Saturday, September 8, 2012

Repeated Vexations

Jacaranda buds
 How do you experience music? Sitting in a concert hall with a lot of other people, watching musicians playing on a stage? Or at a table in a club, sipping a drink and grooving to a jazz quartet? Sitting on the couch with the stereo playing, filling your house with recorded music? Walking down the street with earbuds, a device the size of a playing card pumping sound right into your head?

Try something different this weekend. American composer John Cage had a different approach to music. Cage is known for such controversial works as his 1952 composition "4:33" - which is often described as four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. He also pioneered the use of the "prepared piano" where the strings are altered with objects that change the sound.

Cage himself described music as "a purposeless play" which is "an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living."

Last night at 7:00 pm, an extraordinary concert presentation began at the Miles Playhouse in Santa Monica's Reed Park.

Presented by Santa Monica based Jacaranda, 32 pianists will tag-team Erik Satie's "Vexations" non-stop for 24 hours.

Erik Satie, portrait by Suzanne Valadon

Satie, a French composer who died in 1925, was much admired by Cage. After Satie's death, his friends discovered compositions hidden in odd places - in a pocket, behind the piano, in drawers. One single-page manuscript bore, along with its musical notation, an inscription in French " 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.

This translates as - "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."

On September 9, 1963, John Cage arranged a performance where "Vexations" was played repeatedly 840 times. You can read an article about it HERE. 

This weekend, Jacaranda revives this experience, at the Miles Playhouse in Santa Monica, until 7:00 pm tonight. Each pianist plays the piece 26 times. One pianist, Helene Anderson, interviewed this morning on NPR spoke of how the concentration required for such repetition allows the musician's mind to explore within. Satie himself called boredom "mysterious and profound."

It's not clear exactly when Satie wrote "Vexations," but they think it might have been 1893. And it's not clear whether he really intended it to be repeated 840 times. It may be that Satie has played a huge joke on all of us. Even so - it's fascinating, isn't it?

"Vexations" is part of a weekend celebration of John Cage. Learn about other events celebrating Cage HERE.


Anonymous said...

I'm vexed.


Another Kiwi said...

That's pretty cool.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

It makes me think of the Taizé Community in France where the simple songs are sung over and over and over again, in order to move deeper into the worship experience.