Copyright 2009

Erik Satie: Vexations for piano and reversible record player

The Calder, Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield.

Wednesday 31 May 201711:00am – 8:00pm

Vexations is apparently conceived for keyboard, though the single page of manuscript does not specify an instrument), it consists of a short theme with the instruction In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities. This has been interpreted as an instruction that the theme should be played 840 times, though this may not have been the composer’s intention.

For the Hepworth Gallery I prepared a new interpretation of the piece. I recorded four versions of the theme played on the piano by Jamie Telford from the manuscript copy available on line. They follow the score as much as is possible but also take account of the possible variations Satie’s notation offers. Each forms a ‘module’ of identical length (padded by a short silence at either end). These I compiled into a recorded sequence of roughly 15 minutes and a vinyl record was cut from the digital file.

Vexations Hepworth 31st May 2017 from simon lewandowski on Vimeo.
This video gives a sample what it sounds like.

The record was played – the piece performed – by a record-player adapted to stop and reverse its direction of play at intervals controlled by a programmable chip. Because the recording includes tracks played both forwards and in reverse there will always be a iterations of the component phrase being played in the “correct” direction (call it the recto), which listeners cannot help but filter out from its verso; this is emphasised by separating the two stereo tracks so that the one is always heard more clearly from one or another of the two speakers.

The record player is programmed to change direction in a careful sequence calculated to play the recto phrase exactly 840 times and then stop. The work was installed in the Calder space on the 30th May and switched on towards the end of the day – it played in the space, recto and verso, until approximately 7:45 on the 31st of May, switched off by the control chip after completing the right number of iterations.

The work was open as an installation all day May 31st. During the afternoon we scheduled a series of peripheral performances by students and staff of the Schools of Music and Fine art (see the list below). These were timed to coincide with the Hepworth’s “Art Walk” and late opening, bringing us another audience strand.
During the final 45 minutes of Vexations the recorded pianist was accompanied by Scott McLaughlin and Sam Belinfante on cello and Alex de Little on Trombone.

This project was financially supported by the University of Leeds and the Centre for Practice-Led Research in the Arts.

*Duchamp sent instructions from Argentina for his sister Suzanne and Jean Crotti to make his gift for their April marriage. To create Unhappy Ready-Made, the couple was told to hang a geometry text on their balcony so that wind could " go through the book [and] choose its own problems..."