Erik Satie’s Cinéma – Dada Music for a Dada Film


Figure 5
How did Satie set music to the first truly Dada film? The film does not hold to a firm narrative per se, nor was there a precedent for avant-garde film music. Satie was treading on new ground. Luckily, the first experiment in Dada film scoring stands as an exemplary model of how music for the avant-garde cinema can be created. The last few years of Satie’s life awarded him recognition, some respect, and lots of notoriety, which he enjoyed. In this later period, Satie began experimenting in what he termed musique d’ameublement, which were short, four to eight bar phrases to be repeated over and over. Like Picabia’s drawings of this period [See Figure 5], the music both functions, and simultaneously does not function.19 It functions by producing sound, yet at the same time, it does not function as music since it does not do anything or go anywhere.
It is purely static. Satie used the concept of this ancillary music to accompany any number of things from luncheons, and art openings, to the words of Plato’s Symposium in his Socrate, and the images of René Clair’s film. The music for Entr’acte builds off of this principle of furniture music. Satie uses twenty-eight musical cells, which he transposes, re-orchestrates, and manipulates to create one cohesive film score. The repetition and reorganization of the musical cells lead some to view the score as a massive nihilistic rondo form; however, the score is much more than a casual assemblage of incongruous pieces of furniture music.
First, a few thoughts on Satie’s synchronization technique. Satie divides the music into ten large units to correspond to the images on the screen [See Table 1].

Along with these structural divisions, which also serve as markers for the conductor to synchronize the music and image, Satie inserted another set of numbers in both the orchestral and piano reduction score. These twenty-six cues are not coordinated with image cues; rather I believe they serve as a means for the conductor to either repeat or eliminate a sequence in order to fit the music to the speed of the projector.

These ten large music cues designated in the score show that Satie wanted to align his music with specific events or shots from the film. This does not mean, however, that Satie had studied the film intensely, or that he composed the music while watching the film. Quite the contrary, Satie knew the basic scenario given to him by Picabia, and knew the approximate times of each of the ten sections, but probably had never seen the film.20 The score is not synchronized shot by shot as today’s film scores are; rather, the music produces a hovering buzz of sound alongside Clair’s imagetrack.

Satie’s music, functioning parallel to the film, replicates Clair’s cinematic procedures. The music opens with a loud burst of sound led by the trombone and low strings as they belt out a descending A major triad under the repeated rhythmic pounding of a B chord (without its third and an added second) with an A minor neighbor chord (with the third enharmonically spelled as B-sharp) [See EXAMPLE 1 and FILM CLIP 1].


The ears of the bourgeoisie audience would have accepted by this gesture A Major as the tonal center, but by the second beat of the second measure the descending G? and F? in the bass make one wonder where we are going. Are we about to hear a B then an E, making our tonic key E Major, or will he lead us towards another theme in A minor? Satie does not follow any of our expectations; instead, he does the most unexpected thing possible, he repeats, and repeats, and repeats, and repeats that second measure seven times and then jumps to an entirely different phrase in an entirely different key. Here, Satie uses repetition as a device to disorient, confuse and annoy his audience, who are subjected to a seemingly endless parade of uncomfortable repetitions.21 By drilling these chords into the ears of the spectators, and refusing to develop the material, Satie’s music resembles Dada poetry’s uses of repetitive baby talk. Mirroring the poets, Satie utilizes repetition as a method of “dumbing down” and irritating the viewers/listeners.

Not only does Satie parallel the aesthetic of the director through his own (while not perfectly synchronized) musical jump cutting, he also infuses the beliefs and goals of the Dada movement into his score. The ambivalent, disorientating harmonies of the first motive are merely the tip of the iceberg. After the eight repetitions, Satie ends that motive on a secondary-dominant, further implied by the key signature [See EXAMPLE 1]. The next motive, “B” consists of two repetitions of a two-measure sequence with no cadence [See EXAMPLE 2 and FILM CLIP 1].

