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.”