Erik Satie's Crystal Ball

Satie and minimalism: Parallels & points of contact

The music of Erik Satie and that of the “minimalist” composers has not infrequently been compared by scholars working in these two fields. Works by Satie such as the Ogives (1886) and the enormous Vexations (1893) have sometimes been hailed as radical forerunners of the late twentieth-century movement of minimalism because of their use of repetition as the sole means of progression, instead of traditional Western development. Certain minimal composers, such as Gavin Bryars and Howard Skempton, have openly acknowledged the importance of a knowledge of Satie’s music on the development of their own styles; but the fact that Satie is not a commonly-cited source of the style outside of Britain, while not ruling out the possibility of such an influence, does pose questions of how composers separated by nearly a century’s-worth of music can come up with such (relatively – allowing for technological advances, in particular) similar solutions to musical problems. An examination of Satie, the minimalists, and their music reveals certain parallels in the circumstances of the composers regarding musical trends, the composers’ compositional aims, and connections with the other arts, as well as points of contact in the (tricky) question of influence. Much has been written on the development of the minimalist style of music in America in the 1960s and rather than repeat what has already been clearly presented by others, only those facts which reveal parallels with Satie’s musical development will be given. For more detailed information, a book such as Wim Mertens’ American Minimal Music1 and Edward Strickland’s interviews with the four major composers in the style (La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass) in American Composers2 are very helpful.

Both Satie and the minimalist composers found themselves in very oppressive musical situations. In Satie’s day composition was generally expected to use the idioms of Wagnerian romanticism, a craze for which swept France in the late nineteenth century. In brief, this meant the use of extreme chromaticism, traditional (Western) forms of development, functional harmony, and resulted in works that were extremely emotive. Minimalists in America in the mid-1960s had to fight against the expected serial style of composition, as practised by Boulez, Stockhausen, et al. This was the chromaticism of Wagner taken several steps further, through atonality to a total control of all elements of the composition. The music progressed through accepted forms of development – the inversion, retrogression, and transposition of the row (and combinations of these) and the result was often works of great complexity and sometimes emotion (usually negative). In Britain, composers who were to become “minimalists” were largely under the influence of Cageian musical philosophies, having passed through a phase of serialism to end up with indeterminacy. The concept behind the music was anti-tonal, rather than atonal, and, again, there were certain expected ways of creating music. The result of all these musical regimes was a gradual distancing of the composers from the musical establishment, sometimes giving up composition completely for a while, as in the case of Michael Nyman:

It was made pretty clear to me that if you didn’t write serial music you were just a total dummy, and if you wanted to write music like Britten you might as well not breathe. I sat down and tried to write a twelve-tone piece and it just came out horrible and mangled and it had nothing to do with who I was as a composer. So I went into voluntary exile.3

Almost all of the late-20th-century minimalist composers have reported feeling restricted by the accepted musical practices of their various situations. Young started to break out of the serial prison by writing pieces which consisted of extremely long notes. By slowing the pace of the music down he effectively negated any sense of harmonic direction, as well as melody in the traditional sense. The focus, instead, was on the sounds themselves, on the slight variations that occur when an attempt is made to prolong sound to such an extent on an acoustic instrument, and various acoustical by-products of that attempt which became apparent in performance. Riley picked up on this idea, but his important contribution lies in applying it to a tonal context and with including, in his piece In C, the regular pulse that was to become a feature of much minimal music which followed. Steve Reich was writing serial music while still a student, but his inclining was always towards tonality, as his description of his student version of twelve-tone manipulation of the row :

When I was writing twelve-tone music … the only way I could deal with it was not to transpose the row or invert the row or retrograde the row but to repeat the row over and over again, so I could sneak some harmony in there… The experience of writing twelve-tone music was an important and valuable one for me in that it showed me what I had to do – which was to stop writing it.4

