Cannot Not

Cage’s Place in the Reception of Satie

A paper by Matthew Shlomowitz

As part of his Ph.D. at the University of California at San Diego, USA.

© 1999: Reprinted with kind permission.

It is possible that Vexations might never have been performed if it had not been for John Cage. For the reader unfamiliar with this piano piece by Erik Satie, Vexations, composed in 1893, is a "short" piano piece that is to be played 840 times in succession. A performance takes on average around 18 hours.

Before Cage discovered the piece in 1949, few knew that it existed. This claim is easily supported: the first two biographies on Satie (by Templier,1932; Meyers, 1948) make no mention of it, not even in the "catalogue of works" of Meyers’s book. Soon after he discovered the score, Cage had it printed in Contrepoints. Furthermore, and of even more significance, in New York in 1963, Cage organized the work’s premier performance, seventy years after it was composed! (1) Vexations is now one of Satie’s most famous pieces. It has been performed many times all over the world; equally, a literature on it has developed. Testimony to this development, is that even the shortest articles about Satie in music dictionaries make mention of it.

It is impossible, of course, to know what the fate of Vexations would have been if it were not for Cage. Possibly, at another time, someone else would have made it public. Or possibly, it would have been lost. This counterfactual question, however, will not be the focus of this paper. Rather, I will be examining why Satie was of interest to Cage, and how this interest manifested itself in Cage’s work - composition and writing. Secondly, I will investigate to what extent John Cage enlivened interest in the music of Erik Satie, in America and worldwide. And thirdly, I will explore to what extent Cage’s enthusiasm for Satie has effected the reception of that composer. Vexations then is simply the best example of how Cage brought interest to Satie, and likewise changed, or at least broadened, the way people think about him.

Satie’s influence on Cage

Fellow American composer Virgil Thomson probably introduced Cage to the music of Satie. Interestingly, Thomson was introduced to Satie whilst studying at Harvard by S. Foster Damon, a Masters student in the English department. Damon was a music lover, and he wrote some "insightful articles defending popular music and called attention to the music of Erik Satie, then dismissed by cerebral Harvard composers as a negligible eccentric"(2), that were published in the Harvard Musical Review. Thomson went on to meet Satie in 1921 whilst studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger; and he, like Cage, was a life-long advocate of Satie's work. The first evidence of Cage’s interest in Satie was in 1945: he made a two-piano arrangement of the first movement of Satie’s Socrate for Merce Cunningham’s ballet Idyllic Song. Next, whilst teaching at Black Mountain College (North Carolina) in the summer of 1948 he organized a twenty-five concert festival of Satie’s music.(3) The structure of the festival was simple: after dinner a half-hour concert of Satie’s music was given, often with a pre-concert talk. Most impressively, the theatre piece Le Piège de Mèduse was performed with Cage playing piano, Willem and Elaine de Kooning providing décor, and Buckmister Fuller playing Baron Mèdusa.

The most important document that survives from the festival is the text of one of the pre-concert talks Cage gave. It was not printed until 1968, when it finally appeared in Kostelanetz’s book "John Cage" under the title "Defense of Satie". This article is interesting for different reasons. For one, it is as an excellent example of Cage’s early writing style. As Nyman states, this article is written in "a style of logical and polemical argument that he abandoned in his later aphoristic-mosaic lecture writings".(4) Before we examine the content of this text, it is important to note that Cage’s radical interpretation of Satie's music (and Beethoven's) does not seem to have been supported by any one else. But, as Jann Pasler suggests, "The point is not what Satie did, but how Cage uses the Satie example to help him define structure in these terms".(5)

Before we look at the article ourselves, it is worth taking in the worthy commentary offered by Michael Nyman:

After giving his most convincing exposition of the distinctions between structure, form, method, and material, he concluded that it is only structure (the works 'parts that are clearly separate but that interact in such a way as to make a whole') that today’s composers should come to "general agreement" about, the other categories being free. The music by, and influenced by, Beethoven, defined the structure of a composition by means of harmony. Before Beethoven wrote a piece, Cage maintains he planned its movement from one key to another; that is, he planned its harmonic structure. The only new structural idea to emerge since Beethoven is to be found in the work of Satie (and early Webern), where structure is defined in terms of time lengths.(6)

Another reason why this paper has been of great interest to Cage scholars, is that it is the clearest exposition of Cage's conception of form, method, material and structure. Cage defines these terms here as he wants to show that form, method and material have radically developed in the twentieth century music, whereas structure, aside from Satie's innovations (and also Webern's early works), has not. He uses the analogy of poetry, in particular the sonnet, in defining these terms. The sonnet has a structure, which is what makes all sonnets identifiable. The form is the way the poet uses the structure. The structure then is what makes all sonnets identifiable as being "sonnets", and the form is what allows one sonnet to be different from other sonnets. Continuing the analogy, Cage equates method with syntax, and material with words.

