restricted access Erik Satie: Music, Art, and Literature ed. by Caroline Potter (review)
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Reviewed by
Erik Satie: Music, Art, and Literature. Caroline Potter, ed. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013. Pp. xix + 347. $119.95 (cloth).

Few composers in the history of music occupy a position as ambiguous as that held by Erik Satie (1866–1925). To many mainstream critics, he was a marginal composer of limited technical ability, whose only worthwhile contribution to the repertoire came during his early faux-medievalist period in the years around 1890, when he composed a handful of mystical, and undeniably original, pieces for piano (notably the Gymnopédies, Gnossiennes, and Ogives). These were small-scale works that ploughed the first furrows in an impressionistic harmonic field, whose fertility was subsequently exploited more fully by Debussy and Ravel. But after those early successes, so the custodians of the musical canon tell us, his work descended into gimmickry and wilful absurdism. The brevity of most of his compositions and his increasing use of humor (both in his choice of titles and in his jokey written instructions to performers) have been taken as sure signs that he was a mere farceur, not un homme sérieux. However, to a growing body of artists and humanities scholars, he is perceived, and even revered, as the precursor of modernism in music, anticipating (often by several decades) such radically new departures as minimalism, surrealism, neo-classicism, the prepared piano, composing without bar lines and, above all, a form of anti-teleological composition based on repetition and juxtaposition, rather than development. Increasingly drawn to multimedia experimentation in his later years, his non-musician friends and collaborators included Picasso, Tzara, Apollinaire, Picabia, Brancusi and René Clair, as well as Cocteau, who saw the composer’s preference for miniaturism as his strength: “The smallest work by Satie is small in the way that a keyhole is small. Everything changes when you put your eye to it.”2

Unusually amongst composers, Satie’s reputation has always soared higher outside the purely musical world than within it, so editor Caroline Potter has been wise to ensure that the essays in Erik Satie: Music, Art and Literature address a wide and (mostly) non-technical readership. [End Page 561] What began as a Study Day at Gresham College on April 16, 2010 has now developed into a collection of nine essays and a transcribed conversation that between them explore many aspects of the composer’s creativity and legacy, as well as his place in French cultural life during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The first three chapters address the connection between his music and his personal philosophy; the next five deal with his multimedia works (usually created in collaboration with other artists); and the final two discuss his impact on subsequent generations of artists. Taken together, they demonstrate convincingly how far-sighted Satie was during his lifetime. They show how far-reaching his posthumous influence has been on multi-media movements from Dadaism to Fluxus, and why post-Second World War experimental composers such as John Cage (who felt alienated from the ultra-strict serialism that dominated European avant-garde music in the 1950s and 1960s) said of him that “It’s not a question of Satie’s relevance. He’s indispensable.”

In her preface, Potter suggests that “adventurous readers” might wish to enter the book at its tenth and final chapter. I would add that cautious readers might also benefit from starting there. In conversation with the editor, British composer Howard Skempton engagingly outlines the importance of Satie and his music, explaining that experimental composers of the 1960s and 1970s (in the U.S. and UK) were initially attracted to him because his “music is understated. He’s an anti-hero … for people who were promoting an alternative tradition to the mainstream [European] avant-garde” (231). At a time when music conservatories were teaching increasingly complex and rule-laden serialist techniques, the playful humor and apparent simplicity of Satie’s music was gratefully seized upon by experimental musicians, many of whom had connections to art schools. Skempton recalls that the rediscovery of Vexations (a short atonal piano piece dating from 1893, which the composer asked the performer to play 840 times) was of particular importance “because...


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