Erik Satie: Vexations for piano and reversible record player
The Calder, Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield.Wednesday 31 May 201711:00am – 8:00pm
Vexations is apparently conceived for keyboard, though the single page of manuscript does not specify an instrument), it consists of a short theme with the instruction In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities. This has been interpreted as an instruction that the theme should be played 840 times, though this may not have been the composer’s intention.
For the Calder I am preparing a new interpretation of this work (arguably a very early piece of Instructional Art, at 1893 pre-dating, for instance, Duchamp’s Unhappy Ready-Made1 of 1919.)
I have recorded four versions of the theme played on the piano by James Telford from the manuscript copy available on line. They follow the score as much as is possible but also take account of the possible variations Satie’s notation offers. Each forms a ‘module’ of identical length (padded by a short silence at either end). These will be compiled into a recorded sequence of roughly 15 minutes. A sound file is then generated with the sequence on one stereo track with a reversed copy of the same sequence on the other; a vinyl record is cut from this file.
The record will be played – the piece performed – by a record-player adapted to stop and reverse its direction of play at intervals controlled by a programmable chip. Because the recording includes tracks played both forwards and in reverse there will always be a iterations of the component phrase being played in the “correct” direction (call it the recto), which listeners cannot help but filter out from its verso; this is emphasised by separating the two stereo tracks so that the one will always be heard more clearly from one or another of the two speakers.
The record player will be programmed to change direction in a careful sequence calculated to play the recto phrase exactly 840 times and then stop. When John Cage and a team of helpers played Vexations in 1963 it took 18 hours and 40 minutes. The iterations recorded for this performance last between 1 minute 25 and 1 minute 45 seconds; repeating the latter 840 times would take 24 hours with allowance needed for slightly longer pauses as the record player stops and changes direction.
Essentially the piece will work in the Calder gallery as a sculptural installation for the first 23 or so hours with an audience invited to attend the final section to witness the point at which the piece stops.
* Duchamp sent instructions from Argentina for his sister Suzanne and Jean Crotti to make his gift for their April marriage. To create Unhappy Ready-Made, the couple was told to hang a geometry text on their balcony so that wind could " go through the book [and] choose its own problems..."