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.