Written by: Amy Austin '21
Vexation is defined as “the state of being annoyed, frustrated or worried.” It is also the title of the piece Graceland University Assistant Professor of Music Chee Weng Yim, DMA, played for 28 hours straight, without breaks, beginning this past Monday.
Though the piece is only one page long, it is deemed impossible due to the instructions at the top of the page, suggesting you play it 840 times through. Yim took on this challenge and played for all of Graceland to come and listen in the lobby of Shaw Center on the Lamoni campus.
Although one might ask why he would submit to all the psychological and physical tolls this kind of endeavor would cause, Yim reasoned that, “Musical experience is more than a linear experience: start, create expectation or tension, resolution. It can also be a static experience, or we can experience music as a series of individual timepoints or multiple simultaneously streaming times. We are all so busy with being busy. This performance allowed us to take a moment to stop everything and simply listen and experience. It also allows us to have personal private experiences of a singular common occurrence. It is at the same time for anybody, everybody and nobody.”
The piece was originally written by French composer Erik Satie in 1893. It was never performed to its full recommendation of 840 times until John Cage undertook the challenge in 1963, and it took him just over 14 hours. It has not been discovered why Satie wrote the piece or why he suggests so many repetitions, but Cage intended the performance, which would later inspire many other musicians to undertake the challenge as well, as “an experiment in Zen enlightenment and an affront to conventional musical values,” explained by the New Yorker in an article about the history of the piece.
Vexation can be stretched out for as long as the musician decides as they interpret the tempo Satie includes: very slowly. This can create a range of performances lasting from 14 to 28 hours.
Yim’s performance required a lot to prepare the body for what was to come, and the piece itself requires a lot of concentration from the performer because of the “eccentric notation,” as Yim describes it, “which disrupts the musician's reading abilities.” To prepare, Yim held smaller sessions, beginning with 30 minutes, to begin to understand what might happen during such a long and repetitive performance. Although, he admits those situations couldn’t in any way fully prepare him for what was to come.
“There's just this continuous unending experience. It is amazing that it felt like the music set up a barrier that exiled worldly experiences,” Yim shared.
Once extreme fatigue set in, Yim says he suffered minor hallucinations. “I could not recognize my fingers. I was not sure if I was reading the music right, even though the sounds were right. By the time it was Tuesday morning, I could not feel my lower body. I could not feel my arms and fingers, and my vision was blurry, but the music still kept on.”
Throughout those long hours, many Graceland students, faculty and staff were present to support Dr. Yim and were given the opportunity to experience the repetitive melody, of which each repetition lasted just two minutes; and then it began again, unendingly.
“Some stayed for five minutes, and others stayed for up to eight hours. A few students listened until 3:30 a.m. Tuesday morning and came back in the afternoon the next day,” Yim recalled.
Through the willingness and support of Gracelanders, Yim was able to perform this piece to an audience eager to learn. “The support and enthusiasm that I received from colleagues and students is very heartwarming. This fit right in with the principle that performing arts is an act, product and reflection of humanity.”