In November last year I was asked by the piano technician of the Berlin Philharmonics whether I could implement a counter for the performance of Erik Satie's Vexations, taking place on March, 27th in Clärchens Ballhaus' Spiegelsaal in Berlin. I agreed we would find a solution. That was actually a lot of work and a lot of fun. I learned a lot because iPhone and iPad were new to me as a development platform. And I learned that even a private weekend programming project has all the characteristics of a real software project. It was even harder because there was no customer beta test phase. The implementation had to work for 27 hours continuously on its first and only real-life deployment. A little bit like an astronautic application, because you only have one try. Luckily it took off and reached the target.
Vexation day started a little bit early. After sleeping less than 3 hours I got up at 1:45 a.m. winter time and left the bathroom after 3 a.m. summer time. I collected all the equipment. Nothing forgotten? Okay, lets go. Started driving at 3:50 and reached Spiegelsaal at 4:15. Lots of cabs in front of Clärchens Ballhaus and some drunk people streaming in the opposite direction.
The equipment setup went well thanks to rehearsal on previous day. Everything up and running at 5:00. Still some minutes left before the others are expected to come. My chance to try the piano because I won't play it during Vexations. It was a Steinway D dated 1901, freshly restored. I did also play a little bit on a one year old Steinway D at Philharmonie earlier last week, that had been used in a concert of Murray Perahia the same evening. Steinway is not my prefered brand, but this lesson teaches me: the way a piano is tweaked is actually more important than the vendor.
It was breathtaking to be in this huge collaboration of pianists. Speaking to many interesting people, piano enthusiasts as well as pianists. It may be a real vexation if this piece is performed by a single pianist. But with so many pianists playing this one and only peace in a circle, this was the perfect chance to study the differences in tone the pianists got out of the instrument. What a spectrum! So, the pianist depends on the technician and both depend on the piano vendor. Quite logical.
Now comes the less logical part of the Vexation experience. Of course I did like the tone of some pianists more than of others. Some had remarkable fine control and played with extraordinary musical depth. But Dafydd Llywelyn was able to create such an affecting tone that I began to understand what Perry Knize described in her book Grand Obsession in chapter Mittenwald.
On Monday morning around 1:00 a.m. I ran out of energy. There was only one priority by then: sleep! I woke up around 6:00 a.m., backstage were Vexations performance could not be heared. When I approached the Spiegelsaal I could not believe what I was hearing: piano tuning had changed to an amount that was clearly audible to me. The endless repetitions of Vexations made it easy to hear what is difficult to detect otherwise. I was told that the phenomenon is comparable to seeing children after quite a while and being surprised about their growth. I take this experience as evidence that piano tuning contributes to the confusion that takles me sometimes when playing on a foreign piano.
The end of Vexations performance around 7:45 a.m. turned out to be hard. It felt like being dropped. Confusing.
This event was really worth the effort and I wonder whether there will be a follow-up where all these interesting people come together again.
I cannot close without mentioning the excellent service by the ladies at Ballhaus! They are the good soul of Spiegelsaal and very helpful to everyone.
Many thanks to all!
Wenn ihr's nicht fühlt, ihr werdet's nicht erjagen.
Goethe, Faust I