Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Music to Drive Us Insane

Erik Satie is perhaps not as fashionable as he once was in the 60s and 70s when even adventurous rockers like Blood, Sweat and Tears would record a version of one of his "hits" for the piano:

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.


Jives said...

I sense a whiff of Oscar Wilde in the air. Satie...Vexations
just picked up The Picture of Dorian Gray and am learning about this turn-of-the-20th century attitude of decadence and ennui, and excessive, grand, rather preposterous philosophizing, which would birth the absurdly provocative instruction "to be repeated 840 times." This sort of gesture defines the boundaries of the art, the outer limits, the fences of reason. Makes for a nice artistic construct, but not for nice listening, but its nice to know it's there.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Jives, for providing a valuable perspective as always! Yes, I think that Satie and Oscar Wilde can both be related to the Aestheticism movement in the late 19th century.


There was a French playwright whose name I cannot recall (this might have been discussed in the Roger Shattuck book The Banquet Years) who wrote a famous absurdist play around this time. Found it! The writer is Alfred Jarry, particularly known for his play Ubu Roi from 1896.

One wonders if some of this cannot be chalked up to excessive consumption of "the green goddess" --absinthe!