Erik Satie

Vexations, for piano

    Description by "Blue" Gene Tyranny

    This extraordinary piano piece Vexations by Erik Satie is one of those rare breakthroughs of consciousness that fulfills the promise of art to reveal something never imagined before. Marked "Trés lent" (Very slowly), and printed on one page, "Vexations" (No. 2 of the "Pages Mystiques" edited by Robert Caby from Satie's notebooks) consists of floating, three-voiced augmented and diminished harmonies spread over two sections of 13 beats each (actually twelve beats plus a beat for sustained resonance). The second section is a repeat, an interior echo of the first with the upper voice brought down an octave. There is some confusion, given Satie's "signe" (at this sign) instructions, on whether to play the bass by itself at certain points or to simply emphasize it; for the most part, performers usually just play the two sections through with emphasis on the bass. The remarkable aspect of the composition is that the piece is to be played 840 times. This usually requires anywhere from eighteen to twenty-four hours, and is most often performed as a marathong with the participation of multiple pianists.

    So just what is the psychological effect of playing this piece 840 times? Pianist Peter Evans reported (in Alan Gillmor's book "Erik Satie") that during his 1970 one-man performance, he began experiencing "frightful hallucinations" and had to cut short the performance at repetition 595 after fifteen hours. At the centennial birthday performance on May 15, 1993, at the Roulette performance space in Manhattan, twenty-one pianists took part, each playing for an hour, enabling the performers to impose their interior thoughts/interpretations upon the evocative material, from reverent to romantic to joking. There were score-keepers/timers who kept track of the number of repetitions, and this further freed the performers to concentrate on the music. A legendary performance of the complete piece was organized by composer John Cage, who "re-discovered" the piece and published several articles on it. This took place in September, 1963, in New York City, and covered a duration of eighteen hours and forty minutes. At this performance, as well as others, some listeners camped out (sometimes in sleeping bags) for the entire concert and report of experiencing altered states of awareness.

    This is the first instance of the psychological state of the performer(s) being the primary, foreground content of a musical piece, rather than having the psychic state of the performer being subsumed within the dramatic (or otherwise) content of the piece (as "emotion" leading to changes of articulation and phrasing, or as text, etc.). As such, it is the modest precursor to conceptual and pattern (minimalist) music in the 20th-century and beyond.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2015 Alto MCSCD 1276
    2015 Erato / Warner Classics 0825646047963
    2012 Atoll ACD 309
    2012 MDG / Zebralution
    2011 Brilliant Classics 94087
    2010 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099968582
    2009 Sub Rosa SR 294
    2009 Sony BMG / Sony Classical 8869753207
    2007 Brilliant Classics 8551
    2007 Brilliant Classics 93559
    2007 Apex
    2006 Lt / LTM LTMCD 2469
    2005 LTM / Salon LTM 2389
    Brilliant 8551/4
    Brilliant Classics 93559/6