The Duration of “Vexations”


On Music

Erik Satie


Those who have undergone weeks-long silent-meditation retreats can attest to the power of durational focus. Stay with one thing long enough and miracles might occur. In mid-September, at East London’s Café Oto, a venue known for avant-garde performances, the musician Charles Hayward presented “30 Minute Snare Drum Roll.” The piece could not be more functional or self-explanatory in its title. What happened, however, in those eighteen thousand seconds of continuous drumming was the opposite of readily explicable.

A drumroll is a sonic metonym for anticipation, so much so that we use it verbally more often than we hear it literally. The phrase drumroll, please is an ironizing indication that what follows may fall short of spectacular but that it should nonetheless be eagerly awaited and greeted. Hayward’s feat subverted this notion. The preliminary, introductory flourish became the event itself. At Café Oto, Hayward stood hunched over a single, spotlit drum as the seated audience was held rapt by the speed and precision and, most of all, duration of his playing.

Around the ten-minute mark, the drumroll began to take on the contours of a drone. Tones emerged—a subtle chord sounding beneath or through the putatively pure rhythm. It became, in other words, its own melodic music. A few weeks later, toward the end of September, I saw another drumroll of sorts. This one lasted not a virtuosic thirty minutes but a mind-melting eighteen hours. Down in the bowels of the Guggenheim, twenty pianists took turns playing a short and generally neglected piece by the French composer Erik Satie.

“Vexations” comes with the stipulation that it be repeated 840 times. This may have been a throwaway jeer at Wagnerian pomposities of scale, but it also allows “Vexations” to be a thrilling precursor to the kind of late twentieth-century serial music we associate with John Cage and his contemporaries. Cage, in fact, unearthed and championed the piece in 1948, and in 1963 he staged a performance in New York. Several of those original performers—Philip Corner, David Del Tredici, Joshua Rifkin, and Christian Wolff—returned to take part in the musical relay of a recent Tuesday night into Wednesday afternoon. Satie wrote the piece in 1893 as an insouciant “adieu” to the Salon de la Rose + Croix, an esoteric sect lead by the wildly eccentric mystic Josephin Péladan and the subject of the Guggenheim’s current show, “Mystical Symbolism.” Satie, perhaps wearied by Péladan’s grandiloquent excesses, broke with him after the first salon and may not have been wholly serious, then, when he wrote, “To play this motif eight hundred forty times in a row, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, through serious immobilities.”

Writing in The New Yorker, Alex Ross, who has seen “Vexations” performed before, warned that attendees “may experience hallucinations of the Sphinx before the performance is done.” Around ten P.M. on Tuesday night, the Peter B. Lewis Theater was mostly full. Many eyes in the audience were closed, although whether in attentive rapture or in simple weeknight repose, it was hard to say. Around eleven, my friend, with a Jack Nicholson leer in his eye, whispered, “The sound’s mutating!” Another friend admitted she was terrified of getting the piece stuck in her head. That seemed unlikely. “Vexations,” though vexing, is not exactly an earworm. It does not soothe. It sounds uncertain and anxious in a far-off way. It is a piece without resolution, in both the musical and metaphorical sense. In fact, many among the squad of seasoned pianists confessed that despite the extreme repetition, they had failed to commit the piece to memory. Every player read from the sheet music on the stand, and since the piece takes up just four lines, the only pages that turned during the performance were those of the flip chart across the stage, beside which a person sat, Sharpie in hand, tasked with marking off the iterations in groups of five, as a prisoner would their days on the wall of a cell.

Were we in prison? If you stick with purgatory long enough in the right frame of mind, it can yield a kind of paradise. In 1950, John Cage wrote, “A performance of this piece would be a measure, accurate as a mirror, of one’s ‘poverty of spirit’ without which, incidentally, one loses the kingdom of heaven. More and more it seems to me that relegating Satie to the position of having been very influential, but in his own work finally unimportant, is refusing to accept the challenge he so bravely gave us.” Those things that seem like absurd jokes—a drumroll that goes on way too long, a piece of music played far too many times—might indeed be jokes, but might simultaneously yield something transcendent.

Around the forty-fourth iteration, my world went white and the only thing in it were musical notes, which were now violet-colored blobs, blooming and merging into one another along a bacterial strand. Not quite the sphinx but a vision strange and vivid enough to thrill, terrify, and ultimately convince me that it was time to go home, fall asleep to a soundtrack of nothing, and leave the remaining twelve hours to the undaunted.


Hermione Hoby is a freelance writer for the Guardian, the New York Times, The New Yorker, and others. Her debut novel, Neon in Daylight, will be published by Catapult in January