BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Who would be crazy enough to conceive of a piece of music which is basically one theme repeated all of 840 times? No, not Philip Glass (at least he varies his repetitions). Actually, French composer Erik Satie came up with it in 1893 with Vexations. (For those who don't think they've heard anything by Satie: Remember the ethereal piano music playing during Philippe Petit's awe-inspiring walk in between two World Trade Center towers in Man on Wire? That's Satie's Gymnopédie No. 1.)
Now, then: Who would be crazy enough to actually perform such a work in its entirety? These folks—on Thursday, from 6 a.m. to midnight, on the corner of Wall Street and Broad Street, right outside the New York Stock Exchange in lower Manhattan:
These musicians—two of whom I know personally (one of them is in the video above, performing the first four repetitions)—are hardly the first to do it. Leave it to none other than that mild-mannered revolutionary John Cage himself to blaze the trail for marathon performances of Vexations, organizing the first of its kind back in 1963.
I decided to check out the last two hours of this feat of musical performance. Satie's original theme is one of the most harmonically complex things I've ever heard, yet played on the vibraphone at night outdoors in that particular milieu, it felt oddly soothing. Additionally, I also found it rather amusing to see the different kinds of reactions from people wandering past these musicians: some minded their own business; others briefly took note of it, stayed for one or two repetitions and then went on their merry ways; and still others stuck around for extended period of times, doing little more than just relaxing to the music.
A couple of random passersby wondered—jokingly, I assume—if this was yet another outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Actually, it was part of two different events: a) "Make Music New York," a day-long, city-wide festival of music-making that has been staged for the past six years on the first day of summer; and b) "A Worldwide Day of Vexations," in which musicians from all over the world staged their own 18-hour performances of Satie's piece, all of them streamed online.
It was fun—and the sense of epic finality to the final chord of the 840th and final repetition (played by Amy Garapic, who was the main force behind this massive global musical event) was truly breathtaking to experience in person. Hopefully I was able to capture some of that feeling in the video I shot.
If any of you are interested in seeing some of the rest of the lengthy (to put it mildly!) performance, much of it has been archived at UStream here (but my video looks better, haha).