Vexations

Tonight I had the privilege of being present for the last three hours or so of UBC piano’s rendition of Satie’s “Vexations”, a somewhat disharmonious “modern” piece of music meant to be played 840 times without breaks. For every pianist there was a candle, and when it went out the next one would go up to the stage, replace the candle, take over the keyboard, and the retiring player would light the new candle. To complete the cult-like atmosphere all pianists dressed wearing all black with red scarves.

People were allowed to come and go as they pleased, to eat, to drink coffee. Attendance hovered around 5. I found it quite a relaxing, but tense enough atmosphere to work out the structure of my Benjamin paper. Also, to read the first fifty pages of Rilke’s letters on Cezanne.

At the end, the house lights slowly dimmed down to nothing. All the players went up to the stage, standing behind and around the last one playing. One switched off the light lighting the score. The piece ended, and a short girl blew out, in two tries, the candle. The image of her desperate second breath when the first did not extinguish the candle was an urgency burned into my mind, of truly epic proportions

But what was truly epic was the repetition. You would think that as the piece was repeated it would be more and more perfected, until there was no point in repeating it any longer because it had reached its pinnacle of execution. This is the standard model of practice makes perfect, it’s the lie we tell musicians and students who are trying to master pieces of music. However, repeating the same, difficult but slow and inharmonious piece 840 times lays bare the inability of performance to execute in one swoop the full possibilities of any arrangement of notes. The possibility of each note lies in its relations to the ones before, after, and at the same time as it. This is how melody arises. In this piece, these relations remained in a constant flux, impossible to nail down. What was even more surprising was that no matter how many times the players played the piece they remained eyes fixed on the script. They were not playing the music – the music was playing them! It was articulating, contorting their bodies like puppets – forcing them to remain on stage for long and cruel periods of repetitive practice. I got the strong sense that Satie knew, despite having different intentions for the piece (that it was a solitary practice to be played an indeterminate number of times by a single and long pianist to work through issues of anger or the like), knew that it would be performed as an endurance piece. Or maybe not, does it make sense to talk about the music as a self conscious entity, articulating bodies by forcing them to play it? I don’t think humanists would like this analysis very much – they’d say things like we enter into a free relation with our promises and we are free to choose to keep them or not so the player is the master of their musical piece not the slave. But really, this is an awfully shallow analysis because it confuses absolute possibility with the power dynamics of situation.

To listen to the piece of music that was repeated 840 times, go here: http://musicweb.hmt-hannover.de/satie/Vexations.mp3

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