Happy Birthday To Erik Satie, Father Of Dada

May 17, 2017

You have a few more days to catch “The Dada Effect: An Anti-Aesthetic and Its Influence” at Vanderbilt’s Fine Arts Gallery before it closes on May 27th. The exhibit explores the rise of the artistic movement in the wake of WWI, when Dadaists gathered to forge an anti-establishment, anti-bourgeois and anti-war philosophy that rejected conventions of the past.

"Fountain," Marcel Duchamp, 1917
Credit Wikimedia Commons

And while Dadaism is mainly associated with visual art—Marcel Duchamp’s mustachioed Mona Lisa and his upended urinal piece “Fountain” are two of the most iconic Dadaist works—it was the music of Erik Satie that helped spark the movement.  

Today Satie would be celebrating his 151st birthday, and he was, by all accounts, a peculiar character. Anecdotes abound regarding his personal life, including his penchant for exclusively wearing grey velvet suits. Apparently, in an attempt to both save time and cultivate his “Velvet Gentleman” persona, he purchased seven identical suits, one for each day of the week.

But, eccentrics aside—or, maybe because of his eccentricity – Satie created music that questioned meaning and ventured into the absurd. His works anticipated a bevy of modern artistic movements, including Dadaism, Surrealism, and the Cageian musical experimentalism of the mid-twentieth century.

In celebration of Satie’s birth, and in the spirit of Vanderbilt’s Dada exhibit, here are three of Satie’s experimental works that provide a quirky cross-section of his ventures into the world of Dada.  

Trois morceaux en forme de poire, 1903

As legend has it, when friend and rival Claude Debussy suggested to Satie that he pay more attention to form in his music, Satie’s sardonic response was the work Trois morceaux en forme de poire, or, Three Pieces in the Form of a Pear.

Composed for two pianos, the suite consists of seven—not three—pieces. The opening passages allude to Debussy’s impressionism before turning boisterous and mischievous, providing a glimpse of Satie’s Dadaism through its challenge of musical tradition.

While none of the music suggests the pear in the title, “poire” was also French slang  for “head," as in stupid or foolish-headed. Perhaps it was Satie’s not-so-subtle way of rebuffing Debussy’s criticisms, and Satie was quoted as saying: “I brought [the pieces] to Debussy, who asked, ‘Why such a title?’ Why? Simply, my dear friend, because you cannot criticize my pieces in the shape of a pear. If they are en forme de poire they cannot be shapeless.”

Something about Debussy’s comments may have stuck with Satie, however. Two years later, self-conscious about such criticisms, the 39-year-old composer enrolled as a student at the Schola Cantorum to study counterpoint and orchestration. Instead of leading him to conformity, though, Satie’s studies allowed him to forge ahead with his maturing avant-garde style.

Parade, 1917

Almost exactly a century ago today,  Erik Satie premiered Parade with the Ballet Russes, who had stirred up controversy in Paris just a few years prior with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

The ballet’s concept came from Jean Cocteau, who had previously heard Satie’s Trois morceaux en forme de poire and approached the composer with the idea of writing a ballet with similar music. The piece also marked the first collaboration between Satie and Pablo Picasso, who provided the scenic and costume designs. It was in the ballet's program notes that the term "Surrealism" made its first printed appearance. 

Music critic Alex Ross describes Satie’s music, which was scored for orchestra, typewriters, sirens, airplane propellers and a lottery wheel, among others: “Jaunty tunes don’t quite get off the ground, rhythms intertwine and overlap and stop and start, sped-up whole-tone passages sound like Warner Brothers cartoon music yet to come, bitter chorales and broken fugues honor the fading past.”

Parade wasn’t well-received by everyone—including the musicians who performed it. Cocteau recalls bringing in Maurice Ravel to convince the wary orchestra that Satie’s music was, in fact, a “stylistic masterpiece.” One flutist rose during rehearsal and said to the composer: “Mr. Satie, you seem to think I’m stupid," to which Satie replied, “No, I don’t think you’re stupid. But I could be wrong.”

Relâche and Entr’acte, 1924

Even the title of Satie’s ballet is a Dada joke— Relâche can be interpreted as “Theatre Closed,” or “No Performance.” Staged in two acts, the ballet is essentially plotless, following a female character as she dances with various male characters wandering in and out of the audience. For the accompanying music, Satie drew heavily from bawdy popular tunes.

Entr’acte, a film for which Satie also provided the music, screened between acts and unfolded like a Dadaist poem of absurd images: balloon-headed figures in various stages of inflation, a ballet dancer filmed from below and a runaway hearse comprise the film, which also includes cameos from Satie, filmmaker René Clair and Dada artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray.

Though it shocked audiences and was despised by critics, Satie considered Relâche the most important theatrical project of his career. It was also his last. After years of heavy drinking, Satie fell ill and died in 1925, leaving behind a profound influence on avant-garde composers and music to come. 

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