Composer. One of the great mavericks in the development of modern music. Although he is best known as an eccentric creator of little piano pieces with whimsical titles, his ideas anticipated Impressionism, Neoclassicism, Minimalism, and Ambient Music, and influenced many composers. Eric Alfred Leslie Satie (he changed his first name to Erik on reaching adulthood) was born in Honfleur, France, to a French father and Scottish mother. He showed musical talent as a child and attended the Paris Conservatory from 1879 to 1882, though he was judged "a very insignificant student". From the late 1880s he barely made a living as a pianist at the Chat Noir, the Auberge du Clou, and other Montmartre cafes, and in the early 1890s was associated with the Rosecrucian sect of Josephin Peladan. He also befriended Claude Debussy. In 1898 Satie moved to Arcueil, a poor semirural suburb of Paris, while continuing to work in Montmartre as a pianist and occasional songwriter. From 1905 to 1908 he studied counterpoint at the Schola Cantorum under Vincent D'Indy and Albert Roussel. After decades of impoverished obscurity Satie was "discovered" by Maurice Ravel and his followers, who in 1911 proclaimed him a "brilliant precursor" in music and organized concerts of his early works. The scandalous premiere of his ballet "Parade" (1917), commissioned by Serge Diaghilev, finally put him on the map as a leader of the French avant-garde. In his last years he vigorously promoted young composers, among them the future members of "Les Six" and the "Arcueil School". A heavy drinker, he died of liver cirrhosis soon after the premiere of another controversial ballet, "Relache" (1924). He was buried in Arcueil...Much of the Satie "mystique" is colored by his eccentric character, which still tends to overshadow the seriousness of his aims and accomplishments. As a Montmartre bohemian he was fashionably exhibitionist, nicknamed "The Velvet Gentleman" because he wore only suits of gray velvet corduroy. After his public split with the Rosecrucians he became the high priest and only member of his own religious sect, "The Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus the Conductor", and published a "church newsletter" which he used to rage against critics and artists he couldn't stand. Three times he unsuccessfully applied for the supreme honor of a seat in the Academie des Beaux Arts, exaggerating his credentials to help his case, and he forced the director of the Paris Opera to at least look at one of his scores by threatening him with a duel. His humorous side began to manifest itself in "Vexations" (1893) and "Cold Pieces" (1897), the earliest of his compositions with nonsense titles that satirized the habit of Romantic (and later Impressionist) composers of giving precious-sounding names to their works. The facetious performing instructions he included ("Open your head", "Think twice before doing it", "Like a nightingale with a toothache", "Don't bite off too much") became standard, though these were intended as private jokes for the pianist and were not to be read aloud. His wit was both natural and a smokescreen against those he felt were incapable of understanding his art. At the height of his youthful antics (January 1893) he fell in love with Suzanne Valadon, a former acrobat and artists' model who was beginning her own career as a painter; their brief but intense affair was the only one Satie is known to have had. As he grew older Satie adopted the conservative dress of a minor bureaucrat, complete with bowler hat and wing collar, the better to camouflague his radical creative tendencies; he hated the sun and always carried an umbrella on his daily trips to Paris, usually on foot. He joined the Communist Party in 1922 and loved introducing himself to high society as "Citizen Satie of the Arcueil Soviet", but found his fellow Bolsheviks "disconcertingly bourgeois in matters of art". Constant adversity made him hypersensitive to the point he would break off long-standing friendships over imagined slights. After his death, when a handful of friends entered his room in Arcueil - where he had lived for 27 years without admitting another soul - they found a bed, a chair, a table, a derelict piano, cigar boxes filled with thousands of tiny drawings, and scores of umbrellas amidst dusty piles of notebooks and old newspapers. Discovered behind the piano were two substantial compositions Satie thought he had lost on a bus: the puppet opera "Genvieve de Brabant" and the delightful piano suite "Jack in the Box" (both circa 1899). Darius Milhaud arranged the latter as a ballet for Diaghilev (1926) and made sure that the other unpublished music manuscripts were carefully preserved...Satie was not a prolific composer, and the bulk of his output consists of works for solo piano. His development went through several phases but his style was singularly consistent in its melodic simplicity and lack of rhetoric and sentimentality. From his first published efforts - two piano pieces (1884) which he cheekily designated as his "Opus 62" - he went his own way, thumbing his nose at the musical establishment in the process. The unorthodox treatment of harmony and form in his keyboard tryptics "Ogives" (1886), "Three Sarabandes" (1887), "Three Gymnopedies" (1888), and "Three Gnossiennes" (1890), inspired by Satie's fascination with plainsong and Gregorian chant, was novel for the time; more appreciative listeners felt they had been written by "a savage with good taste". (Today the haunting melody of the "Gymnopedie No. 1" is one of the most familiar in all classical music, and easily Satie's most popular work). Soon he dispensed with such technical devices as bar lines, key and time signatures in his scores, allowing the interpreter greater freedom. The religious mysticism of his "Rosecrucian period" led to his first attempt at orchestral writing with the incidental music for Peladan's play "The Child of the Stars" (1891) and culminated with the "Mass of the Poor" (1895); after that his creative interests were resolutely secular. Of far greater consequence was his friendship with Debussy, which began in 1891 and remained close (if prickly) for a quarter century; through it he staked his claim as one of the founders of musical Impressionism. Debussy was impressed not only with Satie's experiments but with his ideological rejection of the whole Romantic school, in particular the dominant German influence of Wagner. "We need our own music, if possible without sauerkraut", Satie told him, suggesting