Thursday, August 30, 2012

Vexations in Los Angeles

(Listen to a live recording of Vexations while you read.)

Vexation n.
  1. The act of annoying, irritating, or vexing.
  2. The quality or condition of being vexed; annoyance.
  3. A source of irritation or annoyance.
a noted musical work by Erik Satie.

I think Erik Satie's Vexations is one piece of music with a perfect title.  A title should give you some insight into the music itself.   And in the case of Vexations, if the music itself were not annoying, irritating or vexing enough (and it is aplenty), the composer compounded the annoyance with his 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"
If you spend even a short while thinking about and listening to Vexations you'll end up scratching your head.  That is a good thing.

John Cage, whose 100 birth anniversary is being celebrated far and wide at the moment, reveled in music which made listeners think.  It was Cage who brought Vexations to the attention of the music world.  In 1963 he organized the first complete performance in New York City.

This piece is now so associated with Cage himself that complete Vexations performances (which take upwards of 18 hours) are presented in Cage's memory.  I know of two coming soon in California, one on the Berkeley Arts Festival and the other on the Jacaranda Series in Santa Monica.  Check them out.

This Mixed Meters post will feature two decades-old complete local performances of Satie's Vexations.  I was lucky enough to be a performer in both of them.

The first was on radio station KPFK on September 6, 1981 - all 840 repetitions were performed and broadcast live.  For 19 hours there were no station identifications.

The other was performed at a West Hollywood art gallery and was organized by the composer Randy Hostetler as part of his Living Room concert series.  It happened on August 1, 1992.

We'll go in reverse chronological order:

Composer Randy Hostetler lived from 1963 to 1996.  His short life and his music are honored and recounted at   His piece "8" for piano and eight ball (in the side pocket) is a good introduction to the spirit Randy brought to his work.  Randy's close friend Art Jarvinen wrote 8 revealing stories about Randy.

One of Randy's projects was a concert series entitled The Living Room Series.  On one of these he produced Vexations. Here's the silk-screened concert poster:

Click on the poster for an enlargement.  Here's the text:


vexations by erik satie

1 august 1992, asher-faure gallery, 612 n. almont drive, west hollywood
beginning at 7 am and running continuously for close to 24 hours
for more information: 310 271-3665

scheduled pianists: gaylord mowrey, michael fink, jim fox, christopher hobbs,
david hatt, lorna eder, randolph hostetler, david ocker, chas smith, sandra brown,
david peck, francesca talenti, michael webster, brian howrey, wendy prober,
joe metzler, dan lawrence, sarah simons, daniel mettler, alan zychek

designed and printed by i.c. and a.b. at the rollins printing office of the school of art, yale university

(If you click on the address you'll be taken to the Google Street View.  Next click on the double arrow pointing toward the building and you can look around inside the now renamed gallery.)

Here are some memories of that event.

Alan Zychek:
I remember Vexations, that was a wonderful day over in WEHO. There was the vexation room with the piano and rugs. Outside the room there was food, drink and good times.  I think there was someone asleep under the piano when my turn came. I remember trying to discern stylistic nuances when the next player took over, but finding none. It was as if the piece neutered any personality a pianist would normally strive for.
I also remember Randy's LR concerts.  He placed mirophones throughout the entire space, inside and out -  and the back room is where you could listen to a mix of random conversations in real time.  Good luck and thank's for dislodging some wonderful memories. 

Jim Fox:
One thing I remember about the '92 Vexations performance was its lovely mix of the sacred and the profane. In the gallery itself, where the music--ever different, yet ever the same--slowly and quietly spun forth from the assembled musicians, I recall that the mood was sacredly hushed. The tempo shifted from player to player, sometimes slightly, sometimes dramatically. Interpretations of a pass through the single page of notes drifted, sometimes as willed, sometimes as fatigue dictated. Well-schooled fingers milked its chords for all they could find and less-schooled ones went about the task in a workmanly fashion, and sometimes a note or two disappeared beneath the keyboard. 
Listeners were strewn about the floor or draped over chairs or even sitting on the edges of chairs, as if waiting for one of the players to keel over. They generally gazed into space or stared intently, chins cradled in hands, at a performer. (Many seemed lost in near-sleep or reverie.) Some performers and some listeners were there for the duration (or some reasonable facsimile of it), some seemed to merely pop in for a few moments. 
But just outside the gallery doors--on a concrete patio as I recall--was a wonderful, long-winded, nearly off-the-rails (or perhaps that was just me) party, a spontaneous and at times slightly raucous celebration among new and old friends, blessed by a broad sense of camaraderie, and fueled by the consumption of much volatile liquid. And that day's odd blend of the sacred and profane seemed altogether Satie-esque in a good and simply simpatico way. 

The 1981 KPFK performance of Vexations was organized by the station's music director Carl Stone and assistant Lois V. Vierk.  The event was scheduled as a special event for Labor Day weekend.  The station would often suspend regular programs on holidays in favor of unusual programming.

