When I was really young (6 or 7 years old?) I heard a piece of music that changed my life. And I realized it at the time. I felt it change.
There was a very modest record collection in our house. Too embarrassing to list. Somehow, and I have no idea how or why we had it as it was very out of place, there was a classical music box set. Maybe it was curiosity, or maybe just desperation, but I picked this up one day, and worked my way through it. All the big names were there, but very little of it interested me. But then it happened.
On one of the last records, towards the end of the B side, this piece started that has left a lifetime impression on me. In contrast to everything else I’d just heard it was slow, sparse, but simply… beautiful. It was Gymnopédie No.1, composed by Erik Satie.
This was pre-internet, so I never got to learn much about this music, or the person who had composed it. But I played that piece again and again over the next few years, whenever I got the chance to be alone with the record player.
Time passes, kids grow up, but I never forgot that music. And years later I was reminded of it, and the fact that other people must have heard it as well.
My sister was a big Gary Numan fan, so I got used to hearing his latest singles being played loudly and endlessly. But I wasn’t prepared for when I first heard the B side to We Are Glass, an electronic version of Gymnopédie. It must have been May 1980, because she bought his singles as soon as they came out.
Some months later Japan released Gentlemen Take Poleroids, and there it was again in the shape of the track Nightporter. It’s an almost carbon copy, something I immediately realised when I first heard it. Satie wasn’t credited, but at least there was a dedication of sorts to him a couple of years later on their 1982 tour programme, with the words “for the old man of Arcueil”, the suburb of Paris where Satie lived for the last 25 years of his life. This reignited my interest in him, and in the years that followed I started to buy albums of his music.
As the punk and new wave music of the late 70s and very early 80s turned into the frankly dreadful music that followed, I started to look back to see if I could find what music had inspired the artists that I had liked up to that point. I became interested in Cabaret Voltaire, and the influence they had had on the Sheffield scene. I was already a fan of Bowie, particularly Low, so Eno was already on my Radar. Eno took me back to Krautrock, while at the same time I was becoming more interested in work of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who had provided the soundtrack to a lot of the things I’d been watching for years without me realising it until then. These journeys eventually led me to the work of John Cage, and reading about this very curious composer, I learned that he was the person who pretty much singlehandedly rediscovered Satie in the 1950s. He discovered, and performed for the first time, Satie’s Vexations. All 840 variations.
Fast forward again, to 1999, and the much awaited new Plaid album is released, Rest Proof Clockwork. A great album. Track 8 is the curiously named Tearisci, and immediately recognisable as Satie’s Pieces Froides no 2. Again, not credited, although the track name is very nearly an anagram of Eric Satie (with the original spelling of his christian name). So many roads led back to Satie.
These are more recent influences, but in his lifetime he directly influenced Debussy, Stravinsky and Ravel, as well as collaborating with Picasso and Jean Cocteau amongst many others. Associations with Dadaism and Surrealism put Satie at the very heart of the most creative period of the Avant-Garde.
Many of his pieces are written in freeform, and some don’t even tell you what instrument the piece is to be played on. And his notes on his transcripts are there to entertain, confuse or direct(?) the player.
In 1913 he wrote the play Le Piège de Méduse, the first known use of a prepared piano.
In 1917 he wrote 5 pieces of Furniture Music (a more literal translation being furnishing music), intended to be played as background music. This predated Eno’s use of the term Ambient Music by 60 years.
His involvement in the multi-media ballet Parade saw him jailed, such was the extent to which he challenged the conventions of the time.
Despite his significance, and the company he kept, he lived a sparse existence. Walking every evening the long journey into Montmartre to take his rightful position in the Parisian Avant-Garde. Walking home in the early hours of the morning with a hammer in his pocket for security. Steps I retrace every time I go to Paris.
He died at the age of 59, penniless and living in sparse conditions in a single room on the outskirts of Paris, his home for the last 25 years of his life.
The list of his achievements, and the influence he had and still has, is endless. Satie wasn’t the first music I heard, but it was the first music I listened to. And behind those incredible pieces of music is the story of a unique individual, Éric Alfred Leslie Satie (17-05-1866 to 01-07-1925).
Happy birthday, Mr Satie. And thank you.
Satie Remembered//Robert Orledge