Satie’s Vexations Explores Boundaries of Experimental Music
A tall, thin wooden table with a vase of flowers on top, an elegant lamp and a grand piano greeted visitors at Fairchild Chapel on Friday, Nov. 17, between 7:30 a.m. and 9 p.m. Seated at the grand piano would have been any of the thirty or so Oberlin students and faculty who had agreed to take part in a performance of one of the most infamous pieces ever written: Erik Satie’s Vexations.
Satie (1866-1925), known for his penchant for the bizarre and the ironically humorous in his music, composed Vexations in 1893. Fitting on a single page, the piece consists of a single short melody repeated four times by the pianist’s left hand. Chords are added by the right hand over the second and fourth repetitions. In all, this lasts a little less than a minute. The catch is that Satie instructed for the page of music to be repeated 840 times.
Satie’s oblique way of notating the pitches complicates the performance. He wrote C flats where Bs would have been expected, and E double flats instead of Ds, and some notes are spelled in different ways at different points in the phrases. These quirks kept the pianists, who were instructed to always read the music rather than to memorize it, on their toes. They made unnervingly easy mistakes, which became painfully obvious after a number of repetitions.
The performance was organized by Composition Professor Randolph Coleman in conjunction with his seminar this semester on John Cage and American experimental music. Cage, whose reputation carries as much if not more notoriety as Satie’s, organized perhaps the first performance of Vexations in Sept. 1963, in New York City. His performance, a collaboration with eleven other pianists, lasted nearly 19 hours. Other performances, including a few solo performances, have lasted as long as 24 hours and as short as six hours. It was played two other times at Oberlin, once in 1971 and again in 1993.
Many questions and ambiguities surround the composition of Vexations. Was Satie serious when he composed the piece, or was the instruction to repeat 840 times a joke? Did he actually expect people to perform it or did he just view it as a conceptual piece? What is known is that the piece was not performed during Satie’s lifetime.
This year’s presentation of the piece yielded many different reactions from performers and listeners alike. Senior Joshua Morris was the only audience member to stay for the whole 14 ½ hours, save for a two minute bathroom break in the middle. For him, the piece created a sense of timelessness.
“Listening to Vexations was like a clock with a blank face and only the second hand, and I was not quite sure which way was up. It ticks and ticks, very intently and it is intensely going from nowhere to nowhere. It is very actively doing nothing. This was my only sense of time, only that surely time must be passing because notes are being played, but always the same notes.”
For people who came and went, the piece effectively blurred the line between art and life. Outside of Fairchild, one still carried the knowledge that the piece was going on, even if it wasn’t audible. Returning to the chapel later to find that essentially nothing had changed was comforting.
Taking a second as the piece’s pulse, one repetition lasted 50 seconds. With 20 repetitions per performer, this made 39 shifts at the piano, each lasting 18 minutes. The piece was begun by musicology professor Steven Plank and finished by sophomore piano major Mark Shuldiner. The silence in the chapel after the final repetition was inconceivably deafening, powerful and surprising. It lasted for a few minutes before Shuldiner stood up, turned off the lamp and walked off the stage and down the center aisle of the chapel.
Nobody in the audience dared to applaud.