New York

Why 24 Pianists Are Playing the Same Piece 840 Times

Good morning. It’s Friday. Today we’ll look at why 24 pianists will spend all day today — and at least part of tonight — playing the same piece a total of 840 times. We’ll also get details on Mayor Eric Adams’s latest comments on the migrant crisis.

Marilyn Nonkam, who will take part in playing one piece — ”Vexations,” by Erik Satie — 840 times.Credit…James Estrin/The New York Times

It’s a safe bet that no one will say “Play it once, Sam” at New York University’s Paulson Center today. The assignment for the 24 pianists who will be there is not to play a short piece once, but to play it a total of 840 times.

The piece is not “As Time Goes By” from “Casablanca.” It’s “Vexations,” written in the 1890s by the French composer Erik Satie. He specified that it was to be repeated 840 times. He did not explain the significance of the number or why he preferred it to, say, 839 or 841.

Only one pianist will play at a time, with one relieving another, tag-team style, after 35 repetitions. Marilyn Nonken, the chair of the Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions at N.Y.U., expects the whole thing to be over by about 9 p.m. She will lead off, at 6 a.m.

“It’s about concentration,” she said. “Even though it’s not an extremely difficult piece, your brain plays tricks on you. There have been pianists who have played the entire thing themselves and talked about going crazy as they do. Even playing for an hour or so, just focusing and staying grounded and staying rooted is not the easiest thing.”

Obviously, how long the performance actually takes depends on tempo — how fast each pianist tackles the piece, which is only one page long. Nonken said she had “attempted to give a guideline of approximately how fast we’d like people to play.”

But one of them, Richard Cameron-Wolfe, is guessing the last note won’t be heard until around 2 a.m. He has experience with “Vexations.” He has played it, by himself, four times. He said he would be on hand at the end, no matter how late, even though his assigned time slot is early and he is scheduled to step away from the piano at 9:30 a.m. “I’m a true believer,” he said.

Today’s performance celebrates the 60th anniversary of what was apparently the first such marathon, which took 18 hours and 40 minutes and was organized by the composer John Cage. The New York Times assigned critics to two-hour shifts, with a theater critic filling the 2-a.m.-to-4-a.m. slot. The music critic Harold C. Schonberg was on hand for the beginning and the end of “conceivably the longest concert since Homer sang the entire ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey.’”

One pianist from that endurance test is expected to take part today — the composer David Del Tredici, now 86. “There’s not a lot of latitude with what you can do” with “Vexations,” he said, but he tried. “They told me after I played it a few times to stop being so expressive, just play it straight,” Del Tredici, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1980, recalled this week.

The performance at N.Y.U. will be free, unlike the one in 1963, at a theater in the East Village where tickets cost $5 (just under $50 now). The organizers promised refunds of five cents for each 20 minutes that audience members were present. They threw in an extra 20 cents and gave back $3 to the one person who lasted from start to finish. He later appeared on the television game show “I’ve Got a Secret” along with one of the pianists, John Cale (who went on to be a founding member of the Velvet Underground.)

Cameron-Wolfe said the piece is “loaded with ambiguities,” starting with the number 840. Did it refer to the number of days in a romantic relationship? Cameron-Wolfe said that the piece dated to not long after Satie went through a breakup. The Times critic Harold C. Schonberg’s take was less dramatic: Satie “wrote 840 for reasons best known to himself. He was, after all, the great eccentric of French music.”

Cameron-Wolfe said Satie’s instructions for playing “Vexations” were also, well, vexing. Satie wrote a sentence in French above the first line that can be translated like this: “To play this pattern 840 times in a row, it would be advisable to prepare beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.”

As with the 840 repetitions, he did not explain what he meant by “serious immobility.” And as for Cameron-Wolfe, it took some serious mobility for him to get to the performance. He lives in Taos, N.M.

“I’m mostly concerned about the overnight JetBlue flight and what shape I’ll be in when I get off the plane,” he said. “But I said if anybody doesn’t show, I’ll go back up and give it a couple more whacks.”


Weather

The heat advisory has been extended until 6 p.m. tonight. Anticipate another dense, sweltering day with the chance of thunderstorms carrying into the evening. At night, temps will dip into the mid-70s.

ALTERNATE-SIDE PARKING

In effect until Sept. 16 (Rosh Hashana).


The latest New York news

Credit…Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

Local news

  • Hillary Clinton: The former secretary of state is teaching a class at Columbia University and starting an institute on global decision-making. Donald Trump barely gets a mention.

  • Literacy: A new semester means a whole new way of teaching reading at hundreds of schools in the nation’s largest school system.

  • Unseasonable heat: A three-day bout of extreme weather in the Northeast is sending temperatures 20 degrees higher than usual.

  • Settlement: Chanetto Rivers’s baby was taken away after Rivers smoked marijuana, legally, before giving birth in the Bronx. She sued and won $75,000 in a settlement that her lawyers say is the first of its kind.

  • What we’re watching: The Times reporter Susan Dominus discusses the male college enrollment crisis on “The New York Times Close Up With Sam Roberts.” The show airs Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. [CUNY TV]


Migrant crisis ‘will destroy New York City,’ Adams says

Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Mayor Eric Adams said at a town hall-style gathering that he did not “see an ending” to the migrant crisis and did not see a way to fix the issue, adding that it “will destroy New York City.”

My colleague Emma G. Fitzsimmons writes that it was a sharp escalation of the rhetoric he has used before as he pressed for federal assistance.

“Every community in this city is going to be impacted,” Adams said at the meeting as he pointed to new projections that the city’s budget gap could grow to nearly $12 billion — the same amount that city officials estimate that the migrants could cost the city over three years. “We have a $12 billion deficit that we’re going to have to cut,” he said. “Every service in this city is going to be impacted. All of us.”

For months, as the city has struggled to provide housing and services to the migrants, Adams has criticized President Biden and Gov. Kathy Hochul, both Democrats. Last week he said the city’s requests had gone mostly “unaddressed” and called for a federal declaration of emergency. During the town hall session, Adams said, “We’re getting no support on this national crisis.”

The mayor’s remarks at the town hall session provided ammunition for Republicans and angered immigrant advocacy groups, along with some Democrats. Shahana Hanif, a chair of the New York City Council’s progressive caucus, said that the mayor’s “xenophobic rhetoric is reprehensible and just wrong.” The Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless said that his comments “villainize people who fled unimaginable situations in their home countries” and that he sounded like “fringe politicians on the far-right of the political spectrum.”


METROPOLITAN diary

Ruby

Dear Diary:

I had just gotten my dog, Ruby, and was walking her in my neighborhood near Union Square.

As we passed an outdoor cafe, a woman I did not know reached out and clutched my arm.

Alarmed, I pulled away.

“Oh!” she said, “you got another dog!”

I stared at her blankly.

“No,” she said. “You don’t know me. We live in the apartment building across the street from you, and my husband and I always used to watch you carry your old, sick dog down the stoop every morning and put her in a cart to take her to the park.”

Her eyes began to fill with tears.

“And then one day you stopped, and we just knew your old dog had passed,” she said. “Well, it just broke our hearts, dear! But now you have a new puppy — just wait till I tell my husband!”

As I walked away, I had the strangest feeling.

— Eileen O’Connor

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.


Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Bernard Mokam and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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