Before the Six, there was Satie
May 28, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. —
Without Satie, the Six (Les Six) might have been four, or seven, or some other number not quantitatively, and certainly not qualitatively, six. Satie, in his impishness and spite, unwittingly invented an attitude. Just as Elvis and Chuck Berry struck the various poses that defined what a rock & roll musician was, Satie introduced the zests and spices, perversities and witticisms, hatreds and loves that characterized the anarchic musical ferment of the nineteen-teens and twenties in Paris. Satie--like an unrepentant patriarch of rock--angered and confused anyone complacent in his or her tastes and too awfully sure of how the world turned.
Erik Alfred Satie was born in Honfleur on the English Channel to the wrong brother. His father Alfred was a serious, studious son of a shipbroker who married and settled into the family business. Erik's uncle Adrien was a practical joker, a flirt, a hopelessly whimsical man nicknamed "Sea Bird." He built a beautiful carriage, and declared it too fine to ride in. He built an exquisite boat, in which he smoked his pipe all day, and never took it out to sea. His nephew adored him.
Erik Satie was a bad pianist, loved wet, dreary weather, wrote most of his music on napkins in cafes, and practiced a novel method of ending a relationship. After tiring of the attentions of one lover, he simply informed the police that the woman was bothering him. She was arrested the next time she visited his apartment.
He labored in near anonymity for decades, writing little piano pieces with eccentric titles: "Dessicated Embryos; Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear "(which petulantly featured seven pieces); "Moods and Exasperations of a Big Galoot Made of Wood, "and the lovely "Gymnopedies", composed when he was just twenty-two.
Then, when he was fifty, came "Parade".
In the second year of WWI (during air raids in his neighborhood the bearded and bowler-crowned composer would enter the shelter and announce, "Good evening, I have come to die with you") Satie met the 26-year-old Jean Cocteau. The young poet and aesthete was as well-known for his acquaintances and admirers as he was for his actual work.
Cocteau was presenting a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with a circus ring replacing the enchanted wood. It required Oberon to declaim his lines to the tune of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." The impresario asked Satie to write the incidental music. The project collapsed, but when the director of the Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev, asked Cocteau for a new ballet, Satie got another call.
With sets by Picasso and choreography by Leonid Massine, "Parade" was to make Erik Satie an overnight sensation. "Parade" is set at a fairground, where the members of a circus troupe--a barker, an acrobat, an American girl, a Chinese magician--perform samples of their acts to attract passersby. The girl, for example, exhausts herself riding a bicycle, firing a pistol, imitating Charlie Chaplin. But all in vain. The barker can't convince anyone that the "trailer" is just a promise of more inside the big top. The people turn away, perfectly satisfied. Both the scenario and Satie's score--which included the sounds of a revolver, a typewriter, and various other provocative noisemakers--enraged and baffled an audience encountering a spectacle best described by a newly coined word: surreal.
There was a riot. The audience hurled insults and, when imagination failed, chairs, at the stage. The conductor Ernest Ansermet could barely hear the musicians over the catcalls. Biographer James Harding writes that "the chief concern of the majority of writers was to establish the exact degree of idiocy which "Parade" represented. For some, it was a compound of Picasso's stupidity and Satie's banality." Cocteau loved it all. Between the contrived and spontaneous spectacles of dance and audience, something interesting had been forged. Was it art, or was it a practical joke? And (as Cocteau, smirking, might have asked ) did it matter?