Shirt collars, gunshots and pear-shaped symphonies

Erik Satie was a modernist genius and enigmatic joker. Dermot Clinch enjoys a collection of reminiscences by the composer's friends; Satie Remembered ed. Robert Orledge Faber, pounds 20

The premiere of Erik Satie's Musique d'ameublement in 1920 was a fiasco. The programme note had requested that the public should ignore the music, pay it as much attention "as the candelabra or the seats". Bourgeois habit died hard, however, and when the band struck up, the audience streamed back to their places. The composer was outraged. "Don't listen!" he shouted, "Go on talking! Walk around!" His experiment in "furnishing music" - Muzak as we would call it now - had fallen on attentive ears and failed.

Eric Satie's self-conscious modernity, the jokey, cutting edge to his music, is all but lost on us these days. The Gymnopedies, once reckoned the work of a bit of a harmonic rebel, are now found wistfully accompanying advertisements for loo paper on television; the ballet Parade, whose gunshot-and-typewriter music scandalised Paris during the Great War, is gaily scheduled in children's matinees (next month at the Proms, to be precise). That such works were the product of a radical, profoundly ironic aesthetic is forgotten. Why had he called those pieces of his Morceaux en forme de poire? Debussy one day asked Satie. "Simply, mon cher ami," Satie replied, stung by an old criticism that his music lacked shape, "because if they are en forme de poire they cannot be shapeless". Jokes were the one thing Satie ever took seriously, recalled one of his friends; they were the key to his art.

Debussy, prescient as ever, played an essential role in Satie's professional life. Taking his place among the anarchists and alchemists surrounding Satie's piano in the Montmartre cafes of his "troubadour" years, he was an early adopter. The dynamic of their relationship - Satie, the drop- out from the Paris Conservatoire, Debussy, the grand innovateur - is glimpsed in a story told by the conductor Gustave Doret. "Come on," said Debussy to the younger composer when he heard Satie stumble through his own Gymnopedies on the piano: "I'll show you what your music really sounds like". Only by the magical touch of The Master, we understand, could the heart of Satie's compositions be laid bare.

Condescending and apocryphal though it sounds, the anecdote tells a solid truth. Without Debussy and his kind, Satie might have remained for ever in cafe obscurity, playing the piano for such men as "Dynamite" Victor Fumet and Contamine de Latour alias "Lord Cheminot", but making no great splash thereby. As it is, those early companions, small arms in the battle of the arts, give way fairly rapidly in these memoirs to modernity's big guns: Debussy, Ravel, Cocteau, Picasso. The sculptor Brancusi, whose radical simplicity of style matched Satie's own, cooked chicken for the composer in his kiln. The poet Blaise Cendrars strolled the boulevards with his eccentric new friend, and marveled at his appetite for shirt collars (Satie came out of one shop with a gross). Suddenly, it seemed, the shy musician's idiosyncracies chimed with the tenets of the modern men: Satie was "discovered".

His trademark oddness, however, masked a now evident private distress. "Closes door on world outside", comments this book's chronology for 1898, the year Satie moved to the suburb of Arcueil, leaving behind him a single failed love affair in Montmartre and the room he called his "cupboard". For the rest of his life, another 30 years, no person - not a neighbour, caretaker, relative or friend - penetrated Satie's home.

After his death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1925, he was found to have lived in an "unbelievable slum"; one of his friends was obliged to sweep "numerous lumps of excrement" from the floor to protect the sensitivities of the composer's family. He had lived with a few paintings, some books, a mattress and two grand pianos - one placed on top of the other, the higher of the two serving as repository for unwanted mail.

How, under such circumstances, Satie emerged to fashion for himself a coherent musical persona is a question this book, however entertaining, can't answer. The one man in whom Satie confided, we are told, was Debussy, but he, tragically, left no testimony of their relationship, and Satie's most eloquent spokesman, it's generally recognised, came from a later generation. In the attention Satie paid to sheer sound in his music - the very concept of "furniture music", the gunshot in Parade - the great experimentalist John Cage discovered the germ of revolution. Satie, Cage believed and proselytized, was music's great "new beginning" after Beethoven. "He despised art", the American wrote in stunned admiration: "He was going nowhere".

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?