erik satie: the velvet gentleman

22279101Nick Richardson at the London Review of Books:

One thing everyone knows about Erik Satie is that he was an eccentric. There are many kinds of eccentric and Satie was most of them. He presented himself as a nutty professor figure, not a composer but a ‘gymnopedist’ and ‘phonometrician’. He dined – or so he claimed in his autobiography – only on ‘food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals’. He walked around Paris in priestly robes, then swapped them for a wardrobe full of identical brown corduroy suits; his interests included rare sea creatures, impossible machines, forgotten local history and the occult. He was a romantic and a mystic, of sorts – his brother, Conrad, called him a ‘transcendent idealist’ – and his music, particularly his earlier works for piano, can make listeners feel so serene that the record industry has claimed him as a kind of guru. In the Satie section of the record shop you’ll find Satie: Piano Dreams, 25 Hypnotic Tracks and Chill with Satie, and his work appears on compilations of ‘classical music for babies’. But during his lifetime his mysticism was rarely presented unironically. He wrote a set of haunting, fragile, otherworldly pieces for piano and called them ‘pieces in the shape of a pear’; his attempt to start his own religion in 1893 looks like both a response to a genuine spiritual need and an elaborate prank. He seems to have felt uncomfortable being serious in public, the more so as the public warmed to him. His eccentricity became a disguise, an armour of winking and raillerie concealing a man nobody knew.

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