November 20 – National Absurdity Day

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About the Holiday

Absurdity is all around us. It can make us laugh, make us mad, and make us see people and events with a new perspective. Today’s holiday gives us the opportunity to embrace absurdity in all its forms. You can spend the day doing something ridiculous, reading absurdist literature, or maybe listening to the music composed by the subject of today’s book!

Strange Mr. Satie: Composer of the Absurd

Written by M. T. Anderson | Illustrated by Petra Mathers

 

Born in 1866 in France, Erik Satie was a man of contradictions. “‘I was born very young in a very old world,’” he once remarked, and some thought that he never really grew up but always remained “a child with an old man’s smile.” This dichotomy even influenced the kind of music he liked to compose. Even as a child Satie loved music, and as he grew older he wanted to create music that was “both very young and very old, very bold and very shy, that followed no rules but its own.”

Satie liked to combine dissonant styles, such as chants and chorus line tunes. His listeners, with their fancy clothes, impeccable manners, and preconceived notions didn’t understand or like Satie’s “strange” music. On his part Satie found most people frightening and confusing. As a young man he moved to Paris where he made friends. One of his friends took him to a café called Le Chat Noir or The Black Cat. The café, with its resident cat, upstairs theater, and hidden poet’s skeleton attracted poets, artists, dancers, “wizards, and wisecrackers,” who would gather to share their work. Some had invented “luminous hats” while others had “schemes to cover the oceans with cork so they could travel from New York to France.”

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Image copyright Petra Mathers, text copyright M. T. Anderson. Courtesy of Candlewick Press

Satie liked Le Chat Noir. He played the piano and people listened—without laughing, without even moving, just allowing themselves to feel happy or sad or as if they were in a dream. Feeling accepted in this atmosphere, Satie wrote his most famous pieces for the piano—the Gymnopédies. His unusual songs for parties, puppet shows, and other occasions had equally unusual titles: one was called “The Dreamy Fish,” another “In a Horse Costume,” and still another “Real Flabby Preludes (for a Dog).” Instead of the usual instructions composers wrote for musicians, Satie included instructions like “‘On yellowing velvet’ and ‘I want a hat of solid mahogany.’”

One day at Le Chat Noir, Erik Satie “met an artist and model Suzanne Valadon and fell in love with her.” The only problem was that she already had a boyfriend—a wealthy lawyer. Satie simply invited himself along on their dates. Satie made friends, but he also lost them easily due to his terrible temper. He yelled at his friends when they didn’t like his music, when they did like his music, and for many small perceived grievances in between. He and Suzanne fought frequently until she left him forever.

Erik Satie seemed more “like a visitor” on Earth than one of its citizens. His wardrobe consisted of “seven identical grey velvet suits and that was all.” Instead of washing with soap, he used a stone, and his room was so small he had to climb on the bed just to get in the door. By this time Satie was in his late 30s and had never learned the rules of music. He realized that he needed to go back to school. After graduating he took to wearing suits and carrying an umbrella. He looked “normal” on the outside, but his eyes still gleamed with the unique creativity inside him.

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Image copyright Petra Mathers, text copyright M. T. Anderson. Courtesy of Candlewick Press

In 1917 Satie and his friends wrote and performed a ballet called Parade with sets designed by Pablo Picasso. The story of the ballet was dramatic and the music was peculiar—played on xylophones, typewriters, and sirens. The audiences and critics disliked it intensely; it caused fights and insults. Satie even came close to going to jail over his rude response to a critic.

In 1924 Satie wrote another ballet called Cancelled, which featured a movie and a real camel, and became a self-fulfilling prophesy when on opening night the lead dancer actually worried himself sick and the ballet was cancelled. When the ballet opened a few nights later, however, the audience loved it and, finally, Satie heard long-sought applause. Soon afterward Satie became sick and was taken to the hospital. He died on July 1.

Poets, artists, and musicians came from all over to attend Erik Satie’s funeral. They wanted to honor this most unique man who lived life on his own terms and whose music influenced famous composers in the future.

T. Anderson’s honest and entertaining biography of Erik Satie depicts the quirkiness of the composer’s life through well-chosen anecdotes that will have readers laughing, shaking their heads, and empathizing with this man of extraordinary brilliance. While Satie’s personality and creativity made for a topsy-turvy existence, Anderson combines lyrical passages with those of straight narration sprinkled with expressive adjectives and verbs to clearly paint a portrait of this most unusual and influential composer.

Petra Mathers brings to life late 1800s and early 1900s France as well as the unusual music Erik Satie composes. In vivid illustrations Satie is seen mingling with the patrons of Le Chat Noir, joining Suzanne Valadon on her dates, sitting in his small room and classroom, and giving vent to his argumentative nature. As Satie cannot be separated from his music, his pieces are depicted here. Disparate objects—candles, balls, bells, dice, question marks, dominoes, and more—burst out of a piano and into and out of listeners’ ears; a performer in the ballet Parade cross the stage wearing a costume of skyscrapers; and the ballet Cancelled with its smoking canon and live camel results in flower-strewn acclaim.

Ages 6 – 10

Candlewick Press, 2016 (reprint edition) | ISNB 978-0763687755

Visit M. T. Anderson‘s website to learn more about his books for children, teens, and adults. Plus you’ll find videos, interviews, wallpapers, and more gimmicks!

National Absurdity Day Activity

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Really Ridiculous Coloring Pages

 

Have you every seen a frog in a suit or a dancing alligator? Absurd, right? Have fun with these printable Really Ridiculous Coloring Pages!

Frog Coloring Page | Alligator Coloring Page

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