On Music, Time Travel, And Erik Satie


For Proust, taste and scent were like time machines: one bite of a madeleine, one whiff of perfume, and he’d jump back ten, twenty, thirty years.

For me, it’s sound. I hear a friend’s voice, and I remember where we last saw each other. A few bars of a pop song, and I’m back in junior high.*

That’s what happened yesterday when I was running errands and heard Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” on the radio.

Jonno introduced me to Satie a lifetime ago, when we were living over a thousand miles apart. We’d just spent a long weekend together — our first — and he gave me a tape to keep me company on the flight home from New York to New Orleans.  As we said goodbye at the corner of 9th Avenue and 23rd Street, I popped it into my cassette player, kissed him — just lightly, I think — and walked away.

I don’t remember whether it was sunny that day, or cloudy, or pouring rain. I only remember pressing “play” and turning around to see Jonno, waving to me from the door of the Chelsea Square diner as the first chords hit my ears. It was a scene from a movie.

As fond as those memories are, though, and as much as I love “Gymnopédie”, I don’t listen to it often. That’s weird, because when I’m into a song, I usually wear it out, then never play it again. (Currently in heavy rotation: “I Am the Doctor”, which is about a completely different sort of time-travel and which I’m dying to put in a show, but it seems wrong for a Mommy Dearest/Mildred Pierce mashup, though it’s perfect for treadmills.)

I’m reluctant to listen to “Gymnopédie” too much because I want to savor it. It’s unlike me to have that much self-control, but people do crazy things when they’re in love. Stumbling across it on the radio yesterday was like getting a little present in the middle of my day, made even more special because Jonno’s been out of town.

Two other interesting things about the piece:

1. “Gymnopédie” sounds entirely different every time it’s played. I know that’s true of every musical work, but it seems doubly so of this one. Maybe because it’s so simple? I don’t know, I’m not a musician.

2. Satie was a real-life friend to another queer couple: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. It’s easy to picture the three of them, sitting after dinner at 27 Rue du Fleurus while Satie plays his newest composition. Toklas looks lovingly at Stein, who looks back — not sappily, not even what we’d call “lovingly”, but Alice could tell what she meant. Years later, people still don’t understand their complicated relationship, but that doesn’t matter. Frankly, it never did.

In case you haven’t heard it before, have a listen:


* Maybe that’s related to my superpower of being able to identify voiceover actors at the drop of a hat, but who knows?

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