Erik Satie – his music, his words, your ears
St Mary’s Barnes, London SW13
Alistair McGowan, words & piano
Daniel Turner, piano
Charlotte Page, soprano
Monday 14th March 2016
The comedian and impressionist Alistair McGowan has had a longtime fascination with the French composer Erik Satie 1866-1925). His first encounter with the eccentric composer’s music was at the age of 9 when he heard the beautiful, spare Gymnopédie No. 1. As an adult his fascination has led him to take up the piano again and to research Satie’s life in more detail, resulting in a play and documentary for radio, and now this words and music presentation, which had its first performance as part of the 2016 Barnes Music Festival. As it happens, McGowan is a resident of Barnes, and Satie’s parents married in the church where the performance took place.
McGowan’s narration was drawn from Satie’s own writings and musings (he was an avid letter writer, often writing letters to himself to remind him of important appointments), he wrote poetry and he drew witty and fantastical cartoons. He started composing in the 1890s and influenced composers such as Debussy and Ravel, Poulenc and Milhaud, and the Minimalists. His music defies categorisation – today we might describe his simple and often repetitive structures as “minimalist”, but descriptions such as “surrealist”, “symbolist” and “impressionist” are also appropriate.
McGowan played Erik Satie, dressed in a grey suit with bowler hat and black neatly-furled umbrella (Satie is said to have owned around 100 such umbrellas, together with identical grey velvet suits). He was accompanied on the piano by Daniel Turner, though he also played some pieces, revealing himself to be a competent and expressive pianist (in the version of this show which McGowan will tour, ‘Erik Satie’s Faction’, he intends to play all the music himself). McGowan brought Satie to life, revealing the composer’s eccentricies and idiosyncrasies through a series of engaging and often highly entertaining readings. We learn that Satie only ate white food, that he kept to a strict regime regarding work, mealtimes, walks, that he had only one love affair in his life (with Suzanne Valadon, which left him devastated when it ended), that Debussy enjoyed “eggs and chops”, that he was both entirely sure of his own opinions, but also quite self-deprecating.
McGowan inhabits Satie’s persona with ease and delivers his narration with character and obvious regard and affection for the quirky composer. The narration is interspersed with extracts from Satie’s music (mostly on this occasion the Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes) and my only frustration with this otherwise engaging and enjoyable show is that there wasn’t enough music. Pieces were begun, only to pause, mid-flow, and it would have been helpful to have had a playlist of works referenced in the programme. There were song extracts too, sung by McGowan’s wife, Charlotte Page, her voice floating ethereally around the roof of the church, suggesting the ghostly presence of Satie’s lover.
2016 marks the 150th anniversary of Satie’s birth and this show pays a warm, informative and entertaining tribute to the composer. McGowan will be touring with the show over the following months – do catch it if you can: it is well worth seeing.
More on Satie by Alistair McGowan
(photo of Alistair McGowan – BBC)