Archive — John Cage

VexationsErik Satie

Erik Satie portrait

Erik Satie’s Vexations is shrouded in mystery. It was not published during Satie’s lifetime. It’s thought it was composed in 1893. But it went undiscovered until 1963, when John Cage first performed it publicly.

It is just three lines long, but is accompanied by this ambiguous instruction (translated from French):

In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities

While this is usually interpreted as an instruction to repeat the music 840 times to complete a performance, it’s not clear if this was actually Satie’s intention.

The tempo instruction is “Très lent” — very slow. In the words of Wikipedia, this “could mean anything”.

Cage’s first performance lasted over 18 hours — longer than he had estimated. The CD recording I own lasts only 23 minutes — a tiny fraction of the full experience. The liner notes to that CD flags up the following:

A 70 minute performance (40 repetitions) of Vexations by Alan Marks is available on the CD Vexations (LTMCD 2389)…

Despite the repetitive nature of the music, it never seems to get boring. There is something disturbing yet irresistible about it. I always imagine falling very slowly towards an uncertain destination. It feels like being trapped in an Escher painting.

This piece predates muzak and ambient music by at least 50 years. The CD liner notes say it “provided minimalism with an important historical precedent.” It even predates Dada.

This YouTube video contains a full performance, albeit one performed seemingly too fast.

You don’t hear this on adverts quite as often as Gymnopédie 1

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