Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Vexing Satie

It all began with a sheet of music manuscript paper written out in the hand of composer Erik Satie. The entire composition is 25 quarter-beats long; and it is divided into two subsections of equal length, meaning that the point of division comes 12.5 beats from the beginning. Both subsections have the same bass line, which, in the words of my first music theory professor, "noodles" back and forth from note to note, entirely in skip-wise motion, except for a descending major second (unless you want to count the ascending augmented second that follow it, which, on the piano of course sounds like a minor third). Above this bass line are two other voices, which also noodle in parallel motion with different intervals that are independent of the bass line. The parallel motion is that of parallel tritones. In the second subsection the upper voice drops down an octave, meaning that the parallel intervals are still tritones.

Such a structure would be sufficient to justify the title that Satie gave to this work, "Vexations." However, the work is better remembered for a brief performance instruction written at the top of the page: The entire performance consists in playing these 25 beats 840 times, and most people assume that it is the performance requirement that earned this composition its name. Today Satie might be credited as the inventor of "conceptual art;" but I know of at least two actual performances of the work, both of which were organized by John Cage and executed by a rotating team of pianists. I cannot recall the date of the first performance. I just remember that it was in New York; and, in the spirit of Cage's performance strategy, The New York Times arranged for the concert to be reviewed by a rotating team of music critics. I also remember the Times review claimed that, at the end of the performance, someone shouted "Encore!"

Actually, there is at least one more "vexation" to this composition. The interval of the first half of the second beat is not a tritone. Thus, one cannot just get into the automatic rhythm of playing parallel tritones. One has to remember that, every 12.5 beats (and not at the beginning of the cycle), there is the one interval that is a diminished fourth in the first half and an augmented fifth in the second. This could raise a point of debate: Did Satie really intend that beat to be different, or was he so involved in the way he calculated his structure that he accidentally wrote a wrong note and then duplicated his error in the second half? When I programmed an old PDP-6 to play this work (in its entirety), I adopted the wrong-note hypothesis, because it then allowed me to write a very compact program in my EUTERPE language. These days I am more inclined to believe that there are no wrong notes in the manuscript and that the plural use of "vexations" is an appropriate description: another example of taking a stare decisis approach to performance.

This brings me around to music that I am currently practicing every morning, the three sarabandes that Satie composed in 1887 (making them some of his earliest compositions). The compositions are all based on relatively short phrases that are repeated in different combinations, but here too the question arises as to whether or not all of those passages were intended to be faithful repetitions. This question is particularly evident in the second sarabande, which is in D# minor (meaning six sharps in the key signature) and lots of notes with their own accidentals. So in this case the question is whether either Satie or Salabert (his publisher) "accidentally" omitted some of those accidentals. If one assumes that they were not accidents, then many of the "apparent" repetitions are not real ones; and some of the chords are more uncomfortably dissonant than most of the others. I have heard at least one recording that "corrected" the score in the interest of a more consistent sound; and the result is certainly more euphonic. On the other hand euphony was rarely a priority with Satie; and I am more inclined to take those "debatable" chords as further instances of "musical vexation."

Why would Satie want to be vexing in these compositions? One answer is that, even at the beginning of his career as a composer, he was looking for ways to attract attention. Furthermore, he found that way through an act of iconoclasm, taking a dance form that dates all the way back to the seventeenth century (and was the form for the theme behind those variations that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg) and throwing a monkey wrench into its traditional harmonic language. This is the Satie that anyone with even a minimal amount of biographical familiarity will recognize; so, as far as I am concerned, it is the Satie that should be honored with a stare decisis interpretation!

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