Cage states that many new materials have emerged in the twentieth century: quarter tones (Hába); electronic instruments (Varèse); and the prepared piano (himself) to name just a few. Cage sees the big development in methodology as the ability to create "continuous invention", be it through "means of the twelve-tone row" or "secundal intervallic control".(7) And he states that there is a "new contemporary awareness of form: It is static rather than progressive in character."(8) When it comes to structure, however, as we have said, Cage believes that there is has been only one new idea since Beethoven. He writes:

And that new idea can be perceived in the work of Anton Webern and Erick Satie. With Beethoven the parts of a composition were defined by means of harmony. With Satie and Webern they were defined by means of time lengths. The question of structure is so basic, and it is so important to be in agreement about it, that one might ask: Was Beethoven right or are Webern and Satie right? I answer immediately and unequivocally, Beethoven was in error, and his influence, which has been as extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music.(9)

Cage believed that the "fundamental" aspect of music is duration. His argument is that the only "characteristic" which both sound and silence share is duration. Silence is important, as it is the opposite of sound "and, therefore, a necessary partner of sound."(10)

Cage is even more pugnacious in two letters that were printed in Musical America (the first in December 1950, the second in April 1951) in response to an article about Satie by Abraham Skulsky. The first letter attacks several of Skulsky's ideas. For one, Cage rebukes Skulsky’s idea that the humor in Satie’s music was a "mask" which Satie hid behind to cover up his technical limitations as a composer; Skulsky denies having said such a thing in his reply.(11) Cage believes that, aside from a few pieces, Satie’s music is not humorous at all; rather, he believes that Satie was "art’s most serious servant".(12) Cage also rebukes Skulsky’s claim that Satie cannot be considered a great composer on the grounds that, his output contains no "big" works (aside from Socrate). Cage again uses poetry in his argument, this time the Haiku poetry of Japan, to show that size does not matter. Cage also disputes Skulsky's idea that Satie's importance to musical history is his influence over other composers, rather than the work itself.

Following Skulsky’s diplomatic reply, Cage wrote a second letter that in addition to being pugnacious is also rather enigmatic and autobiographical. Here are two excerpts. The first is again to do with the matter of a composer’s output, the second is about "art".

1. "he [Satie] wrote circa fourteen hours of music [not including Vexations] which is nothing to sneeze at (Webern wouldn’t have sneezed; Varèse doesn’t; but Mr. Skulsky, who has a cold when it comes to Satie) ‘cannot concede that if Satie’s work contains the elements that justify calling its composer great."(13)
2. "Now, for Mr. Skulsky’s information (and incidentally Musical America’s too), let it be said that art is not a business; if it is, it is "swinishness" (I quote Antonin Artaud) and nothing more. Art is a way of life. It is for all the world like taking a bus, picking flowers, making love, sweeping the floor, getting bitten by a monkey, reading a book, etc., ad infinitum (business may also provide a way of life, but in that case, it has nothing to do with profit and loss)."(14)

Clearly, in this letter, the content becomes less about Satie and more about Cage’s views about musical scholarship. Likewise, in his "Defense of Satie", we learn more about Cage (the way he conceives form and structure for instance) than we do about Satie. As David Revill states, "Cage’s polemic teetered on the edge of universalizing his own practical and aesthetic predilections, or the exigencies of a particular phase in the development of music."(15)

Nonetheless, Satie was very much at the forefront of Cage’s mind during this period between 1948 and 1951. In 1949 went to Paris with a grant to do some research on Satie. He was particularly interested on this research trip on finding out more about musique d’ameublement (Furniture Music). In collaboration with Milhaud, Furniture Music is best explained by the creators:

"We are presenting today for the first time a creation of Messieurs Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud, directed by M. Delgrange, the "musique d’ameublement" which will be played during the intermissions. We urge you to take no notice of it and to behave during the intervals as if it did not exist. This music, specially composed for Max Jacob’s play claims to make a contribution to life in the same way as a private conversation, a painting in a gallery, or the chair which you may or may not be seated. You will be trying it out. MM. Erik Satie and Darius Milhaud will be at your disposal for any information or commissions."(16)

Furniture Music was the first ever "Muzak"; as Milhaud wrote, "Satie was right: nowadays, children and housewives fill their homes with unheeded music, reading and working to the sound of the wireless. And in all public places, large stores and restaurants, the customers are drenched in an unending flood of music. It is 'musique d'ameublement', heard, but not listened to".(17) And although today it disturbs many of us that Muzak is so ever present (that it is the soundtrack to our lives), in the 1920s this was a revolutionary idea. For Cage, Furniture Music was important, as it was a new context for music, and a context that broke from the traditions of the concert hall. It was also important in a way that Satie had not conceived. Namely, for Satie, Furniture Music would be a part of the sounds of the environment, whereas for Cage, the noise of the environment are the music.(18) This manifested itself in Cage’s work the empty spaces that are incorporated into many of Cage’s works during the 1950s. The best example of this is 4’33".

