Erik satie: Vexed by vexations

In 2014, the light rail opened in St. Paul and Minneapolis. There was also an all night festival ” the Northern Spark “. I played on one of these occasions at the Black Dog Cafe, a long time musical home for me.

I have always loved Erik Satie: not just Gymnopedie, but everything of his that I have heard. In my research, I discovered “vexations”… but had no real reason to play it. A former student invited me to perform in this work, at the new building of of Northrup Auditorium, at the University of Minnesota. It was to be on the day before Father’s day, at the Northern Spark Festival. Cool.

‘ The piece bears the inscription “In order to play the motif 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities” (Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses).’

In May, I started to learn it. It was really difficult for me to read, because of double sharps & flats. I transposed it to simplify it. It was still eerie, unresolved. Legends emerged about pianists skirting the edges of insanity- seeing evil beasts leap up from the pages, etc. It is unsettling to say the least. I kept preparing.

The day of the performance arrived….. a rainy June day. In the afternoon, i agreed to perform at the Best Steak house, for the opening of the light rail celebration. ” Sure,” I thought,” an hour of piano music should be okay.

But, my then wife reminded me that we had to go a friend’s daughter’s piano recital: in the Minneapolis Convention Center, with 27 grand pianos on stage, and lots of bright young people playing as if in a piano orchestra. It was over the top, but fun, despite the humidity and the lack of ” serious immobilities” I was experiencing.

But wait ! Everyone wanted to go out for ice cream…. and here we ended up, in a piano bar! The man had good chops. On the other hand, I was beginning to get ” full” of music. The rain continued. I was no shape to play this music.

We drove home. I tried in vain to sleep for an hour or two. So I gave up, drove to the end of the light rail line, and took it to Northrup Auditorium. Where I had seen The Talking Heads, VSOP, Sarah Vaughn, Astor Piazolla and… ( more stories later)

I found my way to the room, caught the last half hour of a young woman, who played it with no mistakes ! This was followed by a man about my age, who stumbled through it, like I was afraid of doing.

The plan was to find a place to crash there… sleep. Not a conducive place to nap. There were at most 20 people in the audience: sometimes no one. I ate some nuts. sweets, and coffee. In the completely wrong mental space, I made my way to the piano. Completely exhausted.

My shift was the last one. In a moment of weakness/bravado I agreed to play a two hour shift, until about 5:38 am. How did the music go? Sometimes I played the correct notes upon the page. ( I always got the single line) Occasionally I played the bass and treble notes. Sometimes i really escaped the page. Once, I had 5 people listening. then 2 then no one. At 5 am, I slowed way down to an empty auditorium. At 5:15, the custodial gentlemen popped his head in and said…” You can stop now… ain’t nobody here!” I thanked him, played it one more time for good measure. I was free !

The early summer morning after a day of rain had fog, a freshness. I took the light rail to the stop, and drove home. My family wanted to take me out for Father’s day. I didn’t really want to go. I was sick of all music, for the rest of my life, it seemed.

But then, in the restaurant, a song came on the air. ” All day Music” by War. It was everything that ” Vexations” was not. A melody. rich harmonies, grounded I smiled, and slept all afternoon.

Would I play “vexations” again? perhaps. after perhaps being at a trout stream, hearing it’s music, for 8 hours before. and after .

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1 Comment

  1. Todd, this is one great story. I could see it all in my minds eye. You have always been a great story teller. I listened to Erik Satie: not just Gymnopedie a lot this past winter…a LOT. I never heard of the Vexations challenge before. How grueling and athletic of all the players! Knowing you as long as I have, and dipping into shared musical heritage, I laughed out loud when I read War’s “All Day Music” was playing, in serendipitous and medicinal kind of Synchronicity. I still listen to that one as well, even have it in my phone.


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