Igor Levit. © Felix Broede/Sony Classical

The hands just carry on by themselves

The German pianist Igor Levit has been a diligent online performer during the covid-19 pandemic. Two weeks ago, he took on an iconic marathon piece, fundamentally changing his own conditions as well as the listener’s.
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‘I honestly don’t really know what is going to happen. But I believe I will feel, while doing it, kind of similar to what I go through now.’ On 30 and 31 May, for fifteen and a half hours straight, the German pianist Igor Levit played the entire Vexations (1893) by Erik Satie – the iconic piece in which a single theme is to be played 840 times – at the recording studio B-Sharp in Berlin.

Before the marathon performance, which was live-streamed on Twitter, Levit spoke to The New Yorker’s Alex Ross. ‘There will be ups, there will be downs, there will be devastation, there will joy, there will be literal pain,’ he continued. ‘Just this monotonic repetition of just the same thing, of a piece which in a way has no apparent musical content – just this staring at a wall, waiting, waiting. At some point, you lose the perspective of time – like now. You lose the perspective of an end – like now. I think at some point I will lose the hope that this will ever end – like now. Maybe I won’t make it. It’s just about surviving. Like now.’

Three cameras filmed the performance, and the angles changed quickly. Crackers, fruits and drinks had been put on the piano and on a side table to his left. A large stack of the Vexations sheet music on single pages lay on the piano to his right. The individual sheets of music were numbered up to 840; the model here was the performance by Richard Toop in October 1967 at the Arts Lab in Drury Lane, London. After about two minutes, after a page had been played through, he let it slide to the floor. In a short amount of time, the sheets covered more and more of the parquet floor.

‘I think at some point I will lose the hope that this will ever end – like now. Maybe I won’t make it. It’s just about surviving. Like now’

After about 80 minutes he took his first bite of a cracker. After about 165 minutes, when he had driven the motif of Vexations to a clear forte, even vivace, he placed a new stack of sheet music on the piano. With this new stack, he drastically changed his playing to pianissimo and lento. Shortly afterwards he left the piano for just under a minute. Presumably to go to the toilet.

The tiredness and the increasing exhaustion were now slowly becoming more and more noticeable to him. How he slipped more softly into the chair on which he was sitting; how he sometimes played with one hand only slightly touching the piano in order to save strength. It was obvious, after a good 210 minutes, that he now really had an idea of how hard the remaining hours would actually be. Also the loneliness, the lostness, the lack of an audience on site, a direct response, could be felt now. He would carry out his task there for two more working days.

The experiment now became more and more one of observing this performer – less just the performer’s experiment. I observed how often he would reach for snacks, how he would try to relax his legs in ever new positions or crossings, how he would relax his upper body in a different way, how he would relax, unclench, support a pausing hand on the varnished wood of the instrument or even cool it down; how he would close his eyes completely.

Twelve hours of the performance are available on Youtube – where thousands followed the Levit marathon. © Igor Levit

This music actually filled our house as furniture music, as the famous musique d’ameublement that its composer had always dreamed of. The open, drifting tonal centre of this piece – which is anything but atonal, as it is sometimes called – contributed to this. It did not predetermine the perception of space or situation through fixed chord steps and motif work. It actually settled as a delicate mist, as a gentle filter, as an accompanying scent over this late afternoon, through the rooms of our modest house. It was, in the most comprehensive and penetrating sense, ubiquitous music.

The pianist yawned. His gaze wandered off in ever more astonishing directions. The falling sheets of music seemed to hit the floor with an increased, thundering volume. Was he laughing now? Or was his face distorted in pain? More and more often he chose the regular self-reassurance of self-touching: he slowly stroked his hair, touched himself on his forearm, put his hand on his stomach. He stretched and lolled his arms in the most improbable directions; a pausing hand played somewhat insecurely on the wooden body of the piano or conducted swinging in the air.

Unwavering, but occasionally also a little disgusted, he looked at the still considerable pile of remaining sheets of music or the numerous ones that had fallen to the floor. Over and over again, for hours already, he took sips from the glass of water.

Right through the pain

Igor Levit’s playing tried more and more to be a gymnastic exercise. Longer and longer he closed both eyes, leaned back as if he would soon be playing in his sleep, after five and a half hours. A quarter of the distance lay behind him, or so he must have thought (initially, the performance was expected to last no less than twenty hours).

I couldn’t help thinking about marathon dancing: if you dance for five, ten, twenty hours, you never maintain a sweeping and audience-oriented tension of movement for the whole time. As soon as dancers develop an awareness of the fact that they will hardly be able to dance for many hours in exactly this way, a somewhat more economic and, above all, self-preserving reduction of movement usually sets in.

