Adelaide Cabaret Festival pays tribute to the Velvet Gentleman: eccentric genius, bad pianist.

When Erik Satie died in 1925, those closest to him were shocked to discover that the dapper French composer had lived in a filthy, threadbare room with to which he hadn’t admitted a single visitor in 27 years. Now a museum dedicated to his life and work, the dingy apartment was once strewn with hoarded umbrellas and newspapers that almost completely buried its most striking feature: two grand pianos placed one on top of the other, the upper instrument used as storage for letters and parcels. It was at once a haven and a prison for Satie, a secretive, introverted alcoholic who died from cirrhosis of the liver.

One of many mysteries about his life is how the self-styled “velvet gentleman” managed to keep up appearances, emerging from his squalid hovel so immaculately groomed (always in one of seven identical grey suits purchased in 1895 with part of a small inheritance) for the daily 10km stroll to his favourite cafés and local haunts in Paris.

It’s a subject that fascinates the Australian collective Various People Inc, whose new show for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival playfully draws on Satie’s enigmatic music and character. “Some of it is true,” the poster teases, mirroring one of the composer’s favourite sayings: “Although our information is inaccurate, we do not guarantee it.” Artistic director and soprano Cheryl Pickering says the trio aims to “reflect the mystery and ambiguity surrounding much of what we think we know about Satie – an ambiguity often deliberately fostered by the man himself.”

A habitué of Le Chat Noir, Satie could be seen tickling the ivories at Montmartre’s famous nightclub from 1888 – 1891, a gig he described as “degrading”. Nonetheless, says Pickering, he earned a place in history as “the father of cabaret” and amassed a substantial collection of songs. These will be part of The Velvet Gentleman, a “series of vignettes which look at certain aspects of Satie’s life, such as his childhood years in Honfleur with his eccentric uncle ‘Seabird’ and the time he spent with the occultist Sar Péladan and the Rose+Croix movement.”

Along with pianist Richard Chew and actor Graeme Rose, Pickering has enjoyed “getting to know this fascinating human being a little better, as well as to performing many of our favourite pieces of his music.”

But Satie’s status as a cult figure today goes well beyond the cabaret tunes, the ethereal floating of the Gnossiennes and Gymnopédies and the quirky Cocteau-Picasso ballet Parade. His sonic experiments anticipate those of iconoclast John Cage and the American minimalists almost half a century after the Frenchman’s death: the 841 melodic repetitions of the aptly named Vexations and the tongue-in-cheek Trois Morceaux en forme de poire (Three Pear-shaped Pieces) and Flabby Preludes for a Dog, among others.

“He was a pioneer, not afraid to follow his personal and musical instincts,” says Pickering. “We admire his obstinate and proud sense of his own unique qualities. Like Satie, Various People Inc operates slightly outside the square, and has a healthy irreverence for hierarchy and social convention.”

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Satie

The Velvet Gentleman plays at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival June 15–17. Satie is Composer of the Month in the June issue of Limelight.

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Satie

1) He was a bad pianist

As a teenager, Satie gained a reputation for being the “laziest student in the Conservatoire”, as his teacher Émile Descombes described him in 1881. He was briefly dismissed for lack of improvement, but by 1885 he had graduated to the intermediate piano class of Georges Mathias, who also thought him “worthless”.

Reports from teachers and peers suggest he was in fact a relatively gifted pianist, but desperately lacking in sight-reading skills and motivation. Luckily, he found a way to make his technical limitations work in the gentle contemplation of the Gnossienes and Gymnopedies.

2) Satie founded his own religion      

In 1891–2 Satie took up with the charismatic writer and occultist Joséphin Péladan, who founded the Mystical Order of the Rose+Cross of the Temple and Grail. Satie was the official composer for the spurious sect, where he was given free rein to experiment with free-flowing harmonies that characterise his Rosicrucian period anticipate the music of Messiaen, as in the austere piano work Fils des Étoiles. Some of his first public outings as composer were at the Salon de la Rose+Croix, a gathering for artists and philosophers frequented by the Symbolist poets.

In August 1892 Satie broke off relations with Péladan, and between 1893 and 1895 became the founder (and only member) of the Église Métropolitaine d’Art de Jésus Conducteur.

3) Satie had strange eating habits

In his book Memoirs of An Amnesiac, Satie described his diet: “My only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, moldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin). I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with the juice of the Fuchsia. I have a good appetite, but never talk when eating for fear of strangling myself.” 

4) Satie carried a hammer everywhere he went… Just in case

On his long walks to and from Paris, shielded by his ubiquitous umbrella (he hated the sun), Satie would keep a hammer in his coat to defend himself against potential assailants. He could let his guard down long enough to pause and compose in little notebooks under the streetlamps when an idea came to him en route.

Satie also had a violent streak where his music was concerned: in 1892 he challenged the director of the Paris Opéra, Eugene Bertrand, to a duel in the hopes of having his Christian ballet Uspud staged.

5) Satie had only one love affair (that we know of)

In January 1893, when Satie was in his twenties, he embarked on an turbulent six-month romance with his neighbour, the painter and model Suzanne Valadon, to whom he proposed on the night the affair began. His room in 6 rue Cortot was next door to Valadon’s and he slipped her impassioned notes praising her “whole being, lovely eyes, gentle hands, and tiny feet”. The couple painted each other’s portraits, and the two works were found hanging in Satie’s room at Arcueil after his death.

Their affair unravelled around the time Satie was composing the endlessly frustrating Vexations with its 840 repetitions of the same niggling phrase – perhaps insight into his state of mind when he was with Valadon. When she broke off the relationship, he was left with “nothing but an icy loneliness that fills the head with emptiness”.