The Guillotine: Twentieth-Century Classics That Won't Last - No 23: Erik Satie

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The Independent Culture
If for no other accomplishment, Erik Satie deserves to be remembered as the inventor of Muzak. He didn't invent the word - musique d'ameublement or "furniture music" was his favoured term - but the intention was identical. It was music designed not to be listened to but to orchestrate silence, just as contemporary Muzak orchestrates what would otherwise be the self- conscious silence of a hotel elevator.

Like many an inventor, however, Satie had to battle against public obtuseness. When his furniture music was premiered during what was supposed to be a concert intermission, the mystified audience, failing to grasp the concept, respectfully settled back down to listen to it, and the poor composer found himself scurrying round the auditorium, shouting, "Don't listen! Pay no attention to the music! Talk to one another!"

Unfortunately, the fact that this furniture music has now become antique, as it were, hasn't invested it with a period charm: listening to a recording of the complete score issued some years ago, one was tempted to speculate that, given its unendurable monotony, the real reason for naming it as Satie did was that a lot of unoccupied furniture must have been visible by the end of the performance. Nor will his undeniable importance as a pioneer guarantee him an entree to posterity, since his innovations were appropriated and refined by more gifted composers, most notably Debussy and Ravel. If his name remains a conjurable one (and, in fairness to him, it should be pointed out that virtually all his work is available on record), it's undoubtedly for his countless whimsically titled, sweetly vapid and dozily meandering piano pieces.

The most familiar of these, especially in Debussy's exquisite orchestration, is of course the best-known of his Three Gymnopedies. Mildly hypnotic, dreamily static, naggingly memorable, it at least is destined to survive the millennial obstacle course. Yet there's the paradox. For, if it does, it will not be as a work by the celebrated 20th-century composer Erik Satie but as one of those authorless tunes which everyone knows but to which no one can put a name or attribute a creator. Indeed, it has already happened. Even now, Satie's Gymnopedie is piped into all manner of public places - restaurants, airports, banks and, yes, hotel elevators. By an especially sadistic irony, it has become Muzak.

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