Reaching Upwards: 1888
by JENNIFER PAULL
1888 was a leap year. In Germany, it was known as The Year of Three Emperors as Wilhelm I and Friedrich II both died. In America it was known as The Year of the Great Blizzard and there was a general election (for those who could vote).
The typewriter ribbon and the trademark 'Kodak' were patented, the National Geographic Society was founded and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw was inaugurated. The Washington Monument and the National Library in Athens were opened to the public.
Lotte Lehmann, Vaslav Nijinsky, Irving Berlin, Maurice Chevalier and Harpo Marx were born and the word 'skyscraper' climbed into daily language as the hobby of photography and the wax cylinder (for recording) became a part of life.
The first skyscraper was erected before the first Gymopédie, those timeless works of sublime melody written by Erik Satie in 1888. Lifts, central heating, electrical plumbing pumps and the telephone were all part of these architectural wonders made possible by the fact that outside walls no longer carried the construction's weight; internal steel bar lines incubated. The first was built in Chicago in 1885 around its rib cage.
Yet the Gymnopédies preceded Henry Ford's horseless carriage by two years and the Ford Motor Company's incorporation by five. Daimler developed the petrol engine two years prior to Satie's gems, which were born of his love of mediaeval music and the design of a Greek vase (it is imagined).
So indeed, thrusting skywards and pushing forward were part of a new way of exploring and improving the values of life. Satie often discarded his bar lines altogether and ascended into an eternally, unclassifiable zone. Many of his titles, performance directions and eccentric lifestyle would still be considered a balance between Dada and the Avant-Garde.
Beneath his self-portrait, he wrote: 'I have come into the world very young into an era very old'. During his Rosicrucian period, he was dubbed 'Esoterik Satie', particularly fittingly. He was interested in the mystical significance of various numbers, proportional systems and the 'golden section'. In fact, he and the skyscraper shared much logical scaffolding.
Satie was in advance of his time with his love of bitonality, polytonality and non-triadic harmony to name but a few of his gravity-breaking techniques. From his one room studio in a working class suburb of Paris, his influence was primordial to that generation of composers struggling desperately to escape Wagnerian domination.
He was a great friend of Picasso, who claimed Satie had been one of the most important influences in his own life. The two were to work together on Jean Cocteau's Parade in 1917 and delighted in a shared mutual interest in Alchemy and the Occult.
Satie's simplicity, innovative freedom, mastery of musical understatement and minimalism made long-lasting impressions upon composers such as Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Milhaud and Cage, to cite but the iceberg's nano tip.
The longest piece ever written is Erik Satie's Vexations, directed to be repeated 840 times. It was recorded in New York in 1963 and took ten pianists more than eighteen hours. Andy Warhol was at John Cage's side during the Marathon. To quote Cage:
'After it was over, I drove back to the country and I slept for a long time, something like twelve hours. When I got up, the world looked new, absolutely new.'
The pull of Satie's gravity remains seriously underrated.
A different language is a different vision of life. -- Federico Fellini, film director and writer (1920-1993)
Copyright © 2 June 2005
Jennifer I Paull, Vouvry, Switzerland