Fun with Arranging – Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes #1

by floranteaguilar


I like goofing around with known classical pieces. I don’t know why I do this but sometimes I hear pieces in my head differently. In my mind, certain pieces work better a certain way based entirely on my personal preference and musical disposition at a given time. Case in point, Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes #1. I actually almost never play or listen to Satie’s music  – unless I need something to get me to sleep.

That’s not a knock on Satie. As a composer, I really appreciate Satie’s knack for simple and gorgeous melodies –  and the lack of grandiosity and pretensions. He wrote wonderful and memorable little jewels for the piano.

To me, writing beautiful and memorable melodies is much more difficult to write than say, a randomly meandering atonal music, which I sometimes feel is a cop-out. We tend to equate inaccessible music with brilliance. But try setting a goal for yourself and attempt to write melodies that are memorable that you think will stand the test of time. 99.99% of the time, you will fail.

Writing beautiful melodies is super hard! Only a few have this gift. I sometimes think all the good melodies have already been written. The Tchaikovskys and the Schuberts certainly had the monopoly. Definitely, the Beatles took something like 90% of them in the 20th century.

What we are left with are derivatives – an endless variation of regurgitated themes. Yes?

Call me old-fashioned but I think music is meant to be enjoyed viscerally, not so much intellectually. I certainly had that phase in my 20s of playing nothing but avant-garde guitar music (think Luciano Berio and Elliot Carter). There is certainly a time and place for it and I’m thankful and learned so much.

But I do agree whole-heartedly that the cross street of Visceral and Intellectual is the sweet spot in the province of Excellence. Think Beethoven and Stravinsky! To me, Ludwig and Igor’s music is the perfect melding of the intellectually stimulating and the viscerally heart-pounding aspects of this ephemeral art form.

Which brings me back to Erik Satie, the “gymnopedist”. Upon hearing his music, you might regard him as a lightweight. But you would be wrong. Satie was avant-gard at the time (early 20th century) and is often credited as the father of artistic movements such as minimalism, theater of the absurd, and even dada-ism. We just don’t see his brilliance because short melodic songs are common place now. Notice how repetitive pop songs are?  Yes, in my mind, he also fathered pop music itself!

So, here is my tribute to this” lightweight” composer Erik Satie. Roll in your grave if you must, Mr. E. but this is my take of your beloved melody.

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