Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Herbert Henck - John Cage's "Sonatas and Interludes"

A piano prepared for the Sonatas and Interludes (Wikipedia)

John Cage (1912 - 1992), though regarded by many academics as the most important American composer of the 20th century, has still not earned much widespread acceptance or even recognition from general audiences. Performances of his music are infrequent, and not from a lack of able and willing performers; regrettably, many casual listeners find his compositions musically senseless and absent of emotion. Steve Reich addresses this in an essay on John Cage (see Reich's Writings on Music), and suggests that his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano are among the few likely candidates for Cage pieces which could achieve lasting popularity.

This author agrees with Reich for the simple reason that the Sonatas and Interludes are catchy, a claim which no doubt will sound strange to anyone whose exposure to John Cage is limited to 4'33". The set, written prior to Cage's fascination with chance in composition, consists of 16 sonatas in binary form, interspersed with four more freely composed interludes. Many of these pieces borrow compositional techniques from various non-Western cultures; that combined with Cage's complicated scheme of rhythmic proportions, and the expanded timbrel palette of the prepared piano, leads to a rather idiosyncratic overall character. Ultimately though, these pieces have a distinctly charming and playful quality to them - there are melodies and rhythmic gestures throughout that have the capacity to get stuck in the listener's head, and this is rare for John Cage.

This ECM recording is one of many available, indicating that the Sonatas and Interludes have indeed already secured some amount of popular appeal. Herbert Henck has enormous technical faculties, and the typically transparent ECM recording quality is at hand, allowing these pieces to come fully to life. So have a listen and proudly reply "John Cage!" next time you're asked what you're whistling.


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