In the academic year beginning in 1957, Cage gave a course on Satie at the New School. And in 1958, he wrote an article simply titled "Erik Satie" for the journal "Arts News Annual"; it was reprinted in 1973 in his now classic book "Silence". It is often referred to as the "imaginary conversation", as Cage explains: "It is an imaginary conversation between Satie and myself. Because he died over thirty years before, neither of us hears what the other says. His remarks are ones he is reported to have made and excerpts from his writings."(19) In this text Cage is as antagonistic as ever. Again the text says is as much about his own views, as it does about Satie. What is interesting, at least from the point of view of helping us understand Satie’s place in music around the middle of the century, is that he makes it clear to us that Satie is not an interest of the European avant-garde. He writes: "Who’s interested in Satie nowadays anyway? Not Pierre Boulez: he has the twelve tones, governs La Domaine Musicale, whereas Satie had only the Group of Six and was called La Maître d’Arcueil. Nor Stockhausen: I imagine he has not yet given Satie a thought . . ."(20) This line continues, ending with the rhetorical question, "Is Satie relevant in mid-century?"(21) In this article he reiterates much of what he said about Satie before ("time-structures for example). And finally, it contains an often quoted line: "It's not a question of Satie’s relevance. He’s indispensable."(22)

In 1963, Vexations was performed at the Pocket Theatre in New York, under Cage’s organization. As Bryars states, this is "the best-known and most influential performance of Vexations…".(23) Twelve pianists (including Cage) where involved in the performance; there were initially only supposed to be ten, but two were substituted during the course of the performance. The total duration was 18 hours and 40 minutes. Cage organized other performances of Vexations, for example: Berlin (1966), University of California at Davis (1967). It seems that the first performance of Vexations undertaken by a single performer was Richard Toop at the Arts Lab in London. This performance lasted twenty-four hours. In the decade or so after Cage first did Vexations, it was done all over the world, from Sydney (1970) to Stockholm (1972).

In 1969 Cage arranged the second and third movements of Socrate, to complete the project he had begun in 1945. As in 1945, he undertook this task at the request of Merce Cunningham who wanted to set the arrangement to dance. Permission to use the arrangement, however, was not granted by the copyright holder, and so the arrangement was not used. Cunningham had already invested effort into choreographing the score. His method was to use the different phrase lengths to structure his dance; Cunningham stated in his article "Music and Dance" that he and Cage "started with the idea that what was common between music and dance was time."(24) So instead of aborting the project altogether, Cage wrote Cheap Imitation, a piece that retains the phrase structure of Socrate. He applied two procedures to each phrase. The first determined which of the seven white-note modes the phrase would be re-written into. The second determined what the first note would be, and thus, the transposition the phrase would be played at.(25) That is, Satie's music is filtered through the I Ching in such a way that random transpositions occur between phrases, and within each phrase Satie's music is re-written into different modes.

Perhaps Cage’s biggest project involving Satie is the Songbooks (1970). Consisting of ninety "songs", the "subjects" of the Songbooks are Satie and American writer Henry Thoreau. At the beginning of each "song" is an inscription informing whether the "song" is "relevant" to Satie or Thoreau, or sometimes both, and sometimes "irrelevant" to either. Here are two examples of "songs" which are "relevant" to Satie:

No.15. The instruction to the performer is to type any sentence by Satie on a typewriter 38 times, with the typewriter amplified by a microphone. The connection here with Satie is the repetition (Vexations) and the "typewriter" which Satie famously used as a musical instrument in his ballet suite Parade.
No.80. Cage presents the performer with a piece of music that has 55 musical notes, each one taken from somewhere in Satie’s music. The performer is instructed to cut-up each note (again this act – cutting – is to be done amplified) and then place each one into a different container. The performer is then to draw the notes randomly out of the containers, writing each one in the order that they came out on a new piece of music paper. The performer must then sing this new product; if the audience gives applause at the end of the "song" then the performer must repeat the song; if the audience does not applaud, then the piece is over.

In 1981, Cage wrote a mesostic titled "James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet". "Mesostic", a word which does not appear in the Third Edition of the Webster New World College Dictionary (1997), is a particular way of structuring your text where words may be read vertically as well as horizontally. Here is an example from this text:

         goes in seaRch
             of sunlIght he comes across haydn
bill anastasi is looKing at haydn through a lorgnetter

If we remember Nyman’s comment with regard to "Defense of Satie" ("a style of logical and polemical argument that he abandoned in his later aphoristic-mosaic lecture writings") this then is that later style. Incidentally, the imaginary conversation "Erik Satie", can be seen as a transition point between these two styles. In the preface to the text, Cage explains why he was attracted to Joyce, Duchamp and Satie. He says of Satie:

"I have analyzed his music and found it structured rhythmically. I have admired his choice of materials and his independent sense of form. His method it seems to me is a marriage of mode and the twelve-tones. I think I know all that. But it does me no good. I have also studied wild mushrooms so that I won’t kill myself when I eat what I find. I am always amazed how exiting it is in any season anywhere to see just any mushrooms growing once again. The same is true each time I hear Satie well-played. I fall in love all over again."