Here's a page from the KPFK September 1981 Folio, their program guide.  Even then Vexations was associated with John Cage's birthday.  At the time he was turning 69.   A 12-hour broadcast of Cage's Empty Words is announced for later in the month.  In that folio you can read a 3-page interview of Cage by Roger Reynolds.

Carl sent me the thank-you announcement from the October 1981 Folio.  (That month also announced the resignation of both Carl and Lois from their positions at the station.)
The performance of Vexations by Erik Satie was one of the larger and more fun undertakings of the Music Department. Carl Stone and Lois Vierk co-ordinated the schedule of the 18 pianists who played in half-hour shifts. They were: Gloria Cheng, Paul Reale, Bob Fernandez, Gaylord Mowry, Mike McCandless, Lorna Little, Zita Carno, Reymond Berney, Heidi Lesemann, Del ores Stevens, Alan Oettinger, Felix De Cola, Richard Grayson, Milus Scruggs, Lucky Mosko, Ani Schwartz, David Ocker, and Leonid Hambro.

Audrey Tawa stayed from 6 am to 1 am the next day with the task of keeping an accurate tally of the 840 repetitions demanded by the composer. Ahna Armour prepared a grande bouffe for all the participants, and Kathy Harada stayed to make sure things went smoothly. Special thanks to David Ocker for staying at the piano for an extra hour to finish up.

By the end of the 19 hours, the station had received a total of 89 phone calls to comment on the broadcast: 67 favorable and 22 not. Below is a sample of some of the telegrams and letters the station received in the days that followed.
You can read the sample of telegrams and letters here (search for "Vexations".)  Note the "special thanks" to me for playing the clean up position.  I tell the full story of that below.

Here are a couple personal recollections.

Heidi Lesemann:
Carl had set it up so that we paired with another pianist for 2 hours, each of us taking half hour shifts, as Carl said. My partner was Dee Stevens. The music was easy, about 12 bars, but I was very nervous coming into the studio. I had been listening to it for a couple of hours beforehand. When the half hour was close, the relief pianist sat with the first pianist and slid into place in the keys as the first pianist slid off the bench. Seamless. I remember feeling like I was part of an historic event! Honored to be part of it.
Lois Vierk:
I remember organizing the event with Carl. It actually wasn't too hard to get together because the musicians were so gracious with their time and energy. And Audrey Tawa was, as always, a terrific person to work with.
Audrey Tawa was the person charged with tracking the number of repetitions.  She had a mechanical counter, a little chrome job with a plunger.  Each push on that increased the count by one.  She pushed it for each phrase.  One repetition - out of the 840 - consists of four phrases.  Therefore the magic number which needed to be reached on the counter was 3360.  

Before I went to the studio that day I made a home air check of the broadcast.  I recorded off the air onto a 10 1/2 inch reel-to-reel half track tape deck running at 3 3/4 inches per second, the slowest possible speed.  I recorded in mono in one direction.  Later in the day I flipped the tape over and recorded the other side of the tape.  I put the tape in a box.  It remained untouched for nearly 31 years.

A few weeks ago I found the tape and digitized it.  I have the same tape machine which still works!  I improved the sound as best I could and combined both sides into one file.  The total length is 6 hours, 24 minutes and 45 seconds.  I've uploaded this recording and you can listen to it.

Listen to Erik Satie Vexations - 1981 KPFK live broadcast

Yes, the sound quality sucks.  There is wow and flutter.  I think the piece transcends the poor sound quality.  Unlike other recordings you might find online, which likely have only a few repetitions, this has several hundred - about one third of the entire piece.

I do not know who the specific players are.  I'm pretty sure none of them are me.  If you listen carefully you can hear the style change as the players change.  Some are very precise and repetitive.  One in particular has problems.  Another seems to be trying to play each repetition slightly differently.  The tempos change, at one point quite abruptly.  Hesitations.  Mistakes.  If you listen long enough these little variations will no longer matter.  At that point I suppose you will have achieved Serious Immobility.

Here's the story of my extra hour ...

In 1981, like now, I kept a strange schedule of sleeping and waking.  Since I was staying up all night I chose a time slot in the Vexations schedule when I would be wide awake - i.e. the middle of the night for everyone else.  That's why I was one of the last pianists.  I think I was alternating with Lee Hambro.

It's impossible to know ahead of time precisely how long a complete performance of Vexations will last.  Carl and Lois had arranged for enough performers to cover 18 hours, thinking that would be sufficient.  But as that evening wore on, as Audrey kept clicking her counter, it became clear that 840 repetitions would take more time.

By then most everyone had gone home.  The people who had been there all day were exhausted.  On the other hand, I was wide awake.  It was still "morning" for me.  That's why, after I had done the two half hours for which I had signed up, I found myself back in the studio playing the rest of the piece.  How long would that take?

