Revisiting “Gimmick” Pieces, Part I: Satie – Vexations

In this two-part series, I’ll be exploring two pieces that some would classify as novelties, gimmicks, or jokes. Are they valid pieces of music? Are they beautiful? Let’s find out.

Satie – Vexations

Ah yes, Erik Satie. He of the green velvet suits and fondness for absinthe. You might know him as the composer of the Three Gymnopédies, which are beloved for setting a relaxed, unhurried sort of French mood. But he had a real wit too, writing all sorts of strange little pieces with instructional text. Even his pieces for children contain nonsensical narratives about dogs smoking cigars or the like.

But nothing quite compares to the direction at the top of the one-page score of Vexations: 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.

Interestingly, it doesn’t say “you must play it 840 times.” Another factor prevents a clear understanding of the execution: the first two systems bear a symbol and the third system features the same symbol with a message: At this sign customarily the theme of the Bass will be presented. Then the theme is written out on one bass staff. So it’s ambiguous whether you’re supposed to repeat the bass line alone between each line of music for both hands.

The music itself is unstable, searching, full of tritones. Some scholars interpret this as Satie coming to terms with Wagnerian harmony. Another approach says that his plan for 840 repetitions was meant to create familiarity with an alien system. Even in the context of this harmonic language, Satie’s enharmonic spelling of notes seems intentionally confusing. For example, beginning on the third chord, the middle voice moves from A-sharp to D-flat to B-sharp, when it could easily have been B-flat to D-flat to C (with respelling of surrounding notes as well). The music isn’t too offensive; it’s pretty in its own dolorous way. But the added hassle of reading the enharmonics would probably drive lots of pianists mad after the first 100 repetitions or so. At least it’s quiet (implied by an editorial p in the Satie Complete Piano Works edition), slow, and not technically difficult. When I was compiling the Bonjour, Piano! series, I should have included this piece for students who might be ready to experience a particular kind of existential misery.

Enter French pianist Nicholas Horvath, who has uploaded a YouTube video from 2011 in which he plays the piece in a conservatory on the outskirts of Paris. The video is 9 hours and 41 minutes long. I did not watch the whole thing, but I skimmed through. Here are some highlights:

5:40:22 A man in a pinstripe shirt (who has appeared earlier around 1:08:30 and 2:50:30) comes back in, this time with a shopping bag, and pulls out a can of beer and asks Nicholas if he wants it. Nicholas asks what time it is. Then the man opens the beer, comes all the way up to the stage to show Nicholas the can, then goes back to the audience and brings up a chair on which to rest the can next to Nicholas.

[at some point in the next hour of video, I could have sworn I saw Nicholas drink some of the beer, but I couldn’t find the exact moment again]

6:39:21 The pinstripe-shirt man is back! He takes a photo, then goes up to the stage and gives Nicholas another beer.

7:34:25 A woman appears to drop something like coins somewhere near the left side of the stage. Maybe Nicholas has a donation box. The woman and her friend move to the front of the stage and watch for a few minutes.

7:37:30 The women start to murmur, check their watches.

7:38:19 Nicholas asks the women what time it is. They talk for a bit, and a siren intrudes from outside. I wish the audio quality was better so I could understand more of the French. During the exchange, Nicholas never stops playing.

7:42:49 The women seem to apologize and then leave.

9:22:00 The pinstripe-shirt man is back again! Had to check on his buddy again, but no beer this time. At this point I’m wondering if he’s Nicholas’s dad.

9:41:00 In the very last time through, a loud siren can be heard outside, and it overtakes the last fading note. How perfectly ironic.

A few other factors make this performance really memorable. Throughout, you hear birds chirping outside, contributing to a feeling of wasted hours that can never be redeemed. Nicholas has prepared a stack of music, 840 pages, to keep track of each repeat. Every time he finishes an iteration, he peels off the page and lets it fall to the floor. The pages are taped in some weird way so each peel is accompanied by a plastic ripping sound. The pages pile up into a mass that surrounds the pianist. The whole visual is strangely evocative of a slowly wilting flower. And Nicholas’s tempo is faster than the written Très lent, so there’s an odd feeling of rushing even in the context of a nearly ten-hour performance. His reasoning, per the YouTube description, is that his video software was limited to ten hours, and he wanted to upload a complete performance to YouTube.

Reading the surprisingly thorough Wikipedia article about the piece, I noticed that Nicholas Horvath has performed this piece several times, including a 35-hour version in 2012 at the Palais de Tokyo. This man is indefatigable.

Even if Satie had intended for Vexations to be a gimmick, or something to play in solitude, the reality of a live performance brings a new kind of truth to the music. It comes across as an ultimate expression of boredom, or vexation, and makes the pianist into a slowly suffering figure in a way that’s different from more strictly technical feats like a performance of a multi-hour Sorabji piece. The audience interactions create an additional kind of truth, as they feel more comfortable interacting with the pianist (though I don’t know if this would happen in every performance). The bass theme is honestly pretty solid, and anchors the roving harmonies better than you’d expect. Maybe there’s a psychological/emotional breakthrough that happens when you’re hours deep into this monster, something that only Nicholas Horvath would know about.

Where to find it in print (play at your own risk):

Satie: Complete Works for Piano, Vol. 1 (Salabert)

The Best of Erik Satie: 25 Pieces for Piano (Eschig/Salabert)

Satie: Vexations (Durand)

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