Andy Battaglia: If vexation can be so spellbinding and serene, let us all be vexed.
Such was one of many cursory thoughts that flitted about last night during a long-duration performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The event was a formidable one—a rare conjuring of a 19th-century musical piece for which a short passage of piano music is repeated 840 times, per the eccentric French composer’s instruction. When John Cage staged a storied performance of it in 1963, it went on for 19 hours, which—it’s worth saying—is a lot of hours.
With 20 pianists assembled to play in stages from 7 p.m. last evening until what turned out to be 1:25 p.m. today (that’s around 18.5 hours), the concert was presented in the context of “Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892–1897,” a survey of a historical milieu in which the proto-minimalistic Satie trafficked for a time. The setting was the circular theater beneath the Guggenheim’s spiraling rotunda up top, with soft seats for settling in and lights dimmed to a golden glow.
At 9:40 p.m., the hubbub upon entry to the come-and-go event was that some of the pianists had been playing at a higher than desired speed, pushing the pace ahead of schedule. But that proved to be blip and, after some correction, all was going more or less according to plan. It is a considerable challenge to play Satie as slowly as some followers think he should be played—hence the release in 2014 of Satie Slowly, a collection of recordings by Philip Corner taking his time with different works in the composer’s oeuvre.
Corner was one of four pianists at the Guggenheim who played in Cage’s epochal ’60s staging, and his touch was magisterial. One of the many joys of hearing a short piece of music reiterated many hundreds of times is the opportunity it grants to fix on difference and similarity—and ways that one and the other can be one and the same. Corner’s playing was more tender and soft than that of Karl Larson and Sylvie Courvoisier before him, and then Joshua Rifkin (another member of the original cast that played Vexations with Cage) was somewhere between, with rhythmic essences more apparent in what could otherwise sound like discrete tonal clouds that formed and floated by on their own time.
The music itself was vexing—odd in the ways that certain parts pecked around and chords called on clusters of notes that seemed to head off in several different directions at once, like a rack of pool balls after a game-opening break. But then it was intensely meditative too—subdued but worthy of close attention for how it resisted any notion of easy resolution or resolve.
At one point, a producer of the event had to swoop down on one of a couple hundred or so listeners in the audience around 11 p.m. to tell him to stop recording what he was seeing and hearing on his phone. It was easy to understand why he’d had the urge.
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Andrew Russeth: I arrived at the Guggenheim a touch after midnight, and everyone at the entryway seemed to be in high spirits. The pianists were reportedly playing at the planned tempo, and a shift change was taking place for the ticket sellers. Downstairs the players were also regularly undergoing shift changes. When it was his or her turn, each new player carefully came up alongside the performer, getting into position so that the first note of the next performer’s could sound at the precise moment without interrupting the music. As it happened, the preceding player got up and slowly walked off stage.
The sheer amount of expertise, the seamless collaboration of so many hands, was moving to see and be part of. It seemed almost as if a semi-secret ritual was taking place, with audio and video technicians on the balcony and in the wings, security guards monitoring the action, perhaps 40 audience members listening closely, the musicians, all working together, and a counter on stage next to a large tablet of paper recording each repetition with a stroke of their black mark, a gesture that was both humbling (wow, there are many sets to go!) and tragic (a shipwrecked survivor on an island, counting the days) and comic (here we go again!).
The time passed quickly, much to my surprise. It’s been said that, while the piece is short and simple, it eludes easy memorization, and that was also my experience. Just when I thought I had it in mind, a single note would appear in a place I wasn’t expecting. A very peculiar syncopation often caught me off guard, sounding like a mistake on first hearing, a note arriving just a moment too soon. Margaret Leng Tan rendered it in many instances like a graceful interruption. She was meticulous in her playing, but tender. Under Sylvie Courvoisier’s hands, that strange hiccup in the piece seemed at times slightly more unified, like an outcast of a note being warmly invited into the fold.
Listening to so much repetition, though, any general pronouncements I noted down in due time began to seem a little specious, even alien. The piece becomes too vast, too all-encompassing. Minute changes can seem like grand shifts—or just illusory. Truth be told, with the pianists playing the work straight, the greatest variations were more in performance behavior than actual sound—Matthew Goodheart for instance in a black cap, shirt, and pants, handling the keyboard with energetic movements that, in the austere context, setting seemed almost jazzy. He could have been massaging the keyboard at some times.
The cafe on the third floor of the museum was open, well-stocked with sandwiches, sweets, and caffeinated beverages. A few visitors came through when I took a break, everyone speaking quietly since the Guggenheim was piping in the live recording and since it was late at night, after 1 a.m. now. Following a quick dip back into the auditorium, where at least three dozen people were going strong, I clocked out, walking onto East 88th Street in search of a cab. There was not a person in sight, and I had the rare sensation of being completely free in the city.
There was a certain comfort in knowing that, back at the Guggenheim, there were still people doing their best to render Satie’s score and others patiently listening to it, a small community of people keeping an artwork alive through the night and into the next afternoon, one person replacing another as I slept, and ate, and ran, and went to work. They would be keeping at it, I knew.
That reality also, for a moment, had a vaguely disturbing, vertiginous aspect for me, imparting the chill one gets looking over a giant cliff or even up at a soaring skyscraper. But then I thought of Organ²/ASLSP (As Slow as Possible), a work that John Cage composed in 1987 that has been running on an organ in Halberstadt, Germany, since 2001. That piece is scheduled to conclude in 2640, and the next note change isn’t until September 2020. What is Vexations next to that? A quick little ditty, perhaps. A blink of the eye. Here one moment, and gone the next.