FOLIO ARTS

Keys to INFINITY

A rare performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations will challenge both local performers and audience

Posted

There are levels and depths of certain strains of music that surely transcend modest entertainment. Arguably, one could say that there are levels and depths that even transcend the realms of melody, harmony and even recognizable timbres. In the 20th century, music movements and schools such as modernism, minimalism, drone compositions and even free jazz offered works that demanded attention from the audience, if not at times being indifferent to audiences altogether. Arnold Schoenberg’s radicalized 12-tone composition system launched serialism and chromaticism, inspiring acolytes including Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Edgard Varèse’s timbral and rhythmic concepts were driven by his belief in “sound as living matter.” Varèse’s ideas eventually permeated late-’60s rock audiences through the music of Frank Zappa, who was an ardent adherent of Varèse’s compositial philosophy.

This tribal role call of avant-garde music eventually attracted mid-century composers including John Cage, Harry Partch, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Morton Feldman, Luciano Berio, Henry Flynt, Steve Reich and Philip Glass. New notational systems, “prepared” instruments and unorthodox voicings became common. Concepts of tempo and rhythm were overtaken by unrestricted duration, the sustain of a piano key more revelatory than its original struck note. Avant-garde music detonated acceptable ideas of what music is, while pointing the way music can go.

It was a kind of poly-movement based on the syncretic and the stripping way, most tellingly in the hybrids of Indian Classical music and the narcotized electronics and vocal tonalities of La Monte Young and Terry Riley, who would both perform for hours at a time, creating mystical cathedrals of sound.

One elder composer who pointed the way was Erik Satie. A prominent figure in the early-20th-century Parisian avant-garde, Satie (1866-1925) was a standout in a scene of artistic outcasts. Perhaps most famously known for his 1888 piece, Gymnopédies, with its repetitive piano motif that created a rippling, lulling effect, Satie was an inscrutable composer. Describing himself as a “phonometrician,” a literal measurer of sound, Satie also described the idea of musique d’ameublement (furniture music), which preceded the ambient and environmental music of Brian Eno and even New Age music by decades.

From 1889 to 1897, Satie composed the similarly minded, Greek-myth-inspired Gnossiennes series. Yet one of Satie’s most conceptual–albeit daunting–and rarely performed works was also composed in this productive period of his life.


Believed to have been written between 1893 and 1894, Vexations features a similar simpilicity of pattern as heard in Gymnopédies and the Gnossiennes series. However, this piece–written without a precise indication of tempo–features a ghostly, calm and hesitant pattern that is gilded with blunt tritones. The motif seems to somehow rise and fall simultaneously and feels at ease with the melody, a line of music that repeats–exactly 840 times. When played in its entirety, Vexations usually lasts for an estimated 18 to 20 hours. While some scholars dispute that Satie intended for this truly experimental work to be performed for that long, it seems to be in line with the type of malleability that the composer was drawing out of melody, harmony and time.

The first known performance of Vexations in its entirety was arranged and produced by John Cage and Lewis Lloyd on Sept. 9, 1963 in Manhattan at the Pocket Theatre. A dozen pianists–calling themselves the Pocket Theatre Piano Relay Team–participated in playing the piece, including Cage, David Tudor, (a pre-Velvet Underground) John Cale, James Tenney, Viola Farber and Christian Wolff. That performance lasted 18 hours, with the pianists playing in 20-minute shifts. Ever the experimentalist, Cage even invented a refund system for those in the audience who left the performance; to be exact, a nickel for every 20 minutes spent experiencing (or enduring) this singular, hypnotic piece.

Perhaps Satie’s instructions, written on the piece, give insight to the performers’ ultimate directives: “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” A contemplative preparation for a piece whose title literally means to “annoy, frustrate or worry.”

For obvious reasons, Vexations has rarely been performed. In 2017, composer Gavin Bryars organized a performance at London’s Tate Gallery, 10 with particiapting pianists. The performance clocked in at 18 hours and 40 minutes. When pianist Armin Fuchs played Vexations at a very slow tempo in Dresden, Germany in 2000, he described that–after 28 hours of playing the piece as a soloist–he believed that the trance state he entered was arguably intended by Satie. Most recently, in September 2016, Adriano Castaldini also performed the piece, in its entirety, as a soloist.

Now locals are able to listen to, experience, even endure, Satie’s seismic, monolithic masterpiece. The performance is the brainchild of organizer Clark Lunberry, a UNF professor who teaches modern and contemporary poetry, with an emphasis on avant-garde and how it coexists in myriad art forms. Lunberry has been a longtime and crucial spearhead in creating and hosting local experimentally driven works at events, including concerts by Dutch sound artist Jaap Blonk, as well as Lunberry’s Writing on Water and Writing on Air poetry installations at UNF and the subsequent book, Writing on Air Writing on Water: Poetry Installations by Clark Lunberry.

Beginning at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, March 15 and ending at an estimated 3:30 a.m. Thursday, March 16, this upcoming performance of Vexations is rare even at the level of international Classical Music; that it’s being performed in Jacksonville is a momentous–if not anomalous–event.

