The Vexations Project – Neely’s Notes

These are the complete notes written by Neely Bruce about John Cage’s Centennial and The Vexations Project

In the fall of 1964, the first semester of my senior year at the University of Alabama, everyone was talking about chance music. As a spoof, several of my classmates and I organized something like a happening as part of the annual Christmas Convocation. We were all doing different things—one wrote palindromes on a chalk board, one sat on a barstool singing torch songs, one improvised on the organ, two played tic-tac-toe, all uncoordinated. I conducted with my hands and arms going around like a clock. It was supposed to be a send-up, but it was fascinating, even engrossing. I asked my professor David Cohen how I might learn more about aleatoric music. He told me to read the catalogue of Cage’s music put out by C. F. Peters, and to read Silence. I was hooked.

My second semester in graduate school at the University of Illinois, John Cage came to campus and spoke in the American music class of Charles Hamm. He spoke in a quiet, measured voice about what a poor composer Beethoven was and how useless his aesthetic was if we wanted to solve the problems of the mid-twentieth century. Every chair was taken. People stood in the back of the room and sat on the windowsills. It was a hot, breezeless day in the late spring of 1966, summer for all intents and purposes. You could have heard a pin drop. Many were enthralled, some were infuriated. John returned for a two-year residency with the School of Music, which resulted in MusiCircus and his deathless collaboration with Lejaren Hiller, HPSCHD. (I participated in both of these events, and John turned pages for me when I recorded Solo Six of HPSCHD—which I will play again at Wesleyan on December 7.)

My acquaintance with John deepened into a real friendship over the years. He was a frequent visitor to the Wesleyan campus. There are many stories to be told, but in these notes I would like to testify to his great love for the music of Satie. Both in public and private he was fond of reminding anyone within earshot that he organized the performance of what he liked to call Satie’s complete works at Black Mountain College in 1948. Several times he urged me to organize a performance of “Vexations” at Wesleyan.  John said, with the utmost seriousness, “Vexations is a great religious work, as great as any of the Passions.” I was never privileged to hear John play the piano, but by all reports he was a special pianist, and unforgettable. Betty Johnston said that his playing of the Satie Nocturnes was uniquely beautiful. John was quite particular about the way in which Satie should be played. He didn’t like the way that Aldo Cicciolini played the music. John said “When I look at the score I don’t see that” (referring to the way AC performed the music).

What did he mean by that remark? Since I don’t particularly like Cicciolini’s Satie either, I’ll speak for myself. Many of AC’s performances are characterized by ritards that aren’t in the score, a tendency to make a lot of the music dreamy, and general preciousness. His performances give us a charming, occasionally quaint Satie,who is not particularly straightforward. There is a general reluctance of Cicciolini to engage with the radical side of Satie’s work—a reluctance Cage never shared.

Darius Milhaud told Ben Johnston that, depending on how the twentieth century turns out, Satie may emerge as the century’s most important composer. The twentieth century is over, and Satie may not be it’s most important composer. But he is far more important that most people would have said sixty-something years ago, when John Cage began to champion his music.

And Satie casts a long shadow. Now is not the time to go into the ubiquity of the “Gymnopédies,” the proto-Dada of Parade and Relâche, the snippets of American pop music that so enraptured Cocteau and Les Six, the unique musical syntax of Uspud, the haunting refinement of Socrate, the proto-Muzak that is “Furniture Music”—let me just scratch the surface of Vexations.

In his excellent article “Vexations and its Performers” composer-performer Gavin Bryars summarizes the origins of the score—the manuscript (from about 1893), its ambiguities, and its notorious suggestion to the performer. “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” (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). Satie’s remark, while not inscrutable, is certainly ambiguous and could even be ironical. Even Cage had to talk himself into actually playing the piece 840 times. But once John had mounted a complete performance of the piece, with a team of pianists in 1963, he never turned back. It was a life-changing event, not only for Cage but for many others who have participated in Vexations. In his words, it was “the difference between an idea and an experience.”

Bryars lists some thirty performances between the mid-1950s and 1975—solo performances (!), performances by teams of professionals, performances by teams of students, performances by mixed teams of pros, semi-pros and students. Since 1975 there have been many more. My friend the composer William Duckworth claims to have organized more performances than anyone else, and I believe him. Many of these took place on the campus of Bucknell University. Duckworth’s devotion to Vexations was recognized in 1993 when he was chosen to end the team performance at Roulette. Alex Ross wrote in The New York Times that “…at the end of the night, William Duckworth played with uncanny steadiness and stillness.”