Throughout the mesostic, there are "inserts" of normal prose, with reflections of aspects of Satie, Joyce and Duchamp’s work. He writes emphatically of Furniture Music:

"Insist upon Furniture Music . Have no meetings, no get-togethers, no social affairs of any kind without Furniture Music….Don’t get married without Furniture Music. Stay out of houses that don’t use Furniture Music. Anyone who hasn’t heard Furniture Music as no idea what true happiness is."

And in another insert, he quotes Satie’s (a passage he also quoted in the imaginary conversation) sermon-like statement:

"We must bring about a music which is like furniture, a music, that is, which will be part of the noises of the environment, will take them into consideration. I think of it as a melodious, softening the noises of the knives and forks, not dominating them, not imposing itself. It would fill up those heavy silences that sometimes fall between friends dining together. It would spare them the trouble of paying attention to their own banal remarks. And at the same time it would neutralize the street noises which so indiscreetly enter into the play of conversation. To make such a noise would respond to need."

Cage’s final major Satie project was The First Meeting of the Satie Society. Completed in 1993, and first appearing on the internet in 1994, this project involved artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and poet Chris Mann. The project was conceived of as a "gift" to Satie. The premise for it was Satie’s statement: "Show me something new; I’ll begin all over again."(26) The project is made up of 7 new things.

The literature on Satie

Frenchman Pierre-Daniel Templier published the first biography on Satie in 1932. It was not translated into English until 1969. By this time some substantial books and articles had been printed in English. Indeed, in regard to scholarship on Satie, Dickinson states that since Templier "most of the pioneering has been done by the British and North Americans".(27) With the intention of putting Cage’s thoughts on Satie in context, we will now examine some of those English speaking scholars and writers, such as Constant Lambert, Wilfred Mellers, Virgil Thomson, Rollo Meyers, James Harding as well surveying the way Satie is written about in music dictionaries and encyclopedias.

Both Templier and Meyer’s biographies are very conventional; both use the classic three-section structure: the life, the works, the man. The purpose of each seems to be to document and defend Satie’s life and music. That is, each make it clear that Satie’s music has a poor status in the music world, and thus the narrative account of his life and work is told with a tone of making a case for redressing the situation. And, as we will discuss later, Cage’s point that Satie’s supporters have attempted to validate his work through its influence on other composers rather than focussing on the work itself is certainly true here. One writer who did focus on the music was Constant Lambert. Perhaps, this was because Lambert (like Cage) was a composer, rather than a musicologist.

Lambert (1905-51) was born and spent his life in English. He, like Satie (as well as Poulenc, Prokofiev, Ravel and Stravinsky) wrote ballet scores for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. His book, "Music Ho!: A Study of Music in Decline" has become somewhat of a classic. In this five part book, the second part is titled " Post-War Pasticheurs". And under this heading is the chapter "Erik Satie and his Musique d’ameumblement". Here, Lambert gives us a feel for Satie’s marginalized place in music society. For instance, he writes, "English critics have been unanimous in their disapproval" of that "much-maligned and misrepresented figure, Erik Satie."(28) Lambert saw himself as arguing against the establishment view that Satie was a "farceur and an incompetent dilettante".(29) Lambert believed, as Cage did later (it is possible that Cage came to this view via Lambert’s) that "no composer, not even Debussy, took a more essentially serious view of his art."(30)

In Lambert’s chapter, there is no mention of the kind of temporal structuring that Cage read into Satie’s music, though there is an interesting passage about Satie’ sense of form:

"By his abstention from the usual forms of development and by his unusual employment of what might be called interrupted and overlapping recapitulations, which causes the piece to fold in of itself, as it were, he completely abolishes the element of rhetorical argument and even succeeds in abolishing as far as possible our time sense. We do not feel that the emotional significance of a phrase is dependent on its being placed at the beginning or end of a particular section. On Satie’s chessboard a pawn is always a pawn; it does not become a queen through having traveled to the other side of the board."(31)

