John Cage Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (1946-8)


I’m sometimes regretful that (wonderful thought it is) the piano doesn’t have an archetypal sound – it’s a modern invention evolved from early keyboards, with repertoire rooted in the 18th,19th and 20th centuries. While other instruments can trace their ancient, ritualistic roots back to nomadic and processional music, the piano’s history is relatively recent, and its sound is contemporary and chromatic; it lacks the ability to swerve or glide between tritones, or play in quartertones.

Then I discovered that doing something as prosaic as visiting a hardware shop  – and fiddling around with nuts and bolts – can transport the piano back in time.

I first became aware of John Cage as a seventeen year old, when I was staying with music students in Cardiff. One of them had cheerfully stuck pins into the hammers of his derelict upright, and was attempting write a Cage hommage; the next night at Chapter Arts Centre I saw a pianist (whose name I’ve sadly forgotten) play a selection of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, which sounded to me like Balinese dances. I particularly remember the pianist commenting ruefully to the audience: ‘I’m going to take all this stuff out of the piano now: it takes four hours to prepare, and about five minutes to dismantle it’. (A bit of exaggeration, but these days I manage to prepare a piano for this work in about an hour and a half  – see more below.)

For years I didn’t know how to cope with Cage; he seemed so mysterious compared to the practical inventiveness of Henry Cowell, quietly playful compared to the anarchic bombast of Charles Ives, and elliptically philosophical compared to the logical drive of Conlon Nancarrow. Then in 1996 I met the Californian composer Lou Harrison at Dartington Summer School, who was kind and witty, and had been a very close friend of Cage’s.  I found myself agreeing to play Cage’s Concert for Prepared Piano with the London Sinfonietta, and was finally brought face-to-face in a big way. That particular piece is very minimal, pointillist and concentrated, with grand gestures, almost dissolving to nothing at the end. The Steinway tuner and I had struggled very slowly to prepare the piano according to Cage’s instructions and neither of us quite knew if we were doing it correctly, but I fell profoundly in love with something that had started out as a piano and then evolved into a magic box. It seemed miraculous that sticking bits of rubber and plastic, bamboo slits, screws and bolts between the strings could transform the piano into a lush garden of wind chimes, babbling brooks, eighty-eight gamelan players and African xylophones.

Since first playing it over twenty years ago, Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano has been a piece I’ve gone back to again and again. Widely seen as Cage’s masterpiece for the genre, Cage had written literally hundreds of short prepared piano pieces since 1940, trying out different preparations every time. By the time he sat down in 1946 to begin work on Sonatas and Interludes, he had a very detailed idea of what materials produced which effects: a sliver of rubber dampening the sound, a thicker piece producing a drum beat; a screw with two nuts sounding like a tiny tambourine, two bolts six inches apart producing a golden, shimmering sound. Cage worked for two years on a small Steinway O, a baby grand size. The preparations are detailed minutely at the front of the score, down to the last eighth of an inch, but it’s up to the pianists to adjust things to create the right effects – bells and gongs, tambourines and tiny tom toms. Each note has a detailed instruction. Cage tells you whether to use a screw, a furniture bolt, a long bolt, a bolt with two nuts, some plastic or thin rubber threaded between the strings; many notes have three or four things placed between their strings. Occasionally a note is left deliberately unprepared. Over the years I have amassed many older bolts from the 1940s and 50s, which are brass, rather than the zinc ones available now from B&Q or Screwfix; a piano tuner once gave me some fat brass bolts from a 1940s piano.  Happy the day when I cam across a hardware store in Idaho selling thin white rubber teapot spouts from the 1940s – absolutely ideal. (Yes, you really can become the John Eliot Gardner of the prepared piano!) Cage’s composition was a long, slow development and it proved to be a journey for him, a transformative process. As the Cage scholar James Pritchett writes, ‘By the time he had finished writing these twenty short pieces, John Cage was not the same composer; he had changed. The Sonatas and Interludes is not just a string of pieces: it is a passage in Cage’s life.’

