Tatyana Apraksina (trans. James Manteith)

24 Hours of “Vexations”

Published in: 03. Fulcrum

I made the acquaintance of American composer Richard Cameron-Wolfe just after my arrival in New York.  He proposed I deliver a lecture for the music department of the State University of New York, where at the time he himself held a post as a professor of music and dance.  I had absolutely no idea what his compositions were like, or what he was like himself.  During our meeting, he seemed charming, well-disposed, direct; an interesting person to talk with.

After the lecture, Richard drove me back in his little Honda.  Thanks to ceaseless traffic jams, the trip turned out none too short, and I had opportunity to bring a kind of definition to my companion’s portrait and add to it with details not wanting in artistic expressiveness.

Incidentally, Richard managed to relate to me more than one gripping episode from his biography.  Hitchhiking around Germany with a student friend, nights spent in villages, haystacks—in the early morning, the singing of a male choir behind a monastery wall.  Trips with his young ballerina wife to empty beaches, with time passed in musical-choreographic improvisation among the rocks, to the sound of the surf.  And, with a heavy sigh:  The departments for performance have been left completely without students, each course has in all two or three, they all want to be composers or at least conductors.  What’s to be said!  The professor didn’t hide being drawn to the most ancient sources of culture, to the wisdom and self-containedness of civilizations that have preserved their purity.  In the list of titles of his compositions, works with a shade of the exotic draw attention to themselves:  “mantra,” “samurai,” Maya…

What has stayed in my memory most of all, however, is a story Richard told along the road from the university, of how he conducted a unique experiment, performing an opus by Eric Satie by the name of “Vexations” (I don’t know the accepted rendering in a Russian variant—whether as “Exhaustions” or “Irritations”) and for the first time in history to realize it in exact accordance with the composer’s instructions—that is, in its full scope.  The thing is, Richard began his musical education as a pianist, and thereafter never stopped performing.  As for “Vexations” (or “Irritations”), their author, with his penchant for charades, prescribed that the performer repeat the basic musical progression without pause over the course of 24 hours.  Pianists usually limit themselves to several repetitions, after which they leave it to listeners to fill in the remainder, aided by the imagination.  That didn’t satisfy Richard.  He wanted to know how it would play out in reality.  And he tested it himself.


He started with prolonged training.  The matter was serious—not taking the hands off the keys for a whole 24 hours!  He pondered the impending trial with the utmost care.  He had to take the most trivial details into account.  Having properly strengthened his fingers with daily exercises, two days before the appointed date he began to fast, and then, a day beforehand, ceased to accept any drink.  On the eve of the performance, he stayed in bed, trying to get a proper night’s sleep.

Early in the morning, his wife drove him to the spot, then the experiment began.  As for listeners, all was arranged very simply.  The performance took place in a hall in an art museum; paintings hung along the walls and opposite the window stood a grand piano.  It was Sunday, a day of free admission at museums.  Understandably, Americans feel compelled to try not to miss a single chance to get something for free, so on Sundays one can observe an unbelievably active flood of the public to similar establishments.

In the morning, the staff opened the museum and the first visitors began to stroll its halls, savoring the sounds of the piano.  Some stayed for a time to listen, while others passed by.  People exchanged places all day.  Certain ones returned several times to learn how things were going, sympathize or express their approval.  Sometimes a whole group of people accumulated around the piano, while at times the hall stood totally empty.  Several times throughout the day, Richard’s wife changed her clothes, emerged in the hall and danced a long time, then went to rest.  As for him, he could allow himself at most to stand up a while without ceasing to play, or by turns to free one hand or the other.  So it went until evening.  Finally, the last visitors left the museum and all the doors were carefully shut.  Still, the windows stayed wide open.

It should be mentioned this museum is situated in a garden, and towards evening the strolling Sunday public began assembling there.  Out the window, Richard could see the foliage of trees and hear conversations and laughter.  Sometimes greetings and bursts of applause reached him from below.  Gradually, it grew dark.  Illumination flickered on in the garden and the atmosphere changed.  The wife lay down beside the piano and went to sleep.  Near morning, the Sunday noise died down and only the singing of birds came through the window.  The circle of admirers of the creative work of Satie thinned out and the music provided further pleasure only for the trees in the garden and the paintings in the museum, until the start of a new day was announced by the voices of a maintenance team setting to work on tidying the garden.


I don’t remember what Richard told me about the consequences of his heroism—I only remember he talked of it a lot and in detail.  Probably he wasn’t able to stand up (or sit down) for a week, probably he couldn’t even twitch his fingers—it doesn’t matter.  What matters is something else.  It matters that he didn’t cut any corners for himself, although nothing obliged him to maintain such conscientiousness.  He himself set the goal, he himself met it.  And he did this not to do Satie’s creation an unprecedented honor or test his endurance, but for his own experience, his own test, in its purest form, of an experiment alluded to in a whim of the French composer, to guide himself through it step by step.  What an absolute relation is applied to, acquires absolute meaning.

I cannot judge whether the “Vexations” of Eric Satie are in and of themselves capable of effecting a revolution in the soul, but as for Richard Cameron-Wolfe not being the same after the experiment was through, there can be no doubt.

Speak Your Mind