Erik Satie, David Del Tredici and a day of music

By D. Silverman

Photo: Jordan Mejias.

Eight hundred forty repetitions comprise Vexations, Erik Satie’s enigmatic unpublished durational piano score. Composed around 130 years ago, and evidently never performed, the piece remained a theoretical curiosity until 1963 when John Cage organized a marathon rendition in the East Village. (Long past the point where the author, or his contemporaries, could offer guidance as to what was intended.)

On September 8th, the Village Trip will mark the 60th anniversary of that first performance with a free concert at NYU’s shiny new Paulson Center to kick off the two week arts festival. Clocking in at a brisk 15-hours (other productions have run twice that), involving multiple pianists and scheduled to conclude at 9 p.m., with the 840th and final, repetition to be played by David Del Tredici, a veteran of Cage’s seminal presentation.

Del Tredici, 86, is a long-time West Village resident and Pulitzer Prize winning composer currently living with Parkinson’s disease—and, undaunted, is reportedly contemplating an operatic treatment of that theme. No doubt the experiences of a neurodegenerative disorder, plus the intervening six decades, will also inform his interpretation of the vexing piano motif this time around.

Satie did not publish Vexations during his lifetime—there’s no evidence of his ever mentioning it and little is known about motives or if he even expected it to exist as more than a conceptual exercise. But two tantalizing handwritten notes he added to the score elicit all sorts of conjecture.

First, vaguely, that the tempo be very slow (“Très lent”).

Second, obscurely, an observation (or instruction) to the effect of “To play this motif 840 times in succession, it will be good to prepare beforehand, and in the greatest silence, with serious stillness.

(While this ’note’ has been interpreted in many ways, it’s the basis for the current format of 840 repetitions of the score. And the wording, “par des immobilités sérieuses,” could suggest an involuntary stillness—movement constrained.)

Apparently, Satie took pen to paper shortly after the artist Suzanne Valadon abruptly ended their tempestuous love affair, which lasted only about 20 weeks, and while they did not live together, she moved into a bedsit next to his during that brief span. From all indications, it may have been Satie’s only intimate relationship—ever—(not so Valadon, she had other lovers before, during, and after their involvement. She also had a nine-year-old son, Maurice Utrillo).

The nebulous experimental score required only one sheet of paper and may well have been a composer’s anguished response to his intense emotions from the break-up. It might even have been envisioned as a musical ‘diary’ of the relationship in hindsight. If we suppose the couple spent about 6 hours together daily, for twenty weeks, that’s 6 x 7 x 20 = 840 hours.

And if we hear the “very slow” tempo to mean “verrrrrry slow”—as in an hour per repetition — then, conceivably, the full cycle would reflect their entire romantic episode in excruciatingly real-time.

Perhaps for someone who’d never before been in love, his rejoinder about preparing first with ‘great silence and stillness’ was more a recrimination.

While the NYU performance may run a bit overtime, it will not entail 840 hours. Nonetheless, if you go for any or all, you’ll have plenty of meditative time to contemplate these notions and others. And, when you see David Del Tredici seated at the piano, you’ll know, the cycle continues…

Satie’s Vexations, 60 years after John Cage
Friday, September 8th
6:00 am – 9:00 pm
NYU Paulson Center
181 Mercer Street