Here is one of dozens of contributions on music education, written for the music educators national organization, NAfME. They've appeared in two publications, Music Alive!, a pedagogical tool aimed at classroom support, and Teaching Music, a general interest publication that covers trends in music education—particularly the constantly changing national teaching standards.
I'll supply more later. Some can be found at www.nafme.org.
From Music Alive!, Feb. 2010
By Keith Powers
Some artists are more well known by their influence than by their own creations. That was certainly the case with the French composer Erik Satie, whose short, simple and sometimes crazy music is not often played, but whose impact on individuals like Ravel, Debussy and John Cage, and movements like minimalism, dadaism and the Theater of the Absurd, remains profound.
Erik Satie was born in Honfleur, France, on the coast of the English Channel, in 1866, and died in Paris in 1925. His father was an amateur musician and composer, and his stepmother was a piano teacher. By the age of eighteen, Erik Satie was already composing and writing down his ideas about music and modern culture. These two activities would occupy his entire life. He was not a good student or a musical prodigy, though; his early years at the famous Paris Conservatoire were a failure—his teachers thought he was lazy, and one called his compositions “worthless.” He spent years writing in obscurity before his music heard by the public.
After leaving the conservatory, Satie moved to the historic Montmartre section of Paris, which was just then becoming a popular spot for artists to live. During the course of his life, Satie would eventually meet a diverse and lively group of painters, musicians, actors and dancers including Picasso, Ravel, Saint-Saens, Diagilev, Massine, Jean Cocteau, Georges Auric and many others who made up the artistic avant-garde. Experimental, outspoken, deeply concerned with ideas and changing the status quo, the French avant-garde—Satie included—was constantly creating art forms that were shocking and vigorously debated throughout Paris during that period.
Making a Living
Like many young artists, Satie found it hard to earn a living. He inherited some money, and lived off that for a while, but it didn’t last. For a while he earned a living writing music for nightclubs (cabarets), and playing piano to accompany dancers and other stage acts. Satie thought that cabaret music was beneath his talents, but some of his important ideas developed during this period—most importantly what he called “furniture music,” and what we might call “background music.”
The Restless Musical Experimenter
If there is one thing for certain about Satie’s music, it’s that there’s nothing for certain. Satie rejected almost all the historic styles and categories of music that came before him, which often baffled his friends, his teachers and his audiences. His music almost never repeats ideas: unlike a typical sonata form in composition, where one melody is played, then jumbled around and changed, then replayed in another slightly different form, Satie moved from one idea to the next in his compositions—almost like walking down the street, looking a different buildings, none of which are the same.
One of the movements that Satie influenced falls under various categories, sometimes called Dadaism, or the Absurd, or Surrealism. Those artists were trying to create works that reflected what they saw as an increasingly complicated, disjointed and unstable world. For Satie, that resulted in music that often had no bar lines, no time signature, no key indication—just a series of notes making up simple melodies, which change in unexpected ways, not boisterous, without strong dynamics. Some of the music has silly titles—like “3 Pieces in the form of a Pear”—meant in part to poke fun at tradition. His delicate piano works entitled Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes are the best examples of this simple but moving style.
The Vibrant Parisian Art Scene
Paris around 1900 was the place to be for artists of all kinds. Poets, painters, composers and dancers all worked and lived there, trying out their creations and ideas on each other. Performances were followed by long nights in the cafes, arguing about art and formulating ideas and projects.
Satie was right in the middle of it. His experimental works baffled his listeners, but they caught the spirit of avant-garde Paris perfectly. His music for the ballet Parade, premiered in 1917, a dance spectacle with costumes by Picasso, included typewriters and gun shot sounds. His music for Relache is considered the first multi-media score (premiered in 1924, it was part ballet and part synchronized film). He wrote religious music for a religion in which he was the only practitioner. His score for Le Piège de Méduse uses a prepared piano—with paper stuffed between the strings to change the sound—probably the first time anyone has done that. His composition Vexations, a remarkably simple score that has a series of beats in almost all the scales, repeated over and over 840 times, takes eighteen hours to perform. It was minimalist and atonal before those words were even invented. What Satie called his “furniture music”—music that was meant to be heard in the background—probably came from his time spent composing cabaret accompaniment, and was a precursor to all sorts of musical ideas, like ambient music, background music in stores, even Muzak for elevators.
It is interesting to think that while many artists were eventually influenced by what Satie did, he himself was like nobody else. In one sense that’s a real artist—someone who can create unique work, like nothing that has come before, but that is understood and imitated by many others.
Links to more stories from Teaching Music and from Music Alive!