JOHN CAGE (1912-1992)
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Sonatas and Interludes is the capstone, summarizing work of a period John Cage later identified as "intentionally expressive" composition. This designation seems strange if one assumes that all music is intentionally expressive, but the term makes perfect sense when taking into account the subsequent direction of Cage's career, namely composition determined by chance operations.
From 1938 to 1948, Cage was intensely concerned with the communicative power of music. Consider, for example, the statement Cage wrote for his first catalogue concerning the content of this composition: "The Sonatas and Interludes are an attempt to express in music the 'permanent emotions' of [East] Indian tradition: the heroic, the erotic, the wondrous, the mirthful, sorrow, fear, anger, the odious and their common tendency toward tranquillity." He also referred to his essay "Forerunners of Modern Music," which begins, "Music is edifying, for from time to time it sets the soul in operation. The soul is the gatherer-together of the disparate elements (Meister Eckhart), and its work fills one with peace and love." Hardly typical words for a revolutionary of the avant garde.
The individual pieces of Sonatas and Interludes create a palindromic shape consisting of four sonatas, an interlude, four more sonatas, the second interlude; then the third interlude, sonatas nine through twelve, the fourth interlude and the final four sonatas. While the large-scale construction of the sonatas is that of Baroque period sonatas and dance suite movements, Cage ingeniously varies the sonatas’ internal structures, avoiding the impression of a continuously repeating form. In addition, the first two interludes have no structural repeats while in the second half of Sonatas and Interludes, the sonatas are treated with slightly more freedom, and the interludes have more structural repeats than do the sonatas.
Many listeners are conscious of the repetitions during the first several parts of Sonatas and Interludes. As the set advances, listeners are apt to become less aware of the individual pieces starting and stopping, and gradually more aware of a long-lined continuity binding the pieces together.
The experience of listening to Sonatas and Interludes can be likened to the exploration of an utterly strange and beautiful landscape or piece of architecture. Across every threshold, beyond every interlocking branched archway, lies a room or a bower of unexpected size, shape and wonder. Where will the next doorway be? Or, with a different focus, Sonatas and Interludes can be experienced as a series of meditations, or prayers, leading finally to a state of ecstatic stillness.
This compact disc recording by Louis Goldstein, to me, is a souvenir of mystical transcendence and carnal ecstasy. For I associate these intense and seemingly contradictory experiences with the many opportunities I have had in the past eleven years to hear Louis perform Sonatas and Interludes by John Cage. Usually - but not always - the setting was the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the refurbished country villa of Richard Joshua Reynolds. Louis would typically play this masterwork for our American Foundations summer class and other interested member of the general public. One must imagine floor fans and locusts buzzing for some of the first performances I heard; then, the gentle woosh of central climate control.
These nuances matter, as any follower of John Cage will attest. Just as John discovered there was no silence in the anechoic "soundproof" chamber he once visited - only the whine of the central nervous system and the rumble of the bloodstream - so too each performance of "sounds in time" (Louis Goldstein's useful definition of music) must perforce come out differently.
I have become a connoisseur of these Cage performances: wishing I could have recordings of them all; knowing that they would never sound the same when replayed, even as the one you hold in your hand never will (even though the data on the disc will only change slightly with wear). Wanting them all is not very faithful to the playful spirit of Cage, who would value their ephemeral beauty most. Louis' listeners want to hold on, though, because hearing Sonatas and Interludes smacks of grand cosmic doing - like having good sex or dropping LSD or standing in the Oval Office or meeting the Pope, the kinds of things a dying replicant would tell Dekker inthe final reel of Bladerunner. Or what Captain Ahab meant when he talked about striking through the mask. Ah yes, et ego in Arcadia: I heard Louis perform the Cage.
What made these performances of Louis Goldstein so sublime, including the one he has recorded now, is first of all their intimacy. Louis always tells his audience to climb right up under the piano, to hear the resonances and reverberations of the preparations as directly as possible. This recording captures the feel of that proximity to the player.
The second major virtue of this particular reading of Sonatas and Interludes is Louis' incredibly expressive lyricism and amazing dynamic control. If you fall in love with this composition as much as you might, you will want to seek out other performances of it. Louis' great complement here is the performance by Yuji Takahashi. Whereas Takahashi emphasized a restrained reading of the lyricism of the work and a kind of overall reasoned understatement (dare I say an Eastern, Zen reading of Cage?), Louis Goldstein reminds us that Cage is also a culmination of a Western tradition of increasingly flamboyant romantic music. Sonatas and Interludes is caught between two worlds, and yields different emphasis from either approach.
Click here to read a review of this recording by Gordon Rumson
on the Sikesdi Press website.
Click here to read a reviewof this recording
(and see a Top Ten Compact Disks of 1996 list)
by John Lambert, Spectator Magazine.
[Also a review of a performance of Sonatas and Interludes.]
Click here to read a review of a performance of Sonatas and Interludes
in Old Gold and Black, November 14, 1996
by Seth Brodsky.
Cage's Sonata's and Interludes for Prepared Piano is one of this century's landmark works and was presented on Tuesday's [June 15th] concert in complete performance. This fine piece is the perfect marriage of East and West: timbres combine pianistic, percussive, and gamelan-like colors; Scarlattian binary formats contain ostinati and non-directional material; emotional states are depicted, though derived from an Indian, not European, way of thinking. Louis Goldstein gave a stunning, sensitive performance that brought out both the work's local and long-range beauty; it was in fact one of the most memorable piano performances of any kind this critic can recall hearing. One scarcely realized that 64 minutes of music had elapsed.
David Cleary, in New Music Connoisseur, Vol.7, No. 4, 1999
(Concerning the Summer Institute For Contemporary Piano Performance,
presented by New England Conservatory,
Stephen Drury, Artistic Director.
June 14 - 18, 1999)
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