A few weeks ago, as I listened to Classic FM while trying to finish some of my projects on the Node, I came across a piano composition by Erik Satie called ’embryons desséchés’, the dessicated embryos. At the time I was too busy but now that I have a bit more time I tried to investigate this piece. I had planned to write a fairly detailed post about the background of this work and whether there was any connection between this french composer and science. However, it seems to be surprisingly difficult to find information about these desiccated embryos!
This piece was composed by Satie in 1913, and it is actually 3 short pieces. Each part is named after a different embryo:
1- (Desiccated embryo) of a Holothurian (sea cucumber)
2- (Desiccated embryo) of an Edriophthalma (this is a disused classification)
3- (Desiccated embryo) of a Podophthalma (stalk eyed crustaceans, like crabs or lobsters)
While searching for more information I came across what looks like an excellent talk on this piece by Anne-Elizabeth Halpern (in French). Unfortunately my French is not quite up-to-speed, so I can’t give you the full details, but from what I can gather Satie was quite interested in the world around him in all its aspects, and this included science. He didn’t think that science was incompatible with art and music. My friend Caroline Fabre was kind enough to translate the first few minutes of the talk for me, and apparently the speaker explains how the embryos represent the promise of the future, but since they are dry there isn’t much of a future here. They are meant to represent how our individual destiny and potential can be asphyxiated by the weight of traditions. The pieces themselves are meant to be parodies of his own music (and that of other people, e.g. he parodies Chopin in part 2) as if these little pieces are little desiccated embryonic citations of this old music.
I must admit that this is not my favorite work by Satie, but clearly he didn’t mean it to be. Do check out the rest of the talk if you are interested (and you can speak French!). While it seems that the embryos are meant as a metaphor for other things, it would be interesting to know where Satie got the idea for this work. Did he have scientist friends? Was he shown marine embryos (desiccated or not?). Do let me know if you find anything else! I finish with a video I found on YouTube of the three pieces: