Vex americana

Self-mutilating variations on a nationalist theme, for MIDI player piano

Vex americana is a mashup of contradictory musical and aesthetic concepts based two avant-garde keyboard compositions of the 1890s: Erik Satie's Vexations for piano, and Charles Ives's Variations on America for organ.

Like the Satie piece, which can last up to 24 hours in performance, Vex americana is a work of marathon duration, running 15 hours, 28 minutes, and 21 seconds; unlike the Satie, which requires 840 static repetitions of an enigmatic and notoriously difficult to memorize musical phrase, Vex americana comprises 240 variations on an utterly conventional earworm of a tune. That tune, a sabre-rattling march for piano titled America first , composed by Milwaukee dentist Dr. Uno Nyman in 1916, is akin to the jingoistic theme of the Ives variations, but is subject to a different method of musical permutation in which pitch, rhythm, and dynamics are modified by incremental and recursive changes, so that by the end of the work, the theme has been rendered nearly unrecognizable. The 240 variations represent the number of years between the estabishment of the American republic in 1776 and the end of our experiment in democracy in 2016 with the election of the country's first crypto-fascist president.

It has been reported that the experience of listening to Satie's Vexations over the course of a complete performance follows a psychological sequence: initial fascination, followed by agitation, then agony, and finally, profound tranquility. It is not known whether Satie intended his score, which was discovered among his papers after his death, as a joke or an earnest exercise, but whatever his motivation, John Cage ran with the work's arcane instructions (“Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparar au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses” [In order to play this motif 840 times, one would have to prepare oneself in advance, and in the utmost silence, through serious immobilities]), and organized the first public performance in 1963. Other performances have been staged since, to varying reaction: some listeners succumb to meditative reverie, others experience emotional disturbance. The cumulative effect of listening to Vex americana over the course of 15 hours has not yet been ascertained, but nirvana is definitely off the menu. Let me know how it goes for you.

AUDIO EXCERPTS:

Theme

Variation 50 (at 2 hours, 38 minutes, 30 seconds)

Variation 100 (at 5 hours, 37 minutes, 15 seconds)

Variation 150 (at 8 hours, 54 minutes, 51 seconds)

Variation 200 (at 12 hours, 28 minutes, 13 seconds)

Variation 240 (at 15 hours, 23 minutes, 44 seconds)

COMPLETE PERFORMANCE (MIDI FILES):

Theme and variations 1-50

Variations 51-100

Variations 101-150

Variations 151-200

Variations 201-240