Erik Satie

Why Satie?

It was probably in 1968 that I first became aware of the music of Erik Satie. That was because the rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears featured an arrangement of Satie’s “Gymnopedies” as the first and last tracks on their second album. When I started college the next year at North Texas State University (now UNT) Satie was in the air not just because of Blood, Sweat & Tears but also because of pianist Aldo Ciccolini’s recordings, which had also been released in the late sixties. Those recordings by a rock band and a classical pianist represented a kind of artistic protest movement, much more subtle than other movements afoot in the sixties and seventies: rock bands playing quiet classical music, and classical pianists playing simple music by obscure composers — not to mention college composition majors sitting around listening to Satie instead of Webern, Stockhausen, Boulez and Elliott Carter (well, we were listening to them too).

Rock music can get pretentious sometimes — and so can classical music. And which of those genres tends toward the extremes of pretense is debatable. But Satie at his best stripped away pretense and got down to the essence of pitches, rhythms, harmonies, forms, and the composerly combinations of these things, without ever preaching musical dogma. It’s not that he didn’t preach or dogmatize, but he did so in curious ways that seemed to float and scamper around the fringes of the music itself. I like to think that he used his music, especially the printed scores, as his social media, “trolling” the musical establishment with his satiric barbs, inside jokes, cryptic insinuations, and modernist prose, scattered about on a carefully, expertly fashioned musical structure of experimental harmonies, strangely static rhythms, and radically miniaturized forms.

Steven Paxton scratches his head and asks whyDuring his lifetime Satie gained the admiration of younger composers who saw in him a path forward in a new age. He also gained the attention of, and sometimes even collaborated with, Parisian artistic heavyweights such as Cocteau, Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel, Diaghilev, Picasso, Picabia, Tristan Tzara, Duchamp, Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, and dozens of others. But he often lived on his earnings as a cabaret pianist at Chat Noir and the Auberge du Clou, Paris of Satie, 1901Auberge du Clou, and as a songwriter and arranger for popular Paris music halls. He’s still a bit of an artistic fringe character today, which probably explains why I’m compelled to keep creating my Satie transcriptions, publishing them on my Creative Spirit website as well as JW Pepper’s MyScore, and hoping they find fringy musicians to perform them and open-eared audiences to listen.

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