Satie, mon semblable, mon frère

Eric [sic] Satie’s chief defect is that he did not know his place…. Lack of musicianship and discriminating invention, incapacity for clear and continuous thinking, set Satie fumbling for some sort of originality until he hit upon the idea of letting his poverty-stricken creations face the world under high-sounding names. – Eric Blom

Astonishingly, one of our student singers – it was Elizabeth Przybylski, the same young woman who premiered a song of my own – sang Erik Satie’s magnificent Socrate as her senior project. Even more astonishingly, as a double major in French she also wrote a 90-page paper examining Socrate’s place in 20th-century aesthetics. Drawing on a wide range of writings in the psychology and history of art, including T.W. Adorno (who was urged on her by Bard’s French literature professor, I was proud to learn), Liz placed Satie in a tradition of artists who develop a style that is misunderstood and reviled by the public at first, but eventually persuades enough artists of its power and validity that it brings about a paradigm shift – to use the phrase coined and popularized in the history of science by Thomas Kuhn.

Liz’s paper exposed two contradictions that didn’t strike her as sharply as they did me. One was that, after describing for pages how Satie drew on popular musics like ragtime and dance-hall songs for his compositional idiom, she mentioned that he went on to write in an “unpopular” style. You have to be pretty steeped in classical-music culture for this not to sound oxymoronic. Yet I spend much of my life writing about composers whose reliance on, and attempts to integrate, popular-music idioms has rendered their music “unpopular.” But unpopular with whom? Every year I play Satie’s Embryons desséches for some class or another, and the students always love it and want copies. His famous Gymnopedies are among the most recognizable pieces in the repertoire, widely appropriated and imitated. I have no trouble selling my analysis students Socrate, whereas sparking an interest in Wagner or Webern takes considerable explanation and effort.

On the other hand, Liz’s voice teacher considered Socrate a waste of time – not dramatic enough – and wondered why she bothered, while a couple of other faculty members admitted that they had trouble sitting through it. When I taught a graduate analysis course at Columbia a few years ago, I mentioned that Robert Orledge’s book Satie as Composer was probably the best in the Cambridge composer series, and the grad students gasped in disgust. You would have thought I was advising them to study the music of Lawrence Welk. So who is Satie’s pop-influenced music unpopular with? Musical academics, and classical-music professionals. They’re the ones who are so well-trained, whose expectations for classical music are so precisely calibrated, that Satie’s brilliance goes right under their heads.

For the other contradiction is that the paradigm shift that Satie set in motion has stalled, and never been completed. In fact, Satie and Schoenberg are the opposite extremes whose trajectories call the very notion of artistic paradigm shift into question. The idea is that an artist picks up on a new perception, uses a new method, it is resisted by audiences and all but the most perceptive artists for a generation, but eventually it becomes the foundation for a new and widespread understanding of music. One could say that that happened with Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Bartok, and other modernists. But while Schoenberg’s new paradigm became extremely popular with musical academics and “serious” classical-music mavens – precisely the group who don’t take Satie seriously – it never caught on with the general mass of music lovers. His paradigm shift grew impressive branches, but failed to sink very deep roots, and is now in danger of toppling. Satie’s paradigm shift earned him a permanent place in the periphery of popular culture that the academics never succeed in expunging, try as they might. (I’ll never forget Frank Zappa making a nonplussed rock ‘n’ roll audience sit through Socrate at the beginning of his final New York concert.) But, though permanent, Satie’s paradigm never grew outward into the mainstream culture of music. Consequently, 90 years after its composition, Socrate continues to arouse utterly contradictory impressions, a masterpiece to some and a hollow experiment to others.

The string of composers in love with Socrate’s understated pathos constitutes a virtual musical underground, and the composers whose own music Satie has influenced – starting with Virgil Thomson, extending through John Cage and William Duckworth, and by no means ending with myself – make up a confraternity whose music will forever embarrass and irritate musical academia. Satie infected us all with a virus – a lamentable lack of ambition, perhaps, an unwillingness to be pompous except in jest, an appreciation of pleasures too simple and obvious for school-room explication, a refusal to spend one’s life trying to get into the history books by outdoing one’s competitors. Even more than Cage, he’s a litmus test, and I can hardly imagine feeling comfortable discussing music over the long term with anyone who doesn’t “get” Satie. He did create a new paradigm, and a resoundingly potent one – but one so at odds with the continuing macho, power-grabbing one-upmanship of Western culture that perhaps only a total change in our mode of civilization would create a new environment in which one could declare it victorious.

Meanwhile, if I can ever someday return from the afterlife and find that my music is scorned by musical academia but stubbornly kept alive by generation after generation of music lovers devoted to it, just like Satie’s – I’ll feel like I will have been one of the blessed ones.


  1. says

    There was a slightly out of tune piano in the theatre departement when I was in college. It was the piano I first played Satie on, and for some reason, I’ve always preferred that sound, just slightly out of tune, which might have been the type of piano in places that Satie played at.

