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How Satie's Gymnopedies became ubiquitous

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Erik Satie's 'Gymnopedies' define 'Peaceful Piano.' Tadas Mikuckis/Unsplash

If you've ever listened to YourClassical's Peaceful Piano or Relax streams, there's a good chance you've heard Erik Satie's Gymnopédies. As a matter of fact, if you've ever listened to any playlist, CD, record, or tape promising "relaxation," there's a good chance you've heard this music.

What, exactly, makes Satie's three piano pieces so entrancing? Why have generations kept coming back to them? It's appealing music, certainly — but it's also unique, in a way that's made it at once highly popular and highly influential.

Among the repertoire's great composers, Satie wasn't exactly a prodigy: when the boy entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1879, his teachers were decidedly unimpressed by his technique and work ethic. He left and came back in 1885 (then age 19), with the same result. Three years later, he published the first of these now-famous piano compositions.

The Gymnopédies may seem the height of refined relaxation today, but in their time they were deeply subversive. They defied classical harmonies and structures, in keeping with the composer's generally iconoclastic spirit.

The pieces' title came from a made-up profession Satie invented for himself when asked what his occupation was. "I am a gymnopedist," he said. The word was highly esoteric — and the following year, Satie gave that title to three short piano pieces. What is a gymnopedist? One who writes the Gymnopédies, of course.

The pieces were accompanied by a piece of verse written by Satie's friend J.P. Contamine de Latour, and it remains unclear whether the poem or the music was written first. The word "gymnopédie" appears in the poem, and had previously been identified by Rousseau as a piece of music to which young Spartans danced naked.

By avoiding any conventional term for the pieces (sonatas, préludes, etc.), Satie cut himself loose from any preexisting restrictions on what, exactly, they would be. The same approach applied to Satie's other pieces, and he experimented with avant-garde compositional touches like directing that his piece Vexations be played 840 times in a row.

Satie argued for French composers to throw off the heavy mantle of German Romanticism, making him a critical influence on the evolution of 20th-century music in his home country and beyond. In 1898, Debussy published an orchestration that brought an impressionistic touch to bear on Satie's music, illustrating a facility for achieving great effect with spare, spacious instrumental color.

John Cage was a passionate fan of Satie's, and through Cage as well as other mid-century figures, Satie helped provide the template for what we now call "ambient music." Cage was particularly drawn to the proto-conceptual aspects of Satie's work: the endless repetitions, the floating structures.

Cage seized on Satie's concept of musique d'ameublement, a French term often translated as "furniture music" — in other words, background music. The idea of music not meant for the foreground wasn't new (Haydn, for example, knew darn well his chamber music wasn't always going to command rapt attention), but Satie deliberately structured some of his compositions to be repetitive and unobtrusive, while substantial enough to have more of a presence than a ticking clock.

The ambient music of Brian Eno, the entire genre of new age music, and vast swaths of electronic music spanning genres owe a debt to Satie. Meanwhile, as Satie's aesthetic was becoming increasingly influential, the Gymnopédies were proliferating through popular culture in their own right. Blood, Sweat & Tears won a Grammy for their 1968 interpretation.

The Gymnopédies also featured in movies including The Royal Tenenbaums and My Dinner with Andre, where the piano pieces soundtracked Wallace Shawn's contemplative cab ride through New York City. Combining historical resonance with a distinctly contemporary flavor, composed by a musician's musician, the Gymnopédies perfectly captured the film's searching and pained, yet sophisticated, tone.

Simple enough for a child, sophisticated enough for a brainy independent film, the Gymnopédies today are music for all occasions — except, ironically, a dance party.