Of Sea Bird and Surrealism: An Essay by Bill Morelock

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
June 13, 2014

St. Paul, Minn. — Erik Satie set the table for the French heavy hitters who came after him.

Without Satie, the celebrated group of young composers known as The 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 which defined what a rock & roll musician was, Satie introduced the zests and spices, perversities and witticisms, hatreds and infatuations 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 their tastes and too awfully sure of how the world turned.

Erik Alfred Satie was born (1866) in Honfleur on the English channel — to the wrong brother: Satie's father Alfred was a serious, studious son of a shipbroker who married and settled into the family business; Erik's uncle Adrien, meanwhile, 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 Erik 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, of course, 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 whom he knew and who admired him 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 Ballet 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 the audience baffled by a spectacle best described by a newly coined word: surreal.

Parade, just fifteen minutes long, caused 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?

On June 14, 2014, the sounds of Erik Satie will take up residence at Northrop Auditorium for the night — for the entire night, in fact. Read more about Satie's Vexations at Northern Spark.

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