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Relay Team of Pianists Performs 18-hour 40-minute Composition

Sept. 10, 1963 - A relay team of 10 pianists, with an assist from a New York music critic, finished playing the world’s longest piece of music today — 18 hours and 40 minutes after the first note was struck. The composition is Erik Satie’s “Vexations.” The work involves only one sheet of music. Containing four short phrases of 52 beats each, it takes only 80 seconds to perform. But, written atop the composition by the composer is the notation: “to be repeated 840 times.” Because of the length of time required to play “Vexations” in its entirety, no one ever bothered to try it until composer John Cage (pictured standing next to pianist John Cale) decided to present it in full at the Pocket Theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The performance began at 6 p.m. Saturday. Each pianist worked for 20 minutes, while another pianist kept time on the “working” player. Disaster threatened at 10 p.m. Monday when one pianist did not show up for his shift. Howard Klein, a music critic on hand, pitched in and took a 20-minute whack at the repetitive composition, and the show went on. One gimmick was a $5 admission charge with an understanding that patrons would get a 5-cent refund for every 20 minutes they stayed. James Lee, a bearded young composer, stayed longest, arriving at 8 p.m. Monday and on hand for today’s finish, right on schedule, at 12:30 p.m. “I liked it,” he noted, “but not for much longer.”


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