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A Piano Piece's Nuts and Bolts

For James Tenney, learning to play a John Cage work as it was intended was a long, strange trip that included one to the hardware store

June 23, 2002|MARK SWED

On a spring evening in 1951, a budding 16-year-old pianist with an interest in engineering went to hear John Cage play one of his most famous pieces, the "Sonatas and Interludes" for prepared piano, at the Women's Club Auditorium in Denver.

"The concert blew me away," James Tenney says, seated at a prepared piano in his studio at CalArts, as he demonstrates the exquisite clinks, plinks and thuds that Cage produced by wedging bolts or bits of rubber or plastic between the strings of the piano.

In fact, that concert helped propel Tenney, one of America's most important experimental composers, into a career that has included pioneering work in computer music and collaborations with Cage. Tenney is also a formidable pianist. But for half a century, the one work that started it all, although neither technically nor technologically difficult, eluded him.

In April, almost exactly 51 years from the date he attended Cage's recital, Tenney finally played the "Sonatas and Interludes" at CalArts, and Friday he will repeat it at the Schindler House in West Hollywood. It's part of a two-evening exploration of Cage's early work, marking the 90th anniversary of Cage's birth and the 10th of his death, both of which are this summer.

"Sonatas and Interludes" consists of 16 sonatas in simple forms reminiscent of the Baroque keyboard works of Domenico Scarlatti, with four freer interludes, and it lasts around 70 minutes. The first performance of the complete set was by Maro Ajemian at Carnegie Recital Hall (now the Weill Recital Hall) in New York in 1949. It was not controversial. In the New York Times review the next day, Ross Parmenter described the evening as a grand occasion with noted painters, writers and musicians in the audience, including actor Burgess Meredith and ballerina Vera Zorina. The critic concluded, "It left one with the feeling that Mr. Cage is one of the country's finest composers and that his invention has now been vindicated musically."

The musical establishment and the New York Times would soon change their tune about Cage, as he changed his. Just around the corner was his enthusiastic decision to compose using chance operations, to embrace the idea of indeterminacy in music (sometimes using graphic notation that allows the players complete freedom in the choice of pitches and rhythms) and to become besotted with silence. The piece, "4'33," " during which no music is performed, had its premiere 3 1/2 years after "Sonatas and Interludes." Cage would continue to write an enormous amount of music up to his death in 1992, some of it grander, more ambitious, more impressive and more groundbreaking than "Sonatas and Interludes," and all of it less conventional.

But if "Sonatas and Interludes" stands as Cage's one conventional masterpiece, it is nevertheless an underground masterpiece. There have been about 25 recordings of it, yet most are by modern music specialists on small independent or obscure labels. Hearing a prepared piano live is still a rare and exotic adventure.

Tenney says that despite having given notable performances of Ives' monstrously difficult "Concord" Sonata and working with advanced technology, the prepared piano long intimidated him. That is what prevented him from playing "Sonatas and Interludes" all those years. "You know, you've got to go through something very unfamiliar before you can get down to hearing the piece," he says. "And it commandeers the piano, you can't play anything else on it. So you've got to have a piano that you can devote to this for as long as it takes to learn it."

As a musician and theorist with a busy career--composer, teacher, founder of the Tone Roads ensemble in New York in the 1960s, member of the original Philip Glass and Steve Reich ensembles--Tenney has had other things to do. But last fall, when Tenney, who now teaches composition at CalArts, decided to use the academic year to produce a student Cage festival, he decided that it was also time for him to face the prepared piano.

With the score to "Sonatas and Interludes," Cage provides a table of preparations. Forty-five of the piano's 88 notes are altered, and Cage lists the types of hardware to be used and indicates in inches where they are to be placed along the two or three strings that create most piano notes. In a 1949 interview, Cage said that preparing the piano accomplishes four things: It quiets the note, changes its timbre, splits it into two or three sounds, and shortens its duration. He then emphasized that the change must be complete. Otherwise, "like a well-known person appearing in costume, there's something clownish about it."

Yet clownish dangers lurk in Cage's table of preparations. The materials--small, medium and large screws, rubber, eraser, plastic--are hardly precise. And the measurements will vary from piano to piano. Cage does not specify the size or model of the instrument. What to do?

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