Studio A, a room with a very high ceiling, was dark except for a reading lamp on the music.  The piano was positioned so the player could not see into the control room.   It was a very isolated experience to sit there alone, nothing at all like performing in front of a live audience, even a small one.  The music contributed to the isolation.  It is quiet.  I repeats.  It meanders.  It repeats.  It repeats.  Vexation, indeed.

After a while I noticed that the sound of the piano was changing.  Strange.  I was shocked because pianos don't do that and KPFK had an excellent instrument.  As I kept playing over and over and over - hoping that someone would open the door to tell me that this was the last repetition - but no one did - I became increasingly certain that the sound was indeed slowly morphing.

As I listened more and more carefully to each repetition it became indisputable.  I could hear beats in the sound.  Beating is an indication of mistuning.   The piano was going out of tune!  Yes, it was. The effect became intense and I became quite anxious because of it.  Strings on a piano do not simply begin to slip, except what I was hearing could only be explained by exactly that.

Finally ... finally the door opened and I was told to stop.  After a suitable short silence Carl would have announced the long delayed station identification "KPFK Los Angeles" and then gone on to explain what had just happened.  I stood up, stretched and left the studio.  Someone introduced the overnight program ...

Once I was certain that the microphones were off, I returned to the piano to test the tuning.  I played some octaves and open fifths - intervals which are not found anywhere in Vexations and which easily reveal how well in-tune an instrument is.  To my astonishment, the piano remained in perfect tune.  My jaw dropped because the out-of-tune sound had been completely in my head.  Vexations had warped my hearing, an unmistakable hallucinogenic effect.  Vexations had drugged my brain.

That's the only time anything remotely resembling that kind of effect has ever happened to me.

Gaylord Mowrey, who performed in both of these Vexations performances, sent me some of his thoughts.  He wraps things up nicely, mentions performances of which I was unaware and reminds us of an important work inspired by Vexations.
David, I appreciate that you brought up the Satie Vexations events in this forum. It has always been a pleasure to be a "Vexadigitator" (Randy's term) in all these events.  
You probably are aware that during the 24 years I was involved with the California State Summer School for the Arts, the last 15 of which were at CalArts, I organized 14 consecutive yearly presentations of Vexations with students and faculty and friends, always a strangely moving and transformative experience for many. 
The piece is so controversial and challenging, so quirky and vexing, that almost everyone who give themselves to it for any length of time must come to terms with its aesthetic, somehow. And the original material is so rich that it grabbed Art Jarvinen to create the massive variations - some of his deepest work.
Gaylord is referring to Art Jarvinen's piece Serious Immobilities, 840 distinct variations on Vexations, which will someday will be the subject of another Mixed Meters post.

UPDATE:  Arthur Javinen's massive work, Serious Immobilities, was eventually described in two Mixed Meters posts.  Read the first one first.

I'd like to thank all those who contributed their memories of Vexations in Los Angeles for this post:
  • Zona Hostetler
  • Eric Hostetler
  • Carl Stone
  • Lois Vierk
  • Heidi Lesemann
  • Alan Zychek
  • Jim "Mr. Memory" Fox
  • Gloria Cheng
A recent Microfest program in Los Angeles featured Vexations performed on specially re-tuned keyboards.  You can hear samples here.

Another remembrance of the Living Room Series performance of Vexations.

840 Tags: . . . . . . . . .


holy nereis said...

Thx for this post, I learned something today; Vexation is a really interesting piece of art, I'm listening to it for more than one hour now, and it's amazing, totally non boring.The harmonie is sort of "hazy", dont't know how to describe it..anyway thx you for sharing :)

Tom Nixon said...

Peter Garland organized a performance of Vexations at Cal Arts in 1970 in Burbank. It was in the multi-media trailer at the back of the Villa Cabrini campus and was broadcast across the campus all evening/night/morning. I cannot recall all the participants but for sure John Bischoff, Peter, Lois (Lolly) Beinenfeld, myself, probably James Tenney, maybe Hal Budd, and a host of others. For all I know (memories being what they are) Carl Stone may have participated as well. People would wander in and out of the double-wide and if they could play would take a turn in the keyboard tag-team. I stayed all night long and at one point John Bischoff asked me if I wanted some acid (it was vitamin C). An amazing piece and no matter how long I listened if you asked me to sing it back to you I could not. The deceptively simple melody was impossible for me to grasp. Besides being an incredible composer himself, Peter Garland had already been a staunch advocate and appreciator of Satie's music and philosophy for many years before arriving at the CIA in 1970 and I believe had already participated in a performance of Vexations on the East Coast before then.

Unknown said...

I'm Milus Scruggs, one of the pianists who played the Vexations for KPFK all those years ago.
Check out the Letters to KPFK after the performance. Believe it or not, there was a letter from a paraplegic who routinely listened to the station all day, as he could not move to change the station or turn it off. He said that he had to listen to the entire thing against his will, and please, please, never do anything like this again!