American author Mary E. Davis revisits the life of composer Erik Satie, re-establishing him as one of the key innovators in modernist music and culture.
Eccentric even by the standards of Parisian artistic avant-garde and fin de siècle bohemians, Erik Satie was famous for his unusual manners, outfits, and radical artistic gestures. Together with periods of poverty and despair—and other crises in his life—his eccentricity made him a cult figure in the history of music. However, despite his talent, Satie remained in the shadow of his contemporaries Debussy, Stravinsky, and Ravel. Revisiting some of the key episodes of his life, Mary E. Davis re-establishes Satie’s innovative contribution to the transition from the classical era to the modernist musical culture of the post-war period.
Despite the fact that he was believed to be “the laziest student in the Conservatoire”, Satie never gave up music. In his early works he was already deconstructing the classical tradition and introducing to it elements of music hall, chanson, cabaret, and other popular genres. Declared “musically bankrupt” by critics, Satie stubbornly rejected convention and remained faithful to his experiments.
In the 1880s and 1890s, Satie composed his first ambitious works (Gymnopédies), met Claude Debussy and worked in the fashionable cabarets Chat de Noir and Auberge du Clou. In the early twentieth century, he studied modern theories of counterpoint at Paris’s experimental music school Schola Cantorum, which brought on his most prolific period in the 1910s–1920s—the decades when his best-known works were made—from the multimedia series Sports et divertissements (Sports and Pastimes) that mixed music with everyday life, advertising, and theatre, to furniture music made to provide background for various leisure activities.
Together with Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and Léonide Massine, Satie worked on the ballet Parade that was produced by Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and on Étienne de Beaumont's Mercure. In 1920 he met Tristan Tzara and entered the Dadaist circle. Soon after, he wrote the music for the notorious show Relâche (Show Cancelled), which ended with Satie and Francis Picabia driving a Citroën onto the theatre stage.
Satie was often called Velvet Gentleman for wasting half of his inheritance on identical corduroy suits, which he wore for many years. His friend Picabia came up with another nickname: Erik Satirik, pointing to the composer’s sense of humour that manifests itself clearly in most of his works. Long before the age of pop art and celebrity culture, Satie, as Davis writes, “understood the value of cutting a unique— and easily recognizable—figure”. And this unique image of a charismatic dandy and idiosyncratic genius, which Satie maintained throughout his life, is at the center of this book.
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