La bella figura is then simply no longer important (performance drugs do of course modify dance behaviour, but, to me, this hardly seems to have played any part in Levit’s performance). You still desire to dance – or to play the piano – but as your energy might be fading away, you resort to simpler movements. In other words: ’10 hours in and you know you’re running low on energy but you still wanna dance.’

Longer and longer he closed both eyes, leaned back as if he would soon be playing in his sleep, after five and a half hours

After almost six and a half hours there was another break. But before Levit started again, he had to get back on his feet: with both fists, he hit his thighs several times with both eyes closed. It hurt to see that. He now drank the water directly from the bottle. Occasionally it seemed like he was singing along on the inside.

After seven hours I saw him play standing up for the first time. It was obvious that he now had to use all his strength to get through this performance. His playing was now mainly characterized by this perseverance. The pianist’s sweat was visible, his mouth slightly open at all times. Again he stood up. The differentiation and subtlety of the performance was no longer important. It was a matter of sheer breaking through, moving on, arriving. Once again the motif; and once again. Then again. And again. Another pause. It lasted much longer than before, a good six minutes. Technicians brought new drinks, survival equipment; the ground at his feet was cleared of sheets.

At the beginning of the next series, he let out an ‘Oh, man’: half in relief and half wondering what he had gotten himself into, and why. But on it went.

His gaze seemed increasingly empty to me. The eighth hour was almost over. For increasing amounts of time, he played with his eyes closed.

In the video version of Jeroen van Veen’s recording of ‘Vexations’ you see Satie’s simple but chromatically complex piano score. © Brilliant Classics

I asked myself: how much longer would I, as a mere listener, hold out now? At some point I would fall asleep, he would continue to play, for sure; later I would wake up, he would probably still have played on. I’d have breakfast in the morning, rather late probably, and he’d sink down completely exhausted, stagger away, fed up. No strength for polite goodbyes. Maybe I would even manage to look into the stream if I woke up briefly during the night?

He needed another break after eight and a half hours. The 418th of 840 repetitions. So he was well within the time limit: about 60 repetitions faster than planned or necessary. It was now again a very gentle, infinitely quiet, calm piece, carried by boundless tenderness. All blasting was gone. Devotion. Complete devotion. His surprised happiness was visible, his amazement; and still the pain. The act of overcoming had not disappeared, it had merely become a habit, a good habit.

His playing almost became coquettish again. He tried out the piece: what was still in it? What else was there? Briefly, he put his head down on the piano as he continued to play. He breathed deeply and played as if it were a wedding march, a Wagnerian rite.

He now placed his left leg up on the chair, resting his head on his knee as he played. The 432nd of 840 repetitions now. Later on, he almost rested his head on his hands while playing. I would have to sleep soon. Another half an hour maybe, then he had played for ten hours. But if he kept playing at this pace, he would have reached 840 reps after only 17 hours: around seven in the morning. Maybe I’d have to get up at six o’clock in the morning after all? To at least not leave him alone in the very last hour. I wondered if I’d be dreaming of Igor Levit and his Vexations tonight.

A white noise of sorts

When I woke up around six in the morning, I read from a friend that the performance had ended at about 5:30. After fifteen and a half hours. Good. I would listen to the rest of the stream later.

I had actually not dreamt of Levit, but I had slept a bit restlessly. Around two and around half past four I was briefly awake and the first time I had also looked briefly into the stream: Levit continued to play insistently, still in the mode of the lullaby. So I was able to continue sleeping calmly. At half past four I could have actually got up to follow the final hour – as I only found out later. But before I could make a serious decision about getting up, I had already fallen asleep again. So I watched the last three hours the following noon.

At two o’clock in the night, Levit was now playing solely through his body. The sounds hardly produced the chromatic drift otherwise associated with Satie, not that shimmering mist of interference and overtones that made his simplest pieces sound so stimulating, complex and spectral. The Vexations were now a children’s song. Completely simplified, reduced to the simple core, played very economically and directly.

At two o’clock in the night, Levit was now playing solely through his body. The Vexations were now a children’s song

Levit was now the worker who tore down the notes on the assembly line. Orderly, cleanly. Here and there his connoisseurship and experience made itself felt laconically. But for gradations, playfulness and melodramatic accents it was now impossible to summon up any strength or interest in the thirteenth hour. The notes had to be produced. That was the goal.

After the next break, in the fourteenth hour, the playing became softer again; Levit was swinging along, moving back and forth, as if in a trance and not very much concerned with external effects. Detained in Satie’s Vexations. The piece had become a dream tune: semi-consciously drifting through the systems of musical notation. Very gently again. Ever more softly. A study from 2003 also shows that a longer trance state sets in about thirteen and a half hours through the Vexations.

