"Pop a cold one! You deserve it!!" Instead of a beery, congratulatory text like this one, tucked in after the closing chords of Peter Garland's breathtaking Songs of Exile and Wine, scores are supposed to contain notes, rests, clefs, and terse indications of whether to play slow, presto, or allegro con brio. So why do some composers pepper their music with sly, intimate, or abstruse messages?
A few seek to evoke what notation cannot capture, a precise mood or memory. Charles Mingus, in the first pages of his massive, multimovement Epitaph (1962–1979), scrawled exhortations such as "same as 1942 at Club Downbeat" for drummer Dannie Richmond and aimed "Duke's band remember?" at the prized Ellington trumpeter Clark Terry. Hoping to lure others into his vision of radical desolation, Luigi Nono inlaid passages by the poet Hölderlin for the performers to murmur (or think) to themselves during the eruptive passages and cataclysmic silences of the string quartet Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima (1980).
Occasionally, a composer demands explicit control of the musician's body. Near the beginning of Brian Ferneyhough's notorious Unity Capsule (1976), the flutist must "remove instrument from lip abruptly" and then "return instrument abruptly to playing position." Throughout his opera cycle Licht (1977–2003), Stockhausen prescribes specific, synchronized body movements for his soloists.
But who has equaled Erik Satie for impish mischief? Above four measures of his Vexations (1893), Satie's threadlike script advises, "In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities." No one heeded Satie's whimsical direction until John Cage organized a complete performance of Vexations in 1963; it took 18 hours and 40 minutes.
After an opening processional theme, Vexations ambles with a serene, inquisitive melody. Heard once, the music almost dares the pianist to improvise, but what happens when Vexations becomes an epic?
Find out this weekend (Sat–Sun May 15–16, Jack Straw Productions, 4261 Roosevelt Way NE, 634-0919, 4 pm, free but donations welcome, or listen live at www.hollowearthradio.org) when a tag team of classical, jazz, and avant pianists serve up an overnight, open-door Vexations. How will pianists differ on Satie's tempo of très lent (i.e., very slow) and pace his lovely, limpid melodies?
In Satie, you might find a kindred spirit; Cage did, declaring, "To be interested in Satie, one must be disinterested to begin with, accept that a sound is a sound and a man is a man, give up illusions about ideas of order, expressions of sentiment, and all the rest of our inherited aesthetic claptrap." I'm betting that Vexations is revolutionary ambient music that dissolves the boundary between listening (not just hearing) and living.