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  • Manas Pratim Sharma

Eccentric Erik

After Humanism had run its course in Europe, trends of changes in the world of Arts became a rather frequent phenomenon. While the greats of music like Mozart and Beethoven make into the wondrous retelling of Musical History in the ‘Arts Village’ of Paris, someone often put into the ‘maybe columns’ is the French master Composer, Erik Satie. Often disregarded off the greater continuity in the development of music for his close ties with the ‘Dadaists’ and his pertaining ‘far-left’ views. But, most importantly what made the job well done to keep him off records was his eccentric nature, often put to words as an avant-garde (French for advanced level) eccentric.

Erik Satie was born in 1866 in Honfleur, Normandy to father, Alfred Satie and mother, Jane Leslie. Erik had to face the woes of death very early upon his mother’s death at the age of 6. It was then that he along with his brother started living with their grandparents and constructively started his first interaction with music. At the age of 12, he was brought back to Paris, upon his grandmother’s death. He was enrolled in the Paris Conservatoire where he started his formal Piano Lessons. His professor, Georges Mathias describes him as ‘insignificant, laborious and worthless’. Émile Decombes, another of his professors called him the laziest student of the Conservatoire. As the memoirs of the Conservatoire say today, he was sent off for his inability to play even a simple scale in order. He then had to join the military but was soon sent off for being infected with bronchitis.

Satie believed playing scales and existing compositions was an insult to his intellect and conversely believed that composing new pieces made him smarter. After returning from his service in the military Satie grew closer to Joseph Paladin and his Kabbalistic order of Rosicrucian, a cult for performers and artists. He stayed a prized member of the cult and was appointed the church’s official musician. It was then, he composed a number of his well-known pieces including ‘Messe des Pauvres, which he tried selling out in royalties. This led to a heated fall out with Paladin, who was against Satie using his position at the church to sell himself out.

He then went on and founded his own religion in the year 1893, bailing on the Rosicrucian. He called it the Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus, The Conductor. Of course, he was the only follower. The major activities of his religion included writing pamphlets and articles directing vitriolic attacks on music critics. One of the most frequent critics of Satie was Henry Gauthier Villars, whom he challenged to a bare-knuckle fight in 1894. He accepted the challenge thinking it to be a joke, but seeing Satie at the fight venue convinced him that Satie had gone mad.

The main source of retracing the life of Satie continues to be his autobiography, published as a series of 6 articles called in amalgamation, Memoires d’un Amnesique translating to Memoirs of an Amnesiac, the same name was later adopted by Oscar Levant for his autobiography. Nonetheless, his works, written and published between the years 1912-14 gives us a further insight to his eccentricities, he writes, “an artist must organize his life, here’s an exact timetable of my daily activities. I rise at 7:18 and am inspired from 10:23 to 11:47. I lunch at 12:11 and leave the table at 12:14. A healthy ride on horseback around my domain follows from 1:19 to 2:53. Another bout of inspiration from 3:12 to 4:07. From 4:27 to 6:47, various occupation, fencing, reflection, immobility, visits, contemplation, dexterity, swimming etcetera. Dinner is served at 7:16 and finished at 7:20. From 8:09 to 9:50, symphonic readings out loud. I go to bed regularly at 10:37. Once a week, I wake up and start at 3:19, Tuesdays.” If anything he didn’t mention, then that probably would be his bowel timings. Satie had weird takes on food too, his subsequent article on living as an artist says that he only ate food that was white and boiled his wine and drank it cold mixed with the juice of fuchsia. His clothing was the next mystery, after releasing Messe des Pauvres independently in 1885, he earned a good sum of money that he invested into 7 identical black velvet corduroy suits, one for each day of the week and wore them with no variation for straight 10 years, during which he gave himself the title, ‘Velvet Gentleman’. The aforementioned autobiography, however, points us towards some of his jewelled achievements as a Musician too. The most exciting among them would be his links with Dadaism.