What Lambert is essentially saying here is that Satie’s music involves parallax rather than development. This idea is not discussed in Templier’s book. Indeed, when Templier talks about the music it is corny. For instance, he says that the three Gymnopédies "are a miracle of intuition; a sad melodic line is sketched over a rhythmic background of delicately dissonant chords".(32) There is no mention of the fact that the three pieces are conceived as different versions of the same piece, a revolutionary idea in 1887. Meyer is even more corny. He writes of these pieces, "The harmonic texture, modal in character, especially in the final cadences, is light and transparent; and the melody seems to have a strange aerial quality as if suspended between earth and sky."(33) To be fair, Meyer does make mention of more important issues, albeit only in passing. He states, "the Gymnopédies are three in number – each one representing a different ‘facet’, as it were of the basic idea which gives them unity but of which nevertheless each Gymnopédie supplies a variant."(34) In regard to the same piece, Lambert supports his statement quoted above:

"Satie’s habit of writing his pieces in groups of three was not just a mannerism. It took place in his art of dramatic development, and was part of his peculiarly sculpturesque views of music. When we pass from the first to the second Gymnopédie … we do not feel that we are passing from one object to another. It is as though we were moving slowly round a piece of sculpture and examine it from a different point of view, while presenting a different and possible less interesting silhouette to our eyes, is of equal importance to our appreciation of the work as a plastic whole. It does not matter which way you walk around a statue and it does not matter in which order you play the three Gymnopédies."(35)

As we can see, Lambert’s writing does not only defend (and heap praise on) Satie’s music, it also contains acute observations.

The other important contribution to the literature on Satie, from before 1950, is Wilfred Mellers’ 1942 article "Erik Satie and the ‘problem’ of contemporary music". This article makes no mention of Vexations, and only fleeting reference to Furniture Music: "the deliberately ludicrous ‘musique d’ameublement".(36) Mellers principal focus is Satie’s functional music, in particular the score he composed for René Clair’s film Entr’acte. The next biography on Satie was not until James Harding’s in 1975. The life-man-works biographical style of Templier and Meyer’s is all combined into a single unfolding narrative here, though the focus is more on the ‘life’ and the ‘man’. Amazingly, considering the amount of performances it had had received by this time, Harding does not document Vexations in the "List of Works" he supplies as an appendix. He does mention it in the text, but only fleetingly and derisively: "In some quarters, needless to say, this labored joke [Vexations] has been taken seriously. (Mr John Cage estimates, gravely, that the complete performance, as specified, would last twenty-four hours.)".(37) And again, although Harding cites Lambert’s book in the bibliography, his analysis of a piece like the Gymnopédies isn’t very interesting. He writes, "Their unforgettably haunting tone has put them among Satie’s best-known works. Although they are complete in themselves, the line they follow extends to infinity. They are not heard, they are overheard."(38)

Satie’s music has been written about very differently in various music textbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries; especially with regard to his place in music history. This, to some extent, can be explained as a shift of emphasis over the course of the twentieth century. That is, musicologists have shifted their emphasis on how they perceive Satie to be important. For instance, earlier statements about Satie generally make much of the fact that he was opposed to Romanticism and Impressionism, and that he promoted the incorporation of jazz and vernacular music. Meyers's "Music in the Modern World" is a good example of this standpoint. Later writers, however, have place Satie in a very different context, viewing him as a precursor for developments later in the century, such as. Minimalism. And they have made some dubious connections with Satie and other composers of the time. For instance, David Cope in his "New Directions in Music" places Satie in the "Experimental tradition" of Ives, Webern, Hába and Varèse.

This shift in emphasis can also be seen through examining which of Satie's works have been of interest in a particular time. Meyers stated in 1948, that "In England, outside a small group of specialists, Satie is best remembered as the composer of the ballet Parade."(39) In his lifetime, the Gymnopédies was apparently the most known of his works. And today, these pieces are only more popular still; even though many people unfamiliar with Classical music would be unable to tell you the piece’s title, let alone the composer’s name, the pieces themselves are familiar to most. Socrate is generally regarded as Satie’s "biggest" achievement, in scope and scale. Norman Demuth, in his book "Musical Trends in the Twentieth Century", is most praiseworthy of Socrate, and the other neo-classic works such as Mercure. He even states, rather tenuously methinks, that Satie was the "father of Stravinsky’s Appolon Musagete".(40) Demuth emphasizes the famous counterpoint training Satie, aged forty, undertook with D’Indy. And he downplays his ballet scores (Parade, Relâche, Jack-in-the-Box) which he states are "among the high-jinks of music".(41) And then there is the story of Vexations, which received no attention for so long, and then became famous and important (as well as notorious) during the late 60s. And now it has been institutionalized. For instance, in the Webster music dictionary entry on Satie, Vexations and the Furniture Music receive more coverage than any other piece; quite remarkably, Socrate does not even get a mention.

