John Cage

Sonatas and Interludes, for prepared piano

    Description by Jeremy Grimshaw

    Lasting over 70 minutes and made up of 16 sonatas and four interludes, John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes is his most substantial work for his invention, the prepared piano. Completed in March of 1948, the work is dedicated to Maro Ajemian, who premiered it in New York City at Carnegie Hall on January 11, 1949.

    Students of music history have probably seen photographs of pianos fitted by Cage with all sorts of foreign objects -- bits of rubber stuffed between strings, hammers fitted with tacks, perhaps even a wooden spoon poking out from the instrument's entrails at an odd angle. The so-called prepared piano, for which the Sonatas and Interludes are composed, provides the means by which a single instrument is able to evoke a wide variety of colors, timbres, and textures. The score, then, indicates not the sounds to be heard, but the action to be taken. Striking a particular key might produce a pitch, a hi-hat-like sizzle, or a wooden thump. Cage originally conceived the prepared piano for his 1938 work Bacchanale, in response to a request from dancer Syvilla Fort to provide music for a six-minute dance that had no budget and space for no more than one pianist. He used it again in A Book of Music (1944) and Three Dances (1945) before employing it in Sonatas and Interludes in 1948. The sound is immediately engaging, and because of the differences between various pianos and the numerous varieties of weather stripping, thumb tacks, and wooden spoons available, each performance or recording is distinct. The work conjures a world of sound that is variously serene, haunting, percussive, and surreal.

    Each movement examines a particular emotion, with a palette drawn from the Indian tradition that includes heroism, eroticism, wonder, mirth, sorrow, fear, anger, and tranquility. Another important principle at work in the Sonatas and Interludes is that of micro/macrocosmic structure. In short, this means that local elements of the structure reflect the overall form of the piece. We can look at the first sonata in the series as an example. Explaining micro/macro structure requires what is perhaps a frightening amount of math, but reveals a very interesting principle at work. The base unit of this structure is a phrase consisting of seven beats. The first section of the bipartite sonata consists of two phrases, each with a length equivalent to seven measures in 2/2 time, or 28 quarter notes -- making the entire first section, with the notated repeat, 112 quarter notes long. The second section also consists of two phrases, but each of these is only 21 quarter notes long, the equivalent of seven measures in 3/4 time -- making the second section, with its repeat, 84 quarter notes long. This creates a structural four-to-three ratio, and makes the total length of the work, then, 196 quarter notes -- the equivalent of seven times seven measures in 2/2. Thus the length of each phrase resonates with the length of the entire work, and the parsing of seven into four and three gives the work its principal formal division. By composing within this carefully controlled structure, Cage is free to make uncontrolled decisions of pitch, rhythm, and timbre in the moment-to-moment, while maintaining an overarching holistic continuity.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Sonata 1
    2. Sonata 2
    3. Sonata 3
    4. Sonata 4
    5. First Interlude
    6. Sonata 5
    7. Sonata 6
    8. Sonata 7
    9. Sonata 8
    10. 2nd Interlude
    11. 3rd Interlude
    12. Sonata 9
    13. Sonata 10
    14. Sonata 11
    15. Sonata 12
    16. 4th Interlude
    17. Sonata 13
    18. Sonata 14 (after the work by Richard Lippold)
    19. Sonata 15 (after the work by Richard Lippold)
    20. Sonata 16

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2017 Navona Records NV 6100
    2014 Wergo WER 67822
    2014 Navona Records NV 5984
    2014 Erato / Erato Disques / Warner Classics 2564634485
    2014 LTM LTMCD 2579
    2012 MDG / Zebralution
    2012 MSR Classics MS 1400
    2012 Wergo WER 69512
    2012 MDG MDG 61317312
    2012 Aeon AECD 1227
    2012 Decca / Universal
    2012 Decca 4784250
    2012 Centaur Records 3137
    2012 John Cage Trust JC 4332012
    2011 Sound Circus / Warner Classics 2564678566
    2008 Brilliant Classics 8189
    2006 Explore Records EXP 0004
    2006 Él ACMEM 88CD
    2006 Mode Records MODE 158
    2005 Music & Arts 4937
    2003 ECM / ECM New Series 4728282
    2001 DAAD 20001
    2000 Materiali 90115
    2000 Stradivarius 33422
    1999 Music & Arts 937
    1999 Fylkingen FYCD 1010
    1997 MD&G (Dabringhaus & Grimm) 6130781
    1996 Mode Records MODE 50
    1995 Tall Poppies 025
    1995 CRI 700
    1993 Wergo 60156
    1992 Wergo 6221
    Newport Classic 85526
    Denon Records 7673