Sunday 21 January 2018

Erik was light years ahead of his time


Eric Alfred Leslie Satie
Eric Alfred Leslie Satie

George Hamilton

Eric Alfred Leslie Satie was one of the most original, not to mention one of the most idiosyncratic, men of music. Today is his birthday.

He was born in 1866 to a Scottish mother and a French father in a place called Honfleur, a pretty harbour town in Normandy on the estuary of the River Seine. It was a favourite spot of the impressionist painter Claude Monet, which is as good a link as any to the music of Satie, for he was unconventional too.

His mother died when he was six and his father later married again. The new wife was a pianist, who promptly packed the boy off to the conservatory in Paris.

It was not what the young Satie fancied at all, and he was a terrible student, the laziest in the class according to his teacher. But, nonetheless, a slow-burning fuse had been lit, and he took to writing for the piano, music that was ahead of its time.

His Gymnopédies and his Gnossiennes marked him out as a bold and innovative twenty-something, and he revelled in his status as a bit of an oddball. When he came into some money, he went and bought himself seven identical corduroy suits, one for each day of the week, so that he wouldn't have to be bothered about deciding what to wear.

He expanded his radical ideas, including the oddest instructions to the musicians who'd perform his pieces. "Play this in exactly the same way as a crab walks," was the direction on one of them. Another was to be delivered "superstitiously". Then there was his Embryons Desséchés ("desiccated embryos" is what that means), with the sheet music laid out under the advice that it should be performed "comme un rossignol qui aurait mal aux dents" – "like a nightingale with a toothache".

One critic, who'd go on to become Professor of Music at Glasgow University, saw satire in Satie's work. William Gillies Whittaker dubbed him the Mark Twain of music.

To say he was eccentric is putting it mildly. He lived in a garret – a one-room apartment which housed a piano he never played.

He reckoned that music didn't actually have to be listened to. He coined the term musique d'ameublement (music as part of the furniture) and in that, too, he was ahead of his time. Background music – muzak – has become so much a part of our lives now. Satie actually composed specifically for this purpose.

Perhaps the oddest yarn about this unique figure is of the time he chucked his girlfriend out of his apartment window. She survived the fall, it was said, because she'd trained as an acrobat. Being about Erik Satie (who preferred the European spelling of his name), the tale could very likely be true.


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