they should draw inspiration from Impressionist painters such as Monet and Cezanne. He also had ideas for a new kind of French opera. "There is no need for the orchestra to grimace when a character comes on the stage", he said. "Do the trees in the scenery grimace? What we have to do is create a musical scenery, a musical atmosphere in which the characters move and talk". It was Debussy who first realized this concept with his opera "Pelleas et Melisande" (1902), but Satie would later carry it further - out of the theatre, in fact. The early Arcueil years were Satie's unhappiest, when to make ends meet he was compelled to write what he called "very dirty" cabaret songs. He was professional about it and a few of these ditties - "Je te Veux", "Tendrement", and "La Diva de l'Empire" - became hits, showing he could knock out effective pop tunes if he had to. The major "serious" work of this period is the piano duet "Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear" (1903), so named because his music had been dismissed as "shapeless" and technically deficient. These criticisms finally prompted him, at age 39, to resume his education with counterpoint lessons at the Schola; the "Tapestry Prelude" (1906), "Unpleasant Glimpses" (1908), and "In Riding Habit" (also for orchestra, 1911) show him trying to assimilate his new contrapuntal skills. The opportunity to make his mark on the Parisian music scene, courtesy of Ravel, stimulated Satie more than his studies. Beginning with "Flabby Preludes (For a Dog)" (1912) he produced over a dozen miniature piano suites through which his new style came into focus, including "Automatic Descriptions" (1913), "Dessicated Embryos" (1913), "Sketches and Exasperations of a Big Boob Made of Wood" (1913), "Chapters Turned Every Which Way" (1913), "Old Sequins and Old Breastplates" (1914), "Age-Old and Instantaneous Hours" (1914), and "Next to Last Thoughts" (1915). In addition to the droll titles and playing directions, he threaded these scores with zany non-sequitur narratives. Outstanding among this group is "Sports et Divertissements" (1914, published 1923), a set of 20 piano pieces accompanying an album of drawings by artist Charles Martin. Restricted to writing one page (less than a minute) per piece, he fashioned gems of witty concision in both music and text. The publisher was wise enough to reproduce Satie's beautifully calligraphed manuscript in facsimilie, adding to its charm. Also from this period is Satie's only play, "Baron Medusa's Trap" (1913), a one-act farce with incidental dance numbers. Absurdist theatre before the fact, it was not staged until 1921. During World War I he caught the attention of author Jean Cocteau, then a peripheral figure in the Ballet Russes, who was determined to "astonish" Diaghilev with a scenario introducing the popular spirit of the fairground into ballet; Satie, the former cabaret dweller, was his ideal choice for composer. The result of their collaboration was the landmark "Parade", a work so revolutionary in its synthesis of avant-garde art that poet Guillaume Apollinaire coined the word "surrealism" to describe it. Not least among Satie's achievements was his use of jazz elements, making him one of the earliest European composers to delve into that new genre. With cubist sets and costumes by Picasso, Leonid Massine's innovative choreography, and an orchestra augmented with typewriters, sirens, gunshots and whistles, it triggered one of the biggest commotions in Ballet Russes history. Fights broke out in the audience and Satie was later prosecuted for slander by a dissenting critic he insulted with a series of blistering postcards ("You sir, are an ass, and I might add, a most unmusical ass"). He was found guilty and sentenced to a fine and eight days in prison, but this was suspended on appeal and finally dropped. From then on he confined his humor to journalistic writings, including a series of "autobiographical" articles collectively called "Memoirs of an Amnesiac". He could not have been more serious with his most ambitious opus, the cantata "Socrate" (1918), adapted from Plato's "Dialogues" about the Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Subtitled "A Symphonic Drama in Three Parts", it is purposefully nondramatic, underscoring the words with limpid, almost invisible melodic lines. Milhaud said of it: "In the history of music 'Socrate' is unique. No previous tradition serves as a basis for comparison, nor does any other work resemble it". He wrote no more for piano after the "Bureaucratic Sonatina" (1917) and the sober "Five Nocturnes" (1919). The former is a modern paraphrase of Clementi, prefiguring Stravinsky's "neoclassical" use of such material in "Pulcinella" (1920). In 1920 Satie reintroduced his "musical scenery" idea as "Furniture Music", deliberately banal scores to function as background noise in social settings, and not to be listened to; this was the origin of Muzak and the now ubiquitous "aural wallpaper" that greets us in shopping malls and other public spaces. Ironically, its debut during a Paris art exhibition was a failure; people stopped to listen to the music, causing the distraught composer to run around the gallery shouting "Talk! Talk! Don't pay attention!" Satie's last major works were ballets. "La Belle Excentrique" (1921) is a scintillating look back at the dances of his Montmartre days. "Mercure" (1924) reunited him with Picasso and Massine in a rather malicious dig at Cocteau, who personally identified with the work's subject, the mythological character of Mercury. Satie was by then associated with the Dada art movement, and the first performance was disrupted by a violent demonstration from the rival Surrealists. "Relache" (a French stage term for "Theatre Closed") was pure Dada, with scenario, sets and costumes by one of the movement's leaders, Francis Picabia. Satie's dance numbers were in the pastiche style he favored in his last phase, blending snatches of pop songs with acrid harmonies, but he broke new ground again with "Entr'acte", a brilliantly bizarre two-reel film (directed by René Clair) shown between the ballet's two acts. At a time when movies were still silent, he created what may have been the first synchronous, shot-by-shot film score, fashioned from proto-minimalist repetition of tiny musical phrases. Satie himself had a cameo in "Entr'acte", firing a cannon at the audience from a Paris rooftop - a fitting final gesture of an irreverant career.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards