segunda-feira, 15 de janeiro de 2018

Running a marathon while standing still


I first came across Satie's Vexations in the early 70s, through an article John Cage wrote about a concert he'd organized, where the piece was played in its entirety. It was I think a world first. I remember his remark that throughout the entire 24 hour or so concert, there was always at least one person in the audience.
All these years later I finally had the opportunity to listen to a performance of Vexations. Portuguese pianist Joana Gama played it at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon.
It is very difficult to find words to describe Vexations. One could mention Satie's ever present humor, both in the musical content, in the structure and in the idea of repeating a simple musical phrase 840 times. Humor is also present in the way the upper chords seem to smudge the intriguing theme, hiding it and thus making it even more intriguing.
But the musical aspects are probably the least interesting characteristics of Vexations. To me the most distinctive aspect of this piece is the unusual time and listening experience it provides. Few composers dared dealing with time and listening the way Satie did in this piece written in the 19th century...
I am not sure if Satie was at all familiar with Max Plank's quantum theory, let alone Niels Bohor's interpretation of it, when he wrote Vexations. But the idea that a particle doesn't have any properties until it is observed and measured applies perfectly to Vexations. 

Time becomes real. The experience of listening to Vexations, to its simple musical components and to listen to each repetition in sequence, reveals time, builds time. It does not measure time, it produces time.
Simultaneously it provides a fascinating listening experience. In the performing space, Vexations slowly becomes a soundmark (to use R. Murray Schafer's terminology) after a number of repetitions. Against it the dynamics of surrounding acoustic environment evolve. Every sound, every whisper, cough, cell phone ringing, child running or chair dragged is measured against the "acoustic reference" that the piece becomes after a while, thus determining the balance or lack of it of the particular acoustic environment in which the piece is being performed.

In time with each repetition, a quite delicate set of acoustically mediated, ever changing, relations is produced. No repetition is the same however immaculately it is performed. As it was the case here.
Vexations functions, in a way, like an installation. But it is based on the tension building fact that it is being performed under daunting conditions by a human being. It is this seeming contradiction that provides such a unique experience.
If it is difficult to find words to translate the experience of listening to Vexations, it is virtually impossible to praise successfully and to adequately express my admiration for the performer. 

Performing Vexations is like running an ultra marathon. It involves the exact same physical strength. the same discipline, the same courage. 
However instead of running, the performer has to keep as still as possible, stay focused and exert an unbelievable amount of restraint during the 14 hours or so that the piece lasted.
I will never be able to adequately praise Joana Gama or express the admiration that she deserves.

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