Sunday, 3 February 2008

John Cage - Sonata I (from Sonatas and Interludes)

It took me a great deal of time to decide what work I should open this blog with. Not because I could not come up with an idea, but instead because I had many candidates. Eventually I settled with John Cage's first Sonata from his Sonatas and Interludes (for prepared piano). A very big help to this post is the fact that there is a featured article on Wikipedia on the entire work, explaining with detail the background, structure and analysis of the work.

But let me start from the beginning. John Cage was a very special 20th century music composer, with a very peculiar mindset and artistic vision. He was the first composer to fully explore the potential of the "prepared piano": that is a piano which has been altered by inserting foreign objects into the strings (or hammers or dampers). This will alter the timbre of the piano depending on what materials are used and how they are placed.

Cage's "Sonatas and Interludes" (score available at Edition Peters) are one of his hallmarks for prepared piano. I'll focus on the first of the Sonatas because I find it particularly inspiring, and because I had to chose one. Cage opens the work by listing the preparation table of the piano (click on the pictures below to enlarge them):

Cage presents how to prepare 45 notes of the piano, and even though he specifies the kind of material and the location where it should be placed, he still leaves a lot of freedom to the interpreter: if you enjoy playing the Sonatas and Interludes then do it so that it seems right to you. This makes every interpretation of the work a very distinct sounding one, so it's always interesting to listen to a new recording — sometimes it sounds like something you've never heard before.

Onto the first Sonata itself. The score is shown below:

And here, the interpretation of Boris Berman (entire work available here):

I especially enjoy the very first chord, which open the Sonata and the Sonatas and Interludes: it has an extremely rich timbre, mixing both the warm sound of felt-struck metal string and the more metallic timbre that results from the preparation. In this recording in particular, the sound is quite dry, fading off quickly in intensity but retaining a ghostly-harmonic sound. The work transports the listener to another musical perspective, enhancing the sound of individual through the power of silence. It is, in its whole, an enlightening experience, that should invoke philosophical aesthetic and artistic questions to those whose hears have not been previously exposed to a prepared piano. The others can delight on timbre nuances or argue about technical aspects.

Another recording that I know is Herbert Henck's, which has the advantage of conveying his fairly amazing Festeburger Fantasien too (which I hope to bring here to Hauptwerk one day or another). However, John Cage's supervised recording of Maro Ajemian is a standard, and on the Wikipedia article I mentioned before you can find a long list.

I'll end by embedding the best perspective ever for a video record of a performance of another sonata (the fifth) from this cycle: