Considered by many to be John Cage’s magnum opus, the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (composed during 1946-48) is a major undertaking for a performer, as the 20 constituent pieces reconcile some of Cage’s most melodious works with his rhythmic and structural ideas that play such a large role in his percussion music. Last night at MIT’s Killian Hall, Vicky Chow performed the entire set for a packed house; those not lucky enough to grab a seat were crowded on the floor and off to the side of the stage. The concert was free and seemed to draw a plethora of music students, faculty, Cage admirers, and those just curious.
Cage’s first “discovered” prepared piano in 1940, when he composed a work entitled Bacchanale, choreographed by Syvilla Fort. Originally scored for percussion ensemble, the venue for the dance’s premiere could not accommodate an entire percussion ensemble in the wings, so Cage was left with a single piano. Having been captivated earlier by the sound created by a metal rod that had mistakenly rolled into a piano, Cage saw endless timbral opportunities in sticking objects — bolts, erasers, screws, bamboo, etc — in between the strings. Cage’s work for prepared piano runs the stylistic gamut, from shorter character pieces and ensemble works to lofty structural works such as the Sonatas and Interludes.
There are many concerts in celebration of Cage’s centenary, but works for prepared piano are a special treat, due to the reticence in which many concert venues have in handing over their Steinways for preparation, not to mention the amount of time involved in arranging the objects in the piano (more than 40 notes are prepared in the Sonatas and Interludes). Canadian pianist Vicky Chow, who, among other projects, plays with the Bang On A Can All-Stars currently in-residence at MIT, brought her consistently sensitive and musical interpretation to Cage’s work, highlighting the absolute accessibility and craftsmanship of these works by a composer who is too often represented solely by his “silent” piece, 4’33”.
While a larger venue might have been desirable for greater audience capacity, Killian Hall provided an extremely intimate atmosphere very much in keeping with Cage’s goals for the instrument. In a 1948 lecture at Vassar College, he explained that the prepared piano was, “…a percussion orchestra of an original sound and the decibel range of a harpsichord directly under the control of a pianist’s fingertips.” Chow did bring a harpsichord-like touch to some of the pieces, yet she also amplified purely orchestral moments such as the fortissimo chords at the end of Sonata I, wherein the specter of Mussorgsky’s “Great Gate at Kiev” seems to haunt Cage’s final measures. Indeed, the emotional variety in the Sonatas and Interludes is profound — the composer said the pieces were to “express in music the ‘permanent emotions’ of Indian tradition: the heroic, the erotic, the wondrous, the mirthful, sorrow, fear, anger, the odious and their common tendency toward tranquility.” Chow seemed very conscious of these objectives from her graceful runs in Sonata VI to the Rachmaninoff-esque shape she brought to the phrases of Sonata XII.
While most of the pieces within the set are nominally in two- or three-part form, their structure is far more complex, featuring what Cage called “micro-macrocosmic structure.” The larger sectional divisions of each piece reflect the number of what Cage termed “rhythmic cycles.” This plays out in various ways in each of the sonatas — sometimes with a very clear-cut number of measures and structural repetitions (such as Sonata VII), but sometimes by a far more complex approach via ratios and metrical changes. Chow’s rhythmic accuracy helped outline these structures, but never at the sacrifice of elegance or expression. Chow treated the beautiful melodies of Sonata XIII as one might play a Satie Gymnopedie, gracefully carrying over phrases that reached beyond the end of their particular rhythmic cycle.
There is something mesmerizing about Chow’s approach to the most archaic and simple moments, exemplified in her “poco pesante” passage in the middle section of Sonata IX. Her overall attention to dynamics (very much emphasized in the score) made me happy to be in the cramped quarters of Killian — a larger hall might have swallowed the ppp moments of Sonata XI, for example. Every crescendo and decrescendo was meticulously observed, but always expressive and never pedantic. Chow brought a breathing sense of rhythm to each piece, something Cage actively considered in other works of the time, such as The Seasons (1947). Her attention to silence, too — so crucial to Cage’s music, but often misunderstood — was beautifully integrated. Sonata IV, for example, features three measures of “silence” before its final seven measures, and indeed, one might say, the silence seemed rich and full in its absence of sound from the piano. Here, it is worth noting, Chow was assisted by the quietest audience I have ever witnessed at any performance. The 16 sonatas and four interludes were performed without intermission, and given the sheer number of people crowded into the hall, I was astonished by the lack of coughing, shifting, and other extraneous noises that often accompany concerts. While Cage would not have minded, the absence of these sounds did bring a sense of the sacred to the performance — not from high-minded elitism, but of attentiveness and investment on the part of the listeners.
Vicky Chow’s playing asks for and deserves that investment. Contemporary music is served well by this talented and sensitive virtuoso, who is, as Cage was, a courageous explorer of more expansive sonic kingdoms that reach beyond the borders of the eighteenth and nineteenth century.
John Cage, “The Future of Music: Credo” in Silence—50th Anniversary Edition (Wesleyan University Press, 2011). John Cage, “A Composer’s Confessions” reprinted in John Cage: Writer, ed. by Richard Kostelanetz (Cooper Square Press, 2000). Leta Miller, “John Cage in Seattle (1938-1940)” in John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950, ed. by David Patterson (Routledge, 2009).