Gymnopédies/Gnossiennes

Erik Satie

album cover

Quiet Reflection at the Piano

The early piano works of Erik Satie (1866–1925) are the audio equivalent of slow-motion tai chi exercises. Melodies of arresting melancholy and overwhelming calm, they move as though suspended in molasses, with a deliberate grace. Very little ornamentation clutters up the foreground. Everything is measured: Each note is a halting step, the movement of a blind person navigating a strange house. The main ideas repeat at regular intervals, and for this reason, some consider Satie the father of New Age music. But when a master, such as the Amsterdam-born pianist Reinbert de Leeuw, digs into Satie, each new recurrence has its own temperament. The restatements come with distinct inflections—for Satie, a half-swallowed, barely glanced-at grace note can signify as much as a huge orchestral downbeat.

Satie was a strange figure, an absinthe alcoholic who lived in a single-room Paris apartment, spent most of his time alone, and died of cirrhosis of the liver. He attended Paris Conservatoire but rarely showed up for classes. His primary source of income was work as a cabaret pianist. He was "discovered" by philosopher Jean Cocteau in 1915, well after he'd composed what became his most famous works (the ones heard here). This disc opens with the meditative "Gnossiennes," whose title was inspired by the Palace of Knossos in Crete. De Leeuw reduces the piece to its stark essence, following Satie's winding path as it stretches across barlines. On that suite and a similar one in waltz meter, "Gymnopédies," de Leeuw's rounded, contemplative phrasing puts listeners right inside Satie's mind-set, in a way that illuminates the composer's choices on almost a note-by-note basis. Satie starts a piece intending to make one point and one point only. Each chord is aimed at that ultimate goal—a singularity of focus that gives Satie's music the quality of an M. C. Escher maze: though these single-line themes seem nursery-rhyme simple at first, they exude a strange hypnotic resonance as they unfold—if you'll let them, they'll pull you away from everything you think you know about the world.

Genre: Classical
Released: 2003, Universal
Key Tracks: "Gymnopédies," "Gnossiennes," "Ogives"
Next Stop: Leoš Janáček: Piano Works
After That: Tangerine Dream: Rubycon
Book Page: 675

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