View From the West: Erik Satie—A Model for Alternative Thinking

Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

Erik Satie has long been one of those composers who has perplexed and flummoxed music theorists, music historians, and composers. Somehow he has managed to weasel his way into the history books and must at least be mentioned in music history courses, yet he is not accorded the kind and degree of respect given to his contemporaries such as Debussy, Stravinsky, Varèse, or Schoenberg. When he is discussed, his irreverent and absurdist sense of humor is always mentioned, as well as the fact that he wrote modal music. Much is made of his eccentric lifestyle, his anti-Impressionist and anti-romantic (especially anti-Wagnerian) stance, the simplicity of musical means, and the like. However, if Satie simply spat in the eye of the status quo and wrote pared down, repetitive, simplistic music, the likelihood is that he would be as irrelevant as his detractors assume him to be. The fact that he wrote modal or quasi-modal music, came up with absurd titles for his compositions such as “Dessicated Embryos” or “Truly Flabby Preludes,” and included such famous instructions in his composition as “like a nightingale with a toothache” or “Do not change your facial expression, grow pale in the crux of your stomach” might almost be irrelevant when considering Satie’s true worth. Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that the Gymnopédies or the Gnossiennes are unimportant works. They are gorgeous and a significant parts of his oeuvre. However, they represent only a small portion of his aesthetic, which is far-reaching and profound. I am certain that it vexes musicologists, theoreticians, and composers that valuable textbook space is wasted on what they perceive of as a marginal figure such as Satie who produced such works. Indeed, Satie has been marginalized in the music world, as performances of his music are now quite rare.

So what is it that makes Satie significant? At the very least, he was a musical and artistic thinker who sought alternatives to the then on-going traditions, whether is was the post-romantic track that led to Schoenberg, atonality and serialism, or the Impressionist movement that pushed color, texture, atmosphere, and other musical materials above pitch relations in the musical hierarchy. Like Cage, Satie was not much interested in harmony and pitch relations as the be-all and end-all in music. In many instances, analyzing Satie’s music using the traditional harmonic analytical tools that are taught in the academy unlock and reveal about as much as those tools would reveal in the music of Cage, Feldman, Ashley, Oliveros, Young, Glass, or Branca, which is to say not much, if anything. Their work is not caught up with the mere conventions of pitch relations. Rather, their work is about music and not merely its construction.

What makes Satie so important is that he was a visionary, yet he was also a product of his time. He was, in a way, ahead of his time (this explains why many still do not understand him or appreciate his importance), yet he helped define his era. His association with important composers of his day is well known and includes Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Les Six, Stravinsky, and others. He was an active participant in large and vibrant Parisian arts community that included Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Cubists, Dadaists, Surrealists, and the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Sergei Diaghilev, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Francis Picabia, Henri Rousseau, and René Clair, many with whom he collaborated. Certainly one can detect elements of Cubism (as in Parade with its pistol shots, lottery wheel, typewriter, items take from real life after than manner of Synthetic Cubism) and Dadaism (Relâche, the ballet which was a collaboration with Picabia that included a film, Entr’acte cinematographique by Clair shown as an interlude and which included appearances by Duchamp, Ray and Satie).

He was also quite an iconoclast, not beholden to tradition. Like Ives, he could partake of traditional music making processes when it suited him, or he could reject them out of hand when the need arose. His work could appear naïve and simple, or bizarre and provocative.

His work anticipates elements of performance art, conceptual art, Minimalism, intermedia art, ambient music, and more. Musique d’ameublement (a.k.a. furniture music), a concept created collaboratively by Satie and Darius Milhaud, is a kind of music designed to be ignored or heard as a background complementary to its environment. Rather than serving as a forerunner of Muzak™ with its commercial impetus, it is the forebear of Brian Eno‘s ambient music which was intended to be as listenable as it was ignorable. Long before the advent of conceptual art, Satie developed a kind of conceptual music by suggesting two-sided clarinets in G minor and alto overcoat in C. Anyone who knows of Relâche realizes that it is not only informed by Dadaism, it also is an early example of intermedia art, a kind of template for Cage’s intermedia event at Black Mountain College and Allan Kaprow‘s happenings, combining music, dance, film, and pantomime.

Perhaps Satie’s magnum opus is a two-page work that was never performed according to the instructions during the composer’s lifetime, as far as we know. One of the Pages mystiques (ca. 1893-95), the infamous “Vexations” includes the instructions that it is to be played softly and slowly, and repeated 840 times. The work, full of diminished and augmented chords, seems to go nowhere.

John Cage, upon first studying the piece, declared, “One could not endure a performance of ‘Vexations’ (lasting [my estimate] twenty-four hours).” However, a few years later, Cage mounted the work’s now famous world première performance on September 3, 1963. After the performance, he noted, “‘Vexations’ was of profound religious significance.” He also said, “After about an hour and a half, we all realized that something had been set in motion that went far beyond what any of us had anticipated.” Dick Higgins explains: “In performance the satirical intent of this repetition comes through very clearly, but at the same time other very interesting results begin to appear. The music first becomes so familiar that it seems extremely offensive and objectionable. But after that the mind slowly becomes incapable of taking further offense, and a very strange, euphoric acceptance and enjoyment begin to set in.” He elaborates: “Is it boring? Only at first. After a while . . . [it] begins to intensify. By the time the piece is over, the silence is absolutely numbing, so much of an environment has the piece become.” In the numerous subsequent performances of “Vexations,” many have experienced the work as both Cage and Higgins did.

Had Satie’s aesthetic been governed by tradition, even the then modernist tradition, he could never have written “Vexations.” Whereas Schoenberg’s atonal period and subsequent serial method of composition were virtually inevitable, in the context of the evolutionary Western classical music tradition, “Vexations,” musique d’ameublement and Relâche were not.

What then is Satie’s importance for us today? For the young composer, he, along with Cage, Ives, Cowell, Varèse and other visionary musical thinkers, helps provide a new perspective on musical aesthetics. It is not important that one take up Satie’s ideas and compositional techniques (even Satie says: “There is no Satie school, Satism could never exist. I would be dead against it. In art, there must be no slavery”). Rather Satie and the other visionaries are musical emancipators who give permission, as it were, for composers to re-evaluate, reassess and seek out new possibilities and solutions.

Today much is made of “thinking outside of the box.” In fact, it has almost become a tired cliché. However, the reality is that in the West and especially in modern America, the arts have always been progressive, and the new and experimental have been embraced, at least by the creators. Composers such as Satie, Cage, Feldman, Nancarrow, Partch, Ashley, Reich, et al. have thought and worked outside of the box, much to their credit. Where would we be without their music and contributions?

It is an aesthetic mandate that composers, and, again, especially young composers take a tip from Satie who models alternative ways of thinking about art and the ideas behind music making. Remember, “In art, there must be no slavery.”