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Erik Satie «Vexations»
Erik Satie, «Vexations», 1893
© Erik Satie
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Categories: Audio Art

Keywords: Time | Music

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icon: authorGolo Föllmer «Audio Art»


 Erik Satie

The piano piece «Vexations» is thought to be the longest piece of music in history. A performance lasts 14 or 28 hours, depending on how the composer's notes are interpreted. And yet the piece consists of only three lines of music, and they are variations on the same theme. The instructions state that the performer should alternately play the bass subject alone and then one of the two variations, which form a double counterpoint with the theme that is also being played in the bass. The enormous length comes about because of Satie's instruction that the ABAC pattern should be repeated 840 times and the piece played at a very slow temp (»très lent«). The piece was rescued from oblivion in 1949 by Henri Sauget, a friend of Satie's, and came into the hands of John Cage, who first thought it was an interesting concept, but unperformable. But then, in 1963, Cage organized the first complete performance in New York.

Interpretations of this radical work differ considerably. Many people see it as Satie's biggest and at the same time most successful piece of bluff or nonsense. Others interpret it as the first forerunner of Schönberg's twelve-tone music or the serial music of the 1950s, which place all the notes on the scale on an equal footing and use them according to strict schemes. Others again also see «Vexations» as an attempt to use boredom constructively for artistic purposes, as a game of endless repetitions, whose monotony comes close to silence. Closeness to silence and motionlessness are to be found in Erik Satie's performance instructions: «Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses.» So John Cage in fact went as far as to treat Satie's note on «Vexations» in the spirit of Zen Buddhism, as instructions for musical meditation.

The character of the piece anticipates the musical approach of today's installations. «The static, undramatic nature of Vexations, reinforced by repetition, gives it the character of a ‹sound object› (objet sonore), while the ‹flatness› of the music suggests a two-dimensional surface. The immobility which the performer is advised to adopt is the immobility of the music itself, which becomes an >immobile< sound object to be ‹viewed› by the listener.» (Stephen Whittington, Serious Immobilities. On the centenary of Erik Satie's Vexations, 1999, URL: Thus «Vexations» is also a forerunner of Satie's own concept, concretized much later, of «musique d'ameublement,» which is intended to provide spaces with unassuming musical wallpaper.


Golo Föllmer