Guitarists Discover Timelessness of Erik Satie The spare, haunting melodies of composer and pianist Erik Satie have inspired musicians, from Claude Debussy to guitarists Jonathan Stone and Adrian Bond, who perform his music in NPR's studio.
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Guitarists Discover Timelessness of Erik Satie

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Guitarists Discover Timelessness of Erik Satie

Guitarists Discover Timelessness of Erik Satie

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The work of Erik Satie is seminal to a range of 20th century music. You can hear it in French minimalism and modern electronica. Even if you don't know Satie's name, you probably know his music.

(Soundbite of music, "Gymnopedie No. 1")

SEABROOK: This is the "Gymnopedie No. 1" for solo piano. Satie was an eccentric guy who lived in a wild time: Paris in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was the height of the avant-garde. And Satie's work has only gained influence over time. Guitarists Jonathan Stone and Adrian Bond approach music from radically different perspectives. But they've come together to perform Satie's music. It's a collaboration project they call the Phonometrics. Here's their interpretation of the "Gymnopedie No. 1."

(Soundbite of music, "Gymnopedie No. 1")

SEABROOK: I'm joined in NPR's performance studio by Jonathan Stone and Adrian Bond, performing their arrangement of Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 1". Welcome. Thanks for coming in to our studios.

Mr. JONATHAN STONE (Guitarist): Hi.

Mr. ADRIAN BOND (Guitarist): Thanks very much for having us.

SEABROOK: Why is Satie still relevant? Why reinterpret Satie for guitar? Jonathan Stone?

Mr. STONE: His music is still relevant because it was unique in its time. And it was a departure in its time. And in a way, to me, Satie creates a kind of timelessness in much of his music. So it's just as fresh now as it was 100 years ago.


Mr. BOND: And also when Jonathan introduced me to Erik Satie back in the, I guess it was the late '70s or early '80s, and I had already been familiar with the ambient movement, which sort of led to John Cage and, you know, other strange sort of more avant-garde stuff, so that when the first time that I heard Erik Satie it was more like recognizing something that had influenced all of the people that had influenced me. And it was instantaneously familiar and perfectly relevant.

SEABROOK: One of the things that's so fascinating about you guys playing together is that Jonathan Stone, you're a traditional bossanova and samba player, and Adrian Bond, as you say, you're an ambient electronic musician for the most part. How do you find common ground in Satie's work?

Mr. BOND: Our common taste for the bizarre, I suppose.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOND: We tend of admire eccentric characters who take things on their own terms and develop something entirely new out of thin air.

SEABROOK: The "Gymnopedie No. 1" is still well-known that I can't just listen to that piece and say, wow, this guy was doing something really different. Can you give me a sense of what he was doing in his time that was so different from other people?

Mr. STONE: It's often said that Satie's music achieves its effects despite or maybe because of his lack of technical and musical erudition or technique. One thing that guided him, I think, was his anti-authoritarianism. Whenever he encountered a rule, or someone telling him - he had a life-long antipathy to the academy and the official methods of composition. So when he heard there was a rule, he immediately just broke it and just stayed there breaking it.

SEABROOK: This was not a guy in early 20th century Paris who was doing what everyone else was doing.

Mr. BOND: Right. One of the things that makes Satie truly barbaric is the aggressive application of the flat five...

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. STONE: Atonalities.

SEABROOK: That's a flat-fifth?

Mr. STONE: That's - yeah. And it has obviously sort of a tense and harmonic feel. And it was an interval that was literally to be avoided. In fact, in liturgical music it was essentially illegal.


Mr. STONE: Well, because - my understanding is that it was sort of representative of the flaw in God's plan in a strange way, that in this beautiful harmonic series you get eventually this interval...

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. STONE: Very challenging to listen to.

SEABROOK: Is there a piece you all play that gives a sense of this?

Mr. BOND: Absolutely. "Gnossienne No. 3" would be a perfect example of the aggressive use of the flat five.

(Soundbite of music, "Gnossienne No. 3")

SEABROOK: "Gnossienne No. 3," Erik Satie's piece there played by Jonathan Stone and Adrian Bond here in Studio 4A. Now, I understand that Satie wrote notes and commentaries in the margins of his work, or actually there are instructions for playing the music in his sheet music, right?

Mr. STONE: Well, you would find that in almost any kind of music (unintelligible) like allegro or dynamic indications, but he took things into the realm of personal psychology.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STONE: Give you advice about your state of being as you're playing the music. Don't be proud, for example, or...

Mr. BOND: Think like a pear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: And these things - it came into style in early 20th century Paris, right?

Mr. STONE: Well, he became famous for these absurdist little humorous asides.

Mr. BOND: So much so that by the Teens he was actually having to request that people not read them out loud when the pieces were played.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MR. STONE: So we thought it might be fun to ask you to read one out loud.


Mr. BOND: This piece is actually a bit different. There's an actual narrative.

SEABROOK: What is this piece?

Mr. BOND: It's one of those small pieces from a collection called "Sports and Divertisments," called "Yachting."

SEABROOK: Okay. Shall we try this?

Mr. BOND: Let's do.

(Soundbite of music, "Yachting")

SEABROOK: (Reading) What weather. The wind is heaving like a seal. The yacht is dancing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: I can't...

Mr. STONE: No, you're doing great though. I couldn't have done it with a straight face either, so...

SEABROOK: Let's try that again.

(Soundbite of song, "Yachting")

SEABROOK: (Reading) What weather. The wind is heaving like a seal. The yacht is dancing. She's behaving like a little pool. The sea is quite out of hand. Let's hope she won't crash on a rock. Can no one calm her down? I don't want to stay here, says the pretty passenger. It is not amusing. I prefer something else. Call me a cab.

I can see why the surrealists liked this guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOND: It influences avant-garde music through the 20th century, and it also appears in bank commercials. I mean, it's very popularly accessible. And yet people on the fringe, trying to do something unprecedented, find inspiration from him as well.

SEABROOK: Adrian Bond, Jonathan Stone, thank you both for joining me here in the studio.

Mr. STONE: Thank you, Andrea. It's been great.

Mr. BOND: Thanks again for having us.

SEABROOK: And would you play us out with something? Tell us what it is.

Mr. BOND: Love to. I think we'll do the "Gnossienne No. 5," a jaunty little piece.

(Soundbite of music, "Gnossienne No. 5")

SEABROOK: There's more of our studio session with Adrian Bond and Jonathan Stone at

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