Erik Satie

Erik Satie: Vexations

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Depending where one stands on the issue, LTM's Erik Satie: Vexations represents either the final realization of a key work frequently misrepresented in recordings or the most impractical release since Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. Vexations is a Satie composition dating from about 1893 not published until two decades after his death, it consists of four enigmatic phrases: a single, rather awkwardly stated chromatic figure in the left hand only, followed by a tritone based, chorale-like harmonization of this same bass. The figure repeats once more, and it is followed by a different harmonic progression on the bassline that goes into a higher register. And that's basically it; a decent amateur pianist enabled with the ability to read Satie's thorny enharmonic spellings can get through it in 90 seconds or less. However, Satie adds the cryptic comment "In order to play this piece 840 times, one is advised to prepare ahead of time, in the deepest silence, through serious immobilities."

While Satie does not explicitly say "Play this piece 840 times," that is -- since at least the 1960s -- what it has been taken to mean. Most recordings of the piece run through Vexations only once and move on; other, more venturesome realizations repeat it a time or two, and it is clear from Satie's vague comment that extensive, perhaps even excessive, repetition of this piece was on his mind when he composed it. In this instance, pianist Alan Marks repeats the piece exactly 40 times, coming in at close to 70 minutes -- the length of the average CD -- and to hear a truly "complete" Vexations one need only to repeat this CD 21 times, yielding a performance of a little over 24 hours duration. Live performances of Vexations have varied widely in length, running from about 18 hours at the short end to as much as 27 in the long; in some cases, tag teams of pianists have participated in performing the piece.

For his part, Alan Marks does a very good job playing it for such a long time; he does not lose his concentration, his playing is even and steady, and he does not speed up or slow down in a perceptible way. For most listeners, listening to this for 10 minutes, let alone 70, will prove "vexing" enough, as the music is highly chromatic and harmonically unstable; even as it repeats over and over, it does not yield its secrets with ease. Nevertheless, Vexations is Satie's most revolutionary statement as a composer, and one can guess that there is room in the world for at least one representative CD fully dedicated to it. More ink has been spilled on the behalf of Vexations, its meaning and possible ramifications for music of the future, than any other work of Satie's. This LTM CD is no exception, and contains a fine essay by Stephen Whittington that explores the fine points of Satie's Vexations in LTM's typically tiny, hard-to-read font size.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 01:09:40
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