Satie, however, was always independent in terms of musical style, and always kept several steps ahead of everybody else, with the result that it took about twenty years for his earliest works to be generally accepted. These were very simple pieces, both in their sound, and in their general aesthetic. In them, Satie can be seen rebelling against the traditional Western idea of `development’ in particular. Just as the minimalists were to do later, Satie started to work with fragments (Motifs, he called them) of musical material, randomly juxtaposed, repeated and transposed so as to negate the idea of argument or discussion which is fundamental to so much Western music. An example of this sort of treatment is the piano piece, Prelude de la Porte Heroique du Ciel (1894), which consists of a number of short, anonymous fragments which recur in no particular order. Satie’s palette of rhythms is extremely limited (quavers in pairs, crotchets, dotted crotchets, 2 minims, and one semibreve plus a crotchet for the end of the main part of the piece) and increases the feeling of similarity between these fragments. One of these fragments (Ex. 1), however, recurs 12 times (in six sets of two):

Ex. 1: Prelude de la Porte Heroique du Ciel 'punctuation' fragment
musical example

The effect in this particular piece is to stop any appearance of development in the piece. Satie breaks the flow of the music with this little repetition, after which the process of random juxtaposition starts again. Satie’s music frequently involves the use of repeated short fragments, as in this `punctuation form’5 . In the earlier pieces, such as the SarabandesGymnopedies, and Gnossiennes, these tend to be arranged into lines of music which are repeated whole, and then broken up and repeated as separate sections. Often these motifs were noticeably similar in their rhythm and/or melodic contours, so that the effect was nearly the same as of exact repetition. An example of this is the 5th Gnossienne, which consists of a theme comprising three similar sections (A, B, and C). The accompaniment rhythm and texture are constant throughout, as shown in Ex. 2:

Ex. 2: Gnossienne No. 5 accompaniment
musical example

and the piece consists only of the repetition of the three melodic sections, at varying pitch levels as shown:6

structure diagram

Satie arrived at his overtly simple style of composition by the combination of the two very different styles of music which made up the main part of his childhood musical experience : mediaeval church chant, and salon music. Both of these are extremely simple and melody-based musics, which had little to do with the bombast and symbolism of Wagnerian Romanticism which was in vogue in the latter years of the nineteenth century. Popular music remained an important influence on Satie’s music throughout his life, and he often quoted melodies of popular songs within his compositions. Satie earned a living playing the piano in the artistic cabarets of Paris, and by writing music-hall songs for popular singers, such as Paulette Darty, and these popular styles also made an impression on his `serious’ compositions. Similarly, the minimalists’ music was influenced by their own experiences of performing and listening to jazz music. La Monte Young was a saxophonist, Riley played jazz piano, and Reich played trap drums in jazz bands for many years. These three have all commented on the influence of Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s `modal jazz’ period7 which was characterised by very free improvisation over static harmonies – Reich points out that an entire side of the album Africa / Brass is in F. “What Coltrane was saying was that over a held harmony finally any note is possible, including noise”.8 This was a possibility which Satie also explored in some of his later pieces which make use of continual, unchanging ostinati, such as the Avant-Dernieres Pensées for piano of 1915. Each of the three pieces is built around an ostinato: a 4-quaver figure in the ‘Idylle’; a figure comprising three rolled quaver chords, separated by quaver rests in the ‘Aubade’; and a 6-quaver rocking motif in the ‘Meditation’. Over these constant bases Satie is able to be very free in his use of melody, which at times becomes quite chromatic, as in his sequencing of a treble version of the bass figure in the ‘Idylle’:

