Satie was born in Honfleur in 1866 and, apart from one trip to Brussels, lived in Paris the whole of his adult life. And, besides one disastrous six-month affair with an artist and acrobat called Suzanne Valadon, he remained single and celibate all his life. More than anything or anyone, he loved children and animals. For 27 years, he let no one into his room except stray dogs. He said, ‘The more I know about men, the more I admire dogs’. But Satie did have one great friend in Claude Debussy, who was the composer Satie most admired in his life and with whom he maintained one of the greatest ever friendships between musicians. Satie claimed to have only ever cried twice in his life—once at the death of Debussy and once at the death of Lenin.
One of the keys to understanding Satie’s life and music was the idea of Immobility. He said that, for him, it was richer to ‘imagine’ life than to experience it. For him, experience was a form of paralysis and so he withdrew into himself. I think one of the reasons the act of withdrawing was so important to him was because he wanted to live many different lives in one place rather than the same life in many different places. Immobility allowed him to stay in one place and grow, change and shed skins, and this was symbolised by the various ‘uniforms’ he adopted throughout his life. He started out dressing in a priestly, floor-length ‘smock’, then, for seven years, he wore nothing but seven identical velvet suits, and then, in the last stages of his life, he wore the black suit and bowler hat of a minor civil servant.
Another key to Satie was the idea of The Miniature. Jean Cocteau said of him that ‘The smallest work by Satie is small in the way a keyhole is small. Everything changes when you put your eye to it.’ He made countless drawings of tiny houses, manors and châteaux, the production of which would absorb him for hours and days. These imaginary worlds were, for him, every bit as real as the ‘real’ world and he felt more at home in them. For Satie, The Miniature was a refuge of greatness.
The final key to Satie’s work is the idea of Repetition. In 1949, John Cage went to Paris to find out more about Satie’s music (apart from a few cognoscenti, Satie’s work was unknown at that time) and one of the pieces he discovered was entitled “Vexations”. Played through once, this rather innocuous piece made up of 36 diminished and augmented chords lasts no more than 2–3 minutes, but Satie had set a trap for the performer by saying that the piece should be played 840 times in succession. To do this, he said, ‘it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities’. If you follow Satie’s instructions, the average time it takes to perform the piece is about 24 hours, which is longer than it would take to perform all his other pieces of music put together.
It might seem like a joke, but Satie was deadly serious and the repetitive nature of all his pieces raises interesting questions about the function of boredom in art. Satie said that ‘boredom is deep and mysterious’. Of “Vexations”, Cage said, ‘The music first becomes so familiar that it seems extremely offensive and objectionable. But after a while the mind slowly becomes incapable of taking further offence, and a very strange euphoric acceptance and enjoyment begins to set in … It is only boring at first. After a while the euphoria begins to intensify.’
In May 2007, I was in the audience in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern for a performance of “Vexations”, performed according to Satie’s instructions. One of the pianists for the event was Gavin Bryars, who talked about its difficulties for a pianist. He said that, even after performing it many times over, pianists have great difficulty committing it to memory because of the baffling complexity of its construction and notation, and the piece requires tremendous concentration to play precisely because you return to zero 840 times. It is only in time that the piece works. For both performer and listener, “Vexations” is a test of the limits of endurance and patience—it is a maze, a koan, an inner journey as well as a spiritual vexation.
Satie was never rich or famous in his lifetime; indeed he was a pauper by choice for the whole of his life, but he was greatly admired by many musicians and artists who would go on to become famous. At his funeral were, among others, Picasso, Cocteau, Brancusi, Man Ray and Georges Braque. Satie’s favourite book was Alice in Wonderland and he often said that, because he was half Scottish, he was the only Frenchman who could fully understand English humour. He approached life humorously and was by nature an absurdist, so when Dadaism and Surrealism came along, despite being much older than others in those groups, he fitted in quite naturally with their ethos. His younger friends called him ‘Le Mâitre’ (‘The Boss’) and he sat in on their meetings as chairman, but was also their mascot.
Satie always maintained that he was a bad composer and an even worse pianist. He was indeed a very bad pianist, but of course, we now know that he was, in fact, a very good composer. The most famous of his pieces for piano are the “Trois Gymnopédies”, written when he was 21 and ill in bed during his military service. They were three versions of the same theme and Satie likened them to walking round a piece of sculpture and viewing it from three different angles. Based on ideas of purity, antiquity and tranquillity, the pieces remain amongst the best-known and most famous ever written for the piano.
But of all Satie’s creations, I think the most magnificent was his own life. I’ve always admired his refusal to conform, his dedication to his art, the singularity with which he pursued his dreams. Just as he was receiving some small recognition for his work, Satie fell gravely ill with pleurisy brought on by cirrhosis of the liver. He was moved to the St Joseph Hospital and was given a private room paid for by the fabulously wealthy Comte de Beaumont. It was there that he died in 1925. It is hard to sum up any life in a single line, particularly one as willful and eccentric as Satie’s, but his contemporary Louis Durey came closest in his description of Satie as ‘one of those capricious plants which produces a strange unique flower in some solitary and inaccessible place’.