For a bit longer Levit stroked his face with his hand, it stayed some time on his right cheek. Eyes closed again for a long time, as if he was really half asleep. The motor automatism seemed to guide him through the night and the performance. Only very briefly he stumbled into a microsleep: then his playing paused, but only for a second.

In the meantime, the act of listening was also transformed: I began to listen as if in a trance. It became more and more difficult for me to recognize a more differentiated structure and possible gradations of his playing and to relate them to each other. Or as Matt Berninger, lead singer in the American rock band The National, said after a six-hour concert of one piece – ‘Sorrow’, performed on 5 May 2013 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York – which was repeated 100 times: ‘I like it all ... it’s a white noise of sorts in my brain.’ [The original video and written comment are no longer available, but a screen dump can be seen here.]

Levit has been streaming more than most others during the covid-19. Here he combines yoga and Billy Joel’s sweetly nostalgic ‘And So It Goes’ (1993). © Igor Levit

Shortly before the fourteenth hour was over, he took a longer break and re-sorted the sheets. Some live-stream commentators wondered when he would eat the three bananas waiting next to him. One was already quite black-brown. And so, the fifteenth hour began livelier and more differentiated in playing. His upper body continued to swing along; his eyes closed or at least half-closed.

It was four o’clock in the morning. After the next break Levit flirted a bit with the people present before he sat down again. The pianist let it be known that he was now, finally, in the home stretch. New strength, the goal now before his eyes. He made room for exploration, playfulness; of course, the smallest of mistakes in playing did not diminish, but that was part of the plan. The composition forgave that quite well. Now and then, the pianist’s head had, once again, to rest on the palm of his hands while playing. He leaned back, more comfortable, more tired, everything became softer. Especially the left hand often played mostly alone, as if unattended to or so it seemed.

The last hour had come, half past four in the morning. He played more softly and more tenderly, more tiredly and more devotedly. The tenderness of a composition that was gradually coming to an end. Increasingly quieter, sometimes quieter than expected. Five o’clock: the last half hour, the last break. Elated and thundering, Levit began the final series of the Vexations. He felt at home. In the last ten minutes he made himself really comfortable again. He now lived in this composition and in this continuously roaming, gargantuan landscape of 840 Saties, 840 Vexations, 840 repetitions.

Now he played the penultimate sheet. He looked at his right hand in astonishment when it was not playing. Played the last sheet. Much too slowly, again very surprised, as if disturbed. As if it were his very last piece ever, finale. Every note resonated, dripping down. Unexpectedly, almost. As if he was just learning this piece now. For the first time. He enjoyed that very last rerun in all stupor, in all detachment.

Then he looked at the keys in amazement, removed the last sheet of music. Hesitantly, he closed the piano as if it were infinitely difficult. He placed his head on it. He took his mobile phone and his keys and left the studio.

The 1217th repetition

After the end of the performance, after the pianist’s farewell message – ‘Done. Done. Happy. Fulfilled. Grateful. And so damn high’ – I began to feel doubt. I read of his relief and gratitude. I felt my own relief, I let my fascination and my amazement, my sympathy and my respect, continue. But I also felt and suspected something almost unspeakable, something almost insulting and disrespectful.

Because suddenly everything was just over. Ended without much applause, without flowers, without tearful embraces, without cheering. Just like that. An emptiness remained. Uselessness, tragedy, maybe even loss after the end. For a pianist who has made several complete recordings, daily house concerts and daily practice a part of his professional life anyway, this experience is probably banal. He had probably already moved on, his eyes set on another recording project, the elaboration of new repertoires, and further challenges for himself as a pianist.

Suddenly everything was just over. Ended without much applause, without flowers, without tearful embraces, without cheering. Just like that. An emptiness remained. Uselessness, tragedy, maybe even loss

But the exhaustion after fifteen and a half hours leaves a very light, even stale aftertaste, a very delicate but sharp metallic note. Was anything really achieved, other than mere exhaustion? But then again, why should one try to achieve more than that? Maybe enough has been achieved with all the thousands of listeners who followed his performance, quite a few of them from the beginning to the end. The pain of persevering, of holding out, of experiencing – a happiness of having arrived. Perhaps that must be enough. For a professional life, for a private life.

Eight hours after the performance Igor Levit filmed his hands at a table somewhere outside. They continued to play the Vexations. He wrote: ‘The hands just carry on by themselves. Repetition no. 1217 is currently in progress, and the repertoire for the coming season will be rather monotonous. #Vexations.’

This is an edited version of an essay first published by the German magazine Merkur on its blog on 2 June.