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ClassicsOnline Home » CAGE, J.: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (B. Berman)
John Cage (1912-1992)
Sonatas and Interludes
for Prepared Piano
John Cage was born in Los Angeles in 1912. The picture he gave of his
father was as an inventor of ingenious but not quite useful devices, and his
mother was 'never happy' despite being 'right even when she was wrong.' When he
returned to California in autumn 1931, after eighteen months in Europe, he
began to study composition. Going, he said, to 'the President of the company,'
he approached Arnold Schoenberg, who, he frequently related, charged no fee on
condition that he would 'devote' his life to music. Cage 'literally worshipped'
Schoenberg, and had more in common with him than might appear, but was drawn to
a very different kind of music. Cage championed the musical use of noise, which
led him to write some of the earliest concert works for percussion, including
the three Constructions (1939-1943), and explore the possibilities
offered by early electrical instruments.
In March 1940, Cage was asked, with three days' notice, to provide music
for a dance performance. The theatre in which they would perform had
insufficient space for a percussion ensemble. There was a piano, but the
character of the dance made a twelve-tone piece inappropriate. Tellingly, Cage
concluded that 'what was wrong was not me, but the piano'.
He had the idea of inserting various objects between the strings –
weather stripping, bolts, screws, bamboo – which meant one pianist could
produce a similar variety of sounds to a percussion group. This prepared piano
became one of his key musical resources into the next decade.
By the mid-1940s Cage was deeply troubled by the unreliability of
musical communication. 'When I conscientiously wrote something sad, people and
critics were apt to laugh,' he recalled. 'I determined to give up composition
unless I could find a better reason for doing it than communication.'
Cage found that 'better reason' in Eastern philosophy, especially in his
study of Zen Buddhism. Zen's interest, insofar as it can be stated, is in
unmediated experience, which appears only when one's tastes and preconceptions
are suspended. Musical rules and aesthetic standards, Cage concluded, bolster
our tastes and preconceptions; for music to help us toward pure experience, we
need to give them up. Beginning with works such as Music of Changes (1951)
and 4'33" (1952), Cage started to compose his pieces through
recourse to chance operations, 'making my responsibility not the making of
choices, but the asking of questions'. Chance, he maintained, was a way to rid
his music of likes and dislikes and thereby to make a discovery, 'a leap,' as
he wrote, 'out of reach of one's grasp of oneself'.
In the forty years which followed, Cage devised a variety of chance
techniques, and began to introduce indeterminate notations, which emphasize the
individual preparation decisions of the player and the uniqueness of the
performance moment. By the 1970s he was applying chance methods to other arts.
"Discovery never stops," Cage said. He was always more interested in
the pieces he was about to write than in what he had already written.
The Sonatas and Interludes constitute John Cage's most ambitious
work for prepared piano, composed between February 1946 and March 1948. They
were first performed by Maro Ajemian on 11th January 1949, and became a staple
of Cage's own performance repertoire until arthritis stopped him in the early
The term 'sonata' is used loosely; to the extent there is an historical
reference, it is to the eighteenth century rather than Romantic form. The various
movements feature the blend of Oriental and Occidental allusions that is
characteristic of Cage's early work. 'There are some pieces', he said, 'with
bell-like sounds that suggest Europe, and others with a drum-like resonance
that suggest the East. The last piece is clearly European. It was the signature
of a composer from the West'.
Like most of his pieces at the time, the Sonatas and Interludes shows
his new interest in Eastern thought, which at that time was focussed on Hindu
aesthetics (having read the works of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy), particularly the
Indian theory of the nine permanent emotions. There were the 'white' emotions
(the heroic, the erotic, the mirthful and the wondrous) and the 'black' ones
(fear, anger, sorrow, and disgust), with tranquillity at the centre, to which
the others all tended. Cage was seeking to express this theory in music.
As his creative focus was timbral innovation, conventional harmony not
only held little interest; it had little to offer as a structural means. In a music
of noises, duration – time – was much more useful. Cage's structural basis
since the late thirties had been what he called 'micro-macrocosmic rhythmic
structure,' in which the grouping of units of time was the same on the small
and the large scale.
Having sketched the structure of the Sonatas in this way, Cage
knew, he said, 'the length of the phrases of the piece from the beginning to
the end'. There then followed what Cage dubbed 'considered improvisation',
trying out preparations on his Steinway and adjusting their position as effects
suggested themselves. 'It was as though I was walking along the beach finding
shells I liked. Having those preparations and playing with them on the keyboard
in an improvisatory way, I found melodies and combinations of sounds that
worked with the structure'.
It was around the time of the Sonatas and Interludes that Cage
began to pay attention to the different effect a given preparation would have
on different instruments. This variability might have encouraged him to note
what he wanted in even more exacting detail. It is revealing, though, that
instead it contributed to the snowball of realisation that what for him was
interesting (and more disciplined) was to abandon control, purpose and
Creative work produced when a method reaches its apogee shows that
method in its fullest form, but also tends to betray both its senescence and
the germ of what is to come next. The Sonatas and Interludes constitute
the high point of Cage's early work, but drew his attention to matters which
suggested to him, and show us in retrospect, where he would go next.
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