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.