Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Sonatas and Interludes

This one is going to take some time to write, but just to bring everyone up to date on my latest listening...Something like three hours worth here, maybe a little less.

Blogger for word is broken at the moment, so it is a bit more annoying to input these than normal.

This is a work for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, tuba, cello, violins (2), viola and percussion. Whew. It was written in 1992 and feeatures fairly typical time bracket notation, but it's written as a collection of parts without an overall score. I think this is about the right number of elements for an interesting number piece. I've generally been disappointed with the two really large ones I have heard (103 and 1O1), because it was hard to make out particular instruments, and the strings always seemed to dominate. In Thirteen the strings are present throughout, but they don't overpower the other instruments. I feel in listening that everyone gets to make itself known. The strings mostly serve to anchor the music, whereas the wind instruments sometimes engage in long sighs and other times whistle in for a sharp brief moment (sometimes even playing fragments of melody, it seems). The percussion in this recording seems to be a triangle or some other "ding" instrument (mentally I classify percussion instruments as "ding," "bomp," "whish," "thud" and "tingle"). Actually there are two percussionists playing so I'm not sure where the second one is at.

Overall, I like the music, but it's nothing really out of the ordinary as far as number pieces go--it's slow, atmospheric, and naturalistic. I probably won't remember it very well.

Etudes Boreales for Piano
There are two parts for 1978's Boreales, one for cello and one for piano. Curiously, they have never been performed together! This is the part for piano, which is not strictly a piano composition and involves lots of external piano construction sounds. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the keys on the piano are almost never actually pressed! However, there are a few tones created by manipulating the strings directly. Of course, the strings are also sometimes manipulated without intention, when the whole body is hit.

When the keys are hit, sometimes a single note is heard and other times a series or chord is heard. In this piece, Cage evidently tried to bring out all the sounds of the piano, but I find that the sounds are pretty limited. There's keypress, sring plucks, and thumps. The best parts are the rare but unidentifiable sounds-a strange creak, a twisting sound like a screw. One can only guess where the sounds came from, and making such guesses is part of the fun of listening.

This is a work for piano, percussion, several brass instruments and a whole bunch of strings. It was written in 1992. I think the best parts about the music are the wonderful set of celestial chimes, as well as the very slow sliding tones of some of the brass instruments. The percussion plays a more significant part in this music than it did in Thirteen. I'm amazed by the amount of silence despite the large number of instruments, which is particularly interesting considering how loud some of the smaller number pieces have such loudness and excitement to them. There is about a minute with no sound (or not enough to overpower my computers fans) around the 20th minute of the recording I am listening to.

For me, this is one of Cage's most sucessful larger works. I like the lack of dominance of any one part of the orchestra, and the quiet, peaceful and meditative music that results from the cumulative action (or inaction!) of so many people. Best of all I like the more extensive use of percussion than is typical for most of the other number piece performances I have heard. As natural analogs go, I'd describe this as a day on the sea, with gusts of wind and a calm, lapping ocean that sometimes freezes into total stillness and perhaps even loneliness.

Sonatas and Interludes
This is Cage's supposed magnum opus for prepared piano, and barely needs an introduction. It's from 1948, and at least in concept is built around the Indian perception of emotions. Despite it's fame this has never been my most favorite of Cage's prepared piano works. This might because I listened only to Boris Berman's Naxos recording. While his renditions of the dance accompaniments on another Naxos release are some of the best of all the performances I've heard, I think the Sonatas and Interludes performance falls pretty flat. Here I am listening to the Schleiermacher version, which has a lot more "life" to it.

Two preconceptions have to be dispensed with right away. First, while the music is in theory based on the Indian emotions, you can't really tell which is which. In mood, I think all of the pieces are essentially very similar: subtle, quiet, mysterious. Second, if you're looking for the exciting rhythms found in some of Cage's dance works like Spontaneous Earth or Totem Ancestor, you are looking in the wrong place. In my view, SOnatas and Interludes was one of the first little hints of where Cage would be going in the 50's and beyond. The rhythmic structure in the work is extremely sophisticated, but I don't think anyone who has not seen the score and who is experienced with music analysis would have any hope of perceiving the rhythmic structure just from listening. That in itself is what makes me uncomfortable about Sonatas and Interludes' status as Cage's masterwork: it just seems strange to spend so much effort on something that can't be heard.

Another reason this work is considered so important is the sheer amount of piano preparation involved: there's many screws, bolts and bits of rubber added and the preparation takes several hours. Once again, though, it seems like all that work does not produce very many highly distinctive sounds: the music sounds like it's coming from a mildly modified piano and there are none of the heavily percussive elements I have come to expect from the prepared piano.

The two facts above make it pretty hard for me to get into the proper frame of mind to appreciate the pieces. I think headphones are called for here, and I think it needs to be approached in a vastly different way than Cage's other prepared piano output. I say it hints at where Cage would go later because the music is subtle, but it is not charming; it exists and has some tension, but there is no immediacy to it. It doesn't seem to care whether anyone is listening or not, and has no melodies or distinct rhythms that stay with you. That is, the music does not have a great deal of personality, and I guess I just feel like it should.

The big exception, for what it's worth, is Sonata XII, which I absolutely adore! I also find the Interludes to be quite interesting, too.

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