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From 18.00 on 9 September 1963 until 12.40 the following day, or rather 18 hours and 40 minutes non-stop, John Cage together with 11 other pianists will perform for the first time Erik Satie’s (1866-1925) Vexations at the Pocket Theatre in Manhattan. Refunds were awarded to those members of the audience who attended the longest.
The piece was first performed in Europe by Walter Marchetti and Juan Hidalgo, both composer friends of Cage, in Milan on 12 April 1980. The piece was a duet: the theme played by one and a harmonised theme in the two pieces played by the second.
Elsewhere, Vexations has also been performed by sole pianists. One of these, the Canadian Rober Racine, copied the piece 840 times by hand before performing it and stated that he wanted to repeat this experience again during his lifetime.
Vexations was written in the last decade of the 1800’s and is included together with the short pieces Prière and Harmonies, in Pages Mystiques, created and published by the musician and composer Robert Caby in 1969.
The works consist of a musical score that is repeated 840 times: a motif in the mid-bass range that replays slowly 3,360 times, composed enharmonically in order to depart from the classic, required practice of alterations and free the music from limitations and tonal relations. In each return, the bass theme is harmonised by adding a higher bi-chord, less rigid than in the composed enharmonic inversion, which appears the first time as a resulting thematic timbre and the second time, in a lower inversion, as an afterthought of the previous one.
According to the twenty year old Caby (1905-1992), on his deathbed Erik Satie allegedly said: “I have never written a note that I didn’t mean to”. This declaration is an invitation to see Vexations beyond the usual technical and aesthetic categories of music, or the surrealist and Dadaist contemporary poetics that are not able to bear its entire weight.
It is widely known that “cultured” music transports the performer and listener to a network of thematic and harmonic structures, dialectic and timbral tension and distention, which suspend the ordinary passing of time. On the other hand, in the case of Vexations the musical timing coincides with the chronometric timing and the person performing or listening only has to face himself, alone with his own thoughts, trying to find meaning to replace the absence of the heightening of the senses and the emotions that go with it. The score in fact evolves over linear time with brief cycles that confer the impression of renewal at each return although essentially it is identical.
From the first repetitions the pianist must put aside any interpretation or performance; they simply become a “medium” for the performance and, where they do not give in to physical or behavioural weakness, also a direct beneficiary … Ergo: no longer an instrumentalist who uses music for … but a musician who uses the instrument to…
Finally: why 840 repetitions? Amongst the many assumptions, only Satie can answer this. Without doubt the number in question cancels even the impression of eternity that was implied by the two previous historic music pieces often linked to Vexations, the Mazurca op. 68 n. 4 by F. Chopin and the Fragment an Sich by F. Nietzsche.
“In Zen they say: if something is boring after two minutes, try if for four. If it is still boring try it for eight, then sixteen, then thirty two and so on. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all but very interesting … We are the ones who create boredom. Boredom only arises if we evoke it … When our egos withdraw, boredom also subsides. If we break down our egos everything can start from scratch hence there is no space for boredom” (John Cage).