One of the most famous performances given by John Cage did not involve any of his own music. It began on September 9, 1963 and lasted for about nineteen hours. The program consisted of the world premiere of a single composition, Erik Satie’s “Vexations.” There are only 108 notes on the manuscript page (misreported as 180 by The New York Times). These form an eighteen-note bass line, which is repeated, above which are “antecedent” and “consequent” phrases in two upper voices in parallel tritones. These two phrases differ only in that the upper voice of the “antecedent” drops an octave in the “consequent,” thus becoming the lower voice. The astute reader of the score, illustrated above, will notice that one of the intervals is not a tritone. Whether or not this was an error in the manuscript (Satie may have forgotten to include a double-sharp sign) or an added “vexation” is anyone’s guess.
Nevertheless, all of those tritones are but the tip of an iceberg of vexations. The real kicker comes with the instructions written at the top of the manuscript page. The entire passage is to be played 840 times. Satie then adds, in a style familiar to most of us who have ever tried to perform his piano works, that the pianist is to prepare himself “in greatest silence, by means of serious stillness.”
No metronome marking is given, which allows some flexibility in the overall duration. According to the review in The New York Times, the Cage premiere performance lasted eighteen hours and forty minutes. It was performed by a team of pianists (presumably all prepared “in greatest silence, by means of serious stillness”) with an elaborately rehearsed “baton passing” involving the transfer of one hand at a time. It should also be noted that The New York Times sent a team of critics, including Harold Schonberg, Richard F. Shepard, Raymond Ericson, Howard Klein, Marjorie Rubin, and at least one listed on the byline as “anonymous,” to cover the event. I read about the whole affair in Time. I have no idea how many critics they sent; but their article observed that, at the conclusion of the final repetition, someone in the audience shouted, “Encore!”
Since that premiere there have been many follow-up performances of “Vexations,” often for the purpose of honoring Cage. The one I know best was MEWANTEMOOSEICDAY, held at the University of California at Davis in the fall of 1969. John Dinwiddie wrote an account of this event for the seventh issue of Source, which was illustrated with an abundance of photographs, a flow chart, and a reproduction of Satie’s manuscript (which became my go-to source for questions about the score). Sadly, none of those illustrations made it into the University of California Press anthology, Source: Music of the Avant-Garde, 1966–1973.
Regular readers know that I try very hard to hold myself to the discipline of remaining within the San Francisco city limits for my work. However, with all of that context, I feel it important to report that the Berkeley Arts Festival has decided that their own celebration of the 100th birthday of John Cage (September 5, 2012) will be a “team performance” of “Vexations.” Furthermore, they have scheduled the performance to conclude on September 9, thus also recognizing the 49th anniversary of the premiere performance that Cage organized. The pianists participating in this event will include Sarah Cahill, Luciano Chessa, Patti Deuter, Roger Rohrbach, and Kelsey Walsh. My understanding is that they will perform in one-hour shifts. I have also been informed that the Berkeley Arts Festival will provide the audience with both coffee and sleeping bags.
Added 8/23, 3:35 p.m.: I just received further information from one of the organizers of this concert. The following is the current version of the list of all pianists and when they will play. The list was given to me in alphabetical order (with hyperlinks to the names where appropriate), rather than chronologically. Here it is:
- Sarah Cahill — 1 p.m., Sun 9 Sep
- Luciano Chessa — 2 a.m., Sun 9 Sep
- Luciano Chessa and/or Joseph Colombo/Patti Deuter/Joe Lasqo — 6 a.m., Sun 9 Sep [updated 9/6, 1:45 p.m.]
- Jacqueline Chew — noon, Sun 9 Sep
- Joseph Colombo — 10 p.m., Sat 8 Sep
- Patti Deuter — 3 a.m., Sun 9 Sep
- Jim Jowdy — midnight, Sat/Sun 8/9 Sep
- Jerry Kuderna — 6 p.m., Sat 8 Sep
- Joe Lasqo — 8 p.m., Sat 8 Sep
- Dominique Leone — 11 a.m., Sun 9 Sep
- Ric Louchard — 1 a.m., Sun 9 Sep
- Hadley McCarroll — 7 p.m., Sat 8 Sep
- Kanoko Nishi — 5 a.m., Sun 9 Sep
- Roger Rohrbach — 4 a.m., Sun 9 Sep
- Regina Schaffer — 8 a.m., Sun 9 Sep [updated 9/6, 1:45 p.m.]
- Melissa Smith — 9 a.m., Sun 9 Sep
- Julie Steinberg — 11 p.m., Sat 8 Sep
- Anton Vishio — 7 a.m., Sun 9 Sep
- Kelly Walker — 10 a.m., Sun 9 Sep
- Kelsey Walsh — 9 p.m., Sat 8 Sep
There is also a blog post with some numerological observations to supplement my own analytic comments.
The concert will take place at the Berkeley Arts Festival venue, which is 2133 University Avenue, right next to the Ace Hardware in Berkeley. The performance will begin at 6 p.m. on Saturday, September 8, and is expected to finish around 2 p.m. the following day. This will be a free performance. Everyone is invited to come and go throughout the duration of the event. I have not yet read that a Twitter hashtag has been created for those wishing to document the event in real time. Hopefully, if it is created, someone will be kind enough to provide the information as a comment to this article.