But there is one piece by him that still retains an avant-garde cachet: Vexations, an unpleasant, meandering succession of chromatic chords, to be repeated 840 times. That seems to take anywhere from ten to twenty-four hours, assuming you don't lose count! There is a recent article on the piece by Seph Rodney: Why Composers Make Music to Drive Us Insane.
From the article:
Art is a pain sometimes. It tries to lay you out, knock you down, and then sit on your chest, while you bewildered, ask “why would you do this?” That’s what I thought when I first read about Erik Satie’s “Vexations” (1893), which consists of a half sheet of music notation with a passage that Satie wrote had to be repeated 840 times (not a typo). The writer Sam Sweet calls it a “dangerous and evil” composition. I admit immediately that he’s right. That doesn’t matter. John Cage (who is said to have been influenced by Satie’s legacy) took up the challenge of the piece with a group of 11 pianists in 1963 at the Pocket Theatre in the East Village and finished it in 18 hours and 40 minutes. A solo pianist, Richard Toop, fought his way through ennui and fatigue (and probably a kind of dread of failure) to play it all in 24 hours in 1967.The writer makes the quite interesting argument that these kinds of artistic experiments are a battle with the universe:
We humans like to throw ourselves against the limits of our abilities, whether it’s listening to artwork like Erik Satie’s or attempting to read the impenetrable imbroglio that is Finnegans Wake, or testing the physical limits or our bodies, or probing the horizon of our technological capabilities. The attraction is not actually the work. Rather, it’s the opportunity to prove to ourselves that our will can conquer any obstacle or challenge, that makes us able to survive is the willingness to press on.The thing is that most works of great aesthetic value also challenge our stamina and sensitivities and with them there is a real reward. With a piece like Satie's Vexations the only reward is the fact that you survived the experience and it is now, thankfully, over. We would be far better off listening to an equivalent amount of good music.
The challenging of the limits of our sensory experience was quite a respectable project back a few decades ago. People placed themselves in sensory deprivation environments, took psychotropic drugs, listened to very lengthy pieces of unpleasant music and so on. I am pretty sure that almost nothing good ever came of this. Perhaps someone should write a book on that whole phase of aesthetic history. About the only example I can think of that was both interesting and perhaps productive was the experiments with installations that Robert Irwin did after his own journey through sensory deprivation. The book to read is Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees.