Your feet are one inch off the ground

Stephen WHITTINGTON,

Discussion in a sound landscape

20 mars 2010, during the performance of Vexations, he did start

He wrote an article[1] sixteen years ago, but since then, he evolved and modified his understanding of Les Vexations.

This piece is religious in a way, it looks like a labyrinth. The labyrinth, as in cathédrale de Chartres, was a physical path designed on the floor which symbolized the spiritual path leading to God: as you follow one the other is happening. Les Vexations permits one to have a direction to find, and following your own path. It is like an inner struggle, but struggles are moments of the spiritual quest. The repetitions help to just keep doing it, they are the pavements of the spiritual path and helps to try to find the spiritual achievement. Repetitions are always in the nature of spiritual achievement, like mantra.

It’s in the initial idea of les Vexations to keep in repeating and so entertaining. (looking and hearing the young students trying to play this piece)

The students are practicing but they keep on making mistakes. They are young people on this spiritual path, they are trying and trying, and I accept that. It’s the beginning of something, and they are struggling, because it is more much difficult than they could realize.

I could feel this morning that some of the students were playing quite well and when they realized that they were on stage, they just crashed down.

Yes the mentality of the performer is important, it is (hesitation) egocentric[2], which means very much involved in their soul. The students have the fear of somebody judging them, and the fear of making mistakes. But as soon as those things take hold in you, you will certainly make mistakes. As soon as you feel watched, and somebody is about to judge you…

This kind of performance is not about you: you are a person and something comes through you, it’s not about you it’s about something else; it’s about the spiritual state. You are just the thing for passing in this time. The question would be play, try to…

Vexations are also about failures, displacement, I don’t mean mistakes: but because it’s human it’s always different…

Failure is part of that, because on the spiritual path you live many failures. It’s not only constant success and improvement – you will fail. It is inevitable. That’s why the Zen master waits for you in a corner to strike you.

Satie wanted to go against knowledge, Vexations go from zero, at the beginning you have to be like new, but at each vexation you start again.

It’s what John Cage said: most people count 0 – 1 – 2 – 3, but Satie was counting 0 – 3 – 27 – 0, he always counts back from 0. 0 is always the start; it’s like the emptiness of your self. And again I feel the repetitions break down the psychological barriers. The repetition seems to brainwash people or to change peoples’ thinking.

It’s like Satie didn’t want to sharper the intelligence but to make you feel lost.

Yes, that’s true. But there is a logic in this music too, an unusual logic, but very personal to Satie I think. In this period of his life especially, he was working on very complex systems to make music, and this piece does mean that, it is very surprising.

Sixteen years ago, when I wrote the paper[3] I didn’t appreciate the extent of the thinking, the thought which is in it: it’s not creative by chance, it’s not improvised, it is creative with a system, intricate and concrete musical system. I think I didn’t fully understand, but I think I have much better idea of it now.

Because he had too much imagination, fantasy, so if you gives you rules, your own rules to follow, it makes you have a more productive imagination in this frame. It’s like the French group of poets Oulipo, they were using this method.

Yes, exactly. And also I like the sculptor who wants to sculpt wood, and says that it’s because he feels the resistance of the medium that he can create; if there were no resistance he couldn’t sculpt. There is a kind of restriction imposed by the medium which is quite true.

It happens many times in music, with some kind of restriction in order to be liberated, this is not unique to Satie. It’s happening also with JS Bach. When you write a canon (canon means rule), you create the rule for yourself you then have to follow, it’s called a canon – it’s going back to Middle Ages. It’s very closely connected with the spiritual world of the Middle Ages. You create the rule, and then you follow it, you can’t break it. It’s imposing a discipline on yourself, but when there is the discipline you free yourself, you are forced to find solutions. I think that’s one of many the reason why Satie went back to study in Contrepoint, he studied fugue. Bach was also great composer of fugue.

And playing the Vexations is like giving you a rule also?

There is a rule in the Vexations, because the way the harmonization, the way harmony works is based on four phrases as a rule. And the two different harmonies follow rules related to one another in the way the upper voices are exchanged… So Satie wrote rules for the Vexations, rules he must follow.

Why, since the first representation, is it so much played? It’s like it’s becoming a fashionable thing to play.

I think that’s true!

Maybe you can feel there is something important about this oeuvre and you must play or listen it to find what it is.

He also intended to criticize Wagnerism and its idea of heroism. He is breaking down heroism; it is more about internality than externality Wagner could show.

It is also politics, Wagner was German, and considered as a representation of German… and it was the war between the two countries.

Today it would have pleased to John Cage, so many sounds coming in here, Vexations is like a constant ground. And when I was playing with all the drums[4] it was very noisy!

Yes it was a mix between internality and externality. A weird confrontation but it was working quite well.

But I just had to accept it.

No choice!

You have a choice – you can get up and stop!

You speak more about Satie than Cage. Could you tell me why?

It’s becoming more a performance, which is so associated with Cage. But I am more interested in what Satie represented, his way of thinking. The thing that John Cage recognized in Vexations is very important, he recognized there is something hidden which was very serious. But Cage himself at first sight thought that it was a joke, that it was insane, and again he looked at it and found there is something in it, very unusual. It needed somebody like John Cage to see that…

But it took fifteen years to him to find the reason why to play.

Yes, to read, to look, and learn, and recognize the seriousness in it, and understanding that performing was worth it. It’s very interesting to me that it’s John Cage and not a French composer who discovered it.

Since I’m working on, it’s more the Anglo-Saxon who are interested by Satie and go deeper in the analyze of his work, not only as the friend of Alphonse Allais, Cocteau or the influence of Debussy…

I think for a long time French didn’t take Satie very seriously. French music went in another direction; it’s very intellectual in a certain way. Maybe that intellectual quality made it difficult for some French musicians to see the quality in Satie, or other reasons… Olivier Messiaen, didn’t play Satie at all, although he was very spiritual in his own way, very religious. For Boulez, it was not intellectual.

What lack in Satie is the appearance of seriousness because it’s short, strange…

Cage said that he had prepared every detail for the performance, except one thing that it will change his life. Do you think that performing the Vexations has changed anything for you?

It would be very prétentieux[5] to answer! like “yes of course it changed all my life” !

It reminds me the story of John Cage talking to a Zen Buddhist, it might be Suzuki but I’m not sure: Cage asks “What happens after enlightment? How does this table look like to you? ” “Before enlightment this table is just a table. After enlightment this table is still a table, except your feet are one inch off the ground”.

Trying to explain meditative experience to someone who as not gone through that, it’s like Dick Higgins, after the first performance said you can’t compare it to another experience, the idea of sitting, listening to a phrase 840 times is completely different from actually doing it. You may imagine what it is like but imagination doesn’t have any connection to what it’s actually like. You try to imagine but you can’t know what this experience is. You can understand what this experience is maybe that’s like to count rice but they can’t experience it. The imagination is no substitute for that. The other can’t know this meditative experience.


[1] Serious Immobilities: On the centenary of Erik Satie’s Vexations. http://www.af.lu.se/~fogwall/article3.html
[2] In french.
[3] http://www.af.lu.se/~fogwall/article3.html
[4] Nb : The city carnival started its path from the outside of the mall were Vexations were performed.
[5] In french.
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