Vexations has a profound effect on those who perform it, as I know first-hand from my participation in the performance at Wesleyan in 2008. But it has also inspired other works. Duckworth bases several of his Time Curve Preludes on it, perhaps most clearly No. 8 in Book One. The late Arthur Jarvinen has composed Serious Immobilities: Petit, 84 variations on Vexations for piano. Composition in Progress, a group of Japanese artists, starting in 2003, has made a series of installations based on Vexations. The Cage Centennial has brought forth a number of Vexations-inspired pieces, but none more remarkable than the one we will hear tonight.

Earlier this year Scott Comanzo sent me an Email which said, among other things, that “The Generous Ensemble is asking for ‘emails of intent’ from between 105 and 840 composers from across the country to compose variations on Vexations by Erik Satie. (Cage being a Satie champion)” It took me about fifteen seconds to reply that I was interested. A follow-up Email dated July 21 stated that 150 composers from all over the world had responded affirmatively. All of us were to write pieces sixteen seconds long, representing five iterations of the Vexations theme. As the project became more and more real, the inevitable shakedown occurred. Composers who did not, in fact, produce a piece are represented by sixteen seconds of silence. Other composers appeared, out of the woodwork. Some of the pieces proved unplayable in the time allotted. The order of the 160-something events in The Vexations Project has been determined by chance procedures.

The result is a knockout. First of all, there is great variety in the instrumental forces. By my count only 37 of the pieces use the entire ensemble. An additional 14 use what one could call tutti-minus-one. There are solos for all of the performers, and one should make special mention of the solo for snare drum, whose relationship to Vexations seems beyond tenuous. There are duets—two saxophones; alto sax and guitar; flute and oboe; guitar and percussion; bari sax and double bass; guitar and double bass (one of my favorites). There is an equivalent variety in the choice of trios. A few of the compositions are for unspecified instrumental ensemble. Several require one or more members of the ensemble to sing or speak, and one piece, for the entire group, consists only of vocal sounds and body percussion. For some reason I cannot imagine, several composers wrote parts for two frying pans, played in different ways by one person.

There is a similar variety in compositional procedure. There are outright quotations of the Vexations material (usually the “melodic” bass line) and there are pieces that have no perceptible connection to the Satie original at all. In addition to the aforementioned snare drum solo, which might as well come from a Sousa march, there is an exquisite moment where the flute and the oboe play a major third (C and E), answered by the same major third played on the vibraphone. This happens four times—end of story. Between pieces that sound like Vexations and pieces that emphatically do not, there are marvelous shades of similarity/dissimilarity.

I cannot begin to analyze these works, which demonstrate a multiplicity of procedures. Some are repetitive to the point of being minimalistic, some are seemingly through-composed. Some are totally uncoordinated, or almost so, and some are as coordinated as Bach chorales. Lots of melody and accompaniment, lots of counterpoint, lots of mixed textures.

However, I can tell you about the piece I wrote. I represent the five iterations of the Vexations theme with five chords for vibes, guitar and double bass, the result of taking all of the pitches of the original, in sequence, dividing them into five equal parts, eliminating redundancies, and lumping them together. The four melody instruments remaining—flute, oboe, alto and bari saxes—play musical notes I associate with the letters of the alphabet, in order to spell out JOHN MILTON CAGE JR. (I deliberately use the abbreviation of “junior” in consideration of the extreme limitations of time.) Of course I couldn’t have these pitches in order (it is a tribute to John Cage, after all), so I scrambled them, using (the same way in which the Generous Ensemble ordered the entire project). Using a single die, I decided the number of melody notes per measure. The result is a Klangfarbenmelodie of unequal forces, punctuated by five unique thunks.

I hope you enjoy my little piece, which was great fun to write and took me all of two hours, start to finish (much less time than it has taken me to write these notes). But even more, I hope you enjoy the way in which my little musical game is submerged in the greater whole. All of these dozens of tiny takes on Vexations, and the silences that stand in for unwritten ones, are submerged in the greater whole. For a composer to participate in such a project, he or she must, on some level, be willing to sacrifice a bit of identity for the greater good. That’s exactly what happens when one performs Vexations. That’s what happens when one performs so many of Cage’s pieces. That’s even what John wanted to do by writing so many pieces the way he wrote them—using charts, processes, chance procedures of all sorts. He wanted to remove his personality from his music, insofar as that is possible. To a considerable extent he succeeded.

And so does The Vexations Project. It is a playful, supremely imaginative act of devotion to a twentieth-century master on his 100th anniversary, celebrating that master’s devotion to another master. It is a beautiful manifestation of a music without ego.

—Neely Bruce