Satie then introduces “motive C:” eight repetitions of dominant-tonic progression in C major, but again, ending, not on the tonic, but on the dominant function [See EXAMPLE 3 and FILM CLIP 1].
Time after time, motive after motive, Satie ends the motivic cells on the dominant or the secondary-dominant functions, thus, further frustrating the listeners who expect their music to follow some sort of linear progression – to go somewhere! And, generally in French neoclassical music of this time, this material should lead to a cadence, which thus resolves the phrase.
Just as Classical and Romantic generations delayed harmonic resolution to add tension to their music and thwart the listeners’ expectations, Satie amplifies the process. Susan McClary and Lawrence Kramer have explained this expected cadence in terms of the fulfillment of sexual desire.22 If you recall, Picabia and Clair play with sexual metaphors throughout the film and the ballet: the dressing and undressing dancers in the ballet, the iconography of phallic images in the film and ballet [See Figure 4] (guns, pipes, towers, streams of water) and also in allusions to impotence (the revelation that the attractive ballerina whose skirt we got to peer up was really a man, the hunter’s inability to shoot the ostrich egg, and the funeral procession's inability to catch the hearse).
These sexual images would not have been lost on the audience of avant-gardes and upper-class arts patrons, and were certainly not lost on Satie, who by landing each section on the wrong cadence, and by juxtaposing unrelated keys and motives, denies fulfillment of a metaphorical musical orgasm: his music remains intentionally impotent. Such a reading sheds light on a most bizarre statement attributed to Satie. Here, Clair recollects the composer’s quip about writing “pornographic” music for the film:
  For his part, Satie, after declaring that he had composed a piece of “pornographic” music for us “good boys,” toned down that declaration by adding that he did not intend “to make a lobster or an egg blush.”23
While Douglas Gallez maintains that “Satie’s music isn’t pornographic, of course, nor is it embarrassing enough to make any creature blush,”24 I have to respectfully disagree. The “pornographic” in early twentieth-century France had to be offensive, but necessarily sexually explicit. Satie’s intention in applying such a sobriquet to his score could only refer to his technique of rendering his music sexually impotent via his refusal to resolve anything.
Satie best demonstrates his ability to delay the highly anticipated release in the final chase scene. As the hearse races out of control, he builds intensity by repeating, what I call the AA motive seven times [See EXAMPLE 4 and FILM CLIP 3], varying it slightly and transposing it up a pitch at each repetition leading to an abrupt change in mood and tempo as the accelerating 2/4 suddenly becomes a languid 3/4 waltz and the pent-up energy is left unresolved – impotent.
There is no real secure sense of release until the very end of the film when Satie again tries to build intensity, this time by sequencing the opening motive [Seen from EXAMPLE 1] upwards three times, finally, driving to orgasmic climax and release of tension with two bars of dominant function leading to a strongly accented cadence in tonic [See EXAMPLE 5 and FILM CLIP 4].

The music perfectly fits into what Clair manages to capture cinematically with increased tempo of cutting from the eighth cue, the chase scene to the sudden halt in the ninth cue, with the falling of the casket to the increased tempo and final resolution within the final cue – the “kicking of the head” finale. The film and music both end mocking the conventions of finality in their respective media: the sign reading “fin” which Börlin jumps through, and Satie’s hackneyed parody of the final few bars of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.25

Another important Dadaist tendency is to mock unabashedly all conventions held by the bourgeoisie. Formal conventions in music are fair game for Satie. If one were to assign a term for the score’s seemingly endless confusion of motives, they would be forced to call it a rondo.26 In this construction, the same repetitive themes return again and again: thus creating another parody of classical forms as well as an excuse to irritate the listener. The repetition mocks not only the audience, but by repeating itself again, and again, and again, and again, and again, ad nauseam, it pokes fun at the entire genre of silent film music. In the early days of the silent film, films were often, but not always, accompanied by music, either by a piano or harmonium player, or by a record player.27 This practice is ridiculed and parodied in Satie’s score. The repetition satirizes a record that skips – a common occurrence with early temperamental gramophone records.

Cinema as a genre and form of popular entertainment is heavily parodied throughout Satie’s score, most notably in cue six: “Marche funèbre.” A two-measure introduction sets up the quotation of Chopin’s funeral march from the third movement of his second Piano Sonata, Op. 35, which is transposed down a half-step [See EXAMPLE 6, EXAMPLE 7 and FILM CLIP 2].


The familiar dirge had already been a film music cliché for some time, and the silent theater was notorious for using previously clichéd works and wearing them out even more.28 Since the Chopin march has been literally played to death, Satie intends the quotation to mock the convention in parallel to Clair’s use of the camel to pull the hearse. In true Dada fashion, all ceremony, held up to such high esteem by the bourgeoisie (including the final Beethoven parody), is mocked and ridiculed, in an attempt to insult and upset the audience.

But Satie’s score is not totally without form, logic, or structure; nihilism does not take over. Complete disorganization conflicts with the composer’s compositional aesthetic (the only tenet he held in his ever changing career). Satie obsessed over harmonic and rhythmic relationships, as seen in his notebooks and the other scraps of paper found cluttered in his tiny apartment. The score contains larger cohesive organizational patterns outside of the cinematic synchronization. These structures do not nullify the Dada message and intents of the collaborators, but act as pillars in supporting the field of gibberish. The assignment of key signatures in Entr’acte might appear random at first glance, but, after closer inspection, many of the ten film cues begin and end in the same key signature [see Table 1]. Once these units are revealed, it is clear that the organization could not be accidental as a large I-IV-V-I progression is unmasked.29 Is this progression audibly perceptible? – I don’t think so – It is merely another embedded joke: one last gag inserted purely for the amusement of the composer. He has already mocked the rondo; why not poke fun at the structural pillars of the Western classical music tradition: our old friend I-IV-V-I?

In sum, Satie’s score perfectly compliments Rene Clair’s film by utilizing the multimedia technique of similarity vilified by Eisenstein, Eisler and Adorno; and a multimedia analysis of the “event” is a first step toward building a theory of musical multimedia and the notion of the artwork. Meaning in this multimedia piece emerges through close analysis of the constituent media, their relations to each other, their relations to the performative context, and to other media. The “performance” of this event in 1924 holds true to Dada aesthetics and principles, and its constituent media form a cohesive amalgamation of dance, music and cinema, neither one subservient to the other. As such, Entr’acte remains one of the few examples of successful representation of Dadaism through film and music. Like the title of the Dada poet, filmmaker, and chronicler, Hans Richter’s book, this score is DADA: Art and Anti-Art – Satie, like Clair, provokes, taunts, and mocks his audience and the conventions of his craft in such a witty and sublime manner that the resulting work can be called nothing but art.