Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Eric Satie: Socrate

Erik Satie (1866-1925) circa 1919, soon after completing Socrate
Erik Satie (1866-1925) circa 1919, soon after completing Socrate

Pardon me a brief (well, maybe not as brief as you’d like) rant.

Encyclopedia articles about Satie inevitably begin by calling him a “precursor”, a card-carrying member of the Parisian “avant-garde” (properly defined as “people or works that are experimental, radical, or unorthodox with respect to art, culture, or society”), someone whose music “predicted” such genres as minimalism, repetitive music, the Theater of the Absurd, background music and ambient music (what Satie coined as being “furniture music” back in 1917).

Just so, the article on Erik Satie in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians begins this way (italics mine):

“He was an iconoclast, a man of ideas who looked constantly towards the future. Debussy christened him ‘the precursor’ because of his early harmonic innovations, though he surpassed [Debussy’s] conception of him by anticipating most of the ‘advances’ of 20th-century music – from organized total chromaticism to minimalism.”

(Momentarily apropos of Debussy, we have to take any compliments he gave with very large grains of sel de mer. In truth, he could be as gnarsty as a honey badger with a hangnail. Debussy was happy to say nice things about Satie as long as Satie was a nobody. But as soon as Satie attained a measure of fame and popularity in the years after 1912, Debussy became green with envy and his compliments stopped dead in their tracks.)

In reference to the New Grove introductory statement above, written and then revised by, respectively, the English musicologists Robert Orledge and Caroline Potter, we would ask: how do they know Satie “looked constantly towards the future”? They don’t know, and Satie didn’t. Additionally, we should find the phrase “anticipating most of the ‘advances’ of 20th-century music” particularly problematic. Satie did not anticipate anything, least of all “most” of anything. The word “anticipate” can imply some sort of foreknowledge, foreknowledge being one thing Satie did not have among the chaotic crap that littered his flat.

(Question. Were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak “anticipating the advances of 20th-century computing” when they built their first computer in that fabled garage in Los Altos, California in 1976? Of course not. They were living and working entirely in the present, solving problems that existed in the present, creating something that served a purpose in the present.)

Back to Satie as “precursor”. We might ask: what’s the difference between a “precursor” and a “crackpot”? Often there’s no difference at all, and only time will tell whether a crackpot was really on to something or merely an eccentric tinkerer, an evolutionary dead-end.

I know that for some, I’m merely being nitpicky, perhaps even cranky as I indulge in what might appear to be nothing but semantic arguments regarding Satie as a “futurist.” I will admit to being cranky, but I am most definitely not picking argumentative semantical nits. Rather, I am advocating that Satie not be introduced and summarized by invoking a future he could not have known, but rather, by the extraordinary creative leaps he took while he was alive and the artistic impulses that lead him to take those leaps in the first place.

So, here’s my Satie introduction:

“Satie was shockingly original musical thinker whose counterculture, anti-institutional attitude and experience in cabaret led him to take compositional freedoms that “classically trained” composers would not, a few of which, co-incidentally – went on to become compositional norms later in the century.”

I feel so much better.…

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