Of course, different writers have had different takes on Satie. Perhaps the most extreme is Otto Deri’s book "Exploring Twentieth Century Music", in which Satie is essentially written out of the grand narrative of twentieth century music. It is quite amazing the degree to which Satie is neglected in this book; Bartok, Berg, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Webern are each the focus of respective chapters, there are weighty passages on Poulenc and Milhaud, but Satie is only mentioned twice (indirectly) throughout. Other authors are not always positive about Satie, but at least he is always given a place. In what is perhaps the seminal text book of twentieth century music "Modern Music: a concise history", Paul Griffiths writes, "Poulenc’s works of the 1930s and 1940s, however, have changed Satie’s prankishness into something both more seductive and more perturbing."(42) In terms of his place in music history, Griffiths places him both in the context of neo-classicism (thus, against Impressionism and Romanticism) as well as being a precursor for composers such as Cage.

We can see from the following quotes that the music establishment believes that Satie had little compositional craft:

1."They [Delius and Satie] can make an impression with limited technical means."(43)
2."Although widely considered a composer of modest technical accomplishments…".(44)
3."…dismissed by most musicians as an uneducated person who tried to conceal his musical ignorance with persiflage."(45)

It is an interesting phenomenon when such negative positions become establishment. Another sufferer is Max Reger. "They" seem to have decided that his music is not "great" because of its "opaqueness of expression"(46) – interestingly, the opposite "problem" to Satie.

Cage’s place in Satie’s reception

The question of how Cage has affected Satie's place in history is a difficult one to answer. The problem is that the question risks what Hacket-Ficher calls "The Fallacy of Metaphysical Questions" in his book "Historian's Fallacies"(47); that is, the attempt to resolve a non-empirical question empirically. And yet if we try too hard to avoid this problem, then we are left with nothing but conjecture and speculation. Clearly, a middle ground needs to be found where we can bring together the findings of the above and then make some observations

To suggest that there is a connection between Lambert and Cage is problematic as to my knowledge there is no evidence to support it. Yet, in terms of what each has written about Satie, there are some striking parallels. It is difficult to know if Lambert's book was being read in the USA at this time, but it is certainly possible that Cage could have got hold of it. Whether he did, or did not, read Lambert, is perhaps irrelevant; what we can say more assertively is that these two, and we can also add Virgil Thomson, Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars, have written about Satie very differently to Satie's biographers. It is interesting that Lambert, Thomson, Cage, Nyman and Bryars are all composers, and they are also all Englishmen or Americans.

When one considers how interesting, and eccentric a composer that Satie was, it is surprising that he has attracted such mundane biographers. Templier's, Myers's and Harding's books are all very straight-forward biographies. It is not that they necessarily attempt to remove, ignore or justify Satie's eccentricities (though there are examples of this too - remember Harding's skipping over of Vexations), they (Meyer's and Harding's particularly) just don't quite capture the spirit. A good example of this, is the above examples of the flowery, romanticized, prose each wrote regarding Gymnopédies.

Another characteristic of these biographers is a tendency to praise Satie on the grounds of his influence on other composers, rather than promoting the work itself. For instance, Meyer writes, "A lesser musician than that other great figure in twentieth century, Debussy, but a great prophet".(48) A further characteristic has been to place Satie, historically, in a context of being a kind-of neo-classicist. Satie has not been embraced whole-heartily as a neo-classicist probably for the simple reason that he did not take the old forms "seriously" as Stravinsky did; in a sense our definition of what a neo-classicist is takes Stravinsky as its model, and this is a model Satie does not fit into. Although he clearly had the sensibility of a classicist (predilections for heterophony, transparency of texture, clarity of form) he also had a love of the absurd and a problematic relationship with tradition. On one hand the middle-aged Satie thought enough of tradition to go back to school to learn counterpoint, yet equally by titles of the resulting works, such as Three Flabby Preludes, we can see a certain lack of reverence for tradition. The best example of his lack of veneration for tradition and the musical establishment is his ballet Relâche, which translates as "This Show is Closed". And furthermore, at the premier of this work, on the curtain was written the words "Erik Satie is the greatest musician in the world, whoever disagrees with this notion will please leave the hall". Now if Wagner or Scriabin (or in modern times, Stockhausen) had written their version of this statement at a premier of their work, we would have thought that it was an expression of their gigantic egos, but clearly with Satie, absurdity was the point - and the fun. So as musicologists have found it difficult to label Satie a neo-classicist; it has been easier to simply to say that he was against things, namely Debussy's impressionism and Wagner's romanticism.

To my knowledge, Cage never discussed Satie in the context of impressionism, neo-classicism or romanticism. Constant Lambert does advance the idea that Satie was a neo-classicist. He states that the music is completely lacking in "romanticism, pictorialism, or dramatic atmosphere"(49), and the "reaction against Impressionism with its appeal to the nerves; the insistence on line, not colour [sic]; the development of popular melodies and forms; the revival of fugal devices – all these typical traits of the post-war movement [viz., neo-classicism] are found in Satie …".(50) But he does not dwell on this categorization, and as we have shown above with his statements regarding parallax in Satie’s work, he has some striking insights into the music itself.

