Vexations

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Vexations piano sheet

Vexations is a musical work by Erik Satie. Apparently conceived for keyboard (though the single page of manuscript does not specify an instrument), it consists of a short theme in the bass whose four presentations are heard alternatingly unaccompanied and played with chords above. The theme and its accompanying chords are written using strikingly eccentric and impractical enharmonic notation. The piece is undated, but scholars usually assign a date around 1893 on the basis of musical and biographical evidence.

The piece bears the inscription "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" (Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses). From the 1960s onward, this text has mostly been interpreted as an instruction that the page of music should be played 840 times,[1][2] though this may not have been Satie's intention.

Publication[edit]

Satie did not publish the work in his lifetime, and is not known ever to have performed or mentioned it. The piece was first printed in 1949 (in facsimile form, by John Cage in Contrepoints N°6). The first American publication of the piece was in Art News Annual, vol. 27 (1958), again in facsimile. The first English publication was as an engraved example in an article by Peter Dickinson in Music Review, vol. 28 (1967). In 1969 the publisher Éditions Max Eschig produced the first commercial edition of the work, placing it second in a collection of three so-called "Pages mystiques". Since there is no musicological evidence linking Vexations to the other works in the volume, its appearance in that context indicates nothing more than an editor's desire to publish Satie's uncollected compositions in three-part assemblages like the Gymnopedies, Gnossiennes, etc.

First public performance[edit]

Vexations appears to have had no performance history before the idea gained ground that the piece was required to be played 840 times. The first of the 'marathon' performances of the work in this way was produced by John Cage and Lewis Lloyd at the Pocket Theatre in Manhattan by the Pocket Theatre Piano Relay Team, organized by Cage. Pianists included: John Cage, David Tudor, Christian Wolff, Philip Corner, Viola Farber, Robert Wood, MacRae Cook, John Cale, David Del Tredici, James Tenney, Howard Klein (the New York Times reviewer, who coincidentally was asked to play in the course of the event) and Joshua Rifkin, with two reserves, on September 9, 1963. Cage set the admission price at $5 and had a time clock installed in the lobby of the theatre. Each patron checked in with the clock and when leaving the concert, checked out again and received a refund of a nickel for each 20 minutes attended. "In this way," he told Lloyd, "People will understand that the more art you consume, the less it should cost." But Cage had underestimated the length of time the concert would take. It lasted over 18 hours. One person, an actor with The Living Theater, Karl Schenzer, was present for the entire performance.[3]

According to the 1971 edition of the Guinness Book of Records: The New York Times critic fell asleep at 4am and the audience dwindled to six. At the conclusion, one of them shouted "Encore!"

Meaning[edit]

Satie never explained the piece's title. Conjectures regarding the meaning of the Vexations (and their title) were construed long after Satie's death (in most cases supported by little evidence), amongst others:

