25 Variations on Vexations

by Sandy Solomon

During the pandemic, pianist Igor Levit played
Satie’s Vexations for more than fifteen hours
straight—four lines repeated 840 times—
from 2 p.m., 30 May to 5:30 a.m., 31 May 2020.

A man alone in a room will translate himself
over and over: Time, the filter. Means,
the self. Heart to fingers, he sounds the notes.

Attention, inattention. Plod, then focus.
How the mind moves across the motif’s
narrow field of feeling. How the body.

Routine’s blur. Day after day
much the same. I’ve roused my body in its tangles,
washed and dressed. I’ve churned my list of chores.

Modulate. Make it loud and firmly
felt. Then lean into quiet, slow.
Pause a half breath. Miss a note.

How he plays on stage: body rocking,
embodying the line. Now, live-
streamed, head on arm, seeming to doze.

He leans left; he bends back to study
the ceiling; he bows so low his forehead hangs
above his moving hands; he twists; he plays.

I have grown more numb, my routine smoothed
of peaks and lows; only sameness registers.
My mother’s voice asks for news. The same.

She can’t easily hear a voice on the phone
so I repeat my thoughts with different nouns
and verbs to make my meaning carry maybe.

His arms must hurt even though they often
work for hours. His arms must hurt because
his hands trace and trace the same lines.

Effect of boredom, effect of hallucination,
Effect of confusion, not knowing the hour,
day of the week, week of the month, date.

Who can withstand so much sameness? Repeat.
Why run a marathon if not to feel
the cost? Using the body up again.

She can’t easily hear a voice on the phone
so I shout each thought to make my meaning
carry maybe. I haven’t seen her for a year.

You lose the perspective of time—like now.
You lose the perspective of an end—like now.
You lose hope the effort will ever end.

In the making of widgets, one more part.
In the making of day, one more hour.
In the making the piece, note by note, a self.

He scratches his beard, keeps time with the hand
that doesn’t play, closes his eyes, crosses
a leg, stretches, reaches for dried fruit.

This other way to count: take licked
index and thumb to the single page played,
pull from a pile of scores, float to the floor.

I live inside a house—cook, clean;
I order food to make another meal.
I speak on screens, see in pixels. Not done.

Minute by minute, hour by hour, what’s
the purpose? Heart’s drum beneath the piano’s
short unchanging lines. Repeat again.

Intermission for a pee, the piano silent.
On livestream when I look, Eames chair empty,
surrounding pools of pages. Hollow room.

Poor over-and-over. Beggar the difference
for a slip or hiccup. Poor drift-across-
the-same, dazed and, minus Satie, dumb.

Stand sometimes to stretch. Conduct sometimes
with a spare arm to change the charge, charge
the mood, alter time. Two hands again.

He plays the final phrase pianissimo,
lento; he reaches silence. He drops the final
page to the floor where scores scatter, hundreds.

Done. He turns the lid down. Head
in hands against the piano’s frame, palms
on face. He staggers slightly as he walks away.

My hands just keep going. They can’t stop….
The only moment when he thought he wasn’t
going to make it, he said, he felt annoyed.

And me? Without direction, without center.
Silent scream in lockdown’s dissonance.
Repeat with feeling, then without, without.

Published on April 6, 2022