Erik Satie, born 17 May 1866, a French composer of mixed French/Scottish parentage, spent his formative years between the ages of 4 and 12 living with grandparents and an eccentric uncle in Honfleur, where he had his first piano lessons.
He moved to Paris to join his father and studied at the Conservatoire (1879-86) without much success. Among his earliest compositions were sets of three Gymnopédies (1888) and the Gnossiennes (1890) for piano, evoking the ancient world by means of pure simplicity, monotonous repetition and highly original module harmonies; they were to have a great influence on his friend Debussy.
Satie’s modest mocking art endeared him to a new generation of French composers around the time of the First World War. In 1915 he was discovered by Cocteau, who eulogized him in his manifesto Le Coq et L’Arlequin (1918) and ensured that his influence spread to Les six. Cocteau and Satie collaborated on the ballet Parade (1917) whose score is flatly anti-conventional in its discontinuous form, its repetitive material and its inclusion in the orchestra of a typewriter, a revolver, and other unusual instruments. This was followed by the cantata Socrate (1919) which takes creative humility to its limits – but not quite – for the next year Satie provided an art exhibition with ‘furniture music’ which was designed to be ignored.
Having read about the rather unusual and eccentric composer and his association with my much admired Jean Cocteau, whose art, filmmaking and writing I had avidly followed in my youth, I was intrigued to read recently that pianists have completed a 22-hour performance of an unusual work by Satie in which the composer directs that the same one page piece of music is played 840 times.
Dozens of pianists were involved in the performance in Satie’s Vexations to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth. The single page of music was written in distress after the end of the relationship with a girlfriend in 1893. His instructions were that it should be played 840 times in a row, very slowly.
Alistair McGowan was among the 35 musicians to participate in the event which was featured at the Cheltenham Music Festival. The pianists commenced the challenge at midday on Friday and finished nearly a day later, the following Saturday morning. Audience members of St Paul’s Church even brought sleeping bags with them to watch the performance. The piece was never performed in Satie’s lifetime and it’s possible it was never intended to be heard in public.
I wish I had been in the audience to hear this performance of a composer who must have had a manic talent, to have impressed the likes of Debussy and Cocteau. I am not sure however that I would have had the patience and the stamina to endure repetitions that would have probably driven me insane.
But who knows? I might have become addicted in old age to the monotony of recurring sounds, which I would have found intolerably irritating in my youth.