‘He was certainly the oddest person I’ve ever known,’ said Stravinsky.
Stately and serene, Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies offer music of radical simplicity and transcendent beauty, from a composer who defied convention in his music and in his personal life.
Erik Satie is famous for his deeply eccentric nature, which extended to his dress (at one point he bought seven identical velvet suits and then, for more than ten years, wore nothing else), his eating habits (he claimed to eat only white food: ‘eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, mouldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish, without their skin’), and the instructions he gave to those performing his music: his scores are full of enigmatic notes such as ‘Light as an egg’, ‘Open your head’, ‘Work it out yourself’ and ‘Don’t eat too much’.
His sharp wit, irreverence and refusal to do as expected led him to reject the big, lush Romantic tradition of composers like Wagner, and turn instead to shorter, simpler pieces in which melody was the central element.
Satie broke new ground in many different musical ways. His familiarity with the world of cabaret (he supported himself for several years by working as a pianist at Le Chat Noir and other Montmartre nightclubs) enabled him to bring elements of jazz and ragtime into his own compositions — one of the first composers to do so. His eagerness to embrace the absurd and the surreal, to break down the barriers between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, would be an inspiration to later avant-garde composers like John Cage.
Decades before composers like Philip Glass or Steve Reich, Satie wrote one of the first ‘minimalist’ pieces, Vexations: a single page of music, to be repeated 840 times. In his ballet Parade, he pioneered the musical use of ‘non-musical’ sounds (typewriters, sirens, pistols and a lottery wheel): an idea which would evolve into the electronic musique concrète of the 1940s and 1950s. And his Furniture Music - a set of pieces written specifically not to be listened to - anticipates the concept of background music which we now take for granted.