Sunday, December 20, 2009

Erik Satie - Piano Works (1992)

| Avant-Garde | Modernism | Minimalism |
| Impressionism |

Erik Satie was an important French composer from the generation of Debussy. Best remembered for several groups of piano pieces, including Trois Gymnopédies (1888), Trois Sarabandes (1887) and Trois Gnossiennes (1890), he was championed by Jean Cocteau and helped create the famous group of French composers, Les Six, which was fashioned after his artistic ideal of simplicity in the extreme. Some have viewed certain of his stylistic traits as components of Impressionism, but his harmonies and melodies have relatively little in common with the characteristics of that school. Much of his music has a subdued character, and its charm comes through in its directness and its lack of allegiance to any one aesthetic. Often his melodies are melancholy and hesitant, his moods exotic or humorous, and his compositions as a whole, or their several constituent episodes, short. He was a musical maverick who probably influenced Debussy and did influence Ravel, who freely acknowledged as much. After Satie's second period of study, he began turning more serious in his compositions, eventually producing his inspiring cantata, Socrate, considered by many his greatest work and clearly demonstrating a previously unexhibited agility. In his last decade he turned out several ballets, including Parade and Relâche, indicating his growing predilection for program and theater music. Satie was also a pianist of some ability.

Although in character they often maintain a low profile, the piano works of Erik Satie in many ways presage some of the most pervasive musical ideas in the twentieth century, from the syncopations and melodic contours of jazz to the chordal oscillations of pop to the harmonic stasis of minimalism. At the heart of each of his piano miniatures is a streamlined texture and economy of means that induce an acute expressive focus, one that, as those who play his works will attest, contradict the characterizations of emotional detachment and austerity that are often associated with Satie and his French followers. On the contrary, as demonstrated by the first of his series of Gnossiennes for solo piano, Satie's use of reduced means heightens and exaggerates the arc of his melodies and the mood of his textures. His Piano works uses lots of uncommon "grey scale" compositions, and Satie works more on changing the intensity of the hue than making it a big colourful painting.

The only "precursor" discussion Satie was involved in during his lifetime was whether or not he was a precursor of Claude Debussy, but many would follow. Over the years Satie would be described as a precursor of movements and styles as varied as Impressionism, neo-classicism, Dada, Surrealism, atonalism, minimalism, conceptual art, the Theatre of the Absurd, muzak, ambient music, multimedia art, etc., and as taking the first steps towards techniques such as prepared piano and music-to-film synchronisation. The musical styles Satie opposed were allegedly numerous: Wagnerism, Romanticism (Saint-Saëns, Franck, etc.), Impressionism (Debussy and Ravel), Expressionism (later Ravel), Slavism (Stravinsky), post-Wagnerism (Schoenberg), cabaret music, etc. Apart from some animosities on the personal level (which can be seen as symptomatic of most adherents of avant-garde movements of those days), Satie's ideas on other music of his time generally had more subtlety; for example, about César Franck he could not be brought to write critically, but would avoid the issue with jokes ("Franck's music shows surprisingly much Franckism; Some even say César Frank was lazy, which is not a commendable property in a hard working man"). Perhaps the same can be said as above regarding "Satie as precursor": there is much empty discussion — for example, the debate with Debussy appears to have been over whether or not Satie was a precursor of Impressionism, which would not have made much sense if he had been opposed to Impressionism as such.

On Allmusic

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