  • The notation of the chords makes liberal use of enharmonic spellings, making it difficult to read immediately.
  • The Vexations could be interpreted as Satie's coming to terms with Wagnerism, which was riding high in the musical life of those days: Satie loathed all kinds of "Germanic" music (so not only Richard Wagner's, but also the music of Wagner's German antipodes). He loathed even more the French contemporary composers emulating what he experienced as Wagner-like romanticism (e.g. Camille Saint-Saëns, César Franck,...). In this interpretation the Vexations would be Satie's (ironic?) defiance. He could outdo music as lengthy and intense as e.g. Wagner's Ring or Liszt's Années de Pèlerinage, using only the limited (one would be tempted to say "minimalist", but that would be an anachronism) resources that were compatible with his own views on the true nature of French music – and/or, corresponding to his then more than modest means. Note that it is all but clear that his ideas about the limpid nature of French music had fully developed in this early stage. Whatsoever, the Vexations can be seen as an attack on – or a parodic emulation of – what in Wagnerian music is known as the "unendliche Melodie" (the never-ending melody), which is a melody supported by a sheer endless progression of complex chords – which harmonically doesn't exactly lead anywhere. In mood and compositional technique this brings the Vexations near to the – certainly mocking – "Choral inappétissant" ("unsavoury Choral", Autograph Audio), the first (introductory) piece of "Sports et divertissements", which he composed more than 20 years later, after he had studied conventional harmony for several years.
  • The Vexations were written in a period where Satie's approach to harmony was at least exotic, related rather to a modal line of thought than to conventional harmony. In order to understand what follows it should be appreciated that, in those days, the only two established harmonic systems in western music were either the (older) modal system – which was up for some kind of revival, by e.g. Gabriel Fauré -, one the one hand, and the conventional harmonic system of tonal music, firmly installed since the late baroque era, on the other (the – Germanic – twelve tone system being still more than a decade away, while also Claude Debussy – much nearer to Satie – appears not to have questioned classic tonality till shortly after the Vexations were written, see: [1]). Harmonically the Vexations appear to be an exercise in non-resolving tritones, one of the anathemata of conventional harmony (i.e.: in conventional harmony tritones are not forbidden as such, but they should be immediately resolved in the next chord, which doesn't happen in the Vexations). In historical modal music tritones were cursed as such, known as Devils in music (and thus totally anathema). It is not certain whether the various sects and cults frequented by Satie in those days would have had theological objections and/or sympathies towards these particular "Devils", and/or to the fact that the "motif" is subdivided in parts of 13 beats. Maybe Satie's intent was nothing more than to prove that any harmonic and rhythmic system was only a matter of habit for the hearer (and not resulting from innate or divine preconception, as his contemporaries would think): so that after listening 840 times to a chordal system that is at odds with any habitual one, and set in an odd metre, one would possibly start to experience this new system to be as natural as any other – an experiment he was likely to have taken seriously, and maybe directly or indirectly influenced Debussy and/or Ravel. An intended reference to Rossini's piano pieces "Des tritons s’il vous plaït (Montée-descente)" (also exploring tritones) or "Un rien sur le mode enharmonique" is very unlikely, while not yet published at that time. A reference to Liszt's "Bagatelle sans tonalité" ("bagatelles without a key", see: [2]), written a decade earlier, is possible, but, apart from being uncertain that Satie ever heard about this music (or have had more than incidental knowledge of its underlying "Zukunftsharmoniesystem" theory, which was rather the idea of making tonality wane by means of excessive consecutive modulations, extending the Wagnerian style), arguably the Vexations – lacking any form of conventional modulation – are written in a key of C (which would be something like "C tritonal", while neither Minor nor Major, nor any Modal key), I, V and IV being the bass-notes starting respectively 3 groups of 4 quarter-note beats from the start of every measure on, moving towards an unresolved III in the 13th and final beat. Note that this clash of the Vexations with any prior harmonic system is rarely discussed, not even in public concert reviews: maybe after all Satie was right, habituation to some atonality would settle in one day or another – although it has to be said that a decade after composing the Vexations Satie would make a considerable effort to conform to the tonal system (but that could have been intended partly as a reductio ad absurdum).
