SATIE: Vexations (142 rounds) / Noriko Ogawa, pno / Bis SACD-2325
Is this work, and thus this CD, a hoax? Vexations is a short piece scribbled on a small piece of paper, without meter indication or bar lines, that was found after Satie’s death. No record of a performance during his lifetime has been found; it may never have been meant to be performed at all. As the liner notes tell us:
Vexations consists of a motif comprising a melody in the lower register that is to be played four times. According to the instructions, on the second and fourth occasions the melody is heard accompanied by a tritone harmony (an augmented fourth / diminished fifth), without resolution. To render the work in its entirety, the performer must play this motif 840 times, which would take between 12 and 24 hours. A hoax? Or, in the words of the American composer John Cage, a work ‘in the spirit of Zen Buddhism’?
Well, to begin with, I wouldn’t trust anything John Cage said because he was purposely a charlatan who bamboozled the entire classical world into taking him seriously. Just watch and listen to any of the surviving videos of him speaking, and you’ll immediately agree with me. To his most outlandish and baffling “compositions,” he often said, publicly, “You see I’m grinning like a Cheshire cat!” He simply put the entire classical world on for 30 years, and somehow manages to hold them in thrall post-mortem, but he was simply getting even with the academics for not taking his REAL compositions of the 1940s, which were modern and innovative but not practical musical jokes, seriously.
The listening experience, at least at first, is fascinating; the simple melodic line, which somehow divides itself into 4/4 without trying to, is certainly one of Satie’s most harmonically weird pieces, and since Ogawa plays each repeat/variant without a break, it becomes the classical equivalent of Shari Lewis’ This is the Song That Doesn’t End. On and on and on and on and on and on and on and on it goes, for 80 minutes and 32 seconds. For me, however, the unhappiest feature of this performance and recording was Ogawa’s insistence on using a crappy-sounding tack piano that sounds as if she found it in a church basement. This audio horror is described as an “Érard 1890” thing. If it were up to me, I’d have them all destroyed and erase Érard’s name from the annals of piano manufacture.
Putting the sound of this “piano” aside, however, I found the music to actually be hypnotic in its own weird way. Would I want to hear it for 12 or 24 hours? Hell no. But it made a pretty nice form of musical wallpaper for as long as it lasted. Ogawa does vary the dynamics as well as his touch (although discussing “touch” on a poor tack piano is like comparing Jo Ann Castle to Annie Fischer), which makes at least some of the listening experience less of a carbon copy of his previous excursions through the piece.
I’ll bet you don’t know that Erik Satie used to play compositions by Jelly Roll Morton. His friend, conductor Ernest Ansermet (who also happened to be an early admirer of jazz musicians), brought him back sheet music of Morton’s pieces when he was in America in the late ‘teens/early 1920s, and Satie apparently loved them. I challenge Ogawa, or any other pianist for that matter, to put out an album juxtaposing Satie’s own pieces with those of Morton. THAT would make an interesting listening experience…as long as you play it on a real piano, and not the little toy one that Schroeder played in the Peanuts comic strips.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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