Long Live Satie!

Alexander Billet assesses the life and impact of composer Erik Satie, 150 years after his birth.


There are a great many fun and entertaining ways one could celebrate the 150th birthday of Erik Satie. The Velvet Gentleman seems to cast such an omniscient shadow over modern music that he is almost invisible. This of course isn’t the only paradox he represented. Though Satie was an outlandish eccentric who sought to explode musical convention, his philosophies resonate in even those most traditional, straight-laced and boring of today’s composers. In fact it is not far-fetched to say that his music is so universal in western composition that we often don’t even consciously identify it as his. Satie’s iconic Gymnopedie No. 1 was, after all, and in very stark contrast to his unorthodox predilections, used as a background lullaby in a BMW commercial.

People recognize his music without knowing it’s him. They hear his influence without knowing exactly whose influence they’re hearing. It’s at once tragic and magical. Tragical.

Satie himself would likely laugh at this. His later career included experiments in “furniture music,” music that was meant to merely fill the background while other “more important” things happened. Some have credited these experiments as being the first ambient music; others have gone so far as to call them the first muzak. When attendees stood in silence in order to take in their first performances, he is said to have walked around admonishing them: “Talk for heaven’s sake! Move around! Don’t listen!” Patrons were evidently bewildered.

It is easy to be jaded about this kind of experiment, given how commonplace it is for music to be where we are without our noticing it. But at the time this kind of approach was incredibly prescient, one that sought to more deeply explore whether and in what way music could physically change space. If Satie wanted with Musique d’ameublement to fade into the atmosphere, then the tranquil sophistication of a BMW commercial seems to have granted him his wish.

There is a nasty upshot to all this, and we have no idea whether Satie anticipated it. When one becomes part of the scenery then they can be more easily used for nefarious purposes. In the wake of last year’s terror attacks in Paris, British broadcaster Andew Neil included Satie in his list of cultural figures proving France’s “cultural superiority” to the Arab world. Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle pointed out the absurdity of this, calling Satie “a composer so questioning of state he put a question mark into La Marseillaise.”

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Satie was a radical, both aesthetically and politically. After socialist leader Jean Jaures was shot and killed in 1914 – right on the verge of World War One – Satie joined the Socialist Party, then the Communist Party, and would refer to himself in his later years as an “old Bolshevik.” (What he would think of his party’s present and shameful kowtowing to Islamophobia and equivocation on bombing the Middle East; this we can only guess.)

His music, though often written with the patronage of the wealthy, frequently and deliciously scandalized “respectable” French society. For writing pieces that poked fun at the French president during the war, he was called a traitor and a German sympathizer. Critics would often scratch their heads at his music and the performances to which he contributed. Not infrequently would they call him a pervert and a hack. Satie would respond with vitriol that was nothing if not original.

In his later years he would be embraced by the Dada movement, and would often find himself the center of controversy in the rivalries between them and the Surrealists. Tristan Tzara loved him. Andre Breton found him risible. However petty these differences might have been, they absolutely point to his being a focal point of artistic movements that demanded modernity not be merely taken at face value. Movements that suggested this moment of modernity, other moments, other times, other narratives, might peek through. Like Satie, this is so taken for granted today that it has become almost unnoticeable. But in the time of the Surrealists and Dada, there was a feeling that the taken for granted had led to an estranged life that might at any moment devolve into mass slaughter.

Mary Davis, in her brief biography of the man, calls Satie “a backward looking modernist.” This is not as contradictory as one might think. The bohemia of Montmartre that hosted Satie’s gestational years in the 1880’s was itself a retreat from the crushing of the Paris Commune, at once a way to nurse despair and keep hope alive, looking forward and backward simultaneously beneath the false glory of the Belle Epoque. His and his collaborators’ declaration in 1891 of their intention to “insufflate contemporary art, above all, aesthetic culture with theocratic essence” might appear a backward and reactionary posture, but in its appropriate context comes across for what it was: a rejection of the official triumphalist positivism flattening art. Implicit in this is the notion of a different future too.

This kind of impossible bridging together in Satie’s music is what allowed it to come alive and piss off so many. “High” and “low” cultures were separate for a reason to critics. Satie wanted them to interact. Sounds were to be taken in passively, not engaged with. Satie had no use for these walls; he feared they might turn everything into only what it was.

They asked how music can become an intangible point of convergence for the tangible world, a totalizer in which the forces of the world – both invisible and visible – might finally come under our control through the manipulations of the ethereal. What Satie demanded of music was that it, much like the confused attendees at his furniture performances, do something. That someone in a “position of influence” found such a notion ridiculous, but at the same time would need to be so vociferously serious in proving its ridiculousness, should tell us something.

Perhaps then the best way to celebrate Erik Satie’s 150th would be to do something that calls attention to his outlandish eccentricities. The absurd film below – featuring music by Satie – is the short film Entr’acte. Directed by Rene Clair, it was shown at the beginning and between the acts of each performance of Relache, a ballet by Francis Picabia, with music also by Satie. It is dynamic, sometimes nonsensical, humorous, the kind of artistic object that takes very little seriously, let alone a France that fancies itself a grand empire. There is a sense of order unhinged here, in which the everyday is inflated so as to be absurd before being deflated in turn.

A great many people disliked Entr’acte. And Relache for that matter. Satie and Picabia had rather anticipated this; a sign onstage directed dissatisfied patrons to “fuck off.”

This article was originally published at redwedgemagazine.com


  1. This is an excellent post. Yes, Satie cast a long shadow. Yet so much of the ambient piano music of today–although sparse, slow–doesn’t have that mysterious “it” that makes him great. Thanks, great stuff.


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