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Dip Your Ears, No. 261 (Satie Vexation)

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Erik Satie, Vexations
Noriko Ogawa (piano)

Erik Satie’s Vexations is an aptly named work that you have to have heard in order to know that you’ll never need to have heard it. Simple, repetitive, and demanding endurance from the performer, not skill. 18 notes, harmonized, inverted. Just one page of brutalist-simplistic music, but rinsed and repeated – by disingenuous fiat of the composer’s pen – 840 times. The Vexations deserve to be recorded for the archive’s sake, because everyone ought to have the chance to reject this misinterpreted gag of a composition on their own; the only other reason to perform them is to achieve a cheap if exhausting publicity stunt.

It delivers all the stupefying effect without any of the ‘transportive’ qualities of a Philip Glass film score and is bound to inflict pain on anyone of musical sensibility. You’d be just as well off drinking a bottle of cheap booze for such a dulling of your senses. It is, in short, an exercise in masochism and no spin of its alleged “Zeb Buddhist” qualities (as the work’s first champion, John Cage, suggested) or of it being a “study in immobility” (so would be staring at paint dry) can salvage the thing. It’s ironic and telling that Satie, derided for his best music as a mere ‘salon composer’, should be celebrated by some for his worst. Sort of goes to show that if you pump up the crazy just enough, someone will be there to declare you a genius. The truth is that we don’t know what Satie’s intent was when he scribbled the page of music and the absurd instructions down; sarcasm is as good as any; a mocking musical jest of sorts. If you listen to the whole thing, though, the joke’s on you.

That said, what about the performance? For starters, Noriko Ogawa plays on a beautiful sounding Érard, beautifully recorded. For some 70 minutes she is merciless in her rigor and – though I dare not say “refreshingly” – brisk. At the tempo she takes for 142 variations, she’d be done with the whole thing in six (SA)CDs. A far cry from the alleged aimed-at goal of 24 hours, that Satie may have had in mind. (For that, you’d have to go to Jeroen van Veen’s download of the whole thing on Brilliant Classics.) In any case, carping about this would be akin to the joke of two ladies in a restaurant complaining: “The food’s terrible here.” “Yes, and the portions are so small!” But no have fears: Happily, the artist and record label have the good sense to consider this nod towards Satie’s Vexations exhaustive and final, which it more than is. Late in the game, Noriko Ogawa adds some more obvious dynamic variation and shifts in voicing and eventually also the tempo, speeding things up as if to come to a quicker end. If you’ve made it through those 75 minutes, the last five might induce chuckles of relief and acquiescent glee. But three quarters of an hour seem a high price for that.

At the heart of taking this seriously at all is the John Cage dictum that “if something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” Well, if something is boring after 80 minutes, you could double down until you lose your mind or have invested so much time that you cannot allow yourself to consider it having been time wasted. Eventually, I suppose, Cage will be right. But will it have been worth it? I suggest sticking to Virgil Thompson’s take on the matter, instead: “Try a thing you haven't done three times. Once, to get over the fear of doing it. Twice, to learn how to do it. And a third time to figure out whether you like it or not.”