'Vexations' till dawn: Northern Spark 2014 to feature nine solid hours of Satie

Northrop Auditorium
Northrop Auditorium (Jeffrey Thompson/MPR)

For one night, all night, the sounds of French composer Erik Satie will take up residence at Northrop Auditorium.

The night in question is June 14 and the occasion is a marathon performance of Satie's posthumously published piece Vexations. The performance has been organized as one facet of the Northern Spark arts festival, which takes place the second Sunday of each June across the Twin Cities area. 2014 marks the festival's fourth year.

Vexations is a brief piece of piano music composed relatively early in Satie's career, and which remained undiscovered until after his death.

The single page of manuscript paper upon which Vexations was originally written bore a famously cryptic message: "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."

Because of this inscription, commonly interpreted as an instruction that the short, single-themed piece be played 840 times in a row, it has become traditional for Vexations to be performed repeatedly and over long time periods.

The piece's first major performance was at an 18-hour event organized by the composer John Cage in 1963. This performance featured several notable young musicians at the piano, including the composers David Tudor and Christian Wolff, and John Cale, who would later become viola player for the avant-rock group the Velvet Underground. Since then, marathon performances have become the mode de rigueur of presenting the enigmatic piece.

Though the Northern Spark Satie event is part of a long line of long performances of Satie's piece, the event's curators, Sandra Teitge and Amara Antilla, are putting their own multimedia spin on the 120-plus-year-old composition.

Northern Spark's all-night Vexations will feature nine pianists, each performing the brief piano piece for one hour straight. In addition, the event will include artworks from a variety of media, responding to the performance, spread throughout Northrop.

"We'll have a few sound works dispersed in the auditorium...that the audience will be able to listen to," Teitge said, "probably via their iPhones, because it'll be connected to the Northrop website." Among those will be sound works by the artists Charles Stankievech and Sophie Erlund.

The event will also include an international component, with the Best Buy Theatre on the auditorium's fourth floor playing host to live transmissions of simultaneous response events organized at project spaces in Berlin (NK Projekt) and Mumbai (Clark House Initiative).

The Berlin and Mumbai events will consist of experimental music meant to interact and respond to the Satie.

In addition to the live transmissions, the auditorium's fourth floor will feature other video responses to Vexations.

"There are many monitors spread out all over the building," Teitge said. "And we'll use three monitors also on the fourth floor and show video works of three artists that either deal with the musical aspect of the project, or the architecture of the Northrop auditorium."

One of the fourth-floor monitors will also feature disco lessons, partly as a nod to the auditorium's history as a space for dance.

Following the Vexations event, on June 15, Sophie Erlund will present a new sound installation at F.D.13, an arts space run by Vexations co-curator Sandra Teitge.

If you'd like to get in shape for the Minneapolis performance, here's a nine-hour video of Vexations.

Austin Gerth is a member of the class of 2016 at Concordia College. He also writes for Concordia's student blog, The COBBlog; and Concordia's student newspaper, The Concordian.

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