After the death in 1925 of French composer Erik Satie, dozens of unsent love letters were found in his Paris apartment. Composer Elena Kats-Chernin and pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska have collaborated on a recording and concert project that sends those letters off in a series of piano miniatures inspired by Satie’s extraordinary life and music.
Uzbekistan-born Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin is internationally recognised and awarded, with commissions from the world’s leading orchestras, festivals, opera, ballet and theatre companies.
Popular Classic FM presenter Tamara-Anna Cislowska is one of Australia’s foremost pianists, winner of national and international awards including the 2015 ARIA for Best Classical Album.
Their exploration of the life, love and music of Erik Satie resulted in the 2017 chart-topping album “Unsent Love Letters: Meditations on Erik Satie”. In their concert in Dubbo on June 1, they will perform works by Satie and selections from the 26 piano miniatures composed by Elena Kats-Chernin.
The project began from a chance encounter with a radio program.
“The comedian Alistair McGowan did a fascinating walk through Paris on BBC Radio 4 a few years ago, describing the life of Erik Satie,” Tamara-Anna Cislowska said.
“There were so many new pieces of information and threads of Satie’s life to follow. I had never heard the sad story of his failed romance before.”
In 1893, Erik Satie had an intense but short relationship with Suzanne Valadon, one of Renoir’s favourite models and the muse of many other artists including Toulouse-Lautrec. Encouraged by Degas, Valadon also developed her own successful career as a painter.
After their first night together, Satie became obsessed with her and proposed marriage. The two did not marry, but Valadon moved to a room next to Satie’s at the Rue Cortot. During their relationship, Valadon painted a portrait of Satie, which she gave to him. After six months she moved away, leaving Satie broken-hearted. It is believed this was the only intimate relationship Satie ever had.
“He turned into a loner for the last 40 years and wrote love letters in secret to Suzanne,” says Cislowska.
“After he died, friends gained access to his apartment for the first time in almost three decades. They found two grand pianos on top of each other, one chair, one table, seven velvet suits, and the love letters – many, many unsent love letters.
“The more you research into his life, the deeper and more compelling it becomes. He was truly a great eccentric, a great bohemian. He wrote rude postcards to critics. He went through many periods of eating only white foods, for ‘purity’s’ sake. He fell in and out with friends like Debussy, walked for hours each day, and keenly imbibed the potent and deadly absinthe – the ‘green fairy’.”
When Elena Kats-Chernin was commissioned to write the album, she was already a fan of Satie.
“I love the allure of Satie’s harmonies and melodies,” Kats-Chernin said.
“The material in my ‘responses’ to his life and music is often quite laconic, with only very few chords, as in “Tuesday Suit” or the title track “Unsent Love Letters”. Sometimes my pieces use only very few notes, as in “Eggshell” which starts with alternating just two pitches, D and C sharp, for quite a while.
“His musical motifs are sometimes otherworldly, exotic, and syncopated. I tried to mirror this in some of the pieces, for example, in “Absynthe Cocktail” which has at its core a melody that stretches over quite a few bars and is definitely not constructed in regular 4 bar phrases.
“Each meditation comments on an aspect of Satie,” Cislowska said.
“They take his first falling in love as a starting point, so the album begins with the figure of Suzanne very prominent. There are several portraits of her beauty, their love. Then the miniatures touch on his idiosyncrasies – he liked to design imaginary buildings, for example, his sudden fame and eventual decline.
“From the start it was important to us for the whole album to have an overarching structure, that the pieces fit together,” Kats-Chernin said.
“I remember Tamara giving me lots of ideas of where the pieces could go and what aspects of Satie’s life or music could be an inspiration. Over a few months I kept creating many snippets or even full pieces. Tamara gave me feedback and sometimes guided the piece in another direction.
“There was a lot of exchange between us and in the end we had way more pieces than we could fit on a single disc. The pieces that made it into the album are the ones that go well with each other and fit the story of Satie’s life and love.”
The Dubbo audience can expect a unique concert that is an intriguing portrait of Satie, featuring some of his most famous piano pieces, like “Gymnopedie”, as well as the original pieces by Kats-Chernin.
“The live performance will bring you a little closer to that turn of the century world in Paris, closer to one of the great musical influences of the 20th century,” Cislowska said.
“Each piece draws back a veil, little by little, to reveal the man and his story.”
Elena Kats-Chernin and Tamara-Anna Cislowska perform “Unsent Love Letters” at Macquarie Conservatorium Dubbo on Friday, June 1, at 7.30pm. Visit www.macqcon.org.au for details; bookings at www.123tix.com.au ν