Erik Satie (1866-1925) said and did a lot of memorable things, many remarkably outlandish. Brilliant and bonkers, he composed works that range from cabaret ditties to a “symphonic drama,” from light music for educating children to complex parodies of the masters. And who can forget such composition titles as “Desiccated Embryos,” “Unpleasant Insights” or “Sketches and Provocations of a Big Wooden Fellow,” hatched many decades before the Theater of the Absurd or Monty Python?
Even though Satie is now regarded as one of the architects of modern music, early in his career he signaled his desire to think differently by introducing himself as a “gymnopedist,” an obscure title meant to impress. Soon after that, the term would reappear as “Gymnopedies,” the name for three simple, haunting melodies that would inspire scores of music-lovers, filmmakers and ad men to come.
While his warped wit was undeniable, so was his commitment to a higher cause, be it a mystical sect of his own creation, the establishment of a uniquely French genre of music, or simply a local charity. Wide respect for his gifts came late, but he is now viewed as one of the pioneers of dadaism, minimalism, ambient music, repetitive music and more. Claude Debussy, a long-time friend, dubbed him “the precursor,” perhaps referring to his influence on the impressionist music of his day. But could he have predicted how much of an influence Satie would have on future sound artists such as John Cage, Brian Eno or Ryuichi Sakamoto?
Satie’s eccentricities have stumped many biographers. Experts argue that his peculiar behavior, bizarre pronouncements and unorthodox music were part of a calculated iconoclastic fight against banality and officialdom. Psychiatrists’ posthumous diagnoses point out signs of Asperger’s or autism. Others blame the bottle, particularly the ones containing wormwood, or the single and brief love of his life, Suzanne Valadon. There is evidence to support any of these cases but not enough to make one airtight.
“Erik Satie and His Time” at Bunkamura the Museum eschews an attempt at explaining what made this odd man tick and focuses more on the surrounding milieu. Though the show’s sections roughly correlate to phases of his life, along with his corresponding costume changes, it feels a bit like “CSI: Montmartre/Montparnasse.” Satie disciples will undoubtedly be thrilled by the assortment of clues among the authentic ephemera and personal knickknacks. Those less knowledgeable of his career, however, will perhaps struggle to put the pieces together, no matter how much they squint at the many scores, notebooks and playbills.
At the very least, the exhibition manages to mind-map Satie’s role in this fecund era, including his collaborations with major players such as Maurice Ravel, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, Francis Picabia and Sergei Diaghilev. The collection proves that, despite his stubborn principles and asocial tendencies, he not only thrived among like-minded souls — be it those who frequented the Le Chat Noir cafe-cabaret or the creators behind the ground-breaking production “Parade” — he also helped forge a new aesthetic.
Satie, who was rarely depicted without his signature pince-nez, once wrote: “Short-sighted by birth, I am long-sighted by nature.” Interestingly, musicologists have observed that Satie’s early obsession with medieval plainsong, such as Gregorian chants, was instrumental in opening up “new” ways of composing music.
As provocative as he might have been, there was a method — albeit an obsessive-compulsive one — to his madness. His compositions have been likened to cubist paintings in that he took a simple theme (or shape) and approached it from different vantage points, deconstructing and reconstructing tones and harmonies. Perhaps this is the best way to approach this hodge-podge portrait of the one and only gymnopedist.
“Erik Satie and His Time” at Bunkamura The Museum runs until Aug. 30; daily 10 a.m.-7 p.m. ¥1,400. www.bunkamura.co.jp
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