By Mike Bell
Vexations: a solo piano piece by a 19th Century French composer, possibly written after rejection by a lover, repeated 840 times in an 8-9 hour performance. Sounds a bit grim, doesn’t it? Well, I like the music of Erik Satie, I like Gemma McGregor’s work, and I applaud her endeavours in bringing experimental music to Orkney through The Experimental Music Project, so I turned up at the Pier Arts Centre on Friday 15th June interested to hear something ‘different’.
Gemma and the Brazilian pianist KésiaDecoté, assisted by local volunteers, shared the load between them. When I turned up at lunch-time, Gemma had already played four half-hour stretches, and was herself stretched out on the floor, taking her chance to rest. Glenys Hughes was playing, and I sat quietly to listen. And the music…? It was remarkable. What could have been tedious repetition turned out to be totally enthralling. The music itself was simple – a theme played on the left hand, alternately played on its own and accompanied by chords on the right hand – and I think it was that simplicity that was so engaging. Time for me disappeared as I was caught up in the rhythm of the repetition. It was with reluctance, and at the last possible minute, that I left to go back to work at the end of my lunch-break.
In fact, I was drawn back to listen further at the end of the working day. Again, I sat quietly and was privileged to hear three different performers – Gemma, Késia and a lady volunteer (sorry – I don’t know her name), each subtly different in style and emphasis, but each captivating the listener in the repeating pattern.Késia quietly practised yoga as she prepared to take her turn, which seemed fitting and in keeping with the spirit of the performance. It would be wrong to say that the music was hypnotic through its repetition – that would imply something more passive, non-participatory than what actually happened. For me, it was more that I stood outside time whilst listening, time ceased to exist. Well, perhaps not entirely, as the hands of the clock moved forward and I had to leave again to go home.
This was an epic endeavour by the performers – something of an athletic feat. I would love to have been there at the finish. I wonder if anyone shouted “Encore!” as apparently happened at the end of the first full performance!