Erik Satie: “An artist must regulate his life”
Presenting the composer’s “precise daily schedule” on this 155th anniversary of his birth
Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously: Alison Bechdel’s very labor-intensive cartooning process.
Erik Satie (1866–1925)
The brilliant and eccentric French composer was born on this day in 1866. In honor of that anniversary, here is Satie’s “A Musician’s Day,” first published in 1913:
A MUSICIAN’S DAY
An artist must regulate his life. Here is my precise daily schedule. I rise at 7:18, am inspired from 10:30 to 11:47. I lunch at 12:11 and leave the table at 12:14. A healthy horse-back ride on my property from 1:19 to 2:35. Another round of inspiration from 3:12 to 4:07.
From 5:00 to 6:47 various occupations (fencing, reflection, immobility, visits, contemplation, dexterity, swimming, etc.).
Dinner is served at 7:16 and finished at 7:20. Afterward from 8:09 to 9:59 symphonic readings out loud.
I go to bed regularly at 10:37. Once a week I wake up with a start at 3:14 A.M. (Tuesdays.)
I eat only white foods: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (the white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (skinned).
I boil my wine and drink it cold mixed with fuchsia juice. I have a good appetite but never talk when eating for fear of strangling.
I breathe carefully (a little at a time) and dance very rarely. When walking I hold my sides and look steadily behind me.
Being of serious demeanor, it is unintentional when I laugh. I always apologize very affably.
I sleep with only one eye closed; I sleep very hard. My bed is round with a hole in it for my head to go through. Every hour a servant takes my temperature and gives me another.
For a long time I have subscribed to a fashion magazine. I wear a white cap, white socks, and a white vest.
My doctor has always told me to smoke. He even explains himself: “Smoke, my friend. Otherwise someone else will smoke in your place.”
This is, obviously, a satirical take on the brilliant-person’s-daily-routine genre; even so, I think Satie ends up revealing a good deal about himself here. As Roger Shattuck writes in his landmark book The Banquet Years—where I found the above translation of “A Musician’s Day”—Satie had a talent for “finding huge enjoyment in the very absurdity of living.” A talent we should probably all work on cultivating these days.
In Daily Rituals, I wrote a mini-biography of Satie’s actual day-to-day routine. My chief source was the book Satie Remembered, a trove of biographical miscellany for the composer. Here are some of the quotes that leaped out at me, not all of which made it into my published mini-biography.
He was a rather extraordinary person, living more or less in a cupboard in Arcueil [Montmartre] on the 40 francs a month given him by his mother or some other anonymous benefactor. On Sundays he’d pour soup, thickened with potatoes when he could get them, on to his bread and that lasted him for a week. . . . For entertainment, he came twice a week to drink coffee with Debussy, smoked his tobacco, talked about music and was totally happy. —René Peter
At the Auberge du Clou I came across my old friend [Satie]. “A small inheritance,” as he called it, had brought him several 1000-franc notes and he rushed immediately to the store called La Belle Jardinière to order half a dozen (perhaps even a dozen) chestnut-colored suits in velvet corduroy, which would last him some time. He also had the same number of hats made out of the same material
When, some years later, he got on to the last suit, he confessed to me that they were beginning to give him indigestion and that he could not bear to look at velvet any more, even in paintings. —Vincent Hyspa
He stayed at home as little as possible, going from Arcueil to Paris each day on foot. And (however he managed it) we could see him arrive in the same impeccable shirt and the same smart clothes. Frequently, as night fell, I saw him set out again, still on foot, often in the snow, during the worst weeks of winter, but always with the same smile. —Georges Auric
He was certainly the oddest person I have ever known, but the most rare and consistently witty person, too. —Igor Stravinsky
I enjoyed this article about the pioneering minimalist composer Terry Riley finding himself “comfortably marooned” in Japan because of the pandemic. Riley arrived in February 2020, intending a brief stay, and instead has been living there ever since, working on new music and, at 85, trying to learn Japanese. The article includes a few quotes from Riley about his creative process; I especially liked this one:
It’s fun: it’s like a way of just gathering a bunch of forces together, and pretty soon they’ll suggest how they should be organized in the final score.
Reminds me of the Abstract Expressionist painter Helen Frankenthaler talking about how she worked:
One prepares, bringing all one’s weight and gracefulness and knowledge to bear: spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, physically. And often there’s a moment when all frequencies are right and it hits.