In 1991, the then chairperson of the student Music Society at the Conservatory, Mr Jaco van der Merwe, organised a week-long music festival celebrating the work of the eccentric French composer, Erik Satie. The festival culminated in an 18-hour-long performance on the Friday night of the composer’s Vexations. As far as could be determined, it was the first performance of this very strange piano work in South Africa.
One of the students who participated in that marathon performance 25 years ago, was Elize Kruger (née Stander). She is now the Head of Music at Jeppe High School for Girls and arranged a performance of Vexations at the end of the second term in celebration of Satie’s 150th birthday. This is her account of the night-long performance:
VEXATIONS was opened with eight people in the hall, a rather uneventful start for such a momentous task ahead of us! By 19:11, the audience had grown to thirteen people, with Angie and Lesego retiring to the comfort of the so-well-known Room 105. Some people read, some crocheted, and others listened with ‘what seemed to be attentive interest’. Newcomers wandered around, reading the information which was posted on the walls, getting themselves informed regarding the bizarre event which they found themselves attending. Only one Grade 8 music student was present at the start of this madness and she must be commended for staying for more than an hour! By 20:00, the audience had dwindled to a measly three people. Besides the headmistress, the audience now consisted of performers only and I suspected that this would be the case for the rest of the night. After the second hour of playing, the projection of 21½ hours seemed realistic, only another 19½ to go!!
It is now 23:13 and to my delight, Miss Venter, my companion for the night, has arrived. The chances of me staying awake until the sun rises over Jeppe Girls have just increased tremendously. Moratiwa has just played the 300th repetition around 01:00 and I have to stop myself from applauding!
Almost 02:15 and I seriously start feeling vexed — according to the Vexations veterans, one has to go through this phase of the process prior to entering a state of deep tranquillity — hard to believe at this hour when all you can think of is your bed, and, when will this music stop!!??
It is 03:05 in the morning and the corridors of Jeppe are colder than ever. Room 105 has never been this quiet while students are present within! Everyone is feeling it: Vexed by Vexations! The question that so many people have asked me in the last few weeks comes to mind: “Why are you doing this?” I thought I had the answer to this question: “Because we can, because it is fun, because there is no danger in this unusual act — it’s not the same as jumping from an airplane and hoping that your parachute will open; THAT is the kind of behaviour that I question … but now I’m starting to think, “Why are we doing this?” I am not convinced that my previous answers suffice. Everyone will take something with them from the Vexations-experience: maybe you will appreciate your soft bed tomorrow night; maybe you will never complain again that it’s too hot; maybe you will value the beauty of silence. In spite of all the maybe’s, one thing is for certain: it is an experience that none of us will ever forget.
With hopeless thoughts fixated on the seemingly never-ending cycle of resonating atonal ‘noise’, the all encompassing state of agony was finally beginning to dissolve into a distant memory. This could be attributed to when Angie finally played the 420th repeat! HALFWAY! This highlight occurred in the early hours of the morning, with myself, Miss Venter and Ms Goncalves present in the hall to appreciate this milestone, reached after 10 hours and 20 minutes. We pressed on through the night despite last minute changes to the roster due to sleeping children who refused to wake up! It would be impossible to continue till sunrise — let alone for another 10 hours — if these ‘sleeping beauties’ remained in their unconscious state. It was time for action: lights were switched on, windows were opened, bribes were offered — of course, all of this was carried out with the appropriate ‘teacher-tone’.
So here is the lesson I have learnt up to now (from Vexations of course): If a task or a situation gets unbearable, hang in there, don’t fight it, just keep going and at some point, you will emerge on the other side — in one piece. I can see the light at the end of the Vex-tunnel. A mentally exhausted Miss Venter started the 500th repetition with a tad of protest in her tone, a fusion of agitation and frustration, accompanied by sheer bewilderment at the absurdity of it all!
It seemed as if every disconcerting moment was followed by an encouraging one. A breathtaking sunrise brought revitalised energy and reminded how far we had already come. 840 seemed much closer than it did at sunset the previous day.
By now, the school cat had taken full possession of our blanket and the tired ‘night-team’ completed the last of their sessions. After a quick breakfast, the decision was made that at this point, sleeping was futile. We found ourselves back at school within the hour. The ‘day-team’ was playing Vexations as if the performance had only just begun.
Surprisingly, the 700th repetition, played by Kayley Reveley, came and went without much fuss; however, certainly not unnoticed. By now, the remaining night owls had had only one target in mind: to see the magic number 840 reflected on that iPad, resisting the temptation to start rushing, thus sacrificing the ONLY performance indication given by Satie: Trés Lent. Playing continued uninterruptedly for the next hour and not a soul showed any signs of excitement when our goal dropped to below 100 repetitions — it was ‘tea-time’ in the world out there, but it felt as if we were on a different planet! All we wanted was FINÉ, END, HOME TIME! And of course, for some of us, after being awake for more than 30 hours, sleep now became a necessity!
A steady flow of audience, strong coffee, and playing every and any board game available, ensured a reasonable state of consciousness. The way in which energy-reserves were revived as the counter ticked 799, 800, 801 was quite remarkable. It was decided that the last thirty-six repetitions would be played by the three remaining music teachers: Conradie, Venter and Kruger.
At the end of Jeppe’s performance of Vexations, the stopwatch read 19:57:52,72 and the silence was truly golden! Savannah, Nontsiki, Angie, Lesego, Ms Goncalves and Mr Tait celebrated with worn-out teachers — school holidays had finally started!