Virgil Thomson did not, in scholarly terms, write about Satie. Rather, he promoted Satie’s work by organizing concerts of the music. Most notably he organized, and as a pianist played in, the first American performance of Socrate (tenor and piano arrangement) in the mid 1920s. And in 1936, The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music, of which he was a member, organized the first performance of the orchestral version in America. The same group arranged a performance of the silent film Cinéma (Entr’acte) with the live music Satie composed for it. And as a critic for various publications, Thomson always spoke highly of Satie’s work; indeed, it was his belief that Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Satie where the "representative figures in modern music."(51)

That Satie has been written about differently by composers is perhaps no surprise. Music historians are typically interested in positioning a composer – whether that be to pigeon-hole a composer in a movement of the time, or to see that composer as a forerunner for developments that occurred later - whereas composers are generally more interested in the music, de-contextualized. And as we saw with Cage, often a composer’s take on this music is very personal and says as much about them as it does their subject. Interestingly, Skulsky (the author of the article about Satie printed in Musical America that Cage responded to) sums it up beautifully in his response to Cage’s first letter. He writes, "When a composer is related to another composer in character and aesthetic, the judged composer becomes a centrifuge of enthusiasm for the judging composer; the latter tends to regard the works of the former as musically valid in themselves, without reference to surroundings, time, or social significance."(52) While on the contrary, "a critic – especially when he is considering a composer of the past – must take into account various factors of historical development. He must try to find out whether the subject of his judgement was a man of his time, with a normal place in society as it then existed, or whether he was ahead of his time, writing works that were valid only for some later generation."(53)

Criticism has certainly changed since 1951 when Skulsky wrote these words. In our time, we have become increasingly self-conscious and suspicious of assumptions that lay tacit in scholarship. The most extreme angle on this is when writers such as Michel Foccault become more interested in the way facts are interpreted in a particular time, than the facts themselves.(54) Indeed, this paper, and reception history generally, is a product of this shift; that is, the emphasis of this paper is on what has happened to Satie’s work rather than on the work itself. Nonetheless, Skulsky’s observation remains relevant, as most of the scholarship we have discussed was written before this shift. The fact that so much of the writing about Satie, be it by musicologists or composers, has been done by English rather than French speakers, is also interesting. Satie’s legacy amongst French composers would have been guaranteed if it were not for the colossal compositional shift following the World War II. That is, in the decade or so before Satie’s death, many young French composers became interested in Satie. As Peter Dickinson states, "Almost every twentieth century French composer has acknowledged some debt to him …".(55) There is, of course, the well documented Les Six which featured (and you can see by their year of death in parentheses how for the legacy reached in this group of enthusiasts): Auric (1983), Durey (1979), Honneger (1955), Milhaud (1974), Poulenc (1963) and Tailleferre (1983). And though he died earlier, Ravel (1937) also promoted Satie’s work, as Debussy (1918) had done earlier.

Following the second world war, the music of all of these composers was suddenly of no interest to the young generation of composers that sprung up around the Darmstadt Festival of New Music. Most text books will tell you that the important young composer’s of this time - Boulez, Cage, Nono, Stockhausen etc. – were inspired by the modernists of the first half of the twentieth century: Berg, Schoenberg, Varese and Webern; composers even of the stature of Debussy, Hindemith, Prokofiev, lest someone-like Satie, fell completely out of favor. Cage’s interest in Satie is alluded to in these text books, but almost invariably dramatically down-played, and we have seen how passionately Cage was interested in Satie at this time. Without wanting to be accused of another of Hacket-Ficsher’s fallacies – The Fallacy of the Fictional Questions (i.e. counterfactuals) – it is interesting to ponder what the fate of Satie’s reception would have been if it where not for the Darmstadters.

And as we saw with Vexations, when broad interest in Satie re-surfaced in the mid 1960s it was largely in America and England. What is especially interesting about the Vexations phenomenon, is that the "Satie" that was so fascinating to this new group of enthusiasts, is that in a sense it was a different "Satie", that Lambert and Thomson were promoting. Furthermore, John Cage, with his friendship with Thomson and Sauguet (the composer who showed Cage Vexations) is a connection between each of these generations.

In Place of a Conclusion

John Cage has affected Satie’s reception. As I have been at pains to point out throughout, the degree to which we can assert this is difficult to quantify. Nonetheless, what we can assert, is that Cage was a committed enthusiast of Satie’s work, and the many people that have taken an interest in Cage have also taken an interest in his interests. This is not always the case. For instance, although Schoenberg was interested in Brahms, and wrote a famous article on how Brahms was, contrary to the established view, a progressive, we can not say that the people who took an interest in Schoenberg (e.g. Boulez, Stockhausen etc.) have taken an interest in Brahms. Clearly, Brahms’ place in the music world is far more solid than Satie’s, so it is not surprising that Schoenberg’s article didn’t have the same effect. But then again Schoenberg only wrote a solitary article about Brahms, whereas, as we have seen, Cage’s engagement with Satie was extensive, and involved every aspect of his musical life - as a writer, composer, pianist, and concert organizer.


