Erik Satie (Biography)

I’d largely forgotten about Satie, having played some of his compositions in a previous life as an amateur pianist, but was reminded of him when reading Boredom. This is where I discovered his Vexations, a half page of music intended to be played 840 times very slowly and softly, written in 1893 but first performed completely in 1963 by John Cage et al, performance time ranging upwards of 24 hours. He wrote the piece as a response to the end of an intense and brief affair with artist Susanne Valadon. It features “built-in annoyances for the performer in persistent enharmonic spellings, atonal harmonies and asymmetrical phrase structures, all of which undercuts efforts to retain the music in memory.”

You probably know Satie by his Gymnopédie No.1, frequently used in films, which Debussy helped to popularize with his own orchestration. Born in 1866, he was a middle aged bohemian during the roaring 20s in Paris, palling around with Picasso, Cocteau, etc. He was also penniless, and never let anyone into his final apartment, a single room on the outskirts of Paris. After he died, friends were shocked by the poverty. A memorable quote from age 50: “When I was young, people used to say to me ‘Wait until you’re fifty, you’ll see. I am fifty. I haven’t seen anything.”

The author describes Satie’s aesthetic as “stemming from boredom which was ‘mysterious and profound.'” (Satie’s actual quote: “The public worships Ennui. For them, Ennui is mysterious & profound.”) Yet another bridge into the modern, he frequently placed variations of popular songs in his work to connect the past to the future. He’s also the originator of the idea of Musak—music not to be listened to, or Furniture Music.

Satie also played with the relationship of music, text, and art. In a preface to Sports et divertissements, he includes a brief composition, the Unappetizing Chorale, composed ‘in the morning, before breakfast’ and states:

For the shriveled up and stupid I have written a serious and proper chorale.
I have put into it all I know of boredom.
I dedicate this chorale to all those who do not like me.
I withdraw.