Wednesday, 13 July 2016

#48 John Dawson: Professional piano accompanist

Programme Note from John Dawson's Bedford Festival Vexations performance
... what I discovered was that I was not bored at any time during the 19 hours of playing. It was absolutely fascinating all the time ...

“Although there’s a certain constituency of people interested in Satie’s Vexations, most people you talk to about this piece think it’s mad! I’ve been lecturing on 20th Century music to residents of Bedford Retirement Education Centre and when I told them about the Satie work I was met with very puzzled faces. They asked me why on earth anyone would want to play the same short piece of music 840 times in one sitting lasting 19 hours …

In fact I’ve performed Vexations twice. I had been interested for a while but it’s almost impossible to find a concert venue interested in staying open all night. The opportunity arose when I was a lecturer at London College of Dance and Drama and I discovered that the students were going to have a 24 hour sit-in, meaning the building would have to stay open round the clock. This was exactly at the same time as reports coming in about the Ethiopian famine that prompted Bob Geldof to organise Live Aid. So I played Vexations through the night and raised a few hundred pounds for Live Aid. But I played so fast it only lasted 12 hours instead of 19, and even worse, I found out several years later by examining the five bar charts recording the number of repeats that my support team had made a mistake and I probably only played the piece 836 times instead of 840 …. but as I ended up marrying one of the people who had been counting I forgave her! We’re still married after 30 years so something must have gone right.

That was a fairly informal performance in a small music room with people wandering in and out, including a very confused caretaker. There were people there who were so culturally divorced from what we were doing that there was no point in trying to explain ..! 

That was almost a dry run for the real thing because ten years later I was invited to perform for the Bedford Music Festival. I couldn’t find a suitable piano on which to perform a traditional classical recital. When I found out that the venue was prepared to stay open all night I decided to do Vexations again. This was in 1997 and being before the days of the Internet, we couldn’t find any evidence that the piece had been performed anywhere in the world by one person. We invited the Guinness Book of Records but they weren’t interested, they missed the point because the actual piece to be repeated is very short. Of course nowadays, ten minutes on the Internet will show you that Richard Toop performed it in 1967, but in the late 1990s it was much harder to research things like this. There were one or two accounts of people who’d tried and failed.  For example there was an Australian pianist who abandoned the performance after 593 repetitions saying the music was “evil” - I suspect that had more to do with his own demons rather than anything intrinsic in the music. But so few people were attempting the work, it really was an underground activity. 

I thought it would be good to put on a straightforward concert of it, so that’s what we did. Everything this time was designed so I could concentrate solely on the music. I had a manager and counters were in place to keep count in relays. I was as military as I could be to make sure that everything would go right so that once I sat down I would concentrate solely on the music. I didn’t make any serious mistakes (and my planning was good so I didn’t have to stop for a toilet break at any time). 

I’ve always been patient and I was very curious to see if I could actually do it.  There is an egotistical element in every performer, but I was also really interested in seeing what effect a performance of this type would have on me. And what I discovered was that I was not bored at any time during the 19 hours of playing. It was absolutely fascinating all the time. For the first dozen repetitions I just bedding in; it’s such an awkward, difficult piece to play that I was scared of making mistakes. So I was making sure I was playing the right notes, that my body posture was comfortable, I was concentrating as if I was in a Grade exam. After around an hour I started to move into another state. I supposed it’s similar to being carried away by a Mozart slow movement for example; you do go ‘somewhere else’ but it’s a strange paradox: you think you’re being carried away but in reality you cannot let go because if you did, your technique would vanish. For much of the time I felt a sense of timelessness. I had an awareness that I was producing a monotonous hum, but even though I wasn’t thinking of other things, my mind was somewhere else. This took place in a big old church in Bedford called St Pauls, with its cavernous space and big stained glass windows, a magical atmosphere, especially in the middle of the night. The audience numbers fluctuated during the performance but I did notice that a handful people sat there for several hours. 

Now, I’m sure Satie meant this as a joke, he couldn’t possibly have intended anyone to play this 840 times. If you look at the score there are inconsistencies that don’t make sense. He tells you to 'present' the bass theme at the sign, but the sign occurs twice, at the beginning and at the end, so what does that mean? I think it’s supposed to be a paradox, un-performable, and he’d probably be laughing at people who try to perform it. But, like any joke, you can call his bluff and see what happens. It’s had an effect far beyond the quixotic joke that he possibly had in mind. 

And as a piece, there’s something about the sheer pointlessness and aimlessness of the chords. They are all diminished triads, or augmented triads; all very carefully calculated to give a sense of senselessness. There isn’t really a beginning or an end. Ironically, it is peculiarly suited to a piece that you play 840 times. You may think any piece would do, but this is just about the best piece that you could choose to play 840 times - so in that sense it is a successful composition, it’s the change that the repetition brings about in the listener’s mind that’s interesting.

The audience experiences were vastly different. Some people were puzzled. One of my friends - a Hindu - sat entranced for well over an hour in the middle of the night and later told me that he had found the whole experience incredibly powerful and relaxing almost like religious meditation.

I do feel that this music has the power to transform the listener. The closest music I know to Vexations is Plainsong that you find in a monastery; monotonous but not boring – and capable of producing a truly transformative experience in the listener who engages with it on their own terms.” (John Dawson was talking with Markson Pianos Composer in Residence Lola Perrin)


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