Erik Satie is perhaps best known for the Gymnopédies, gentle pieces for piano that you may have heard closing out Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre. One could also make a case for Satie as the first practitioner of modern ambient music. A watershed event was the 1902 Parisian art opening where Satie and his collaborators performed Furniture Music, as in background music, wallpaper music. The performance was not entirely successful — despite repeated pleas from the composer to ignore the music, the attendees insisted on listening.
Kenneth Goldsmith has written a fine overview of Satie’s career, his significance, and his abiding personal eccentricity:
He detested the sun, wrote an enormous amount of letters to himself reminding him of his appointments, and refused to wash his hands with soap, favoring pumice stone instead. However, his most extreme behavior was his eating. In his book Memoirs of An Amnesiac, Satie described his eating habits: “My only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, moldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin). I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with the juice of the Fuchsia. I have a good appetite, but never talk when eating for fear of strangling myself.”
Written between 1893-95, “Vexations” became Satie’s most celebrated work for the simple reason that this short piano piece had the instructions to be played 840 times. It was shrugged off as a joke for decades until 1963 when John Cage got a team of pianists together and tacked the whole thing in 18 hours. It’s since been performed many times but rarely by one pianist. Most pianists, even after hours and hours of playing the work experience a sort of amnesia and can’t remember the tune that they were playing at all. Pianists have also been know to experience hallucinations while performing the work, testifying to it’s mystical inducing qualities. Gavin Bryars once referred to “Vexations” as a kind of poor man’s “Ring of the Nebelung”.
Listen to Vexations (RealAudio: 3 hours). Recommended for reading, napping, hunkering down on long winter nights…