  2. says

    I think that Satie’s paradigm has sunk very, very deep roots in the mainstream culture of music, albeit “popular music.” All you have to do is look at the success of Pink Floyd, Brian Eno, Moby, Mazzy Star, Sigur Rós, Björk and many more to see just how profoundly he changed the direction of modern music.

  3. says

    Ned Rorem recently picked Socrate as one of the great works of the 20th century, alongside Pelléas, the Rite, L’Enfant et les sortilèges, Peter Grimes, Rosenkavalier, and the Copland Piano Fantasy.

  4. Mark Surya says

    Hi-I’m 14, trying to teach myself to be a composer, and am a great fan of your works, Kyle!
    Reading this article reminded me of two years ago, in 7th grade, when I had to do a report on a ‘1900’s composer’. I wasn’t very interested in music at the time, even though I went to a music school. I was so bad, I had to search online for ‘1900’s Composers’. Everyone else was picking Stravinsky, and Copland and stuff like that. So I looked for the most obscure guy I could find.
    I eventually found out about this guy called Erik Satie, who wrote a piece that meant ‘Dried Up Embryos’, started his own church. I fell in love with his aesthetic before I heard his music. (That’s a little embarrassing to say)
    The first time I listened to his music, was when I was presenting it for the class. It was, of course, the Gymnopedie, the Gnossiene, and a Nocturne (I recognize it as the second nowadays). I was awestruck. It was the first music I ever completley fell in love with. I knew that music was something really important then, and I’ve wanted to be a composer ever since.
    I’m not sure why I’m saying this, but maybe I just need to tell someone about it. God knows I couldn’t tell anyone in my class, who fell asleep (literally) a minute into the Nocturne.

  5. says

    Someone sometimes said me that without Satie, 20th century’s music wouldn’t have been the same. And I totally believe it’s truth.
    Both, popo and classical music, have been influenced by Satie. Althought sometimes he’s discriminated, he gave a lot of new points of view, to form, harmony, rythm. Always with simplicity, but with an energy or mood, that only a few, in my opinion, have reached.

  6. says

    Eric Blom’s comments about Satie sound quite similar to things said by Brian Ferry about Brian Eno.
    Some of them (lack of musicianship and of continuous thinking) sound like things Eno’s said of himself (he frequently describes himself as “not a musician”, and the Oblique Strategies cards aren’t exactly a recipe for sustained thought on one subject).

  7. mclaren says

    “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” – M. K. Ghandi

    Satie has passed from the “ignored” stage to the ridicule, and my sense is that he’s already entered into the final stage before academic acceptance — namely, the point at which he gets ferociously attacked. We saw that from Blom and will see a lot more from others. Look for a bevy of new books by aging academics explaining why Erik Satie is guilty of triviality, unmusicality, insincerity, and barratry on the high seas. What-EV-ah. Then, about 15 – 30 years after those books appear, Satie will most likely get accepted as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century and taught as standard fare in graduate seminars on modern music.

    Standard stuff.

    Mark Surya remarked “I don’t know why I telling you this…” I dunno, maybe because Satie’s music changed your life?

    When a composer produces music that does that, it matters.

    KG replies: One clarification: the Eric Blom quote was on obit from the 1920s.

  8. says

    One “problem” with his music is the lack of virtuosity. When I worked on some Satie in the fall, my teacher fully supported me, but said I’d need something more technical when it came time for my jury.
    KG replies: Some of his music, true. But I played Embryons desseches and Croquis et agaceries d’un bonnehomme du boir and found them pretty tough going.

  9. says

    Well, for virtuoso, what about Celle qui parle trop from Chapitres tournés en tous sens? – when I hear Berio’s …points on the curve to find…, a very attractive piece, I can’t help but think of “celle qui parle trop” – and perhaps, indeed, Berio’s music “parle trop”…

  10. jimmymac says

    dint satie formalize brahms’ “music as a surface” intimations? which led to such milestones as davis and evans’ porgy and bess and gann’s fave, the supremely vertically/horizontally integrated for samuel beckett. if satie had been a painter he would be an unquestioned paragon. order is in the eye of the beholder.

  11. says

    One aspect of Socrate that fascinates me – and this is especially true for the third movement, Mort de
    , is Satie’s slight concession to what might be called a more traditional dramatic form, in the context of a work that is revolutionary in its new approach to drama, and in its alteration of the relationship between listener and sound-object. Certain details lend the movement a dramatic shape that, I believe, makes it a stronger composition, a fact (if one hears it as I do) that makes an argument on top of the “paradigm shift” you describe, Kyle – after revolutionizing an art form, rather than moving towards the extreme end suggested by that revolution, perhaps art is better served by maintaining a dynamic relationship between old and new, pre- and post-revolutionary tendencies. As new as Socrate may have been when it was written, I don’t think it would stand up as one of the great works – which I believe it does – if it was more polemical and less subtly shaped.

  12. says

    The musician is perhaps the most modest of animals, but he is also the proudest. It is he who invented the sublime art of ruining poetry.