The book of the week here at Soho the Dog HQ is Erik Satie, Pierre-Daniel Templier’s pioneering 1932 biography, translated into English by Elena L. and David S. French in 1969. (Dig the groovy pink cover at right.) Templier, working with Satie’s brother Conrad, produced a remarkably judicious account—although he did miss several of Satie’s works and one of his sisters. Still, it’s an impressive feat of putting an entire career in perspective, especially coming less than a decade after the subject’s death.
Templier, even at this early date, was already wrestling with one of the trickiest aspects of Satie criticism: is the importance of Satie due to the intrinsic quality of his music, or his role as a patron saint to one avant-garde movement after another? Templier warns us:
This book was not written to sing the praise of Satie the prophet: it is precisely this quality which has been used to mask the real musical value of his compositions.
True enough; but any assessment of Satie has to note his unusual talent for finding successive generations of enfants terrible to mentor. Ravel and the Société Musicale Indépendente, the Nouveaux Jeunes and Les Six, Cocteau and Picabia, Dada and Surrealism—Satie managed to get in on the ground floor again and again, and at twice the age of his young colleagues. Templier again:
When he had conceived and produced a work for which he adopted a new style, he would immediately perceive its drawbacks, its weak spots and deformations, as well as the processes by which his new idea would later be altered. This foresight may have prevented him from expressing himself more fully…. Never satisfied with his achievements, he was always searching for something new; at the age of 55 he said to his friends: “If anyone were to find something really new, I would start again at the beginning.”
What’s more, it was this association with each newer movement that finally brought Satie the stature he craved. You start to see the problem: if it wasn’t for Satie’s position as a proto-this and -that, Satie wouldn’t have written a lot of the music that his reputation should be resting on, rather than his position as a precursor to multiple streams of modern art. The dusty, traditional tripartite structure—life, personality, works—proves an aid to Templier in this regard. He’s able to discuss Satie’s career, speculate on his motivations, and talk about the music without having to decide exactly how they all fit together, if they ever even did.
You can sense Templier’s relief when he gets to talk about Socrate, the one major, high-profile work in which Satie seemed to be aiming for something timeless and personal. But even that is balanced by Templier’s recognition that the usual great-artist clichés crumble to dust as soon as they come in contact with Satie.
If [the ballets] “Mercure” and “Relâche” did not meet with great success, it is not because these works are inferior, but because they were overshadowed by “Socrate.” In the minds of “serious” people, Satie did not have the right to “sully his hands” with these two ballets, which appeared to them as a regression. To forgive such ups and downs, they could only have invoked the excuse of genius, which is what they did in the case of Picasso and Stravinsky. Satie, however, was considered to be not an artist of genius but simply a practical joker….
A worthwhile read, the book is out of print, but not terribly hard to find. (All good people spend inordinate amounts of time in libraries and used book stores anyways, right?) One more interesting thing: it often seems that either Templier or his translators are consciously aiming for a literary analogue to Satie’s musical style: aphoristic and solidly constructed sentences that put the more eccentric and poetic touches into higher relief for being stated so directly. (I once read somewhere that John Cage hated this translation, but Cage was known to be rather touchy and protective regarding all things Satie-related.) Again, Satie himself complicates this judgment: it may very well be that the author(s) were emulating Satie’s own prose style, of which there is an ample supply. But I would guess that, for such a stylistic experiment, Satie would prove a good subject. The only other similar exercise I can think of is that recent classic, Louis Andriessen and Elmer Schönberger’s The Apollonian Clockwork: On Stravinsky— although Jerrold Northrop Moore’s Elgar: A Creative Life, which intriguingly attempts to reconstruct Elgar’s compositional thought process, sometimes approaches this territory.
