Author Caitlin Horrocks Explores Brilliance of Composer Erik Satie In 'The Vexations'

Jul 27, 2019
Originally published on July 27, 2019 12:53 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Cue the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK SATIE'S "GYMNOPEDIE NO. 1")

SIMON: The "Gymnopedies" by the French composer Erik Satie.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK SATIE'S "GYMNOPEDIE NO. 1")

SIMON: One of the most haunting and evocative pieces of music. Satie was an emblem of the avant-garde and the Belle Epoque, an original, a radical, an eccentric, a genius. Caitlin Horrocks, an acclaimed short story writer, has written a novel that explores the sources and costs of that brilliance to himself and his siblings in her first novel, "The Vexations." Caitlin Horrocks joins us now from member station WGBU in Grand Rapids, Mich. Thanks so much for being with us.

CAITLIN HORROCKS: Thank you.

SIMON: What makes someone from Grand Rapids want to write about Erik Satie?

HORROCKS: As a piano student, my teacher assigned me one of the "Gymnopedies." And as a kid, I just immediately loved it. I thought, I have a new favorite piece. I have a new favorite composer. I really loved that elegant melancholy that you just heard. But when I looked at more pieces, I - very quickly I was running into things like "Flabby Preludes (For A Dog)" or "Dried Embryos," one of which contains essentially lines of dialogue from the point of view of a sea cucumber. And as an aspiring pianist, I was annoyed. (Laughter) I was disappointed.

SIMON: Yeah.

HORROCKS: And it raised the question, though, of who was this person who had created this handful of very beautiful pieces and then this other more playful, more experimental work? And I just held onto that question for a long time.

SIMON: Let's begin with his apartment because the book opens in 1825. Erik Satie's brother Conrad is going into the apartment his brother lived in for 25 years, and he'd never seen. Quite a scene, wasn't it?

HORROCKS: They found piles and piles of handkerchiefs and collars. He was very meticulous about his linen. And that was in sharp contrast to a lot of squalor. He was very broke most of his life. He owed money to everybody. And then just eccentricities - lots of umbrellas, manuscripts for music that he claimed to have lost that were found later. Because what was in the apartment was so strange, it ultimately spawned rumors but that it was even stranger.

SIMON: Yeah. The Satie siblings had a tough upbringing, especially after their mother died. What happened?

HORROCKS: There were three siblings. Erik was the eldest, then a daughter, Olga Louise (ph), and then Conrad. And the father, not feeling able to tend to the children on his own, went back to his birthplace in Normandy and left the children with his mother and then disappeared for several years.

SIMON: Louise, his sister, tells him, somebody has to be extraordinary. Why not you?

HORROCKS: There are Satie quotes about him feeling that he was born into the wrong era or that he was trying to create music that was just really unlike what he had been raised with. And I think that that sense of being exceptional and trying to figure out what that exceptionalism might look like or what rewards it might bring was something that was with him throughout his life.

SIMON: We, of course, began this interview by playing some notes from "Gymnopedie" (ph). It is hard to overestimate how - over the years, how popular, played, influential and evocative this piece of music is to millions. Yet, how old was Satie when he wrote it?

HORROCKS: We're not quite sure when he wrote it, but around 21 or 22. And he had a long life ahead of him.

SIMON: Yeah. How do you depict genius in a novel? I mean, in a movie, he would sketch in a few notes and crumple up the composition paper and throw them away and say, (imitating French accent) that is no good.

HORROCKS: (Laughter) I - there were many moments in this book where I was sort of thinking of, like, the biopic and the equivalent here - what's the montage that's happening? - and then realizing that would not work for the novel. That was not a productive direction to go in.

And I ended up often trying to root it in character, not just to throw adjectives at the problem, but to really talk about kind of intention and result. What was he trying to do versus how was it coming out? And often, there would - even with work that is now iconic for us, there is often this plaguing sense of what is it, or what does it mean, or what does this say about me or about my talent? And coming back to the way that the characters, not as as abstract geniuses but just as people, thought about their own work was for me the way into that question.

SIMON: I want to end, if we could, on another one of Satie's compositions, from obviously which you take the title, "The Vexations" (ph). This was a work that, of course, was not performed while he was still alive, was it?

HORROCKS: No. It's a handful of lines in manuscript with a note about playing the piece 840 times in succession, which, if you do it, takes 10 to 20 hours. And I don't personally think that Satie would have had all the patience to do this himself. But it's a wonderfully eerie sound.

SIMON: Why did he put a note like that in his music? Did he expect it to be taken seriously, or did he trust that people in a sense would see through it? Because it couldn't have given him much satisfaction to know this piece of music won't be played if people take it seriously.

HORROCKS: That question or versions of that question - where was he being sincere? Where was he being a provocateur? - I ended up asking that question over and over. The provocation was sincere. But I think that was just his mode, was sort of saying outrageous things. I think, in the case of "The Vexations," there's very playful things he's doing with the way that it's written on the page. And that might have been part of what he was exploring there.

SIMON: I know this is a chancy question, but how do you think he'd feel about it being played all the time today?

HORROCKS: I think he'd be pleased. I think he'd be thrilled, actually.

SIMON: Well, we'll play it once more today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIK SATIE'S "VEXATIONS")

SIMON: Caitlin Horrocks. Her novel, "The Vexations." Thanks so much for being with us.

HORROCKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.