Ex. 3: Sequencing in Idylle
musical example

So, it becomes apparent that the harmonies and figurations of modal jazz were of great importance to the development of the minimalist aesthetic in music. Tied up with this, as well as with the general musical spirit of the times was the use of improvisation. This was something with which Satie had no contact as the improvised music of the 1960s was not simply jazz-based, but also included ideas taken from the music of non-Western cultures. Indian music has been a great influence on the music of Young, Riley and Glass, all of whom have studied it – Young and Riley studying vocal techniques with Pandit Pran Nath, Glass the metric structures, first through contact with sitarist Ravi Shankar, later through studying tabla with Alla Rakha. Reich’s non-Western musical influences are mainly those of West African drumming (which he studied in Ghana), Balinese gamelan, and traditional Hebrew cantillation. These influences should not be underplayed in the story of the development of the minimalist style, because they are the key to what makes this modern music different from that which Satie was writing at the turn of the century. In the 1960s Cage’s (Eastern-informed) musical philosophies were also being felt through the American musical avant-garde, which also had a not inconsiderable effect on the music being written. Young’s work with the Fluxus movement was informed by his contact with Cage’s musical thought, which he had encountered in 1959 at Stockhausen’s composition course in Darmstadt. Many of his works of this period show a continuing interest in the themes of repetition and prolongation of sound, such as X for Henry Flynt, which “requires the performer to repeat a loud, heavy sound every one to two seconds as uniformly and regularly as possible for a long period of time”9 and the 29 Compositions 1961, all of which consist of the instruction to “Draw a straight line and follow it”. Again, acoustical phenomena are of great importance to the composer. Smith says that in 1963 Young organised a five-hour performance of his Composition 1960 #7, which consists of a two-note chord (B and F-sharp, forming the interval of a perfect fifth) which is “to be held for a long time” Smith describes the effect thus:

Performing, or witnessing a single activity extended in time, we begin to appreciate aspects and ideas that would otherwise remain hidden. In the open fifth piece we hear pitches additional to those notated : combination tones appear singly or in small groups. The mind constantly refocuses as the listener’s attention is drawn by different elements and transformations of the sound10.

This sort of description has its parallel in descriptions of the effects of Satie’s marathon piano piece Vexations. This piece consists of a single chromatic bass line (containing all the notes of the chromatic scale except one) and two harmonisations of that bass line (the only difference between these being the inversion of the right-hand parts). The piece is structured by playing these sections in the following order :

  1. Solo Bass line
  2. Harmonisation A
  3. Solo Bass line
  4. Harmonisation B

This combination is to be repeated 840 times, a process which takes between twelve and twenty-four hours to complete. The disorienting chromaticism of the bass line is further compounded by the inclusion of a tritone in every chord of each harmonisation except one, and the effects which complete performances have had on audiences and performers alike have been extraordinary, including one case in which the performer (who was attempting a solo performance, rather than using a number of pianists in rotation) stopped playing at repetition 595 because he “could feel his mind wearing away” and saw “animals and ‘things’ … peering out at him from the score”11.

The type of repetition pattern used in Vexations also appears (on a much smaller scale) in a piano piece by the British minimalist composer Howard Skempton. Skempton is one of those composers who has publicly acknowledged the influence of Satie on his own work and, as he has been involved with the British experimental movement (which had a strong connection with Cage12) for many years, it is improbable that this influence has been absorbed by happy accident. Like VexationsWaltz (1970) consists of a bass line (labelled ‘D’):

Ex. 4: Skempton: Bass line of Waltz
musical example

two melodic variants played over that bass line (A and C), and a more harmonic version, which alters the bass line slightly, but retains its overall harmonic movement (B). These fragments are repeated in a random order which “involves the listener in a kind of constant interior dialogue : `Surely he won’t’ and then `Yes, he has’ “13 . The main difference here is the unabashedly tonal harmonic basis of Skempton’s work. However, the very predictability of the harmony acts in the same way as Satie’s ostinati in Avant-Dernieres Pensees or the F base of Coltrane’s Africa / Brass in that the fact of the audience knowing so completely beforehand what is coming up (even coupled with a simultaneous disbelief that the composer could be so straightforward in his use of such a harmony) negates its harmonic movement, leaving the composer free to do what he likes with the melody, as can be seen by his effective use of the chromatic scale in (C):

Ex. 5: Skempton: Use of chromatic scale in Waltz
musical example

Skempton’s Waltz is a good example of how different the American and British minimal styles of music are. Where the Americans tend to use very short fragments of music, repeated over and over, often in a very rhythmic manner, the British composers tend more towards the use of a more lyrical, melodic repetition. `Sentimentality’ combined with `System’ is the way of the British minimalists: “System and Sentimentality are the SS of my Reich”14 is a quote that could well be applied to the music of a number of British minimal composers. The beauty of pieces such as Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (1971) and The Sinking of the Titanic (work in progress, begun in 1969), and Skempton’s Lento (1991) has become as much a trademark of their composers’ styles as the rhythmic vitality of the American minimalists.

