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The Velvet Gentleman

Published May 11, 2013 by Jill London

Today’s post not only features the work of one of my favourite people but, given my extremely high estimation of today’s inspirational person, I want to attempt something of a tribute. The greatest danger with tributes is that the writer is likely to fall into the trap of endless superlatives and long-winded, prattling fan-talk, so this is going to be something of a challenge. For this reason I’m guessing that it’s probably a good idea, a bit like resistance training or a stamina trial, but will you be able to read it, patient yet time-strapped reader? Tributes can be horrible, squirmish affairs and certainly this is likely to be more of the same, but when all’s said and done this is my blog, and this is my tribute so, with all due respect, make of it what you will.

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Who is the velvet gentleman? It is said that the velvet gentleman only ever ate white foods. It is said that of his 27 years in residence at Arcueil, France, not one of his friends were ever invited inside and that after his death 84 identical handkerchiefs and dozens of umbrellas (numbered sometimes at 100 or 200) were discovered in his one bedroomed apartment. He kept a filing cabinet filled with drawings of imaginary buildings which he would sometimes post about in anonymous advertisements to local journals:

“A castle in lead, for sale or rent.”

He started his own religion, of which he was the only member, and wore a priest-like habit until he adopted the grey velvet suit as his public image, along with the bowler hat and umbrella of the bourgeoisie (though his politics ranged from socialist to communist). He worked with Man Ray and Francis Picabia yet is not considered a surrealist. It is difficult to sum up such an unconventional and bohemian a character as much of what he said and wrote acted as a kind of barrier between himself and the outside world. We can rarely take his words at face value but instead must sift and sort and read between the lines, and yet, I think if you try this tactic you are in danger of losing the man entirely.

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“When I was young, people used to say to me: ‘Wait until you’re fifty, you’ll see’. I am fifty. I haven’t seen anything.”

Erik Satie, was a French composer of piano music of such beauty and humour that it would be pretty silly of me to attempt to describe them. Here are some of my favourite pieces of his work. Rather than giving you the entire set of six gnossiennes (lasting approximately 20 minutes) here is gnossienne No4:

Tell me, did that music bring any particular images to mind? What about this one:

Here, the music that first attracted me, the 3 ‘Gymnopédies’:

Satie wrote: “Everyone will tell you I am not a musician. That is correct. From the very beginning of my career I class myself a phonometrographer… The first time I used a phonoscope, I examined a B flat of medium size. I can assure you that I have never seen anything so revolting. I called in my man to show it to him. On my phono-scales a common or garden F sharp registered 93 kilos. It came out of a fat tenor whom I also weighed”. Satie’s writings are both fascinating and entertaining, and you can read more of the same online at the Satie Archives (listed first on the sources and more section below).

Satie of course gave his music unconventional titles; Genuine Flabby Preludes (for a dog), Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear and Dessicated Embryos being examples of a few. He also wrote instructions on his musical scores to direct the pianist on how best to play the piece, but warned them: “To whom it may concern: I forbid anyone to read the text aloud during the musical performance. Ignorance of my instructions will incur my righteous indignation against the presumptuous culprit. No exception will be allowed”.

Composer’s houses and museums are usually a fairly level headed affair but at the Maisons Satie expect a golden flying pear, a room with a case of split personality and a fully functioning merry-go-round that opens out and lights up like a prop for a Tim Burton film.

Satie collaborated with Picasso and Cocteau on the ballet Parade for Diaghilev‘s Ballets Russes. It was not well-received, with audiences booing as they left the theatre. In answer to one harsh critic Satie responded: “Sir and dear friend—you are an arse, an arse without music! Signed, Erik Satie.” The critic sued Satie, and at the trial, fellow author Cocteau was beaten by police for repeatedly yelling “arse” in the courtroom. Satie was sentenced to eight days in jail.

Watch this clip of Cocteau reminiscing on the collaboration (although he doesn’t mention anything about arses. Sorry):

There is the sense that Satie was a man born out of his time, in his own words: “I came very young into the world in a very old time.” His music was similarly out of its time and didn’t fully come to be appreciated till the 1960s when it finally took off, to the point where now, 100 years later, documentaries on the Edwardian period feature his music as representative of the era. Sadly, it was not, but instead shows us how we wish that era could have been.

Sources and more:

http://www.satie-archives.com/web/intro.html

http://legrandfigaro.com/2010/10/10/saturday-september-18th-la-maison-derik-satie/

http://mentalfloss.com/article/31888/12-concerts-ended-pandemonium-or-riots

http://wfmu.org/~kennyg/popular/articles/satie.html

Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition by Thomas B Holmes

You can also follow The Velvet Gentleman on twitter 😉 @VelvetGentleman

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in today’s post you can leave a message in the comment box below and a member of our trained staff will get back to you with a warm phonoscope. Your anonymity will be respected at all times. Merci.

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