The satisfactions of Satie

Screenshot of illustration atop Kaz's post on Eric Satie.

Screenshot of illustration atop Kaz’s post on Eric Satie.

Erik Satie is a French composer of whom I know little, but am very familiar with one of his pieces, the first of his three “Gnossiennes,” which I suspect most readers will recognize as well. It is the first video on classical-music blogger Kaz’s latest post. The piece is a lovely, mellow tune and seems to belie much of what Kaz says about Satie’s music, as do several other pieces I’ve listened to by clicking on videos in his post on Satie.

Yet of all the composers I’ve written about so far, arguably none wrote music which bears such close relation to so much of what we listen to today. Satie’s music was an important precursor to minimalist and ambient music in particular, characterized by repetitive motifs, a trance-like quality, free-form compositional structure, and an abandonment of traditional notions of exposition and development.

That may go too far. Later on Kaz compares Satie to Philip Glass. This is like comparing Louis Sullivan to Le Corbusier or Mies (the modernists consider Sullivan a precursor of modern architecture). But Kaz included a piece by Glass to show the likeness, and I have to admit it was nice enough – but is that the real Glass? Not the atonal Glass! From what little I know of Glass, I don’t think so, but I might be guilty of isolating myself from his better work because I dislike most of what I’ve heard of his.

Or maybe Kaz has confused Satie’s music with his life, which he described, in a massive understatement, as “eccentric.”

Perhaps it is hard for anyone, including a blogger on classical music, to refrain from bearing his breast and plumping for the opposite of what he loves. Even I once wrote a column in praise of a building by Frank Gehry, and was roundly denounced for doing so. Don’t believe it? “A modernist building I actually like” ran on March 17, 2011. (Good luck finding it!) Well, as to the relationship of Satie to Glass, let the listener decide.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to The satisfactions of Satie

  1. Rick Schwartz says:

    Well, mostly I’m just pleased about being re-introduced to Satie and Glass in such a thoughtful way. I can accept that Glass would see himself as influenced by Satie, but with 100+ years of other musical influences, as well, yes? Alas, I’ve heard Satie more often as theme music for romantic movies than in concert halls, perhaps because of the ‘ambient’ backbone that is its characteristic, as Kaz points out. On the other hand, he’s “pleasing” to listen to, while Glass is “irritating”. I love them both. (Glass is uncle to NPR host Ira Glass.)

    Steve Reich is very much Glass. When I was in college in the 1960s, my friends and I would lift up the needle on the stereo and move it to different spots just to hear if the music changed significantly. Not much. Love him too. Probably helped that we were stoned all the time.

    Thanks for the discussion.

    Like

  2. Lewis Dana says:

    Glass’s music is hardly describable… at least hardly describable as “atonal”. The guy creates beautiful sounds in swells and echos — often in the ever-changing patterns of ocean waves — repetitive right to the edge of, well, the famous knock knock joke:

    Knock knock. Who’s there?
    Knock knock. Who’s there?
    Knock knock. Who’s there?
    Knock knock. Who’s there?
    Knock knock. Who’s there?

    OK, OK, It’s Philip Glass.

    But atonal? Hardly.

    Like

  3. Kaz says:

    Many thanks for offering your perspective. As you’ve no doubt gathered from reading my blog, I’m no scholar of music, merely a passionate amateur trying to share my love of genre with as many people as I can reach 🙂 I do agree that Satie is a far cry from Philip Glass, my intention was rather to highlight the influence Satie exerted over minimalist music. Glass himself has cited Satie as an influence. Who are your favourite composers out of curiosity?

    Like

    • Kaz, I very much enjoy your posts and it is my assumption your thoughts are more interesting precisely because you are not a scholar. I hope you will not mind that, regarding Satie’s influence, I have sort of made a mountain out of a molehill in order to entertain readers. To say that Satie influenced those who later created minimalist music is not to say that Satie created minimalist music – though that’s what I have implied. My apologies!

      My favorite composers are Beethoven and Mozart. Though they are very different, their ability to put unforgettable melodies down in note form is unbelievable. I think B’s 9th is the most perfect work of art created ever, in any medium. And if it is true that Mozart penned his music without editing or rewriting, then I can only bow down to his genius. But then Beethoven wrote the 9th as a deaf man, yes? Incredible.

      Liked by 1 person

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