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Erik Satie, "42 Vexations (1893)"

cover imageWithout doubt, this is the best rendition of Erik Satie’s marathon piano piece to surface. Performed last year in Brussels by Stephane Ginsburgh on Satie’s own piano, this is beautifully recorded extract from the mammoth work is breathtaking. Listening to this in the still of the night is anything but vexating. The calm, contemplative music brings about feelings of bliss and by the end of the recording it is difficult to be annoyed about anything.

 

Sub Rosa

Satie’s Vexations was overlooked for many years as a joke; one musical motif played 840 times with no variation. It was only in 1963, 70 years after it was written, that John Cage organised an 18 hour 40 minute rendition of the piece. The seeming impossibility of any one man performing the whole piece was solved by having 11 pianists take it in turns to play a number of repetitions each. This recording of Vexations, as the title suggests, sees Ginsburgh perform 42 variations of the piece. His performance is clear and deliberate, obviously taking into account Satie’s sole direction as to how to play the piece: “In order to play this motif 840 times consecutively to oneself, it will be useful to prepare oneself beforehand, and in utter silence, by grave immobilities.” This could be directed at the listener too; in order to hear the piece as intended, the CD needs to be repeated 20 times (not 12 as indicated in the sleeve notes) which is over 23 hours of intense repetition (I have not tried this yet...).

Compared to Alan Marks’ recording of Vexations, this recording is superior in terms of sound quality and in performance. Ginsburgh seems less hurried and lets each note sing out with all its splendour. As I stated in my review of Marks’ performance, it is difficult to expect what will come next within each repetition of the motif as Satie made Vexations into quite a complex and unpredictable piece of music, an amazing feat considering the huge amounts of repetition required.

Also included with the CD is a comprehensive essay by Matthew Shlomowitz on the relationship between the works of Satie and those of Cage, detailing how without Cage’s interest in the piece it would have remained unknown and unappreciated. As it is an extract from a larger thesis, it is quite academic in tone but it is still a fascinating read to the layman. Overall, this is the definitive production of Satie’s Vexations until someone actually puts out the whole thing in one recording.

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Review of the Day

DEVENDRA BANHART, "REJOICING IN THE HANDS"
Young God
He possesses the unkempt street-hustler looks of Vincent Gallo, the psychotic vulnerability of Syd Barrett, the spooked lonesomeness of Skip Spence, the instrumental dexterity of Robin Williamson, the naïve sincerity of Tiny Tim, and a voice that sounds like a cross between Marc Bolan's early T. Rex warble and the evocative wail of Karen Dalton. After his superlative debut Oh Me Oh My..., many were quick to heap praise on Devendra Banhart, hailing the 23-year old singer-songwriter as a peerlessly original voice. With such obvious musical precedents for Banhart's intimate, acoustic songcraft, this adulation seems a bit overstated. Despite what has been said, Devendra Banhart hasn't reinvented the wheel. He has, however, used his considerable lyrical and melodic gifts to create a handful of idiosyncratic recordings that speak volumes for his songwriting talent. Oh Me Oh My... was immediately distinctive not only because of Banhart's quavering vocal delivery and incredible fingerstyle, but also because of its willfully low-budget recording aesthetic; the songs were self-recorded live-to-tape on sub-par cassette recorders, Dictaphones and answering machines. Two years on, Devendra Banhart has achieved a modicum of success, championed by Michael Gira, with a home on his Young God label. Although Banhart and Gira could easily have opted for an artificially studied recreation of the low-fidelity distortion and tape hiss of the demo reel, the right choice was made on Rejoicing in the Hands to present the performer in a simple, clean studio recording. The tracks on this new album sound every bit as live and spontaneous as the Oh Me Oh My... sessions, but the technical advantages of the studio recording highlight every velvety pluck of the guitar strings and every nuanced vibration of Devendra's labored vocals. Because these songs are refreshingly free of extraneous debris and contain only minimal, unobtrusive backing, Rejoicing is a marvelous showcase for Banhart's songs and performances. Each track is a miniature masterpiece; few exceed the three-minute mark, but each has the immediacy and resonance of déjà vu, as if Banhart was pulling from some vast collective-subconscious archive of archetypal sing-along folk melodies. His lyrical themes are fascinating as always, strange re-combinations of dime-store mysticism, humorous reverie and the odd fanciful passage of surreal wordplay. On the title track, he is joined by the legendary Vashti Bunyan, the elusive songstress who recorded the acid-folk classic Just Another Diamond Day and promptly disappeared from view. Their lovely duet is an affectionate homage to the placid simplicity of the 60's British folk revival. - 

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