  • Although the date of composition is uncertain (supposedly mid-1893), the Vexations appear to have been composed shortly after a brief, but intense, relation with Suzanne Valadon, the nearest Erik Satie ever got to a relation with a woman. One of the testimonies of this relation is, apart from the pictures they drew of each other, Satie's optimistic composition "Bonjour Biqui" (April 1893), Biqui being a nickname for his beloved, and the composition being an echo of how Satie customarily greeted her. This composition takes, on paper, almost as much room as the Vexations, but contains no indication that it should be played more than once; thus, when executed, it is (effectively) infinitely shorter than the Vexations. Still, both compositions could be seen to have a mantra-like quality, one gay and the other arid (although it is questionable as to how Satie would have appreciated the idea of a "mantra"). Regardless, it would not be all that surprising that Satie—being "vexé" ("angry", or even "spiteful") about being rejected by his "Biqui"—wanted to disenchant himself from what she had meant to him, by composing a piece that would help him forget all such frivolous feelings. Possibly he was relieving himself with a kind of musical curse (given the implications of "Devils" and the unlucky number "13" described in the previous paragraph).
  • It is also possible that Satie was spoofing the Perpetuum mobile genre: many 19th-century composers had composed such – then very popular – separate pieces with an 'indefinite' number of repeats, mostly leaning on enthralling virtuosity: references like "immobilities"; a DEFINITE (but disproportionately high) number of repeats; an unconventional harmony; "very slow", instead of the usual very rapid movement of a Perpetuum mobile; etc..., all might indicate that Satie was making a parody of this genre, spiting the cheap effects of content-less virtuosity in an uninspired harmonic and rhythmical scheme, that his contemporaries would use to suggest "rapture" to their public.
  • The deeply rooted idea (from its first publication on) that the Vexations might have been intended by Satie as an experiment regarding boredom appears to find little support in the ideas expressed by Satie himself (condemning composers that bored their public in any way). But this might be an explanation why Satie never published the Vexations.
  • Other (no less cumbersome, as anachronistic) explanations involve Dadaism (which was only invented by the end the 2nd decade of the 20th century); Musique d'ameublement (also not before the end of the 2nd decade of the 20th century, at which time Satie described it as a novelty); conceptual art (not before 1960s); etc... – In other words: one could as well, and less anachronistic, call the Vexations a "typical" fin de siècle product.
  • Why Satie chose 840 as the number of repetitions has also been subject to conjecture: no conclusive argument shows why he would have preferred this number to any other. The fact that 840 is the product of the numbers from 4 to 7 does not shed much additional light on the meaning that the number 840 might have had to Satie, though it has to be noted that the esoteric sects or cults Satie had been involved in up till the moment that he wrote the Vexations could be supposed to have some interest in numerology. When Satie started his own sect, the Metropolitan Church of Art of Jesus the Conductor, supposedly around the same time as composing the Vexations, he appeared sure in his use of numbers (e.g. in the printed pamphlet listing the numbers of each type of adherent the sect was to have acquired, some of these numbers going back to biblical data). An article by Martha Curti (now Mother Felicitas) on the numerology of 840, may shed more light on the subject (see 'Prelude to a non-vextion.' The famous long work by Satie, experiencing it and analyzing it. Implications for understanding it and criticism of other attempts. Included is Martha (Mother Felicitas) Curti's dissertation on the number 840.)

