Dusted Reviews

John Cage - Sonatas & Interludes / Music of Changes

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: John Cage

Album: Sonatas & Interludes / Music of Changes

Label: Hat[now]ART

Review date: Oct. 24, 2012

Two thousand and twelve has been the “year of John Cage.” Centenary celebrations of Cage’s work have included everything from the lavish BBC Proms concert at Royal Albert Hall (with participation by Cage stalwarts like Christian Wolff, Joan La Barbara, and John Tilbury and a passel of younger U.K. musicians with deep allegiances to Cage’s legacy) to the plethora of one-off takes on 4’33” that seem to be taking place at every community store-front gallery and art school. Oddly, few labels have jumped in with releases aside from the Hat[now]ART label, which has brought a few recordings back in to print and added a fine new one to the mix.

Cage’s Sonatas & Interludes for solo prepared piano are among the composer’s most well-known works. Even people with just a slight knowledge of 20th century composed music know of Cage’s work with prepared piano, a practice that has been widely co-opted across several genres. While there are many solid readings of these 20 compact compositions, what makes this performance so brilliant is the performance by James Tenney. In this reading, recorded in 2002, Tenney filters the charted instructions for preparing the instrument as well as the structural forms of the pieces, through his compositional sensibility, astutely synched to the nuances of the subdivisions of time and the timbral orchestrations. In Art Lange’s liner notes, he comments on how this performance displays “an examination of the music’s premise and complex details from a contrasting, individual, curiosity.” Tenney truly gets inside of things, thinking about the balance of the quality and colors of the expanded sound palette with the angular melodic flow. Take a listen to how he masterfully modulates attack, sustain, and the natural resonances of the instrument and you can hear how this piece made an impression on Tenney’s own compositions, particularly those for piano and percussion. Zeroing in on the structural underpinnings of each piece, he imbues the performance with a sharply attuned ear toward the relationships of tones and timbre across the mutable rhythmic flow.

Music of Changes is an effective companion to Sonatas & Interludes. Where Sonatas freed the music from the sound and timbres of the piano, Music of Changes was one of the earliest of Cage’s pieces to fully utilize indeterminacy as a structural strategy for the creation of compositional form. Here, Cage used the I Ching (which he received as a gift from Christian Wolff) as the foundation for establishing the relationship of events in a charted score. To be clear, while the resulting music eschews any traditional flow of tempo or dynamics, structural use of sounds and particularly silence, duration and decay, there is nothing in the least bit aleatoric left to the performer. (That was to come later in Cage’s music.) Everything is fully documented using traditional staves and notation. Like Tenney’s performance of Sonatas & Interludes, the key to the energy of this performance lies in David Tudor’s captivating reading, recorded in 1956, five years after he premiered the piece. Tudor was, of course, one of the preeminent performers of Cage’s work and was able to fully inhabit the composer’s musical structures. In the liner notes, Tudor is quoted as stating that, while performing the piece he was “watching time rather than experiencing time” and throughout, you can hear him parsing through the juxtaposed clusters and fragmented arcs of activity, placing them into the context of a richly articulated whole. As with the pieces for prepared piano, attack, sustain and resonance are fundamental, but here they are refracted into gestural shards. Tudor’s firm grasp of Cage guides the listener through the series of disjointed events that make up the four parts of Music of Changes, finding a balance between the freedom of the underlying strategies with the formal rigor of the resulting score.

While Hat[now]ART’s reissue of Royanji earlier this year was a welcome chance to reinvestigate an important work, this pairing of releases of seminal piano pieces performed by stellar interpreters makes for essential listening.

By Michael Rosenstein

Other Reviews of John Cage

Cage Shock, Vols. 1-3

Read More

View all articles by Michael Rosenstein

Find out more about Hat[now]ART

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.