This ‘Satieday,’ a vexing premiere will unfold across Wichita

A group of Friends University faculty organized the daylong, multisite marathon performance that promises to reflect composer Erik Satie’s quirky personality.

This ‘Satieday,’ a vexing premiere will unfold across Wichita
Leigh Barton-Green dressed up as Erik Satie to encourage Friends University students to get involved in Satieday. For the last couple of decades of his life, the composer always wore the same outfit: a gray velvet suit and a bowler hat. Courtesy photo.

Saturday, May 18, will be “Satieday” in Wichita, in celebration of the Wichita and Kansas premiere of French composer Erik Satie’s piano piece, “Vexations.”

Between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., a marathon performance will unfold at five different sites across the city: Mark Arts, CityArts, the Wichita Art Museum, the Sedgwick County Zoo, and Exploration Place. The majority of the daytime performances will be free. Satieday will conclude with a 7:30 p.m. finale concert at Friends’ Alumni Auditorium, highlighting other works by Satie, plus additional oddities and surprises. 

“Vexations” is a half-page of ruminative piano muttering that Satie penned around 1893 but never published. It bears an enigmatic inscription: “To play the motif 840 times in a row, it would be good to prepare oneself ahead of time, in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.”

Satie’s manuscript for “Vexations.” The composer is not known to have performed or even mentioned it during his lifetime. Public domain image via

Missing is any direct instruction to actually play the piece 840 times. Yet, ever since 1963, when “Vexations” was rediscovered, pianists have been doing just that. A (masochistic) solo performance takes 18 hours or more. Satieday performers will get the job done in just seven hours thanks to their multi-site, multi-pianist strategy.

A performance of “Vexations” can’t help but be a sort of silly stunt. The piece is not exactly dazzling to listen to once, let alone 840 times. For the 1963 premiere, avant garde composer John Cage charged audience members a $5 admission and then refunded them five cents for every 20 minutes they endured. Just one man listened for the full 18 hours.

Yet on another level, any run at “Vexations” demands to be taken seriously, because of how strenuous the experience is for both the audience and the performers. The repetitions, and the boredom, can give rise to the Zen state of deep silence and “serious immobilities” that Satie referenced. Or the piece can drive performers to agitated distraction as they try to figure out ways to relieve the inherent tension of all that repetition.

“I think the challenge is just keeping your wits about you, and the endurance part of it, really,” said James Knight, who is an assistant professor of piano at Friends and, along with professor of music Nathanael May, one of the leaders of Satieday. 

“He calls it ‘Vexations,’ so it’s like this never-ending thing that just keeps bugging you,” Knight said. “It’s well-written – it’s not vexing in that way – but it’s that constant, over and over again. It doesn’t build anywhere.”


Piano professor James Knight plays “Vexations” in his office at Friends University. The piece is quite brief, but composer Erik Satie suggested it be repeated 840 times. Video by Sam Jack for the SHOUT.

The piece itself doesn’t go anywhere, but Knight, May and the fine arts team at Friends have enjoyed the opportunity to plan a classical music event that sends performers out into the city and brings community partners together. The Riney Fine Arts Center and its Sebits Auditorium are unavailable for performances due to extensive renovation. That has been a spur to out-of-the-box thinking, according to Leigh Barton-Green, fine art events coordinator.

“For partnerships, we set our goals really high, and we were overwhelmed with how responsive and supportive people have been,” Barton-Green said. In addition to the venue partners, pianists have volunteered to take shifts performing “Vexations,” and others have volunteered to help at the sites and contribute quirky, Satie-esque atmospherics.

“A student named Adin Gilmore rewrote it so it’d be easier to read, because the way Satie wrote it, it’s kind of vexing,” Barton-Green said. “There are high-school students who are involved. There was one lady who said she’s traveling from 100 miles away. She saw it online, and she’s very excited to take part.”

Satieday will be a day to embrace oddity, Barton-Green and Knight both said. Satie’s odd taste in clothing (after 1895, he wore only gray velvet suits) and food (he only ate white food, such as ground-up bones, or so he claimed) will be celebrated during the finale concert, as will some of his odder pieces, such as “Truly Flaccid Preludes for a Dog.” Yet there is more to the composer than his eccentricities. Pieces such as “Gymnopédie No. 1” are meltingly beautiful; popular songs like “Je te veux” are emblems of French romance.

“If you’re interested in music presented in a very different way, please come out and enjoy what we’re doing,” Knight said.

The Details

“Satieday” is Saturday, May 18. Erik Satie’s “Vexations” will be heard at CityArts from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; at Exploration Place and the Wichita Art Museum from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; at the Sedgwick County Zoo from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and at Mark Arts from noon to 4 p.m. These performances are free, with the exception of the Zoo, where entrance is included with a valid Zoo ticket. The atmosphere at each site will be casual. Listeners are invited to come and go. Those who visit three or more sites can earn a commemorative “Satieday” rosette ribbon.

The Satieday Finale Concert, featuring James Knight, Nathanael May, and “Dogs,” will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the Alumni Auditorium, located on the third floor of the Davis Administration Building on the campus of Friends University. Tickets are $12 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, and admission includes a themed reception.

Sam Jack is a poet, classical tenor, and the adult services librarian at Newton Public Library. He performs with several local groups, including Wichita Chamber Chorale, Wichita Grand Opera and Opera Kansas. He received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Montana.

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