Finally, I can’t resist this passage, which Templier quotes. For a time, Satie contributed to a neighborhood newspaper, writing little squibs promoting local events and businesses. Here’s his ad for a dancing school:
BEING BITTEN BY A MONKEYis less fun than a visit to 60 Rue Emile-Raspail—chez l’Ami Jacob—the dancing school “La marguerite.”
I’d like to find that book as I’m on a bit of a Satie kick at the moment (as recovery from long bouts of Mahler and Wagner in the last few months). I also hope to read Robert Ordledge’s book which I hear is great.
Funny I literally clicked to read your blog and saw this post while listening to “Peccadilles Importunes”.
I’m glad you point out the importance of his music itself which is at its least very interesting. At the moment I’m just approaching him on the level of a casual listener; And when I hear something simple and pure like the third of the “Menus propos enfantins” I don’t hear dada or proto-neo classicism or furniture music or whatever. To me it is just immensely touching music. Avant-garde? Non et oui. More than anything it’s endearing and haunting.
It’s funny how Cage – one of Satie’s greatest defenders, and one of the composers most directly influenced by Satie – ended up suffering the same fate: that of being assessed on the quality of his ideas, more than on the quality of the music on which those ideas subsist. No wonder if he felt that he had a personal stake in any discussion of Satie.
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I agree with ya Ben, but must say that the quality of Cage’s music is usually quite low to this listener; for example, I don’t think Cage ever wrote a piece half as great as “Socrate” or the Nocturnes for example. But that’s just me. For Cage to be judged on his ideas would be unfair if no one looked at his music first. When I did, I didn’t see much there and went back to the ideas (which at the moment don’t interest me much).
(corrected once-iama bad spelller.)
The connection between Cage and Satie gets more interesting the more I look at it. For every reason it makes a lot of sense, there’s another reason it makes no sense at all. I don’t think Cage was cynical in making the connection–he was unapologetically promiscuous with his enthusiasms, which came and went all his life, but Satie remained a constant–but there’s more there than meets the eye, and I can’t quite figure it out yet.
Patrick points up the difficulty of getting a perspective on Cage given our current habits of music analysis and criticism (habits which, for the most part, I happen to think work quite well otherwise). I came to Cage via recordings, and apart from the Concerto for Prepared Piano, I didn’t initially see what the fuss was; but once I started to get out to concerts, I never saw a Cage piece performed live that didn’t come off like a dream. Cage wanted it that way, of course: he hated recordings, which he felt changed a piece from an experience into an object. To that extent, I think Cage might just be one of the most successful composers ever, in terms of matching the end result to the intention, but to explain it, you need (like Satie) a set of critical tools that aren’t necessarily well-suited to other music, and (unlike Satie, I think) a certain flexibility as to the whole concept of what a “composer” does. (That live effectiveness goes even for his weirdest stuff: I saw “Child of Tree” on a new music concert once, and it turned out to be not only successful, but a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. Who knew?)
I think Cage is one of the purest composers ever: it can take a while to appreciate his stuff because you read about it, think “Gosh, that sounds wild!”, but when you actually hear it for yourself you feel underwhelmed, because there’s no drama, no sensation, no scandal, nothing but sounds. The first reaction is typically to think that his music is less important than the ideas that go into it, but as you hear more of it you realise that he was deliberately avoiding using his compositional ideas in a way that would make his music “interesting” in a conventional, literary, philosophical sense.
His early compositions seem very influenced by Satie’s ideas of form and structure, and Satie’s sense of focussed inconsequentiality and indirection; the later pieces evolve from pursuing the consequences of these early techniques. A lot of Cage’s music from the 30s and 40s can sound quite dull, but it improves markedly when people don’t try to make it into something interesting. Musicians who try to finesse the music into coherent passages find some nice moments amongst a lot of tedium, but musicians who resist the urge find instead that every moment has an independent, impersonal beauty. By the time of the Prepared Piano Concerto he was learning how to obtain this effect regardless of the interpretation.
And as you say, Satie keeps coming back, over and over throughout Cage’s career.