The participating pianists, who will collaborate in performing the piece in half-hour-long or hour-long shifts, include Jason Hibbard, Erin Bennett, Michael Mastronicola, Joston Honore, Mark Morelock, Yuma Kitahama, Nina Eustaquio, Chelsea Chacon, Stephen Gosden, Jonathan Ward, Blake Guthrie, Kathryn Ansley, Stefan Kirkcaldy, Tsuyoshi Konno, Chad Spears, Christy Shelenberger, Medsyre Rochanavibhata, Jordan Earle, Yume Omura, Cameron Bainger, Jesse Kirk, Sarah Hartley, Julia Sedloff, Scott Watkins, Jackson Merrill, Skyler Miller and Stephen Putnam.

Lunberry agreed to be interviewed by Folio Weekly via Q&A, to explain his motivations in presenting Vexations, the piece’s history and what the audience can expect during this marathon performance.

For optimum effect, we suggest that you read this interview 840 times, in succession.

Folio Weekly: What compelled you to present this performance of Vexations?

Clark Lunberry: I’ve been listening to a recording of Vexations for many years (one by the pianist Alan Marks) and I’ve also known about the many stories of its very rare performances. As a result, and as a formidable challenge, I’ve always wanted to arrange a performance of my own but thought it unlikely. This semester, though, in conjunction with a course I’m currently teaching at UNF, “Being Bored: The Art of Ennui,” the moment seemed right. So I contacted Dr. Erin Bennett, piano professor in UNF’s school of music, and arranged a collaboration; she was all for working with me on this and she had a slew of pianists she could call upon. By the way, it’s not that I think the piece is boring, though boredom is surely a component, but a kind of radical boredom, pushing repetitions to an extreme, a sinking into long stretches of time.

Have you ever heard this piece performed in its entirety, or even participated in a performance?

No, I have never heard it performed and it’s rarely performed anywhere, for obvious reasons. At 18 to 20 hours, the piece is simply too demanding, too complex to arrange, too many moving parts (pianists). In fact, as far as I know, this performance will be the Florida premiere!

Satie had connections to Dadaism, particularly the publication 391. While his involvement with that magazine followed the composition of Vexations, do you think that piece was a turning point in his career that aimed him toward a more overtly avant-garde sensibility? Or do you feel that Vexations might have been more of an anomaly in his overall body of work?

From what I understand, Vexations was more of an anomaly for Satie, though the piece is instantly recognizable as one of his compositions. The conceptual dimension, playing for so many hours with so many repetitions (840, to be precise, of one musical theme, from its one page score), was unprecedented for him (or anyone else) and, from what I’ve also come to learn, no one was quite sure if Satie was serious or not. We’re taking him at his word, though.

In 1963, John Cage famously presented the piece, featuring a roster of a veritable who’s-who of then-avant-garde music. During the performance, he placed a time clock in the lobby, so audience members would get a refund on the admission price (which is kind of hilarious). How will you be managing the time/tempo of the piece?

We’re printing out 840 copies of the single-page score (the number of times Satie instructed repetition); each time one page is finished, it will be dropped to the floor. Over the 18 to 20 hours of performance, the floor surrounding the pianists will gradually cover with the sheets of paper, like accumulations of snow or dust or sound.

Any concerns players might muddle the piece due to exhaustion?

We’ll see. We’re insisting on seriousness and professionalism by all, but the actual living and breathing bodies of performers may decide otherwise. This is part of the challenge and certainly a big part of the theatricality of this “live” event. Can it be done?

Vexations seems like an almost-mythical piece. It’s surely a protean piece of minimalism, repetitive and drone music that people like Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Angus MacLise, Steve Reich and Philip Glass eventually explored. Do you think younger, contemporary players are as aware of, or even influenced by, what Satie created more than a century ago?

Well, as a non-musician English professor, I can’t speak too much to this, but in the many weeks of organizing this event, I’m finding Vexations seems largely unknown by most of whom I’m encountering–both musicians and non-musicians–or it is only vaguely known for the quirky legend surrounding it. Contemporary composers, though, know the piece, but it remains controversial, it seems, and not embraced by all. Something about Satie and Vexations remains inscrutable and mysterious, which I like a lot about it!

Considering the availability of inexpensive yet quality digital recording gear, have you thought about recording this performance? Quite frankly, people would probably buy this piece in its entire form.

We’re not planning to record the piece, at any length, and the extreme duration and vital “liveness” of the event seems crucial. You’ve gotta be there! However, for those who can’t, a Facebook-live feed is being planned.

The piece’s actual motif is fairly dissonant and the definition of the piece–Vexations–means annoyance, anger, aggravation, etc. What is your take on why Satie wrote this marathon work, based on enharmonic tones, as well as having a fairly dire title?

Well, the piece does have some delicately dissonant moments, but on the whole Vexations strikes me as quite lovely, almost like a lullaby, and even mesmerizing in its gentleness. The 840 repetitions, and the hours involved in a performance, transform it into a kind of theater, or a piece of performance and conceptual art in which time and duration are key ingredients. It seems appropriate that an actual performance of the piece would have to wait for John Cage and his 1963 organizing of its premiere. The world clearly wasn’t ready yet in 1893! The experimentalism and conceptualism of a later era would first have to arrive. One more instance of Cage as revolutionary!

As this is a literally immersive piece for performers and audience, do you think Satie may have written it–on some level–to challenge everyone in the concert hall?

Yes, surely the challenge involved is a major component and, regardless of intent, the challenge is formidable! Ask me on March 16th if we’ve pulled this off (or fallen on our faces).

No comments on this story | Add your comment
Please log in or register to add your comment