Brighton Fringe Review: Mémoires D’un Amnésique: A Piano, a Film and Erik Satie, in His Own Words, at Wagner Hall, Brighton

This proved to be a good way to spend a Friday evening in Brighton during Brighton Fringe‘Mémoires d’un Amnésique: A piano, a film and Erik Satie, in his own words’ (Memories of an amnesiac) is the story told in a subtly surrealist way, of the life and career of 19th century French Composer Erik Satie.

Narrated in French, with English subtitles, the title comes from a written piece by Satie himself dating from 1912. An interesting approach to a biographical tale, this involves a live piano concert performed by Alex Metcalfe of Amusia, present in character as Satie, against the backdrop of a bespoke black and white film created by Keith Lovegrove. This pairing is augmented by writer Sarah Miles’s script, edited from Satie’s own words. This triumvirate created something larger than the sum of its parts.

A written piece that was often surprisingly funny – laugh out loud so, especially when unpicking his former student reports (we’ve all been there, haven’t we?) with one tutor calling him called him “the laziest student in the Conservatoire”, and often bizarre mentions too, but which, with the sonorous accompaniment of 14 of Satie’s piano pieces, became very moving.

The show moves sequentially through Satie’s life, yet also allowing for the many quirks in his (just shy of) 60 years after a premature death from cirrhosis of the liver in 1925. He was certainly a curious man and after buying seven identical velvet suits which he wore constantly for the next seven years, he became known as The Velvet Gentleman. Aspects of the film unpick this curious yet inspired life with cinematically representative quirks.

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This event was set in the Wagner Hall, which is a great venue for a show of this kind. On stage in the hall, and beginning with Satie’s Vexations, Metcalfe then moves on to a performance of Gymnopedie No. 2, Gnossienne No 1, and a whole array of his work, skilfully performed by this pianist.

The minimalists and experimentalists of the 1960s, such as John Cage and La Monte Young, were strongly influenced by Satie, particularly his Vexations (a piece consisting of 16 measures of dissonant chorale followed by the instruction that the performer repeat them 848 times). The post-minimialist trend in film music, with exponents like Yann Tiersenn and Ludovico Einaudi, is almost entirely indebted to Satie. 

Satie proved himself a true eccentric, in both his works, and his life. He was a true original and groundbreaking in his including his 1920 piece Furniture Music ‘Music not to be listened to’, which might constitute the first kind of ambient music. His death was eventually brought about by a lifetime of absinthe overindulgence as a member of Montmartre’s hedonistic Chat Noir cabaret set.

In 27 years, no one had set foot inside his Arcueil residence. It transpires he was an inveterate hoarder. His fellow composer and friend, Darius Milhaud, visited to help clear out the deceased’s belongings. From Milhaud’s account, there were two pianos in the apartment, one on top of the other, the higher of which was used to store post.

I wonder perhaps, from reading further about his life, whether in fact he suffered from some form of mental disturbance, OCD or similar, which led to his unusual existence, but also, in some form, in the repetitious forms within his own music too. His life veers between obsessive order and abstract chaos and this piece, lovingly created by Metcalfe, Lovegrove and Miles, really does highlight that.

An evening well spent, and a production that I would happily attend again. This was a respectful and skilful approach to the life of this unique composer.

Their next performance of this show is on Sunday 26 June 2022 6.30pm at FARLEYS HOUSE & GALLERY (Home of the Surrealists), Farley Farm, Muddles Green, Chiddingly, East Sussex BN8 6HW.

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