The minimalism of British experimental composers reveals another parallel between minimalism and Erik Satie in a common link with the visual arts. Satie was very openly involved in avant-garde art movements of his day (in particular those of cubism and dadaism) and certain aspects of those movements are reflected in some of his pieces. For example, the “cubism” of certain of his early pieces, such as the Gymnopedies of 1888 or the Pieces Froidesof 1897. These have been described as taking a sculptural approach to music by presenting what is essentially the same material from three different angles, much like the cubists’ attempts to show all aspects of a three-dimensional subject at once in a two-dimensional medium. The nonsensical eclecticism of some of Satie’s later works also has very clear connections with the dadaist movement – for example, the ballet réaliste Relâche. In Britain, the experimental musical tradition was fostered to a large extent in art schools and by students of Fine Art. Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra and Gavin Bryars’ Portsmouth Sinfonia15were both formed outside of traditional musical environments – the Scratch Orchestra from an Experimental Music Workshop run by Cardew for a group of “musical amateurs, avantgardists from the visual arts”16 as well as music students. The Portsmouth Sinfonia was “collectively founded by Gavin Bryars and staff and Fine Art students from the Portsmouth Polytechnic”17. Bryars continues to teach music to art students, as do a number of his colleagues, and has an intense personal interest – which has affected his approach to musical composition – in the work of the artist Marcel Duchamp (who appeared with Satie in Rene Clair’s film Entr’acte). The crossover nature of the “music” written by the composers of Fluxus can also be pointed to as a parallel here. Some of Young’s more conventionally musical Fluxus compositions have already been briefly examined and those which are less conventionally musical, such as Composition 1960 #5, in which a butterfly is turned loose, are really performance art. Three of the American minimalists have also been linked with minimalist visual artists: “Glass with Richard Serra, Young with Robert Morris; the second performance of Reich’s Pendulum Music, at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1969, featured three minimalists from the visual arts among its four performers”18; Michael Nyman’s 1976 interview with Steve Reich in Studio International19 concentrates largely on parallels between Reich’s musical aesthetic as expressed in his Music as a Gradual Process and artist Sol LeWitt’s Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.

This artistic connection leads on to another which minimalist composers have in common with Erik Satie: film music. Satie’s score for Rene Clair’s avant-garde film, Entr’acte (1924) consists primarily of very short repeated fragments of music. The most distinctive of these is the dotted rhythmic combination:

Ex. 6: Entr'acte rhythmic figure
musical example

which opens the score and recurs throughout the film. This is derived from the quotation of Chopin’s ‘Marche funèbre’ from Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 35 at the marking ‘Marche funèbre’:

Ex. 7: Chopin: 'Marche funèbre' figure
musical example

The Chopin march was a standard piece for accompanying funerals and deaths in silent films, so Satie has used it (as he often did) in a satirical manner here. Looking at the piano score20 it becomes apparent just how much the rhythm of this quotation permeates the music: the fragment in Ex. 6 appears in exact repeats 58 times in the course of the film, together with other dotted-rhythm figures which can clearly be heard to relate to the Chopin theme. Satie’s use of Chopin in this film to evoke a mood (even if in a satirical vein) is extremely interesting in the light of minimalistic uses of the music of earlier composers in other film scores.

Michael Nyman’s scores for the films of Peter Greenaway are particularly relevant in this respect. The music for The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), a bizarre black comedy set in late seventeenth-century England draws heavily on the music of Henry Purcell (d. 1695) for ground basses over which Nyman weaves his trademark repetitive melodies. Drowning By Numbers (1987) drew on Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, as did the music for The Falls (1980). For The Falls, Greenaway specifically asked Nyman to “make 92 versions of [bars 58-61 of the Sinfonia Concertante] one for each of the characters whose biographies make up [the] film”.21 This added an extra aspect of repetition (which was inherent in the film) to the form, as well as to the style of the music, and symbolised the similarity of experience of each of these ninety-two characters (all of whom showed signs of having suffered a ‘Violent Unknown Event’ or ‘VUE’). Repetitive music is especially effective in films because its non-developmental nature ensures a stable base for the visuals to rest on. This is similar to Coltrane’s free improvisation over held harmony because in film, even the most fragmented of images can appear well-connected if accompanied by music which emphasises similarity, rather than difference. This was the aim behind Satie’s score for Entr’acte in 1924. The film is non-narrative – although the second half does follow (in a fragmentary way) the progress of a funeral procession – and is principally interested in camera effects, and movement. There are hardly any stationary shots in the whole film and scenes are short. Satie’s music provides a background of continuity against which these changes can occur without too much confusion – the overall impression of movement and speed remain, but without the confusion that could have resulted had the music not remained simple and repetitive.

