‘Vexations’: Inspiration Or Madness…or Simply Boring?

French composer Erik Satie’s Vexations is a work that probably originated in an exhilarating moment of either pure experimentalism or utter lunacy; if anything, its intent remains a mystery. Composed around 1893, it’s Satie’s longest and most arduous creation: an organized totality of 840 repetitions, on a single three-part diminished chord, of chromaticism and dissonance devoid of direction and tonal centre; it takes minimalism to new extremes. The piece was never performed in Satie’s lifetime.

If all his works, even his more “rational” and thereby traditional compositions (even the popular and charming Gymnopédie No.1 or profoundly gorgeous Gnossiennes) were doomed to be quickly buried and forgotten, Satie’s Vexations had to have been among the first to meet this fate. The few critics who were familiar with him (during or after his lifetime) loved, hated or, at best, tolerated him; he was called everything from “inspired genius” to “untalented crackpot.” Indeed, Satie’s entire oeuvre was consigned to that cloudy region termed the avant-garde.

In 1949, the American composer John Cage discovered Vexations’ one-page draft or manuscript. Even though it’s not (clearly) stated that the work be played on solo piano, Cage determined that this was how it should be played and spent the next 14 years reworking  Satie’s composition. On September 9-10, 1963, Cage presented the first complete performance of Vexations at the (variously named but then called) Pocket Theatre in Greenwich Village…all 18 hours and 40 minutes of it, starting at 6 p.m. and concluding at 12:40 p.m. the next day!  The team of rotating pianists included Cage himself, David Tudor, Christian Wolff, Philip Corner, Viola Farber, Robert Wood, MacRae Cook, John Cale (later of the Velvet Underground), 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. Wikipedia

This performance was to music what Andy Warhol’s Empire was to cinema: an artsy-craftsy excursion through the realm of boredom-induced exhaustion, delirium and hallucinations. Even though Cage carefully and skillfully divided the 840 repetitions into 56 twenty-minute slots, comprised of fifteen playings of one minute and twenty seconds, only one audience member remained (still conscious, at least) for the entire performance: Karl Schenzer, a self-described off-Broadway actor. Schenzer was invited to be a guest on the television show I’ve Got a Secret (his secret for sustained attention-span was quite superhuman) and then disappeared into obscurity, while Vexations continues to puzzle along its own obscure and secret threshold.

Source: Understanding Satie’s ‘Vexations’