Why Composers Make Music to Drive Us Insane

Erik Satie in his later years. Photo by @redarmypress/Instagram
Erik Satie in his later years. (Photo by @redarmypress/Instagram)

Art is a painful sometimes. It tries to lay you out, knock you down, and then sit on your chest, while you bewildered, ask “why would you do this?” That’s what I thought when I first read about Erik Satie’s “Vexations” (1893), which consists of a half sheet of music notation with a passage that Satie wrote had to be repeated 840 times (not a typo). The writer Sam Sweet calls it a “dangerous and evil” composition. I admit immediately that he’s right. That doesn’t matter. John Cage (who is said to have been influenced by Satie’s legacy) took up the challenge of the piece with a group of 11 pianists in 1963 at the Pocket Theatre in the East Village and finished it in 18 hours and 40 minutes. A solo pianist, Richard Toop, fought his way through ennui and fatigue (and probably a kind of dread of failure) to play it all in 24 hours in 1967. Subsequently it’s been staged intermittently, as religious folk might say, “when the spirit moves you.”

But what is this about? Satie knew that the prospect of performing this composition was so daunting, he wrote a note above the score that said one should “prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.” It’s as if he knew he had devised an art piece that is a cudgel to lay up against the side of the listeners’ heads with a force and fervor they can’t deserve.

But then there is an artistic tradition of making musical work that pushes us to the edge of our capacities. Robert Wilson and Phillip Glass collaborated in producing an opera in Avignon, France in 1976, Einstein on the Beach, which takes five hours to perform (though some probably think that’s normal). John Cage composed a piece of music for the organ, Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) that began in 2001 at St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany and is scheduled to last 639 years, ending in 2640. After the start, there was a pause lasting until February 5, 2003, then the first chord was played until July 5, 2005. This is a test for the audience, and in the case of Satie’s piece that requires live music players, a test of them as well. As Sweet says, like a doctor diagnosing the particular ailment, “Recitals were part endurance trial, part vision quest.”

They are, I think, much more trial than a reach for epiphany. We humans like to throw ourselves against the limits of our abilities, whether it’s listening to artwork like Erik Satie’s or attempting to read the impenetrable imbroglio that is Finnegans Wake, or testing the physical limits or our bodies, or probing the horizon of our technological capabilities. The attraction is not actually the work. Rather, it’s the opportunity to prove to ourselves that our will can conquer any obstacle or challenge, that makes us able to survive is the willingness to press on. Art is a pain because it sometimes disguises the real impetus for making work: just to see what we are capable of, what we can endure, and then hold on the triumph long enough to forget that we are alone in the universe.

An artist's rendering of a younger Satie (Photo by Art Gallery ErgsArt via Flckr)
An artist’s rendering of a younger Satie by Santiago Rusiñol (Photo by Art Gallery ErgsArt via Flckr)

A recording of the staging of “Parade” by the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Philharmonic Orchestra, is available for viewing here on YouTube.

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