Tuesday, 6 April 2010

"To play this motif 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities."

"Well, you get the idea, right ladies and gentlemen?" demanded the "major proselytising force" Charles Hazlewood, conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra, after pianist Tim Carey had completed just one round of the single page score of Erik Satie's Vexations. Well, no, quite frankly, I'm not sure if that quick once over was entirely sufficient to convey the extraordinary perversity of Satie's performance instructions which at least imply that a correct performance would involve a total of 840 repetitions.

Peter Evans, a pianist who attempted, in 1970, a solo performance, gave up after fifteen hours, complaining the piece was wearing away at his mind away, and that "things" had started peering out at him from the score. He warned that anyone who might consider attempting to play the piece in the future, would do so "at their own great peril" rather in the style of a wise old man at the beginning of a horror film. A year later, Gavin Bryars and Christopher Hobbs got through the whole thing at Leicester Polytechnic. They compared the piece to 'the end of the world', "like falling asleep while you're driving along the motorway," claimed Bryars.

Vexations was a piece of music largely unknown, from its creation sometime around 1892 until Henri Sauguet, the composer friend of Satie's, introduced the piece to John Cage. Cage would come to be closely associated with the piece and its rehabilitation through a series of group performances, the first of which was in 1963 and involved the participation of John Cale, Christian Wolff, Philip Corner and James Tenney. But even Cage initially considered the piece unendurable, asking, "Why give it a thought?" in a 1958 article for the Art News Annual.

Since Cage's inaugural performance, some seventy years after the piece's composition, the piece has been the subject of vast swathes of serious critical reflection, despite the frequently made conjecture that the whole thing was just a characteristically mischievous gag. Steven Moore Whiting cites the unusual and confusing spelling of each note (there are an awful lot of double flats, b sharps, and so on), as evidence that Satie's piece is a quatrain holorime, in the manner of Jean Goudezki. For Robert Orledge it presents an early example of Webernian serial hexachords, whereas for Robert Maycock, writing in the free brochure given out at the BBC Concert Orchestra's event last week, Vexations is the augur of minimalism.

I have a copy of Vexations on vinyl, released by Philips and performed by Reinbert de Leeuw. As a record, it makes a curious artefact, featuring the same phrase, repeated over and over again on both sides. Ideally, I suppose, you would need two copies and a set of decks in order to get the full effect. Nonetheless, I occasionally put the needle into its grooves, thinking its dissipated, plangent tones might just make pleasing background sound whilst I write on my laptop or read a book. It rarely takes long before I have to either turn it off or simply forget about whatever else I was trying to do and focus all my attention on the music. It is a piece strangely resistant to reduced listening. Like an itch, it demands your attention, or crawls through your skin unbearably.