There are many elements of Satie’s music which have appeared in the later music of the American and British minimalist composers: the use of repetition as a means of avoiding the sort of musical development expected of these composers by the ‘establishment’ of their time, the return to a basic simplicity of thought, and of utterance, and the return to tonality. These similarities can be seen to stem from similarities of situation, of influence (in their use of popular music), and approach to compositional problems, as well as their connections with the visual arts. This essay has only managed to present a brief overview of these elements, but there is much that can be gleaned from an examination of the music of both Erik Satie and the minimal composers.



  1. (Return to text) Mertens, Wim (trans. J. Hautekiet). 1983, American Minimal Music: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Kahn & Averill, London.
  2. (Return to text) Strickland, Edward. 1991, American Composers: Dialogues on Contemporary Music, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana.
  3. (Return to text) Interview with Michael Nyman, in Ford, Andrew. 1993, Composer to Composer, Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd, St Leonards, NSW, p. 192.
  4. (Return to text) Interview with Steve Reich, in Strickland, Edward. 1991, American Composers, p. 39.
  5. (Return to text) Patrick Gowers’ term, in Gowers, Patrick. 1965-66, ‘Satie’s Rose Croix music (1891-1895)’, in Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association No. 92, pp. 1-25, p. 18.
  6. (Return to text) In this diagram, A, B, and C are the motifs of the piece. The intervals of transposition are indicated by M(major), m(minor), p(perfect), and a number to indicate the interval. Whether the transposition is up or down the given interval is indicated by the arrow and by the position of the text (superscript or subscript).
  7. (Return to text) Lasting between 1959, with the appearance of the album Kind of Blue, which he made with Miles Davis, “to just past A Love Supreme, heading into ’65” (Strickland, Edward. 1991, American Composers, p. 38.
  8. (Return to text) Interview with Steve Reich, in Strickland, Edward. 1991, American Composers, p. 39.
  9. (Return to text) Smith, Dave. 1977-78, ‘Following a straight line: La Monte Young’, in ContactNo. 18, Winter, pp. 4-9, p. 4.
  10. (Return to text) Smith, Dave. 1977-78, ‘Following a straight line: La Monte Young’, p. 4.
  11. (Return to text) Bryars, Gavin. 1982, ‘Vexations and its performers’, in Contact, No. 26, Autumn, p. 4-14, p. 16.
  12. (Return to text) John Cage was an ardent supporter of Satie’s music.
  13. (Return to text) Bryars, Gavin. 1982, ‘Satie and the British’, in Contact, No. 25, Autumn, pp. 4-14, p. 9. This quote is actually in relation to Skempton’s Slow Waltz of 1973, but is equally applicable to the 1970 composition.
  14. (Return to text) John White, quoted in Nyman, Michael. 1981, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, Schirmer Books, New York, p. 142.
  15. (Return to text) Nyman provides a good summary of the aims and activities of these two groups.
  16. (Return to text) Cardew, Cornelius. 1974, Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, Anchor Press Ltd, place unknown, p. 105.
  17. (Return to text) Nyman, Michael. 1981, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, p. 139.
  18. (Return to text) Bernard, Jonathan W.. 1993, ‘The minimalist aesthetic in the plastic arts and in music’, in Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 31 no. 1, pp. 86-132, p. 87.
  19. (Return to text) Nyman, Michael. 1976, ‘Steve Reich: Interview by Michael Nyman’, in Studio International, No. 192, November-December, pp. 300-307.
  20. (Return to text) Published by Salabert, 1972.
  21. (Return to text) Nyman, Michael. Date unknown, liner notes for Drowning By Numbers, Virgin Records recording CDVE23.