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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 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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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is the opinions editor and managing editor of the Sunday Edition for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on...

9 replies on “Why Composers Make Music to Drive Us Insane”

  1. Sometimes I think we take modern and contemporary artists too seriously. I think Satie meant this as a poetic gesture, it becomes comic when we take something poetic literally and actually play it 840.. Duchamp is a case in point we took his jokes much too seriously.

    1. Depends on what we mean by “poetic”. Satie was a notorious jokester, and inn this particular case, I think the right word for the gesture is “absurdist”.

      1. I think both you and Edgar Roberson are on to Monsieur Satie. Think of his response to Debussy’s comment that his music lacked ‘form’. He then composed “Trois pièces en forme de poire”, playing on the word ‘forme’ meaning ‘shape’ as well as ‘form’.

        When John Cage was involved with a performance of “Vexations”, I understand that audience members were refunded a certain portion of their entrance fee for each hour they stayed in attendance — the entire amount for those who listened till the end.

        Haydn, of course, had his little joke, in which it was the performers who walked out.
        I wonder if the last to leave was paid the most. ;>)

  2. “…they can’t deserve.” I love the subsitution of can’t for don’t, so that the locution is wonderfully refreshed!

  3. “Vexations” was a joke, perhaps, or a reaction to Wagnerism, or teleological thinking in music more generally, or just a logical extension of Satie’s musique d’amueblement, or some combination of all those things. The post-war rediscovery of Satie and subsequent desire to perform this piece in toto can be seen as a symptom of the anti-political “moment zero” attitude in the post-war European musical avant-garde, or as a simple recognition of a historical compatriot by Cage that gained some wider traction, or as part of a broader ’50s interest in rediscovering suppressed artistic strains from the first decades of the 20th century. I would argue that “Vexations” tests the limits of human ability far less than popular virtuosic Romantic music a la Lizst or Paganini; if anything, it tests the limits of human attention, which makes it seem like a logical sort of piece for rediscovery in contemporary times. No one would imagine Eno’s “Lux” series as intended to drive the listener crazy, though it lasts many hours. At the same time, durational work is a prevalent in many contemporary art forms aside from composition.

  4. What Satie actually wrote at the head of his score was not ‘Pour jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif’ (To play this motif 840 times in a row) but ‘Pour se jouer’: to play this motif to oneself 840 times in a row. I’m not convinced Satie intended Vexations to be a piece for public performance. It was not performed or published in his lifetime and, really, the performance tradition for Vexations was started by Cage. Incidentally, the artist who painted the picture you reproduced ought to be credited: he’s Santiago Rusiñol.

    1. Dear Caroline,

      Thanks for this. I’ve taken note of this and appreciate you letting us know. I will also see about properly crediting the painter Santiago Rusiñol.

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