What changed? Essentially, Cage’s music became quieter, reflective, more meditative. Earlier prepared piano pieces were volatile, Bacchanalian or even sinister, but essentially the prepared piano is an intimate instrument: Sonatas and Interludes is an epic piece with a quiet voice. By constructing the work on the timeless foundation of Hindu aesthetics, he could make each movement perfect and unhurried; the focus could be on the subtle modulations of his voice. His earlier dramatic works speak loudly to grab our attention; this one instead speaks quietly to draw us in. It is as if we are sitting in Cage’s New York loft, straw mats on the floor, listening to him explore this softly-colored world.

The cycle is made up of sixteen sonatas and four interludes. The sonatas are in binary form like a Scarlatti sonata, filigree-boned, dance-like, inventive; the interludes are freer, looser and lyrical. Cage drew on the Hindu aesthetic theory of rasa, which can be translated as ‘emotional character.’ In classical theory, there are eight moods that are the flavors of rasa: four light moods (the Erotic, Heroic, Wondrous, and Comic) and four dark moods (the Odious, Furious, Terrible, and Pathetic). A ninth possibility exists: Tranquility, the common tendency of the other eight. These are the ‘permanent emotions’ that Cage referred to on many occasions. The early sonatas (like the early variations in Bach’s Goldberg Variations) are funny and tender; later sonatas become angry and spikey, or even grand. The emotional ups and downs of Sonatas and Interludes fall away towards the end, as if the player and listener are being gently and masterfully guided towards a greater sense of purposefulness, with Tranquility at its heart.

John Cage (1912-92) is one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century, whose ideas and sounds have liberated several generations of performers and composers. He predicted several developments in technology, style and concepts of contemporary culture. His huge legacy includes the Imaginary Landscape series, Musicircus, 4’33”, Roratorio, Music of Changes, Aria (for Cathy Berberian), the cycle Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, many dance works with his life-long partner and collaborator Merce Cunningham, mixed-media projects, and the books Silence and Notations.

The American Experimental Tradition has an eminent roll-call. John Cage had a head-start with his father, a visionary but perennially-broke inventor; in the First World War he invented a hydrophone which detected U-Boats in the English Channel. A student of Schoenberg’s in the 1930s (Schoenberg called him ‘an inventor of genius’), Cage often insisted that his musical innovations were inspired as much by poverty as experimentation, and scoured junkyards for sound sources. Everything was music to John Cage: the rain, the traffic, white radio noise, silence. He was tremendously pragmatic; he stumbled across the marvellous effect of dipping a vibrating gong in water (a magical effect now frequently used by percussionists) when he wrote some music for the 1937 UCLA swimming team, and was helping them keep time underwater. He ‘invented’ the prepared piano in 1940 when he was commissioned to write some ballet music; the company could only afford a piano, but he discovered by placing a few objects on the piano strings, the dancers suddenly had some percussion to dance to. From this humble start he evolved something unique and complex that lead in 1948 to the masterful Sonatas and Interludes, which took two years to write.

Cage was gentle, humorous and good-natured, but determined to change how we think of music. He had a lifelong interest in Zen Bhuddism and Indian philosophy;  the I Ching, the ancient Chinese classic text on chance events, became his standard compositional tool for the rest of his life. (This led to his final split with Pierre Boulez; the two were close friends until 1954, and their early friendship is captured in a lovely, illuminating book of letters between them.) Originally from California, he became the quintessential New Yorker and lived on the Lower East Side for fifty years. He was impoverished for most of his life, and even his most vociferous critics admired his integrity. In the sixties his concerts, particularly orchestral ones, ended with a third of the audience leaving and a lot of booing and hissing, but by the time of his death Cage was loved and respected, and much of his music, while never mainstream, has been seen as profoundly influential on today’s musicians and artists.

In addition to his composing, Cage was also a philosopher, writer, artist, macrobiotic cook and mushroom collector. He described music as ‘purposeless play, an affirmation of life. Not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but a simply a way to wake up to the very life we’re living.’

Notes by Joanna MacGregor