Vexedly Varying

I mentioned awhile back Art Jarvinen‘s 24-hour piano piece. I said he was producing a one-CD excerpt of it, and he has, on Los Angeles River Records, and he sent it to me. The piece is called Serious Immobilities, which, if you’re new-music literate, should bring a ready reference to mind: Erik Satie. “To play this motif for oneself 840 times in a row,” Satie write in somewhat ambiguous French on a little scrap of music found after his death with the title Vexations, “it will be good to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the greatest silence, through serious immobilities.” John Cage took that odd sentence as a performance instruction, and, on September 10, 1963, presented a complete performance of Vexations lasting approximately an entire day. Since then, there have been many such performances, usually with a team of pianists taking shifts; I’ve been involved in three myself, in Austin, Chicago, and New York. For its audacious protominimalism, Vexations has become a real touchstone for new-music buffs. Among other composers, William Duckworth quotes it in his Time Curve Preludes.

What Jarvinen’s done, and which only he would be crazy and dedicated enough to do, is write a theme and variations on Vexations. That’s right – he wrote 840 variations on Satie’s little four-line scrap of music, of which 81 are offered on this disc. The variations maintain the same general slow tempo and harmonic ambiguity as Satie’s original, but listening to them is different in interesting ways. Mainly, the piece is unpredictable in detail – you know generally what harmonies are coming, but the music switches at times to triple meter, notes you’re used to in the bass come back in the treble, harmonies get offset so that part of each chord gets combined with the next. One variation is all in trills, sounding as though there’s a touch of Beethoven’s Op. 111 thrown in, and in another, the tune from Satie’s popular Gymnopedie No. 1 comes creeping over the murk of Vexations‘ tritones. And yet, for all this added interest, there’s still the endless ambiguity of the original, never resolving, always coming back to the same semi-dissonant harmonies. Bryan Pezzone is the patient pianist, and does a devoutly sustained job.

Jarvinen is a trickster whom Satie would have undoubtedly found amusing. A couple of years back he produced his own fairly obscene Beatles parody CD on Lakefire Records, called Sgt. Pekker. That disc has songs like “We All Ride in My Yellow Limousine,” “Man, My Guitar Playing Really Reeks,” and “I Never Make Any Money”:

I never make any money

And I seldom get laid

Well, I can live without cunny, honey,

But I need to get paid

Yes, I need to get paid

For all that, Jarvinen is a wildly inventive postclassical composer as well, and Serious Immobilities transcends its anecdotal interest.

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