Pleasantly Vexed With Erik Satie

| 6/16/2017 8:00:00 AM


In the Fall 2014 issue of Utne Reader, I shared my thoughts on daydreaming in a column titled “The Lost Art of Doing Nothing.” Three years later, it’s still one of the more popular posts we add to our Facebook page, and I like to think it’s because more people are recognizing the benefits of setting their smart phones aside on a regular basis and allowing their mind to wander.

Since then, I’ve begun meditating, floating in a sensory-deprivation tank, and participating in other activities where the sole purpose is to simply be aware of — but not attached to — the moment at hand. To that end, I was very excited to discover on the morning of May 5 that a rare performance of Erik Satie’s fascinating piano piece Vexations was taking place that day at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City.

For those not familiar with the piece, it’s a very short but peculiar tune that Satie wrote in 1893 with no apparent intention of having it performed. Featuring an unresolved melody and a score note by Satie suggesting the piece be repeated 840 times “very slowly,” it’s not surprising that it took the likes of American composer John Cage and his avant-garde compatriots to finally give Vexations its first public performance in 1963. With a rotation of 12 pianists, Cage and company completed the 840 repetitions of the piece in 20 hours and effectively sparked a rite of passage for future generations of contemporary classical pianists. The longest non-stop solo performance of the piece was 35 hours(!) by Nicolas Horvath in 2012.


In the Kemper performance, pianist Michael Kirkendoll performed the piece for 12 hours straight while playing inside contemporary artist Rashid Johnson’s magnificent installation piece Antoine’s Organ. I had the pleasure of experiencing 35 minutes of the performance, and I’m still gleaning fascinating insight from what I witnessed (see video below).

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