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04/18/2006: "satie -> mondrian -> eno -> food"

I've been thinking far too much about this music-food thing. On Saturday night, I woke up with a start. There was a missing link in my Eno-Mondrian food connection, I realized, and that missing link was Erik Satie, the modern father of ambient music! How could I have forgotten about Satie and his tortured relationship with food? Yes, we all remember the Gymnopédies--so beautiful, yes--but Satie was a class-A crackpot. I mean, this was a guy who started his own church after quitting the Rosicrucians ("L'Eglise Métropolitaine d'Art de Jésus Conducteur"!) For a long time Satie subsisted on only white food (fitting, then, that one of his later works was titled Menus for Childish Purposes), which matched his equally weird penchant for wearing grey velvet suits almost constantly. White food and Satie's music makes intuitive sense to me somehow; there's this snowy sense of purity and a solemn, crystalline radiance to his music. Satie's most famous work is so tidy and elegant, too--there's this pearlescent plastic quality to it that's sort of Apple Computer in a way. But have you ever listened to Satie and wondered, well, this is all very nice, very pretty, but there's something sort of evil lurking beneath this music? Something deeply weird along with that refined sense of melancholy? So back to Satie's tormented dealings with food--he "never spoke while eating for fear of strangling himself." Even his famous explanation of "furniture music," the original foundations of ambient music as we know it, was framed in the context of dinner:

You know, there's a need to create furniture music; that is to say, music that would be a part of the surrounding noises and that would take them into account. I see it as melodious, as masking the clatter of knives and forks without drowning it completely, without imposing itself. It would spare them the usual banalities.

You could set up a whole Mondrian-Satie psychological continuum of eating in the context of Brian Eno's influences, though I'd say that Eno's attitudes toward food probably run more in line with another huge influence of his, the late Fela Kuti. I found this reminiscence by a Nigerian writer on his experiences at Fela's club the Shrine: "I also recall with great fondness, the savory piquancy of the excellent Jollof rice and stewed fried meat sold outside of the Shrine. I recall nights during my University of Lagos years when we visited the Shrine area just for the food."

But back to Satie's grim culinary universe. "My only nourishment consists of food that is white: eggs, sugar, shredded bones, the fat of dead animals, veal, salt, coconuts, chicken cooked in white water, moldy fruit, rice, turnips, sausages in camphor, pastry, cheese (white varieties), cotton salad, and certain kinds of fish (without their skin)," he wrote in his Memoirs of an Amnesiac. Not sure about the amnesia, but Satie probably had at least three personality disorders that could be identified if I had a copy of the DSM-IV handy. This odd French site I found, which celebrates "Satie-inspired desserts" in a sort of proud French Amelie-ized version of the man (including a section titled "Satie and the Joy of Eating," which would make you think the guy was munching happily on pear galettes while frolicking down the picturesque streets of Montmartre), offers more choice tidbits: "For me, eating is naturally a duty--a pleasant, festive duty--and I really want to perform this duty with exactitude and due attention," wrote Satie. "My appetite is good and I eat for myself, without selfishness or the urge to wolf things down. In other words, 'My posture is better at a table than on horseback'--even though I ride rather well." Err.

"Exactitude and due attention" reminds me of Mondrian's strict attitude toward food, which I talked about in the post below with reference to Eno. Now Satie was French, of course, and Mondrian was Dutch, but it was in Paris that Mondrian had his massive mind-melting paradigm shift leading to the development of his signature rigid "Neoplastic" style. Interestingly, though, it was only after moving to Britain that Mondrian fully developed and refined his truly freaky eating habits! Which brings us back to Eno...

Replies: 9 Comments

food is a massive part of life, lifestyle, and outlook in every culture; you can read any number of books on the anthropology of food.
anyway, i don't think it is productive to argue this further, if you don't see any connection between food and music at all!

geeta said @ 04/28/2006 06:19 PM EST

You don't think Satie's relationship with food is incidental to his neurotic tendencies general? I'm sure in the symbolic language he'd constructed in his illness, white bore some significance. But I think any attempt to contrive deeper musical significance from the way musicians ate, and the subsequent relevance of food to their music, is a stretch.

For example, the Fela Kuti quote you cite: everyone eats, has favorite foods/eateries. So what? I don't see anywhere to go with this unless eating is considered as symptomatic of something (psychologically or culturally) deeper, not in its simple function as a practice and a necessity.

Jess said @ 04/28/2006 03:30 PM EST

well, food is never incidental -- and we know that satie wrote a lot about food, and thought extensively about food. "bourgeois convention" is part and parcel of food and attitudes towards eating; it is not separate from it. it is not a huge stretch to theorize that the "clatter of knives and forks" that satie talks about w.r.t. 'furniture music' is, in some small way, related to his food neuroses. also i am not explicitly relating satie to eno; i am contrasting their approaches, in a somewhat facetious way. like i said, eno's approach to food is markedly different to satie's.

geeta said @ 04/28/2006 03:04 AM EST

Forgive me if I misunderstand, here, but what does the fact that Satie's neuroses happen to allow food under the umbrella of their symptoms have to do with Eno and music/food? It seems to me to be quite a stretch--that you may be trying to manufacture insight that, in the end, would have nothing to do with either music or food.

What Satie is talking about when he mentions the "clattering of knives and forks" is probably more akin to what Richter meant when he said, after asked why he still worked within the bourgeois confines of painting, "I am still bourgeois enough to use a knife and fork, am I not?" Satie uses music to ameliorate banality-- i.e. the banality of bourgeois convention-- the way Richter uses the bourgeois convention of painting to do the same. Both without stepping outside its idioms.

In this story, food is incidental. For Eno, cooking is always an analog to the experience of the musician, a way to bridge the communication breakdown between musicians and non-musicians--it's never a metaphor for musicianship.

Jess said @ 04/27/2006 02:11 PM EST

Satie's "A Mammal's Notebook" is a very interesting read, filled with similiar grim and quirky snippets/diary entries.

Michael F Gill said @ 04/21/2006 05:54 PM EST

I don't know about "evil," but Satie's music is definitely some of the sneakiest I know--accessible enough to be used in perfume commercials, but on a deep level sometimes willfully disorienting, perverse.

I had heard about the white food thing but always assumed he was taking the piss.

Caro said @ 04/20/2006 02:47 PM EST

i actually have a copy of the dsm iv, if you want me to fotocopy the realvent sections, i can email

anthony Easton said @ 04/18/2006 03:16 PM EST

yes i would love it if you sent me some articles! thanks! i produced an episode of NPR's 'The Infinite Mind' last year--look in the archives for an episode called 'Foods and Moods'.

geeta said @ 04/18/2006 01:07 PM EST

Geeta - Been reading as you post about your Eno research - so interesting - thx for sharing it ! Anyway, I wanted to mention something on this food/music/art subject you bring up - it certainly is intriguing how oftentimes these sorts of strange sensory overlaps manifest out of a deeper well of synesthesia. Might be an interesting path for you to explore during your research phase - Eno has been mentioned more than once in relation to this word and I can bet that Satie probably dealt with his own version of it as well. If it interests you, I can send you some articles - there is also a great overview of Synesthesia in the archives for NPR's "The Infinite Mind."

Krista said @ 04/18/2006 12:52 PM EST

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