“Ethan and Eli are preparing an experience,” read posters taped around campus advertising an unusual musical performance. The simultaneously cryptic and straightforward messaging accurately represented the 20-hour piano performance of “Vexations” by Erik Satie, played by Eli Hiton ’23 and Ethan Bonnell ’23 on Nov. 14 from 5 a.m. until 1 a.m the next day.
Satie’s “Vexations” itself does not take 20 hours to play — it is a short, simple, yet eerie piece. Rather, Satie included a note that musicians have interpreted as a directive to repeat the piece ad nauseum: “If one is to play this theme 840 times in succession, it would be good to prepare beforehand, and in the greatest silence with serious stillness,” reads the translation included in the program.
Avant-garde musician John Cage popularized “Vexations” in 1963, when he organized a rotating group of pianists to play the piece 840 times in a row. A recent high-profile performance of the piece was characterized as a “silent scream” in response to the pandemic, but the original meaning behind the composer’s call to play the work 840 times is unknown.
Those interested in the performance could’ve watched Hiton and Bonnell’s collaborative effort in Brandi Recital Hall or on an online Twitch livestream, anytime from when their performance began until they finished the 840 repetitions. The atmosphere was casual — attendees came and left at their pleasure, and several brought homework or relaxed with a cup of tea.
Due to its simplicity, the piece apparently did not require much attention to perform. At times the performers looked bored, their minds elsewhere. They occasionally made off-handed remarks to the audience. “I expected to find myself getting more annoyed as the day went on, with no sense of release, but towards the end of the day, I found myself at peace,” Bonnell shared.
At a stressful time in the semester, the performers faced academic constraints that prevented them from preparing with the solemnity Satie suggested. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the preparation is an important part of performing the piece and wish I’d done better,” Bonnell said, referring to exams that preoccupied him. “But I think if we did it again we would do it worse.”
Bonnell and Hiton wrote in the program that they were not sure why they decided to undertake the exercise. Two days later, Bonnell had not come to a more definite conclusion. “Before, I would have said ‘I don’t know.’ Now I have a less satisfying answer. We chose to do it, and then we did it,” he said. “That’s all there is.”