WORKS: Sonatas and Interludes; Lecture ‘Composition in retrospect’
PERFORMER: Aleck Karis (prepared piano), John Cage (speaker)
CATALOGUE NO: 9081A/B
It was Arnold Schoenberg, no less, who described John Cage as an inventor rather than a composer, implying that he was good on ideas, less convincing at working them out. But in one case Cage’s inventive mind and the music it produced went hand in hand; in 1940 he made the first prepared piano, discovering that by placing pieces of metal and felt across the strings of a concert grand he could obtain a whole new sound-world, one that was purged of most of the associations of Western art music which he was already beginning to mistrust. Writing music for his new toy preoccupied him for most of the next decade, and those explorations eventually resulted in the Sonatas and Interludes; if Cage’s attitude to composition could ever contain the concept of masterpiece at all, then they are his.
Aleck Karis’s performance, coupled here with a second disc that contains a 1981 recording of one of Cage’s famously diverting lectures, reveals how fresh and innocent that sound-world still is. The music is non-developmental, static, contemplative, and scrupulously notated; the prepared piano itself by turns evokes the Balinese gamelan, African percussion bands, oriental modes, never anecdotally but in a way that blurs the boundaries between East and West, high art and folk art. Cage spent his entire career ridding music of tradition and preconception; but as early as 1948, in the Sonatas and Interludes, he achieved that goal, more beautifully and more lastingly than he ever did again. Andrew Clements