On September 9, 1963, a small classroom-size crowd of abstract artists, Off Broadway actors, and miscellaneous beatniks gathered at the Pocket Theatre—a former vaudeville house on Third Avenue and Thirteenth Street—to witness the début of a seventy-year-old piece of mysterious piano music. Though Erik Satie’s “Vexations” (1893) consisted of only a half sheet of notation, its recital had previously been deemed impossible, as the French composer had suggested at the top of his original manuscript that the motif be repeated eight hundred and forty times. Even before repetition, the piano line is unnerving: mild but menacing, exquisite but skewed, modest but exacting. Above the music, Satie included an author’s note, as much a warning as direction: “It would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.”
The American composer John Cage was the first to insist that staging “Vexations” was not only possible but essential. No one knew what exactly would occur, which is part of what enticed Cage, who had a lust for unknown outcomes. The performance commenced at 6P.M. that Monday and continued to the following day’s lunch hour. Cage played in twenty-minute shifts with a group of eleven pianists he dubbed “The Pocket Theatre Piano Relay Team.” They included the dancer Viola Farber; John Cale, soon to be a co-founder of the Velvet Underground; and the experimental composers David Tudor, Christian Wolff, and David Del Tredici. To complete the full eight hundred and forty repetitions of “Vexations” took eighteen hours and forty minutes. The New York Times sent its own relay team of critics to cover the event in its entirety, while the Guinness Book of World Records dispatched an official to certify this as “The Longest Piano Piece in History.” In the aftermath, some onlookers were bemused; others were agitated. Cage was elated. “I had changed and the world had changed,” he later said.
In the years that followed its début, “Vexations” outgrew its status as a curiosity. It became a rite of passage. As performances flourished, its legend intensified. Each generation produced a new crop of ambitious and inquisitive young pianists eager to scale this esoteric Mt. Everest. Recitals were part endurance trial, part vision quest. And whether explicitly or implicitly, each successive reading paid tribute to Cage and Satie, the twin protagonists of impish illumination through music.
The “Vexations” tradition spread rapidly in the years after the Pocket Theatre performance. First to London, where a young pianist named Richard Toop completed the first solo rendition in a twenty-four-hour marathon in 1967. After that, ceremonial renditions of the pieces were organized at conservatories and art schools from South Dakota to Wales, California, Stockholm, and Warsaw. The experience was always slightly different, depending on the room and the attitude of its players. The durations also varied. Performances were as short as fourteen hours and as long as twenty-four, as each player provided a personal interpretation of Satie’s original tempo directive: “très lent,” or “very slowly.”
Consistent among both witnesses and performers are reports of the piece’s mystical effects. Pianists say there is something about Satie’s fiendish notation that makes the brief line impossible to memorize. Even after hundreds of repetitions, players are forced to sight-read from the beginning, as if learning for the first time. Witnesses have reported a similar effect. Listeners that subject themselves to the unnerving melody for several hours still find themselves incapable of humming it.
A lifelong Paris resident, Satie spent his twenties in the bohemian enclave of Montmartre, where he mingled with Debussy, Ravel, and Picasso. Though he manage to publish several short piano pieces, his maniacal eccentricities eventually alienated him from the cultural establishment of Paris. By his early thirties, he had retreated to the unfashionable suburb of Arcueil, where he eked out a living playing piano in cabarets. Through his association with Debussy and Ravel (as well as subsequent collaborations with younger Surrealists like Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, and René Clair), Satie achieved some renown in his later years, but he died alone at age fifty-nine, of cirrhosis. In his twenty-seven years in Arcueil, no visitor ever set foot in his apartment.
The existence of “Vexations” was unknown until 1949, when an associate of Satie brought it to Cage's attention. Though Satie died in 1925, Cage had adopted the Frenchman as his personal forefather. They shared an aversion to the classics and a deep distrust of convention. Cage inherited Satie’s fascination with time as a musical structure, and his abiding faith in illogicality. “Vexations” appeared in his life like a hidden gift that the older eccentric had left behind for his future son to find.
Satie had an infamously insatiable appetite for parodies, puns, and absurdities of all kinds, many of which were recorded in notebooks for his own amusement. Though some dismissed “Vexations” as a private punch line, its singularly peculiar effect has led many historians to speculate about its origins. Some say it is a caricature of the painstaking exercises to which Satie was subjected at the Conservatoire de Paris. Others claim it was Satie’s way of lampooning Richard Wagner, a superstar whose grandiosity and melodrama disgusted the French Dadaist.
Another theory posits “Vexations” as the product of romantic despondence. It was written in the wake of Satie’s split with Suzanne Valadon, a beautiful French painter who wore on her blouse a corsage of carrots and kept a pet goat in her studio. Satie was smitten. Their six-month affair was the sole romantic relationship of his life. “For me there is nothing but icy loneliness which makes my head go empty and fills my heart with sadness,” he wrote when Valadon dumped him for a wealthy banker. That icy loneliness runs through “Vexations.” Its repetitions marry lovelorn melancholy and irresolvable anxiety. It could qualify as the avant-garde’s original breakup ballad.
Those who sit for all eight hundred and forty repetitions tend to agree on a common sequence of reactive stages: fascination morphs into agitation, which gradually morphs into all-encompassing agony. But listeners who withstand that phase enter a state of deep tranquility. “Vexations” veterans often say that reëntry into the natural world is thrilling because they are able to hear sound as if for the very first time. Of course, not everyone gets there. An Australian pianist named Peter Evans abandoned a 1970 solo performance after five hundred and ninety-five repetitions because he claimed he was being overtaken by evil thoughts and noticed strange creatures emerging from the sheet music. “People who play it do so at their own peril,” he said afterward.
The former Pocket Theatre storefront at 100 Third Avenue is currently boarded up, having endured several decades of transformation, from experimental theatre to gay peep show to art-house cinema. Most recently it was a sports bar. Today there are no scheduled performances of “Vexations” to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, but a new concert is never far off. In December of 2012, a prodigious Monacan pianist named Nicolas Horvath gave a performance in Tokyo that lasted thirty-five hours. It was his eighth solo presentation of “Vexations.” “No food or drink for three days before the Vexations,” he explained to his fans in the comments section of his YouTube channel, where he posts six- and nine-hour segments of his marathon performances. Responding to a newcomer, he said, “28 hours is pretty nice indeed but alone it is very hard. Pain starts past 6 hours; Madness starts past 12 hours; Hell starts past 20 hours!”
Cage intended “Vexations” as an experiment in Zen enlightenment and an affront to conventional musical values. What Satie originally intended, we’ll never know. Were they alive, they might be horrified to find that this once-unthinkable ceremony has been reduced to a vehicle for tests of triathlon-like machismo. On the other hand, knowing Satie and Cage, it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t be tickled by the unusual and unanticipated prosperity of a musical riddle that was never supposed to be solved.
Score: Erik Satie’s “Vexations” (1893). Poster: Living Room Series “Vexations” Poster.