Erik Satie: the mysterious irony of an outsider

door Wynold Verweij

Of French composer Erik Satie, much is gradually becoming known but still little understood. The theme day Satie s’amuse , which Festival 20.21 dedicated to him last Sunday, showed that he himself did not want much else, it was the core of his marketing strategy. The programmers had chosen his lesser-known works, not coincidentally the compositions that pass for eccentric, religious, humorous, ironic and in any case indefinable.

Paris’ affluent conservatoire rated Satie (1866 – 1925) as “moderately talented” and “lazy”, after which he shifted his field to the woozy Montmartre. Meanwhile, Satie’s Gymnopédies are probably as well known as Abba’s hits. American contemporary composers such as Philip Glass and Terry Riley owe their repetitive arpeggios to Satie. Debussy spoke of Satie admiringly as “my precursor”. Satie collaborated with the poet Jean Cocteau and the painter Pablo Picasso. And John Cage concluded, “He is indispensable”.
Pianist Jan Michiels, this year’s festival artist, opened the day with the “ballet catholique” Uspud, a religious story about the protagonist’s path to martyrdom. The directions in the score are vintage Satie, so incomprehensible. Some measures are written for flute, but due to the lowness of the stops, unplayable. It is announced that it is time for a “wake-up call of trumpets”, but a piano is powerless to do so. The notes to some passages report horrific natural phenomena or unfathomable suffering, and yet the music ripples on unconcernedly. Jan Michiels played Sunday as we know him: powdery but velvety, fortissimo but without noise, sober but sensitive. Lise Bruyneel provided the videos of the lyrics, tastefully and effectively.

Music not to listen to

Satie’s inimitable irony was highlighted on Sunday evening with two episodes from Musique d’ameublement (1917-1923) that Satie described as “deliberate vibrations” that serve to nothing but cosy background noise. As such, it is music that should deliberately not be listened to. The ensemble I Solisti, for this time exclusively in a line-up of wind players, interpreted these pieces as domestic sounds to other activities such as tidying up, dropping objects from hands, bumping into each other and fiddling a bit with some musical instrument. As interludes unseen and unheard. In Parade, the “ballet réaliste”(1916-1917), Satie collaborated with Picasso (costumes and set), Cocteau (text) and Léonide Massine, choreographer of the Ballets Russes dance ensemble. The story is about a parade on the forecourt of a theatre, the aim of which was to bring in audiences for that evening’s performance. Tim Mulleman was responsible for the arrangement for winds. Strings did not belong there because they were considered too romantic. The first movement, in which a Chinese magician introduces himself to passers-by, consists of a few Asian-looking motifs. It has to make do with some side effects such as a hand-operated siren and the sound of a wet mop being wrung out. In the second movement, dedicated to “la Fille Américaine”, the dampers are screwed off the trombones and a rag-time is allowed to have a go. Ensemble I Solisti was clearly having fun. Pianist Jan Michiels showed here that an old-fashioned typewriter gets a well-deserved second life as a percussion instrument. The premiere (1917) was not a success. The piece was considered “sur-réaliste” and Parisians did not think it belonged in classical concert halls.

Longing for more

The compilers apparently took into account that it is impractical to do justice to Satie’s complex versatility in three hours and 10 minutes. They have therefore chosen his lesser-known works, in order to show that Satie is much more than Gymnopédies or Gnossiennes.
This makes one long for more. For instance, to a performance of Vexations for piano, a little work whose score fits on half a page but has to be played 840 times. Satie wrote to the score: “…il sera bon de se préparer au préalable…”. In 1963, a group of pianists around John Cage performed it in New York at an off-Broadway theatre. The concert began at 6pm and lasted until lunch the following day. Tickets cost $5. You could get back 5 cents per 20 minutes of attendance. At the end, one listener was left. And who shouted, “Encore!”

WHAT: Satie s’amuse, theme day Festival 20.21
WHO: I Solisti, Jan Michiels (piano), Lise Bruyneel (video)
WHERE: 30CC/Schouwburg, Leuven
SEEN: 8 October 2023
PHOTO: Malou van den Heuvel/Festival 20.21

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