At 2pm on Saturday the 30th of May, German-Russian pianist Igor Levit seated himself in front of the Steinway in a Berlin studio and began to perform for an online audience. The concert finished at 5.30 the following Sunday morning. On the programme was a single piece: Erik Satie’s enigmatic curio, Vexations.
Dating from 1893, this composition – a single sheet of manuscript – bears the inscription, “Pourse 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” (to play this motif eight hundred and forty times in a row, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, in the deepest silence, through serious immobilities). Since the first known performance in 1963, which was organised by John Cage, these words have been interpreted as an instruction to play the four lines of music eight hundred and forty times, in a monumental feat of endurance for performer and listener alike.
Music of a repetitive nature and extreme duration seems particularly apt at present, even as we move to reanimate the suspended temporality of our post-Covid world. In recent months, I have found a strange comfort in listening to the late works of American composer Morton Feldman. Born in New York City in 1926, Feldman came of age in an environment of heady artistic experimentation, befriending John Cage in 1950, and working alongside the likes of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko throughout his career. His earlier compositions explored the reach of indeterminate music, but gradually he moved towards more precise methods of notation, and in the last decade of his life began writing very long, single movement pieces, often in excess of ninety minutes, sometimes (as in String Quartet II and For Phillip Guston) lasting several hours.
In contrast to his gregarious demeanour in person, Feldman’s pieces are almost always a model of restraint, presenting sounds as sourceless whispers, pregnant with barely disclosed meaning and emotion. While often described through metaphors of shifting landscapes, the terrain explored in Feldman’s music rarely extends beyond interior domains; after listening to one of his late masterpieces, I invariably feel that I have become better acquainted with the private processes of my own mind.
The question of repetition is central to understanding this music. Despite their extreme duration, these works are neither epic nor traditionally discursive. Rather, what sense of structure there is emerges from a procession of evolving fragments setting up a network of associations, through which the music develops a recursive relationship with its own past. And while these fragments may sound highly repetitive, often they are subtle variants of what has come before, in a technique that Feldman referred to as ‘crippled symmetry’. One may sense that the music is not quite the same, but be unable to place a finger on precisely how.
In his book Music and Memory, Bob Snyder notes that “every musical event either develops a connection with the previous event or separates itself from it to some degree”. In a work like For Bunito Marcus, Feldman’s penultimate solo piano piece, the lines are blurred between the continuity and segmentation of material. As the music unfolds, connections between hitherto discrete elements are revealed, amalgamating one set of fragments into another. This effect is bewildering, and when I reached the end of the piece for the first time, I could no longer remember how it had begun. The nexus between fragments achieves such a state of saturation as to completely subsume any sense of teleology.
These meditations on time and experience make a striking parallel with global society brought indefinitely to a halt. Speaking ahead of his Vexations marathon, Levit also drew attention to this parallel:
“At some point, you lose the perspective of time—like now. You lose the perspective of an end—like now. I think at some point I will lose the hope that this will ever end—like now. Maybe I won’t make it. It’s just about surviving. Like now.”
In fact, Levit did far more than simply survive his performance. Unlike the approach of most other renditions, he sought to narrativise Satie’s piece, varying tempo and gesture wildly between iterations. If Feldman’s music, intricately patterned and variegated as it is, negates any sense of direction, here was a pianist proving that it is possible to scramble up a vast, featureless wall, driven by will power alone.
As we stagger, blinking, into our new world, I think both musical lessons are necessary. Feldman can teach us how to mourn for everything we have lost, offering us a space in which past and present are the single face of a Möbius strip. And Satie, via the artistry of Igor Levit, can teach us to endure the challenges of the future. After this deep silence and these serious immobilities, perhaps we can write new stories of our own.