedication to Erik Satie

Photo Maison Satie © Tom Le Masson Banning Lover


buy twitter accounts