Dadaism was an art movement in the early 20th century that announced itself as a reaction to World War I. It rejected logic and reason, the aestheticism of modern capitalist society and instead expressed nonsense, irrationality to demonstrate an anti-bourgeois protest. Dadaist maintained close affinities with radical left-wing and far-left politics. There were questions raised on the naming of the movement, ‘Dadaism’. The word ‘Dada’ meant ‘yes, yes’ in Rumanian and according to early Dadaist, maintained the protestant nature of the Movement.

Satie was among the pioneers of the movement. With his continued eccentricity, it is easy to see why he would be comfortable aligning with a movement that rejected logic and reasoning. But, to maintain the record, the world of Chaos he created as a Dadaist is no mere revolution. In 1917, he along with John Cocteau and Pablo Picasso released a single act ballet called, ‘Parade’ just to piss off the bourgeois audience and disrupt the status quo as Cocteau maintains in his testimony. The act was so bad, the audience loathed it. Picasso’s cardboard costumes made it difficult for the dancers to move and Satie’s music used typewriters, a foghorn, a pistol and even clinking glass as instruments. Critic Jean Poueigh gave a scathing review to which Satie personally replied on a postcard that read, ‘Sir and dear friend, you are an arse, an arse without music’. Due to this, he had to be summoned before the court and Cocteau wouldn’t stop screaming ‘arse’ during the trial. Satie also had to serve a sentence of eight days for his deeds.

In the same year, Satie published a new genre of music that he called Musique D’Ameublement, translated as furnishing music or furniture music. He specifically wrote that it was the music that was to be heard but not listened to. He composed 5 specific pieces which were written with specific purposes. One was for the arrival of guests, one was to be played during lunch or civil marriages, one was specifically for bistros, one for drawing rooms and the last one was commissioned by an American who lived in Washington DC and was supposed to be music for the office. What he created in 1917 is today called Ambient Music and continues to be one of Satie’s crucial accomplishments. However, he grew frustrated with his furniture music because whenever he’d play it people tended to listen. While Musicians would work tirelessly for their music to be paid attention to, Satie spent a good amount of time in Red Light Districts experimenting his Furniture Music with what he considered Audience of lower intellect. 

To top it all off, Satie in his 30s moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Southern Paris from Artists’ Village and stayed there until he died in 1925. In his 27 years of living there, he never allowed anyone a visit. Upon his death what was witnessed can only be called indescribable squalor. Some of the items included over 100 umbrellas, 84 identical handkerchiefs and two grand pianos stacked one over the other. While the one at the bottom was used for compositions, the one above had hundreds of unfinished/unreleased compositions including his most famous work, Vexations. Vexations was a 28 hours long piece of music. Several opinions come into this debate. It was dated to 1894, the year he was involved in an affair with Artist Suzanne Valadon, whom he proposed marriage to, after the very first night together. Many believe it was composed as an attempt to get over her rejecting him, while some say it was a prelude to him subscribing to the ideas of Dadaism.

A never thought of approach also is Vexations being his very final answer to a problem he had been trying to conquer in his later years. The problem of Ambient Music seeking attention. Vexations could very well have been a product of his subconscious, a repetitive piece for 840 times for a prolonged length of 28 hours would even put the most enthusiastic music muse to sleep. Hence, this could have been one of his first pieces to Satie’s theorization of Ambient Music that he never released.

Nevertheless, Satie’s life has always been a less explored area in the History of Music and erstwhile Arts. While his eccentricity makes him a very interesting person to study, his ties with the Dadaists and their influence over his pieces of works also leaves us with an invaluable insight to the class struggle in 20th century Europe and more specifically what it meant to the Galaxy of Artists. Of the most analyzed, it undoubtedly was an excuse for them to produce works of art around this topic but so can’t be ruled out that they actually succeeded into formalizing their protests as specific movements that paved way for the next century of continuity seen in the ideals of Minimalism, Repetitiveness and Absurdity of Theatres. 

By Manas Pratim Sharma

The featured image is an amalgamation of Pablo Picasso’s Still Life and an illustration that appeared on Steemit.


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