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.
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.
- Has Erik Satie Been Performed On US Network Television Since 1963? (greg.org)
- Gymnopédies (sdunnebacke.wordpress.com)
- Celebrating The 30th Anniversary Of Glassworks By Philip Glass (thequietus.com)
- Erik Satie (dailyroutines.typepad.com)