Erik Satie - twenty hours of Vexations

Portrait of Erik Satie by Santiago Rusiñol'There is also one curiosity on this CD: a short quotation from Vexations - its "motif", made up of a theme and two variations - which Satie required to be played 840 times in a row; depending on the tempo chosen, this would take between twelve and twenty-four hours.

Without entirely playing the composer's game, for obvious reasons, Jean-Yves Thibaudet here simply reveals the different elements of the task, by playing the theme alternately with the two variations, as requested by the composer, then the theme again, this time followed by the two variations, one after the other.'

That is how Jean-Yves Thibaudet avoids the Vexations issue on his 5 CD set Satie - The Complete Solo Piano Music, and his performance of the work lasts for just 3 minutes 38 seconds. But at Cambridge University the pianists of Sidney Sussex College Musical Society are made of tougher stuff. On Saturday November 24th at 7.00pm UK time they are performing Vexations the way Satie intended, and the performance (poster below), in the College's Mong Hall, should last around 20 hours - non-stop.

This rare performance of Vexations is much more than an interesting curiosity. Today Satie is remembered for his Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes, and little more. But his piano music was a major influence on minimalist composers such as Philip Glass. Glass' early Piece in the Shape of a Square for two flutes is a homage to Satie, while Alvin Curran followed Satie in the adoption of epic time scales. Curran's Inner Cities for solo piano lasts for four and a half hours, and it is a work you will, literally, being hearing a lot more of On An Overgrown Path in the next few weeks.

Erik Satie's Vexations has an important place in the history of twentieth-century music. You can experience it in full via a live stream of the performance over the internet starting at 7.00pm on Saturday November 24th UK time - time zone convertor here.

Congratulations to Sidney Sussex College Musical Society for going where others dare not tread, and for putting Vexations on the web. The pianists deserve a credit. They are Kim Ashton, Thomas Athorne, Will Buchanan, Jesper Carlson, James Freeman, Paul Kilbey, Sarah Latto, Joe Scott, Lydia Slobodian, Emily Smith, Jamal Sutton, and Matthew Tait. The photo below shows the quadrangle in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. There are worse places to experience twenty hours of Vexations.

Back story on music in Cambridge here.
Header image is part of one of the portraits of Eric Satie by Santiago Rusiñol. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Unknown said…
Joyce Hatto?! Oh, Sarah Latto.
Joyce Hatto?!?!!! Oh, Jamal Sutto.
Pliable said…
Marc, well spotted. As usual my error - I cut of the 'n' when I pasted the text across!

It is actually Jamal Jonathan Sutton, and Jamal is Senior Organ Scholar at Sidney Sussex College -

I am now reassured that readers persevere to the end of my articles.
Pliable said…
That comment above leads me down another path.

Go to the Sidney Sussex College Music Society page here -

Look at the performance tomorrow - 21st November.

The musicians are listed in order of height - you can't get much more egalitarian than that. But I know some conductors who wouldn't be too happy with their position in the order.
Pliable said…
I'm now told the "order of height" thing is actually an in-joke. The singers are listed in order of vocal height (ie. range).

Still, fairly egalitarian though. But definitely not acceptable to some divas and tenors I could think of.

Erik Satie would have loved it though.
Pliable said…
Email received:

It will not come as a surprise to you that I have done the vexations already a couple of times….

First one to do this was John Cage, I think Gavin Bryars did it later on as well.


Daan Vandewalle
Pliable said…
Email received:

Funny thing, serendipity is.

On my way to work this morning, listening to Aldo Ciccolini playing Granados and Albeniz from a CD I ripped onto my iPod (my journey by bus is one hour each way, so I get a LOT of listening done)I was thinking how nice it would be to have his set of the complete Satie piano music on CD.

One of my favourite Satie works is Socrate, and one of my favourite recordings on CD is by Hugues Cuenod. An incredibly dramatic work!.


David Cavlovic

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