Most of the special performances in celebration of John Cage’s 70th birthday have been oriented toward the composer’s more recent work, but for many of us, it is the compositions Cage wrote before turning to chance procedures around 1950 that remain the least familiar and the most curious. So when I learned that Rip Keller was presenting the ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ at Symphony Space on October 13, I looked forward to my first opportunity to hear this work complete and live.
This hour-long set of 20 pieces, written in the late ’40s, was one of Cage’s earliest major works, and was to become the most important single composition anyone has written for the prepared piano. It was also crucial in establishing Cage’s reputation. The piece was championed by Maro Ajemian, who performed it countless times over the course of many years, and these performances brought the composer’s music into many European and American concert halls where it had never been heard before.
Ajemian is now dead, and a few other pianists have taken the demanding work into their repertoires. But Keller, performing from memory, seemed perfectly at home with the odd colors produced by the bolts and clothespins and other objects wedged into the piano’s strings, and was able to shape these colors into satisfying phrases. It was clear that he has been living with the music for a long time.
The thing that interests me most as I reconsider this early Cage work is the extent to which the composer controlled traditional skills here. The ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ is not exactly a youthful work, and certainly not a student work. Cage was already 36 when the music was finished, and he had been listening and learning for a long time. He had mastered a lot of compositional techniques, more than many conservative composers of his generation did.
Particularly striking, for example, is Cage’s understanding of two-part sonata form. Most of the 16 sonatas included here follow the AABB structure used by Domenico Scarlatti, and Cage often handles the form as cleverly as the Italian master. The sections usually sound very different the second time around. In fact, it is often extremely difficult to tell when the repeats actually begin. The trick here, or rather the family of tricks, has to do with writing the last bars of a section in such a way that when the music leads back to the beginning those opening bars will have a completely different feeling. Similarly, the beginning of the B section can be constructed so that it sounds quite different when approached from the end of the A section than when arrived at later from the end of the B section.
Writing endings is a constant problem for any composer, especially one who works without the aid of a system, and it seems to me that Cage’s endings here are unusually effective. The ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ never stop in an obvious way. They never say ‘The End.’ But they are never left dangling either. Somehow, Cage always seemed to find ways of bringing his materials to a satisfying close without relying on cliches or pat procedures, and without resorting to the same solution twice. That’s hard to do in any style, especially 20 times in a row.
The control of harmony and tonality here is also more knowing than Cage’s reputation might lead one to expect. Cage has often related how Schoenberg once told him he could never be a composer without a better sense of harmony, and how he decided to go ahead and be a composer anyway. Maybe he really doesn’t have much ‘sense of harmony’ in Schoenberg’s sense. Certainly he has never taken much interest in chords and chord changes. In the ‘Sonatas and Interludes,’ the majority of the prepared piano sounds have out-of-tune pitches, vague pitches, or no pitches, and I get the feeling at times that Cage really doesn’t care much about harmony. Yet at other times he makes gestures in this direction with real finesse. He clearly hears harmonies, and knows what they mean, when he wants to. Particularly effective for me is the ending of the Second Interlude when, after a variety of pointillistic roulades, some atonal chords, a few rhythmic ostinatos, and some other contrasting materials, the diffuse little piece somehow ties itself together very neatly by arriving at a major chord in the first inversion. The final Sonata XVI, which reminds me a lot of Ives, spends much of its time moving around a major scale and belies a strong understanding of harmonic materials, both traditional and contemporary. If it is true that harmony rarely matters in this music, it is also true that, when it does come into play, it matters in some very attractive and effective ways.
A compositional tool that has interested many contemporary composers, as well as countless Classic and Romantic ones, is the shift between sections that have a clear beat and sections that don’t. It can be very disturbing when music that is tripping along in a nice solid tempo suddenly drifts off into some sort of pulseless cadenzalike passage. The bottom seems to fall out. And then, if it goes back to a pulse again, it can seem as though some lovely floating music has suddenly klunked into an annoying motoric motion. Verdi in the last century and Elliott Carter in our own are sometimes cited for the sensitivity with which the heartbeat can leave their music and return again, but when I listened to the ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ I found myself thinking that Cage might be just as good an example. Sometimes dampened notes predominate, for example, thumping out clear rhythms almost like little bongos, and then the music drifts into fanciful lines, more like wind chimes or cadenzas, so subtly that you hardly notice the disappearance of the drumming. Some of the pieces move into and out of their meters many times, treading a thin line between two personalities, and changing hats quite skilfully.
‘Sonatas and Interludes’ also started me wondering again whether Cage’s work has anything to do with minimalism. The composer’s name is sometimes associated with minimalism, since much of his support, especially in the United States, has come from the same performers and institutions that also support the music of Alvin Lucier or Pauline Oliveros or Terry Riley. I have always maintained that Cage’s aesthetic is actually opposed to minimalist values, that he was never content to limit his compositional approach to one mode, one sound color, one rhythm, or one anything. Indeed, he has often suggested that performers present several of his compositions simultaneously, an attitude that might be better described as ‘maximalism.’ The ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ too are not nearly restricted enough to qualify as truly minimalist in spirit. Each sonata, each interlude, introduces at least three contrasting themes or textures, and often little sections are inserted that have only vague connections with the rest of the piece. By the time we had come to the end of the complete collection, however, I found that I felt a little the way I do after hearing Meredith Monk’s ‘Songs from the Hill’ or Robert Ashley’s ‘Perfect Lives (Private Parts)’ or Philip Glass’s ‘Music with Changing Parts.’ I had, after all, spent about an hour listening to a rather small collection of percussive timbres. There had been no climaxes and no large dramatic contrasts. The whole hour had remained more or less on one dynamic plane, rather than continually rising and falling, as in traditional piano music. There had been no overt displays of virtuosity. It is a curious piece that makes you think of Domenico Scarlatti on the one hand and Robert Ashley on the other. And I think you would have to admit that the ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ are masterfully composed, from either point of view.