At noon Saturday at the Goat Farm Arts Center, Atlanta’s Chamber Cartel will begin a marathon performance of one of music’s most notable curiosities, “Vexations” by French composer Erik Satie. If there is one composer who could be summed up by the expression “quaintly eccentric,” it would be Satie, who was a colorful participant in the avant-garde movement of early-20th-century Paris.
The score of “Vexations” was found in Satie’s apartment after his death, among a host of other compositions that were previously unknown or long thought to have been lost. It is generally assumed to have been written in the early 1890s. The entire score is printed on one page, in three parts: a theme and two variations. But at the top the page is inscribed “NOTE DE L’AUTEUR: Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses,” which translates as “AUTHOR’S NOTE: To play 840 times on this theme, it will be good to prepare in advance, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobility.” If the theme and both variations are played through “tres lent” (“very slowly”) some 840 times, with the theme presented before each variation, it comes out to about 24 hours of music. But is anyone counting?
“A certain number of times? No. It doesn’t actually specify anything on the part,” says percussionist Caleb Herron, Chamber Cartel’s artistic director, although that assessment seems entirely subject to how one interprets Satie’s note. “This performance will be 24 hours, a specified time rather than number of repetitions.” Often in performances the repetitions are indeed counted so as to conclude with the 840th iteration, but to Herron, it’s simply the relative magnitude of repetitions that’s important.
“I’d always thought it would be really something awesome to be a part of a superlong marathon performance,” he says. “It came about really organically. It fit into our ‘where are we going, what are we doing?’ tag line for the season. This is kind of both, in mystical ways, but definitely ‘what are we doing?’ Playing a piece for 24 hours is something I find very satisfying.”
Performing a single composition of such expansive duration is actually an extension of the identity that Chamber Cartel established for itself from the outset as one of Atlanta’s “new edge” musical ensembles, where duration is often part of the challenge for musicians and audiences. The group made its debut at the beginning of last year performing Morton Feldman’s 90-minute trio “Crippled Symmetry,” and it has explored extended works since then, but never before has the Cartel attempted a work that lasts 24 hours.
“Vexations” is assumed to have been written for solo piano, whether played by one pianist or, as in the work’s premiere by John Cage and his colleagues, by a tag-team succession of pianists. As he does in ignoring a specific number of repetitions, Herron had other ideas.
“It doesn’t actually specify anything on the part, it just has these lines of music that are quite vexing if you look at them,” he says, pointing to the composer’s deliberately impractical enharmonic notation. “We’re actually taking a sort of new twist on it, arranging it for different instruments so it’s not just going to be piano. It’s also being played on vibraphone, cello and piano, saxophones — so we’re mixing around with the timbres, experimenting with that aspect of it.”
Exactly how it will all come out is up in the air — a complete run-through rehearsal is entirely out of the question. Herron did coordinate performers into broad time slots, so that fans can know when their friends are playing and go at that time. The plan is for the audience to be set up in the middle of the Goat Farm’s Goodson Yard, seated on various kinds of living room furniture, with musicians in different stations around it. Comfortable seating will be a nice amenity for those who intend to stay for the long haul.