Among Erik Satie’s most radical compositions were his first. His reputation as the great forefather of Minimalist music rests on the Gymnopédies, the Gnossiennes, Vexations, and Le fils des étoiles, all of which were written before he was 26. It was an experimental time of his life. He’d moved to Montmartre, fallen in with an eccentric cabaret crowd, grown his hair, bought a cape and top hat, and become the official composer to a mystical cult, the Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique du Temple et du Graal. His compositions were eccentric but magical.
The first prelude of Le fils des étoiles - the opening to a suite of pieces written as incidental music for a play by his Rosicrucian patron, Peladan - is one of the most extraordinary. Like with his other early piano pieces, Satie dispenses with bar lines, time signature, and keys. A morning sunlight falls on us in the opening chords - made up of stacks of fourths. The piece proceeds without moving, repeating the opening verticals eight times in harmonic transposition, as if presenting us with eight views of a sculpture. Four unconnected passages each headed with a different instruction - “White and immobile”, “Carefully”, “Pale and hieratic”, “Like a gentle request” - unfold without aim, but with great fragrance. It was this sort of cyclical meandering that would lead Satie’s friend and disciple Debussy to call him “a gentle medieval musician lost in this century.” The critics were less sympathetic to his slow soft washes of sound. One said of the preludes that “one doesn’t know which end to grab them by.” This was to become one of the primary objectives of Minimalism. “This tape merchant’s music,” the reviewer concluded, “gave me but mediocre satisfaction.”