Abstract Notions
Editor Christian Williams explores the nature of consciousness through art, culture, and spirituality.

Pleasantly Vexed With Erik Satie


In the Fall 2014 issue of Utne Reader, I shared my thoughts on daydreaming in a column titled “The Lost Art of Doing Nothing.” Three years later, it’s still one of the more popular posts we add to our Facebook page, and I like to think it’s because more people are recognizing the benefits of setting their smart phones aside on a regular basis and allowing their mind to wander.

Since then, I’ve begun meditating, floating in a sensory-deprivation tank, and participating in other activities where the sole purpose is to simply be aware of — but not attached to — the moment at hand. To that end, I was very excited to discover on the morning of May 5 that a rare performance of Erik Satie’s fascinating piano piece Vexations was taking place that day at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City.

For those not familiar with the piece, it’s a very short but peculiar tune that Satie wrote in 1893 with no apparent intention of having it performed. Featuring an unresolved melody and a score note by Satie suggesting the piece be repeated 840 times “very slowly,” it’s not surprising that it took the likes of American composer John Cage and his avant-garde compatriots to finally give Vexations its first public performance in 1963. With a rotation of 12 pianists, Cage and company completed the 840 repetitions of the piece in 20 hours and effectively sparked a rite of passage for future generations of contemporary classical pianists. The longest non-stop solo performance of the piece was 35 hours(!) by Nicolas Horvath in 2012.


In the Kemper performance, pianist Michael Kirkendoll performed the piece for 12 hours straight while playing inside contemporary artist Rashid Johnson’s magnificent installation piece Antoine’s Organ. I had the pleasure of experiencing 35 minutes of the performance, and I’m still gleaning fascinating insight from what I witnessed (see video below).

For some, the unnerving quality of the tune is enough to drive them mad. A 2013 article in The New Yorker cited the experience of Australian pianist Peter Evans, who quit playing the piece after 595 repetitions in 1970 when he was overcome by evil thoughts and hallucinations. Kirkendoll fared much better, and by all accounts so did many others who spent some time meditating in the space that day, myself included.  For me, the unresolved nature of the melody makes it difficult to memorize, and the nuances of each repetition are different enough to keep the piece from becoming tedious. Instead, the ambient quality of the music serves as the ideal soundtrack for oscillating between meditation and daydreaming. I left the space relaxed and with more sensory awareness, much as I do after a floating session.

Of course, there are many who wonder why anyone would want to put themselves through such an experience — as a performer or a listener. For a piece that’s considered the Mt. Everest of solo piano pieces, though, the answer is simple: “Because it’s there.”

A Time for Being Sick


Finding contentment in the most unlikely places.

Part of my morning routine includes reading a chapter or two of the Tao Te Ching—the ancient book of Taoist wisdom attributed to the mythical Chinese sage Lao-tzu. I particularly like Stephen Mitchell’s modern translation from 1998 and find something in it to meditate on nearly every day. Recently, the following lines from Chapter 29 came in handy when I caught a particularly nasty virus:

There is a time for being ahead, a time for being behind;
a time for being in motion, a time for being at rest;
a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted;

A stupid source of pride for me has always been defiance in the face of illness; to keep working and pushing myself as if I’m healthy. If I feel like I’m getting sick, I’ll prepare for it by taking extra work home just in case I’m not able to make it into the office the next day, and then work just as hard from home when I should be resting. This time was different, though.

In the past, the “wasted” time of a day spent in bed would have gnawed at me as I’d think about all of the work left undone. But this time, the lines from Chapter 29 came to mind, specifically: “a time for being vigorous, a time for being exhausted.” One of the many benefits I’ve gained from studying the Tao Te Ching is a profound respect for the duality of this existence. In order to truly appreciate being healthy, I recognize that I must also know what it means to be sick. And allowing myself to be sick involves accepting that it will take time for the illness to run its course and for my body to return to health. Even though I didn’t turn on my laptop, I don’t remember ever having a more productive sick day. My job that day was simply to be sick and I did it well.  

Along with giving my body and mind an overdue day of rest, I caught a glimpse of something else that day: contentment. While ambition and desire can be great motivators for success, I’ve found they are also the sources of disappointment and dissatisfaction when we fail to balance them. They train us to view every moment as an opportunity for advancement, but chide us when we hesitate or fall short. They keep our eyes on the future at the expense of appreciating the here and now. When you’re always thinking about what’s next, contentment becomes an illusion that’s just around the corner instead of a reality that’s right in front of your face.

It seems strange to find contentment in being sick, but that’s what happened when I switched off my ambition and desire for a bit. For me, it’s just another example of what’s possible when I slow down and allow myself to experience the present moment. Being sick obviously isn’t as fun as being healthy, but it’s still a reminder that I’m alive.

Photo courtesy Sundaram Ramaswamy, licensed under Creative Commons