Finally, considering the many questions that remain regarding the composition, it could be seen in a tradition of Riddle music, somewhere between the "riddle fugues" of Bach's Musikalische Opfer and Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Execution[edit]

There is no indication that Satie intended the Vexations for public performance – the introductory text he wrote, as quoted above, rather indicating it was intended as a one-person experience (e.g. as a restrained way to work off anger, or, in order to get one's ears tuned to an unconventional harmonic system and metre). Satie made no effort to get either "Vexations" or "Bonjour Biqui" published during his life, scarcely, or not at all, communicating about their existence (there were more of his compositions sharing this fate).

As to the total duration of the work, and whether it is to be played loud or silent, it is hard to ascertain what Satie's intentions were:

  • No metronomical tempo indication: the score mentions "Très lent" (very slow), which could mean anything while the composition has not a melody that could be experienced as falling in one or another "natural" cadence – at least not at first sight: some (e.g. the pianist Armin Fuchs, who executed the work in its entirety several times) argue there is a natural cadence nonetheless (26 quarter-note beats per minute in Fuchs' case, which extends total execution to 28 hours).
  • It is not clear whether Satie intended the bass-line (equal to both halves of the composition) to be repeated in between of EVERY half vexation: his precise instruction is "À ce signe il sera d'usage de présenter le thème de la Basse" – "At this sign customarily the theme of the Bass will be presented" (the "sign" occurring in between of every half Vexation): "être d'usage" not really being an obligation. There is more to be said about this sign: modern executions and editions of the score usually interpret that for every Vexation the "thème de la Basse" is to be played twice, while the original manuscript of Satie indicates the "sign" for playing this theme three times: once preceding (and quite above) the "motif", and once after every half of the "motif", which seems to indicate that the "thème de la Basse" has to be played before the "motif" is played the first time (which is usually done), but also that it is the "thème de la Basse" concluding the complete cycle (and not the 840th pass of the second half of the motif, as it is usually interpreted). This would extend the total execution time with about half a minute.
  • Even the 840 repeats have been questioned, for several reasons: in a "Mantra" or "habituation" approach there is not much sense in counting exactly how many times one repeats the "motif" to oneself. Also the indication Satie gives does not implicate it is mandatory to repeat 840 times: it is only a remark about the kind of preparation that is needed in the event that one wants to play it 840 times consecutively to oneself. There is no certainty Satie ever played the Vexations (or knew them executed), either with or without repeats (probably neither, because in the course of such action it probably would have emerged that the A on the 6th beat of the second half of the motif needs an accidental one way or another: either a pitch-changing accidental, like for the A's immediately before – beat 2 – or after – beat 8 – this A, either a natural, to make the middle melody of the second half of the motif identical to the high-pitch melody of the first half. Probably in most performances the imaginary natural is played, see for example this online PDF version of the Vexations, having added the ♮).
  • No indication whatsoever regarding at what volume it has to be played.
  • It is not clear whether exactly the same speed and volume for every repetition is advisory: in the "vexation"-anger comparison mentioned above, it would not be impossible to imagine moods (expressed by tempo and volume, and additional expression by means of arpeggio, rubato, and the like) swinging from "rage" to "dejection", and everything in between, all along the same sitting, in a sort of "Etudes d'execution transcendante"-style – while obviously the standard interpretation, which is a monotonous execution (keeping to the same tempo and volume) throughout, maximally avoiding romantic implication, is more than arguably correct too.
  • While the bass-note ending the motif is a major third above the first bass-note of the motif, even an execution with a modulating progression for every repeat would not be unthinkable: Satie nowhere indicates that the "motif" (which is by definition a musical entity not tied to a particular key) or the "bass theme" is to be executed at the same pitch every time.

Cage's own intervalic analysis made for the first performance is in Lloyd's collection at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University along with the performer's time keeper sheets from that concert.

Although, formally, there is no unambiguous indication either that the Vexations should be played on the piano, there is however little doubt that this is the intended instrument, an execution on another keyboard instrument – like e.g. the then popular harmonium – not being impossible.

Ornella Volta (from the Archives Erik Satie in Paris) prepares a dossier with several studies regarding this work and its executions. This dossier, that as of July 2005 has not yet been published, will contain a full analysis and a facsimile reproduction of the original partition.

The team at MakerBot Industries has programmed one of their robots to perform Vexations. It was performed for the public for the first time at a 2010 New York Maker Faire. The performance was based on the one by Armin Fuchs in Dresden in the year 2000.[4]

The 12/12/2012 french pianist Nicolas Horvath performed in the Palais de Tokyo a non-stop solo version lasting 35 hours. It is known to be the longest non-stop solo piano version ever.[5]


Sources[edit]

  1. ^ Tyranny, "Blue Gene" (2008). Vexations review, AllMusic. Retrieved June 21, 2008.
  2. ^ "Pianoless Vexations (Erik Satie)", UbuWeb.com. Retrieve June 21, 2008.
  3. ^ Schonberg, Harold. "A Long, Long Night (and Day) at the Piano; Satie's 'Vexations' Played 840 Times by Relay Team." New York Times 11 September 1963: Pg 45
  4. ^ 3D Printer Plays Music, Makerbot Industries. Retrieved October 14, 2010.
  5. ^ Les Vexations d'Erik Satie : récital marathon, Palais de Tokyo. 12/12/2012 12am - 13/12/2012 11pm.

External links[edit]

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