HD Video, continuous projection (installed at Roski Gallery, LA, CA), 2011.
Vexations is a 180 note composition for the piano written by Erik Satie in 1893. A single page of music, it consists of a bass theme and two harmonic variations, without any mention of time signature or key. To this short and enigmatic composition Satie affixed the instructions:
"To play this motif 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities."
And, that it be played, "Very slowly."
Vexations has been variously interpreted as an assault on bourgeoisie sensibility, a time measuring device, a sonic object, an invocation of boredom, a spell to conjure the devil, a jab at Wagnerism, an antidote to a broken heart, an exercise to tune one's ear, a Zen mantra, an experiment to prove the impossibility of repetition, a joke.
Never published in his lifetime, the manuscript was found amongst a collection of notes in his apartment at the time of his death. It was first published in 1949 through the efforts of John Cage, who, in 1963, organized the first complete performance, which lasted 18 hours and 40 minutes. Since then the composition has been performed on numerous occasions by soloists and groups, with varying interpretations of the composition's written instructions and duration.
While audibly repetitive, the music is notated with as much variation as possible, the same notes written differently within a single line, provoking a performer to maintain intensive concentration, even while physically repeating the same movements. Like the defamiliarization that occurs when a word is repeatedly written or voiced, the notes of the composition are underscored as discreet units, devoid of inherent expression. The music becomes a ground without a figure, positing the performer and listener as its object.
The content of the video component of this installation was derived from a constant tracking shot of the floors and ceilings of the space in which it was exhibited. These constant tracking shots are continually interrrupted by footage from a pianist's recorded performance. The score was then used as an editing scheme to cut between these two bodies of footage. With the strike of each note the viewer's attention is interrupted and refocused, and the mechanics of the the piano become equalized with the viewing/listening space as instrument. To emphasize this conflation, the speakers, which played the soundtrack, were installed in close proximity to the air ducts in the ceiling thereby broadcasting the score throughout the building .