Thanks for the Earworm

UnCommon Ground - Thanks for the Earworm

For the people bopping in and out of Slayter on September 5th, the sounds of a piano playing Erik Satie’s “Vexations” might have been a nice little treat. A scrap of melody here while checking the old Slayter box. A little tritone there while leaving the bookstore. But if anyone spent any length of time on the second floor that day, she would have noticed that the piece was repeated over and over and over again. 840 times. For 17 hours straight.

The marathon performance of “Vexations” was a tribute to American composer John Cage, who would have turned 100 that day. It was Cage who staged the first complete public performance of “Vexations” at the Pocket Theatre in New York back in 1963, in which a team of 10 pianists (and two back-ups) performed the short piece 840 times. But that lengthy performance (18 hours and 40 minutes total) wasn’t really Cage’s idea. “A Note from the Composer” precedes the piece and states: “In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the greatest silence, through serious immobilities.” Cage was simply following directions.

The Denison team of performers, organized by Christopher Bruhn of the music department, didn’t take quite as long, wrapping up the “Vexations” stream in about 17 hours, with 14 students and faculty members playing in 60-minute shifts.

Published October 2012