Watch Animated Scores of Eric Satie’s Most Famous Pieces: “Gymnopedie No. 1” and “Gnossienne No. 1”

In an NPR inter­view, Caitlin Hor­rocks, author of a nov­el about Erik Satie called The Vex­a­tions, remem­bers the first time she encoun­tered the composer’s work. “As a piano stu­dent, my teacher assigned me one of the ‘Gymnopiedies.’ And as a kid, I just imme­di­ate­ly loved it.” Yet when Hor­rocks dug deep­er into Satie’s cat­a­logue, “very quick­ly I was run­ning into things like ‘Flab­by Pre­ludes (For a Dog)’ or ‘Dried Embryos,’ one of which con­tains essen­tial­ly lines of dia­logue from the point of view of a sea cucum­ber. And as an aspir­ing pianist, I was annoyed. I was dis­ap­point­ed.”

Hor­rocks essen­tial­ly describes the way Satie has been remem­bered by pop­u­lar culture—as the com­pos­er of the extra­or­di­nar­i­ly pop­u­lar “Gymo­pe­dies” and “Gnossi­ennes,” and a lot of oth­er strange pieces of music few peo­ple care to lis­ten to. (The title of Hor­rocks nov­el comes from a Satie com­po­si­tion meant to be played 840 times in suc­ces­sion.) He wrote bal­lets, stage, orches­tral, and choral pieces, cham­ber music, and, sev­er­al com­po­si­tions for solo piano—and he would per­haps be a lit­tle annoyed by his lega­cy: music he com­posed in his ear­ly twen­ties has defined his entire career, though “Satie’s lat­er out­put… is arguably more ‘impor­tant,’” writes Meurig Bowen at The Guardian.

Satie was “a torch­bear­er for the avant-garde in his lat­er years.” Described by his con­tem­po­raries Rav­el and Debussy as a “precursor”–a label that fits per­fect­ly giv­en how much he came to influ­ence com­posers like John Cage–Satie did not fit in his time, and he does not fit in ours. The pref­er­ence for what Bowen calls “easy on the ear” music per­sists, and for good rea­son. We intu­itive­ly respond to melody and har­mo­ny, to music with nar­ra­tive-like struc­ture and stir­ring emo­tion­al con­tent. We so often come to music for exact­ly these qual­i­ties: to be lib­er­at­ed from think­ing and give our­selves over to feel­ing.

Satie under­stood this, and his genius in his most famous pieces was to make music that appealed to both the intel­lect and the emo­tions, not slight­ing one in favor of oth­er. The ani­mat­ed scores above for “Gymno­pe­die No. 1” and “Gnossi­enne No. 1” make this point vivid­ly, with col­ors and shapes illus­trat­ing the dura­tion and pitch of each note played by pianist Stephen Mali­nows­ki. These del­i­cate, abstract, short pieces may have reached the lev­el of “pop clas­sics” as Bowen writes, but our famil­iar­i­ty with them masks how rev­o­lu­tion­ary they were. “Gymno­pe­die No. 1,” is a “piece that relies heav­i­ly on how sym­pa­thet­ic a musi­cian you are,” Clas­sic FM explains, since “there are hard­ly any notes!”

The invent­ed names “Gymno­pe­dies” and “Gnossi­ennes” sig­nal that Satie is invent­ing new forms of music, most­ly with­out time sig­na­tures or bar divi­sions, and with some very eso­teric sources of inspi­ra­tion. Their haunt­ing, wist­ful qual­i­ties are evoked as much by the absence of musi­cal con­ven­tion as by the pres­ence of pleas­ing­ly melod­ic lines and chords. In these ani­mat­ed scores, the few notes Satie did write become bursts of flo­ral pat­terns and dec­o­ra­tive shapes, and the silences become neg­a­tive spaces, preg­nant, like the long shad­ows in Gior­gio de Chiri­co’s paint­ings, with inex­press­ible long­ings and gnos­tic mys­ter­ies.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Vel­vet Underground’s John Cale Plays Erik Satie’s Vex­a­tions on I’ve Got a Secret (1963)

Hear the Very First Pieces of Ambi­ent Music, Erik Satie’s Fur­ni­ture Music (Cir­ca 1917)

Watch the 1917 Bal­let “Parade”: Cre­at­ed by Erik Satie, Pablo Picas­so & Jean Cocteau, It Pro­voked a Riot and Inspired the Word “Sur­re­al­ism”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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