Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sonatas and Interludes

My observant uncle-in-law noticed that over at allmusic, the "Album of the Day" is a recording by Julie Steinberg of John Cage's 1948 masterpiece Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano by Julie Steinberg. This is one of favorite pieces of all time, and it's great to see the publicity for it. The reviewer notes, as just about ever reviewer of a recording of the piece (including myself) also notes, that the Sonatas are the closest Cage came to writing a piece of music that might be thought of as a standard in modern piano repertory. There are many lovely recordings of this piece available, although it is also worth mentioning that if it is often recorded, it is not played live very often, thanks to the complexity of its preparations. (Click to enlarge)

In the classic Cage narrative, the complexity of those preparations lead to a certain crisis on his part. As you can tell from the table, he was very concerned with making sure pianists were using the right sounds when playing this piece. Thus, measurements and objects are written down in very exacting terms, so that the sound created is precisely what Cage imagined. As you can probably guess, this ended up being impossible. Pianos and pianists are wildly divergent, and it proved impossible to have a consistent palate of sounds. By way of example, I've created a little montage of the first four measures of Sonata I, as played by six different pianists:

The first is by Maro Ajemian, recorded in 1951 and closely supervised by Cage himself. The other five are more recent recordings by, respectively, Margaret Leng Tan, Boris Berman, John Tilbury, Phillipp Vandre, and Steinberg. (The last is the one reviewed by allmusic; the snippet posted online is mm. 2-4 and frankly, four copies of this piece is enough for me, I'm not buying a new one.)

Obviously, not only do these five preparations sound pretty different, each performer takes a different approach to the score. Tan's version should theoretically sound the most like Ajemian's since she worked closely with Cage and not only used the same kind of piano, but used Cage's own personal box of preparing objects, Her recording, however could not be more different than everyone else. Personality matters, too. Ultimately, these kinds of differences were what lead Cage to chance techniques. Realizing that he couldn't control every aspect of a performance, he gave up control all together. (Or at least, according to his own mythology that's what happened.)

There is tons to be said about the Sonatas. Cage poured every ounce of his little heart into these brilliant little pieces, and it reflects perfectly many of his late 1940s obsessions with rhythmic structures, timbral composition, the influence of Hindu and Zen philosophies as well as his recent arrival on the New York avant-garde scene. Less often noted is the work's neo-classicism. Why, exactly, would an avant-gardist like Cage being writing a piece of music called Sonatas and Interludes? It wasn't an isolated example either, see as well his Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra, Suite for Toy Piano, and String Quartet. This is, I would argue, an inheritance from Satie (by way of Virgil Thomson) that gets ignored by most Cage scholars. At the same time he was composing the Sonatas he was also immersing himself in the Greek-inspired music of Satie, like The Ruse of Medusa and most especially Socrate. For all of the influence of Coomaraswamy and Suzuki and whatnot, there was a big part of Cage that was a French modernist.

I myself prefer the recordings that emphasize the tiny, precise, almost jewel-like nature of these little works. My favorite is actually Boris Berman's recording on Naxos. He takes great liberties with the score--the pedal markings would indicate that Margaret Leng Tan's long sustained hold of the opening fanfare is technically correct--but it's an aesthetic I greatly prefer.


Gray said...

Thanks for the fascinating post, Phil. I much prefer the Berman recording too.

I'd love to talk to at length about the Sonatas and Interludes sometime. I worked with them some in my Special Field Exam, and was surprised at how much TPA song, musical theater, and hymn influence I found in Berman's version.

Hope your teaching's going well!

PMG said...

I would love to take Sonatas and Interludes any time! Are you going to be at AMS?

Gray said...

Yes, for at least part of it. We'll have to meet up!