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Music / Erik Satie

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Éric Alfred Leslie Satie (17 May 1866 – 1 July 1925) was a French composer. His best-known works are extremely famous piano pieces called Gymnopédies (especially the first one) and Gnossiennes, which overshadow considerably the rest of his output.

Satie lived most of his life in utter poverty, first in Montmartre, then in a suburb of Paris called Arcueil, in a small room which he never let anyone enter while he was still alive. He mostly wrote for the piano, although late in his life he wrote three ballets called Parade, Relâche, and Mercure.

Satie had a taste for strange and unusual ideas, which can be seen in the titles he gave to his pieces : Veritables Préludes Flasques (Pour un Chien) (Truly Flabby Preludes (For a Dog)), Embryons Desséchés (Dessicated Embryos), Descriptions Automatiques (Automatic descriptions), and in the weird performance indications written in the score: "With bewilderment," "without pride"... Sometimes, most notably in Sports Et Divertissements, he went so far as to write little stories or poems which give meaning to the music.

Tropes that apply to Erik Satie's life and music:

  • The Alcoholic: Satie was a heavy drinker with a special fondness for absinthe, passing away at age 59 from cirrhosis of the liver.
  • Book Dumb: While he was accepted as a student at the Paris Conservatoire, he failed to impress his teachers, who described him as extremely lazy and grossly lacking in talent. He was sent home after four years of fruitless study and told to come back in a few years. He did so and washed out of the school for good shortly thereafter. Several years later, he enrolled in the Schola Cantorum de Paris for lessons in counterpoint, which proved to be a far more successful experience.
  • Brown Note: Vexations. Consisting of two bars of music with instruction to repeat it 840 times, it takes around 24 hours to perform. At least one pianist attempting a solo performance started panicking and hallucinating before quitting:
    "I would not play this piece again. I felt each repetition slowly wearing my mind away. I had to stop. If I hadn't stopped I'd be a very different person today... People who play it do so at their own great peril. ... [I] had to stop because [my] mind became full of evil thoughts, animals and "things" started peering out at [me] from the score."
  • Deliberate Injury Gambit: Upon leaving the Paris Conservatoire for good, Satie joined the army. He found this very much not to his liking, and deliberately infected himself with bronchitis in order to get discharged.
  • Eccentric Artist: He was one of the Hall of Fame examples. His gnomic piano compositions with bizarre work titles, his signature manner of dress, his affiliation with the Club de La Clay-Pipe (which had three presidents but no members!) — all exhibit the trope to a T.
  • Epic Rocking: Satie composed a piece called Vexations. The two bars of music comes with the instruction that, in order to play the theme 840 times in a row, the musician must prepare themselves in the deepest silence with "serious immobilities". Most interpret this as "you must play the theme 840 times", which combined with the "very slow" tempo instruction can take well over a day of uninterrupted playing to perform. (This may not have been Satie's intention, but why else would he mention playing the theme 840 times?)
  • Everything Is an Instrument: Parade makes use of an air siren, a gun, and a typewriter. Jean Cocteau, with whom Satie collaborated, added these instruments, somewhat to Satie's dismay.
  • Ice-Cream Koan: Satie's pieces include esoteric performance instructions such as "Like a nightingale with a toothache", "Light as an egg," "Wonder about yourself," "With great astonishment," and "Don’t leave".
  • Iconic Outfit: Satie's bowler hat, black raincoat, and countless umbrellas. Every CD release shows these visual trademarks of the man.
  • Living a Double Life: In 1899, having exhausted all other sources of income, Satie began work as a cabaret pianist. He continued to do so even after his music gained notoriety.
  • Lonely Piano Piece: Gymnopédies. The solo piano pieces in this collection exude a certain understated wistfulness.
  • Ominous Music Box Tune: Even when it's only played once rather than 840 times, Vexations has this feeling, being a fairly simple piano tune, but very dissonant and a bit mournful-sounding.
  • Outsider Music: An early Classical Music style example of this genre, especially seen in his eccentric piano works and spotty formal music training.
  • Parody Religion: Ever the tongue-in-cheek sort, Satie established a fake religion called "L'Église Métropolitaine d'Art de Jésus Conducteur" ("Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus the Conductor"). He was its only member, producing all of its written output and handing out edicts and excommunications at will. Its writings extolled the virtues of abject poverty and artistic sacrifice, as well as commenting trenchantly on music critics and organized religion and current events.
  • Standard Snippet: Gymnopédie no. 1 is widely used in soundtracks for its peaceful yet wistful mood.
  • Trash of the Titans: Satie never allowed visitors into his small apartment — and after he died, those going in to clean it out discovered that he was a hoarder. It contained scads of umbrellas, loads of unsorted papers, and various other items. Two grand pianos were also found, one sitting on top of the other, with the top one being used to store letters and packages. Among his effects were several works either thought lost or previously unknown.
  • Word Salad Title: He had a penchant for these, including such works as: Three Pieces In The Shape Of A Pear, Old Sequins And Armor, Three Sketches And Exaspirations Of A Big Wooden Fellow, and the above mentioned Veritables Préludes Flasques (Pour un Chien) (Truly Flabby Preludes (For a Dog))
  • Xtreme Kool Letterz: Born Eric Alfred Leslie Satie, he took to writing his name Erik early in his life, perhaps as an homage to his "viking" ancestry (his mother was Scottish).