  1. Gavin Bryars, "'Vexations' and its Performers" in Contact, Spring 1983, p12-20.
  2. Anthony Tommasini, Virgil Thomson: On the Aisle, W.W.Norton & Co., New York, 1997, p81.
  3. David Revill, The Roaring Silence, Bloomsbury, London, 1992, p94.
  4. Michael Nyman, "Cage and Satie" in Musical Times, 1973, p68.
  5. Jann Pasler, "Inventing a Trdition: Cage’s composition in retrospect", in John Cage: a composer in America (ed. M. Perloff and C. Juckermann), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994, p45.
  6. Nyman, p68.
  7. John Cage, "Defense of Satie" in John Cage (edited by Richard Kostelanetz), Praeger Publishers, New York, 1970, p80.
  8. Cage, "Defense of Satie", p81.
  9. Cage, "Defense of Satie", p81.
  10. Cage, "Defense of Satie", p81.
  11. John Cage, "Satie Controversy", in John Cage (edited by Richard Kostelanetz), Praeger Publishers, New York, 1970, p89.
  12. Cage, "Satie Controversy", p90.
  13. Cage, "Satie Controversy", p92.
  14. Cage, "Satie Controversy", p93.
  15. Revill, p95.
  16. Erik Satie quoted in: Pierre-Daniel Templier, Erik Satie (trans. Elena L. French and David S. French), MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1969 (original 1932).
  17. Darius Milhaud quoted in: Orledge, Robert, Satie Remembered, Amadeus Press, Portland, 1995.
  18. Nyman, p70.
  19. John Cage, "Erik Satie" (first appeared in the 1958 Art News Annual), Silence, Wesleyan University Press, Connecticut, 1976 (first pub. 1973), p76.
  20. Cage, "Erik Satie", p77.
  21. Cage, "Erik Satie", p77.
  22. Cage, "Erik Satie", p 82.
  23. Bryars, p15.
  24. Merce Cunningham, "Music and Dance" in Writings About John Cage (edited by Richard Kostelanetz), The University of Michigan Press, 1993.
  25. Nyman, p66.
  26. Satie quoted in: Cage, "Erik Satie", p80.
  27. Peter Dickinson, review in Music Quarterly, Vol.75, No.1, Fall 1991, p104.
  28. Constant Lambert, Music Ho!, Hogarth Press, London, 1985, p115.
  29. Lambert, p115.
  30. Lambert, p115.
  31. Lambert, p119.
  32. Pierre-Daniel Templier, Erik Satie (trans. Elena L. French and David S. French), MIT Press, Massachusetts, 1969 (original 1932), p76.
  33. Rollo Meyers, Erik Satie, Dennis Dobson, 1948, p69.
  34. Meyers, Erik Satie, p5.
  35. Lambert, p119.
  36. Wilfred Mellers, "Erik Satie and the ‘problem’ of contemporary music" in Music and Letters, Vol 23, no.3 (July 1942), p223.
  37. James Harding, Erik Satie, Praeger Publishers, New York, 1975, p69.
  38. Harding, p31.
  39. Meyers, Erik Satie, p5.
  40. Norman Demuth, Musical Trends in the Twentieth Century, Greenwood Press, Connecticut, 1975 (first published in 1952), p8.
  41. Demuth, p25.
  42. Paul Griffiths, Modern Music: A Concise History, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1994 (first published in 1974), p70.
  43. Twentieth Century Music (edited by Rollo Meyers), Culder and Boyars, London, 1968, p18.
  44. Robert P Morgan, Twentieth Century Music: A History of Musical Style in Modern Europe, W.W Norton & Co, New York, 1991, p50.
  45. Webster's New World Dictionary of Music (edited by Richard Kassel), MacMillan, New York, p459.
  46. Webster's New World Dictionary of Music, p431.
  47. Hacket Fischer, Historian's Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, 1970, p12.
  48. Meyers, Erik Satie, p43.
  49. Lambert, p115.
  50. Lambert, p117.
  51. Tommasini, p127.
  52. Abraham Skulsky, "Satie Controversy", in John Cage (edited by Richard Kostelanetz), Praeger Publishers, New York, 1970, p91.
  53. Skulsky, p91.
  54. Richard Kearney, Modern Movements in European Philosophy, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1994 (first published in 1986), p287.
  55. Peter Dickinson, "Erik Satie (1866-1925) in The Music Review, Vol. 28, No.2 (May 1967), p139.