Vexations 840 – a brave new venture

Vexations 840 is about pushing boundaries. Giving a new enterprise this name may seem like asking for trouble, but the people behind this venture are inviting challenge. One of these is Lyle Chan, music producer and composer who describes Vexations 840 as “a classical music enterprise” that will speak to core classical audiences. 

Vexations 840 was originally the name of a musical work by the French composer of the avant-garde, Erik Satie.  The work consists of a short theme, intended to be performed 840 times. The notation is unconventional and the premiere of this work in 1963 – arranged by John Cage – lasted more that 18 hours and required several pianists to take the keyboard. Alex Ross describes the fate of one pianist who attempted to perform it solo: “He stopped after fifteen hours, experiencing intense hallucinations”. 

Whilst these details are fascinating, Vexations 840 is not intended to be a project that drives one to insanity. Chan explains that the name for the project was chosen because “Satie was someone who truly thought outside the square. He pushed the boundaries”. 

Based in Sydney, Vexations 840 was established by Lyle Chan, Anna Cerneaz and Ken Nielsen in 2010 to create  music projects “that would otherwise not happen”.  Their first project has already materialized. “Baroque Duets” is a recent CD release featuring mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell with counter – tenor David Walker, founded in their partnerships in the Pinchgut Opera productions of Juditha Triumphans (2007) and L’Ormindo (2009). The CD includes something of a coup – the world premiere recording of a significant Handel work, Caro autor, HWV 182b affirming their promise to showcase neglected material, Chan says ” it contains a splendid Handel piece that’s waited over 200 years for someone to record it but nobody has, till now”.  

But Vexations 840 is not just about recordings. Chan adds “What it will stand for is grander in scope, presenting interesting things for an informed public”.

 One such project on the horizon will be an interactive search for “The greatest forgotten string quartet”. The idea will harness the resources of the World Wide Web and social media to canvass votes and generate a lively dialogue. The intention is to generate a live webcast and recording out of this. “The internet has really collapsed boundaries. We have a global audience”, says Chan. 

The creation of this consortium highlights two issues. One is that performers and entrepreneurs need to start thinking beyond the established media of concerts in concert halls. Concerts are undoubtedly an essential part of the musical life a community. But with pressures of time, distance and cost, sitting down passively to absorb a couple of hour’s music is a choice that is increasingly remote. As well, society now moves more quickly and is more interactive. This dictates that newer forms of participation in music be devised.

Secondly, this project will unashamedly attempt to reach the core classical audiences, who are informed and musically educated whose needs and interests have perhaps been subjugated in the interests of commercial success. Refreshingly, there is no need to apologise for being a purist, or for appreciating the skill, the learning and hard work that go into presenting quality performances of masterful music. It does not in anyway negate the mass market, or the crossover genres, but simply recognizes what a different sector of the market appreciates and seeks.

 As with any enterprise, there is risk. The funds for Vexations 840 have come from private sources – people with a passion for “classical” music. There is, of course a broader aim: that Vexations 840 – both its existence and the media through which it is conducted – will draw more people into loving and understanding the classics – ensuring, in its own unique way, that this music is not lost to posterity, but will live into the future.

Read our review of  Vexations 840’s inaugural recording project  “Baroque Duets”.

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